Mantra Pranayama

This article was written by Srivatsa Ramaswami and is published here with his kind permission:

“A considerable amount of literature is now available on Pranayama (from ancient and contemporary yogis), an important anga of Yoga, even though a smaller and smaller number of Hatha yogis do a smaller and smaller number of pranayamas. In fact, according to Brahmananda who wrote an important commentary of Hathayogapradeepika, Hatha yoga is indeed Pranayama. Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras succinctly gives the parameters of pranayama along with the benefits. Hathayoga pradeepika and several other hatha yohga texts talk about a variety of pranayamas with different ratios in considerable detail and as I said enough literature is available on pranayama.

However since it is also the anga prior to the antaranga or meditation, parts of yoga pranayama has been used to prepare oneself for meditation. If in pranayama you can introduce some noble thoughts for meditation like an uplifting mantra, bhava thought or an image such pranayamas are called sagarbha pranayama or pranayama pregnant with lofty ideas. Sri Krishnamacharya in his “Nathamini’s Yoga Rahasya” says that sagarbha pranayama is several times more beneficial; more than the mechanical pranayama done generally by hatha yogis.

Sagarbha pranayama done with pranayama mantra from the vedas, which also includes the potent gayatri as a part of it, has been in vogue since the vedic times. Sri Krishnamacharya in his yoga work “Nathamuni’s Yoga Rahasya” gives a number of instructions for doing pranayama towards the end of the first chapter. He commends the use of Pranava and the pranayama mantra with gayatri while doing pranayama practice. Usually pranava (OM), the most potent mantra and the mother of all mantras, as a stand alone mantra is used by renunciates like consummate yogis and advaitins. And the gayatri impregnated vedic pranayama mantra is used by householders and others in all pranayama.

In fact Manu, in his famous Manusmriti, says that the pranayama mantra which consists of prnava, the seven vyahritis, the gayatri and the head or siras portion should be recited while holding the breath in Kumbhaka three times to be called pranayama. Sri Krishnamacharya also emphasizes the need to meditate on the meaning of the mantras like the suggestion of Patanjali in YS.

Most people who do ritualistic pranayama in India use the pranayama mantra referred to earlier. Manusmiti says as follows

“sa vyahritim sa pranavaam
gayatriim sirasa saha
trifpateth ayataf pranah
pranayamassa uchyate”

Here is the translation: “Pranayama is that in which the seven vyahritis (bhuh, bhuvaha…) each preceded by pranava (OM) then the gayatri, then the siris are (silently) recited.”

It should be chanted (silently) while holding the breath (kumbhaka). When it is done three times it is called panayama. The pranayama
mantra is 64 syllables and takes about 20 seconds to chant, more or less. The verse quoted above says three times and some interpret it as chanting the mantra three times while holding the breath, but generally it is chanted once and three such pranayamas will make one bundle of pranayama. If you try to do the chant thrice in one go it would taken a minute and holding the breath for one minute could be a real challenge to most and so most people stick to the earlier option.

What about the duration for inhalation and exhalation? Sri Krishnamacharya says in Yoga Rahasya that it should be vishamavritti indicating that the time duration for inhalation exhalation and breath holding would vary. So many go by the 1:4:2 ratio.

One may inhale for 5 seconds then chant the mantra during internal holding for 20 seconds and then exhale for 10 seconds. The breath
holding after exhalation is considered a hathayoga practice and many orthodox people who do pranayama as part of the Puja or Japa ritual dispense with bahya kumbhaka and the bandhas. The quickie pranayama is three times but it is recommended that on should do 10 times the samantra pranayama.  (Contrast this with the hathayoga approach of going up to 80 times mantraless pranayama).

Since children sometimes as young as 5 were initiated into vedic studies, it becomes obligatory for them to do sandhya and hence mantra pranayama and silent gayatri chant. But then because they are young they may not be taught to do calibrated pranayama. Usually in the course of time they would learn to do long inhalation and exhalation say in nadishodhana. Later they will be taught the whole vishamavritti pranayama as explained earlier.

