Sri Bimal Mohanty
VOL No. 138
PATANJALIYOGASUTRA - UNDERSTANDING PRANAYAMA
Based on lectures by Sri Bimal Mohanty
Although in its simplest form pranAyAma would mean smooth movement of inhaled and exhaled air, pranAyAma extends even to a complete control of the movement of breath as we shall see in the next sutras.
PranAyAma goes on to regulate the passage and speed of movement of breath through the body including prolonging or holding (kumbhaka) the in-breath and out-breath. Control of inhalation as well as exhalation in quick or slow action, directing it unto different areas of the body, duration of all such activities and the number of cycles of exercise are all part of pranAyAma. So it is said:
bAhya abhyAntarah stambhavrittih desakAla sankhyAbhih paridrstah dirgha sukshamah (II.50)
PrAnAyAma is basically the guided movement of vital life force in the form of breath inside the body.
The sutras 49, 50 and 51 state this aspect variously. We shall briefly dwell upon them and then go to understand what this movement of breath does to our body.
While prAnAyAma is smooth movement of breath through the body, it is not as simple as unobstructed movement only as perhaps vehicular movement on a highway means.
The breath is made to stop for some time within at various points in the body for longer and shorter durations and regulation of further intake of breath depending upon the needs of the body.
Why it is needed is an elaborate science but can be broadly understood this way:
It is the breath that keeps the body alive, physically, mentally and psychically. At physical level our body parts are nothing but grouping of different kinds of cells in specific formations. For the working of the cells, they need nourishment in the form of oxygen which is distributed to them through our blood circulatory system through a process called osmosis. Oxygen as food after its utilization gets converted to carbon dioxide as waste and then thrown away from the body as out-breath by the help of circulating blood again.
There are millions of cells in the body which must be constantly fed their nutrition. With the assistance of our lungs, the circulation and balance of this breath in our body takes place. It is said that this elaborate mechanism called human body with billions of cells is served with the life force through nearly seventy thousand channels. It is obvious that in such a complicated system for various reasons, snags and blockages can occur. For a healthy body all channels must be forced cleaned with some prolonged pressure. Various types of prAnAyAma do exactly that so that every part of the body gets its needed nourishment.
PrAnAyAma does another thing. Working with the diaphragm and lungs in a rhythmic manner, it stimulates and exercises organs like liver, spleen, pancreas etc and stimulates their secretion, all for a healthy balance.
Every nook and corner in our body is filled with air. It is air that retains the shape of our body with balancing pressure inside and outside. If air is removed and pressure is not maintained the body will collapse. We may all look like wrinkled mummies. PrAnAyAma maintains this pressure balance.
Further with so much air within us it has to be continuously recycled as trapped and stale air containing waste will turn putrid and cause harmful disease. For nothing we have so many openings in the body through which unwanted air escapes with the waste byproducts. It escapes through nostrils, along with the stool, urine and even through pores in the skin along with sweat so that at no time the harmful effects of unnecessary trapped air, destroy the body.
All these go on to explain the importance of prAnAyAma for physical maintenance of the body which in turn purifies and vitalizes our mind and psyche.
For maintaining the well being of the body no better and effective way than prAnAyAma has been found nor will be found. That is why yoga relies so heavily on prAnAyAma.
If our children are taught prAnAyAma from an early age and we all practice it daily a great deal of body discomfort and disease will be kept at bay.
PrAnAyAma is a holistic therapy for the body. The breathing activity works in many ways within the body and its action is identified precisely by our seers after thorough experimentation. The process of prAnAyAma is so vast, varied and complicated that it is difficult to describe it in brevity and will need volumes of expression and still we shall not fully appreciate all the beneficial effects.
When inhaled as prAna it takes in the needed vital nutrients and after feeding various parts of the body it removes from them their unwanted excretions and we call it apAna as we breathe out. But between prAna and apAna it carries out many functions such as distribution of nutrients and their absorption as samAna, circulation of nutrients amongst all cells as vyAna. And then it assists removal of toxins out of the body and we call it udAna.
But there is still greater and more important activities the breath performs than these. The breath vitalizes our consciousness and makes it rise to reach upto the pinnacle of total consciousness called purnachaitanya of Brahman - the final enlightenment.
Each of us has a great reserve of spiritual energy capable of achieving anything including final liberation or moksha. The power of this energy is unthinkable. It remains stored at the base of the spine and remains mostly unuilised by us. This is known as kundalini power. Knowing its immense potential yogis try to extract this power through controlled prAnAyAma.
The spinal column has three channels within itself. IdA on the left, pingalA on the right and susumnA in the center. Through idA the breath is pushed in to push this power through the central channel of susumnA. As the power rises in strength, it increases the consciousness level stages by stages. Each stage is identified as an area within the susumnA known as a chakra. Beginning from the base chakra known as the mulAdhAra it goes on to svAdhisthAna, manipura, anAhata, suddhi, AjnA to sahashrAra right to the highest point on the cranium.
Every chakra represents a particular characteristic of conscious knowledge rising upto pure brahmajnAna at sahashrAra level. The breath while pushing up our chetanA level escapes finally out through the pingalA channel.
Thus you see prAanAyAma is indeed so much more than breath control. It is a vital tool of yoga to raise our level of consciousness to become finally one with that ultimate consciousness Brahman.
When we hold the breath at a particular level within the body, it enhances our concentration at that area and inter-alia our awareness.
Our awareness of Brahman is synonymous with our consciousness of the powers and character of Brahman. When consciousness bursts forth it is akin to a lid lifting and knowledge flooding in. The sutras 51 and 52 imply that.
Bahya abhAntara visayAkshepi caturthah (sutra II.51)
Tatah kshiyate prakAsha Avaranam (sutra II.52)
The focus now is more precise and unfaltering. Now there is an awareness of what the yogi is really after and fit to concentrate on it.
This awareness is referred to as dhAranA in yoga
dhAranAsu ca yogyatA manasah (sutra II.53)
When a dhAranA has been formed, the wandering of mind here and there as dictated by the sense organs stops. The yogi is now master of his senses. That is what the sutras 54 and 55 say:
Every Yoga teacher or Spiritual guru you go to, will always tell you that withdrawal from sensual indulgence, otherwise known as pratyAhAra is essential for a yogi. But what exactly is this denial of sensual indulgence for normal people and how is it to be practiced? Let us understand it from Patanjali. He says:
Sva vishaya asamprayoge chitta svarupa anukAra iva jndriyAnAm pratyAhAra (sutra II.54)
Tatah paramA vasyate indriyAnam (sutra II.55)
Now the yogi is trying to concentrate and focus on a particular object in the mind and the mind is occupied with only that object and nothing else. This mental concentration in formulating an idea or object is what is called dhAranA. So when he is crystalising a particular concept in his mind any other thought does not enter in. In prAnAyAma it is suggested to concentrate on the movement of breath within the body. When one is observing this movement with deep concentration all other sense organs like eyes, ears, skin etc are at inactive rest – a kind of withdrawn and disinterested state. When the mind disconnects itself from the sense organs, the organs themselves get disinterested in the objects of their desire. How beautiful may be the sight in front of you, how much enchanting be the sound or enticing be the food, if you have withdrawn your eyes, ears or lost your taste for food, what good are these to you any more? You have rejected them and this rejection is the beginning of the next limb of yoga known as pratyAhAra a sort of withdrawal of senses as a tortoise does with its limbs.
If one can practice enough and can control his sense organs to shut down at will, he attains mastery over senses. The organs are no more my masters. I am their master.
As we said earlier an effective way to practice pratyAhAra is to concentrate on the movement of breath while doing prAnayAma.
Now, when one has reached that stage and inwardly watching the movement of his breath, the mind automatically starts thinking 'what is this breath?'
Earlier we understood that breath is the vehicle of prAnashakti or power of life. What then is this prAnashakti? Wherefrom it came?
Slowly an idea or dhAranA starts germinating in the mind about the source of this power - which is Brahman. So an idea of Brahman begins to form.
Deshabandhah chittasya dhAranA (sutra III.1)
The mind then tries to hold on to that idea. This experience is quite a gripping experience.
As it grips you, you dwell longer and longer with this idea. You are now in the state of dhyAna.
In a relaxed state the movement of breath is most normal within the body.
Tatra pratyaya ekamAnatA dhyAnam (sutra III.2)
From dhyAna the yogi enters the last phase of yoga which is samAdhi.
Starting from yama, niyama, Asana, prAnAyAma and pratyAhara the first five limbs of yoga as you may have noticed are centered on our physical. The next three stages of dhyAna, dhAranA and samAdhi are so to say signify a quantum jump in the process as they predominantly are in the domain of mind and psyche.
An important point to be kept in mind here is that these gradual higher stages in yoga do not get achieved as long as we see yoga as a physical exercise. Many yoga teachers and spiritualists of different faith see yoga as a method to achieve physical wellbeing and physical benefits as their main objective. Unfortunately such people take up yoga only when afflicted with some physical ailment. These people completely miss the very essence of yoga.
One may repeat it hundreds of times that sanAtan philosophy considers yoga as a process of evolution for the soul encompassing all dimensions of soul's existence. This is where sanAtan philosophy stands apart from many other spiritual thought processes and may be the reason behind the unnecessary controversy as to whether yoga is a hindu religious concept. We shall discuss more of it as we go along.
But let me make an important point here. Practice of these last three stages of Yoga cannot be through teaching or discourses or yoga camps. Not even by bhajan or swAdhyAyana this can be instilled within a sAdhak. Even a Guru cannot teach you dhyAna, dhAranA and samAdhi. At best all these are assistances. Now it is all self effort or sAdhanA by the sAdhak. All between you and the Lord, between the sAdhak and his lakshya. It is an one to one relationship. Every thing else is at best an assisting support. It may take a long time. Even one life time may not be enough. You now walk the distance in the company of Brahman.
Considering that situation, the third section of Patanjali yoga sutra should be attempted with a different format, perhaps only with the very serious minded persons to do justice to Patanjali and not through mere discussions. It has to be practiced together and we shall do it with only serious minded sAdhaks under suitable conditions. But before we end let us briefly re-capture the important points that we learnt so far.