So the mantra is chanted silently in pranayama. But most people just chant the mantra without the pranayama–they may merely touch the nose but not do the pranayama. So we have one set of people who do pranayama without mantras as most hatha yogis do and another group especially in India who chant the mantra faithfully but do not do the pranayama at all and thus both lose out. It even led the much revered previous Sankaracharya of Kanchi to remark that if only Indians would hold the breath (kumbhaka) rather than just touch/hold the nose they would all become great yogis and spiritual persons.

My Guru also said that when doing any mantra in japa, in pranayama or meditation, one should think of the meaning or import of the mantra. That makes it lot more powerful and meaningful. What does this mantra signify, many times we get initiated into a mantra routine without knowing what it means. All yogis know that Patanjali insists on contemplating on the meaning of pranava when doing pranava japa to get the grace of Iswara.

“Om Bhuh, om bhuvah, om suvah, om mahah, om janah, om tapah, om satyam; then the gayatri and then the siras which runs like this, ”om apah jyoti rasah amrtam brahma bhurbhuvassuvarom” is the pranayama mantra. This mantra appears in Mahanarayana Upanishad, the last chapter of Yajur veda. This upanishad also contains several beautiful mantras used on a daily basis like the offering to the five pranas (before taking food), meditating within the heart etc. I got the whole chapter (about 45 minutes of continuous chanting) recorded some 25 years back by “Sangeetha” and I believe it is available in some stores in Chennai, India. You may learn the pranayama mantra—visit my website and click on the “Learn Pranayama Mantra chant” tab.

So what is the meaning of this wonderful pranayama mantra? Again there are different interpretations. The conventional meaning for the seven vyahritis is seven different worlds starting with the world we live in to six other higher worlds. But the word loka is interpreted in a more esoteric sense by a few scholars. They say that the words loka and look are derived from the same root. And the seven lokas are the seven perceptions of the ultimate reality which is Brahman the pure non changing consciousness.

So this approach which gels with the advaita philosophy would be as follows: According to the Upanishads, Brahman in its pristine state is alone and there was no time or space (aksha and avakasha) in contention. The Brahman once thought that it should become many (bahusyam praja yeyeti). Then in the next stage, It deeply contemplated as to how it should create the universe and make many microcosmic individual consciousnesses. This state was known as the stage of tapas of the Brahman (sa tapo tapyata). Then after deep contemplation and planning It created the entire Universe (idam sarvam asrujata). After this creation the Brahman entered and permeated the entire Universe (tat eva anupravisat) and every being as the individual Self.

The seven vyahrutis are considered as representing the seven states of the same consciousness four at the microcosmic level and three at the cosmic level. So when doing pranayama during breath holding internally, one would say ‘om bhuh’, contemplate on the consciousness, represented by pranava or ‘om during the waking state. Then as the second vyahriti ‘om bhuvah ‘ is recited, one would think of the same consciousness being aware of the individual dream state.

‘Om suvah” would refer to the same consciousness witnessing the deep sleep stage. Om mahah, the fourth vyahriti is the consciousness beyond the three earlier mentioned known amongst the vedantins as the fourth state of the mind (turiya) or the yogi’s kaivalya state. The same consciousness now is identified with the Brahmana that created the Universe (Om Janah). Then the next mantra, the sixth “Om tapah” would represent the Brahman as one deeply contemplating and finally the pristine state of consciousness “Om satyam” the one and only Brahaman.

With this the abhyasi is able to identify and meditate upon the same one Brahaman as seen in different states. The theory that there is
only one consciousness that exists both at the cosmic and at the microcosmic level is the bedrock of the advaita (No two
conciousnesses) viewpoint. So an advaitin while doing pranayama is able to reinforce the advaitic conviction.

Then the second part of the pranayama mantra is the gayatri mantra. It again refers to the ultimate reality as the inner light. Just as the
sun with its lustrous orb lights the entire world, the Brahman/Self lights the entire chitta or the internal world of the meditator, so that the chitta vrittis are experienced or ‘seen’ in the mind’s eye .

The last portion known as the siras or the head, is an encomium to the ultimate Brahman. It refers to It as OM., pure consciousness, the
universal light, the essence of the entire Universe, immortal (unchanging), the source of the universe, and is known to the individual as the inner Self during the three states of waking, dream and deep sleep.

This meaning of the pranayama mantra is vividly brought to the mind as the pranayama mantra is recited silently during antah kumbhaka. Then it is known as samantraka or sagarbha pranayama. According to Manu this samantra pranayama is the greatest Tapas/meditation.

It is said that those who are well versed in the chakras are able to identify the seven vyahritis with the seven chakras in the body using the respective bijakshara or seed mantras. Some make an effort  to visualize the cosmic Brahman  in the seven chakras in the microcosm itself.

There are other types of mantras used. For instance, saivaites tend to chant the siva mantras as they hold the breath as mentioned in the Tamil Saiva classic “Tirumandiram”. The mantra “sivasiva” of four syllables is chanted 16 times during one breath hold corresponding to 64 syllables as in the pranayama mantra referred to earlier.

Here is a pranayama for renunciates:

While doing puraka or inhalation the thought would be that the entire universe is ultimately drawn into the Brahman. Then while in
antahkumbhaka the contemplation would be that the outside Universe and I are no different from the Brahman. Then while exhaling the ego “I’ with the entire Universe is discarded as nothing but an illusion, not real, not significant. And in bahya kumbhaka one would contemplate that pure Brahman alone is real, It alone exists.

Those who believe in the reality of world and the trinity (Brahma, Vishnu and Siva), would use pranayama to reinforce their faith.

Inhaling through the left nostril one should think of the four faced Brahma the creator aspect of the trinity and of blood red hue (rajas
guna) while chanting Om 16 times. Then closing both the nostrils  and holding the breath in  kumbhaka one should think of the white colored(satva guna) Hari, the protector/sustainer chanting pranava 64 times.

Then while exhaling through the right nostril one should meditate on Siva of dark color (tamo guna) chanting pranava 32 times. Then one should start inhaling through the right nostril for 16 matras chanting pranava 16 times and continue the pranayama for a predetermined number of times with both mantra and bhava.

Different smritis and very old yoga texts refer to a variety of pranayamas with and without mantras. Almost all the puranas have a
section on yoga which describe different asanas and pranayamas. (I think with all this evidence one may say with some conviction that
Yoga is more than 100 years old). For more information on pranayama you may consider referring to my book “Yoga for the Three Stages of Life” pages 189 to 211.

Sri Krsishnamacharya’s Yoga teachings were unique and very rich. In Vinyasakrama asana practice, breath synchronization with slow
movements is an essential element. One would start the movement with the beginning of inhalation or exhalation and complete the movement with the completion of that breathing phase. The time taken in actual practice may be between 5 to 10 or 12 seconds depending on one’s capacity and control. If it goes below 5 seconds one would stop the practice and rest to regain the vinyasa krama acceptable breath. My Guru, Sri T Krishnamacharya would say ‘breathe with hissing sound’ (a la cobra, refer to ananta samapatti in YS) or ‘with a mild rubbing sensation in the throat’.

In this way, with long deep inhalation and exhalation, the intercostal muscles are stretched and toned up and by the time pranayama is
started the accessory muscles of breathing are well exercised so that one has a well oiled breathing apparatus for a very productive
pranayama practice. And while doing pranayam introduction of mantras and bhavas helps to bring the mind to a focus which will be of considerable help when one starts the meditation process. Thus Sri Krishnamacharya following the tradition of yoga described in old yoga texts like the yoga sutras, the puranas, smritis and other ancient texts helped to understand and achieve the best of an outstanding ancient system called Yoga.”

(c) Srivatsa Ramaswami

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