1. Firstly, mere acquiring jnAna will not bring liberation. The knowledge is to be realized, understood and put into action. As Sri Aurobindo observed "the Upanishads bring us close to the theoretical side of Jnanakanda of the Vedas. Its practical and more valuable side can only be mastered in the path of Yoga." The real benefit lies when the jnAna (knowledge) from jnAnakanda is practiced through yoga. The proof of the pudding is in the eating as they say.
2. The process of Yoga or engagement with Brahman, has to be a holistic approach. The process has to take place at all dimensions of our existence, i.e physical mental and psychical. That is sanAtan philosophy's holistic approach.
3. The purpose of Yoga is engagement with Brahman that is the only purpose. Yoga does not run counter to any faith?
4. When yoga is used for physical or even mental exercise only, it is a narrow view point. It brings benefits but not its fulfillment.
5. Yoga is a serious exercise and requires clear headed discipline or anusAsana. Those who submit themselves to a disciplined life style soon find out the benefits at every stage of life.
6. The disciplines like Yama, dama, asana, pranayama etc. all bring benefits but are only preparations of body and mind for Brahman realization. Dhyana, dharana, Samadhi are the real achievements of Yoga.
7. Mental aberration leading to various kinds of indulgences known as chittavrittis can only be removed through yoga.
8. Through Yoga one acquires power to switch the mind from one thought to another and concentrate on a particular thought.
9. That thought is the thought of Brahman about whom an abiding faith has to be cultivated and the thought strengthened by acquiring knowledge about Him.
10. Help in this direction is received from the very phenomenal world around us and from a true guru who is also deeply conscious about Brahman or a Brahmanistha and knowledgeable - shrotriya.
11. Withdrawing away from the world and its character of maya is not the answer. But one has to operate within the maya with an attitude of vitrusna.
12. Each object of sensual attraction also has a purpose. Otherwise they would not have found a place in the creation. They also teach us a valuable lesson, a clearer pointer to select the path towards our ultimate good.
13. Vitrusna is cultivated by constant practice of sakshibhAva or going through all experiences watching them as a witness but not coming under their influence.
14. Vitrusna helps in strengthening the concentration of mind. Concentration requires deep faith (Shradha), a strong will (virya), and knowledge and remembrance of our source of origin the Brahman and total surrender to Him (IshwarapranidhAna)
15. Ishwara is conceived as all knowledgeable (sarvajnAtA), all powerful and a friend, philosopher and guide to all. He is meditated upon through the word Aum
16. By simply meditating you get relief from physical discomfort (vyAdhi), loss of concentration, moments of carelessness, lethargy, doubts of mind and failures in all actions.
17. There are also other benefits. You display a friendly disposition to all especially towards people who are already happy. Towards unhappy people your heart goes out in compassion. When you see a good and virtuous person, you feel elated, and when you see an evil and wicked person you do not feel as hateful as ordinary people feel.
18. The next target is nirvicAra samAdhi when the mind sets aside all enquiries, becomes fully aware of the self and the enlightenment dawns on the seeker by the grace of Brahman.
19. Now one is in the final journey towards samAdhi. It started from yama literally meaning restraint or abstention. Any action or thought that goes against the creation or the created objects of Brahman is to be avoided and is not to be performed.
20. Then comes niyama. Yama and niyama go hand in hand. If one has to regulate conduct there has to be codes of conduct. Yama and niyama are built in inseparably in dharma. There can be no occasion in life when dharma is to be compromised. This is the undercurrent of all major faiths in the world.
21. Non-violence is at the root of dharma. It does not take much to understand that if you have no violent motives towards anybody, the result is an amicable inter-personal relationship with all. All conflicts cease.
22. An attitude of Ahimsa goes with practice of asteyam or non covetousness, Santosha or self contentment in being on the right path, Satyapratistha or adherence to truthfulness, Swadhyayana or understanding the process through study of scriptures. And finally Ishwara pranidhAna or total consecration to Ishwara or Brahman.
23. You now bring the body and mind to become single pointed towards the goal by becoming calm mentally and physically. To do that, you practice Asana.
24. The body relaxes with Asana and the mind relaxes with prAnAayAma.
25. PrAnAyAma is like direct action of the life force on our body and mind. Doing yogic exercises like Asanas without pranAyAma do not yield the desired benefits.
26. With prAnAyAma there is increased concentration and puts the other sense organs in a condition of subdued inaction. That is the beginning of PratyAhAra.
27. Fortified with yama, niyama, Asana, prAnAyAma and pratyAhara, next dhyAna, dhAranA and samAdhi become natural steps.
28. Nothing is more important in life than yoga. It transforms every activity of life to its successful fulfillment. Yoga karmasu kaushalam. You need no management Guru to tell you that.
29. Lord Krishna emphasized further to Arjuna
Tapaswibhyo'dhiko yogee jnaanibhyo'pi mato'dhikah;
The Yogi stands higher than the ascetics and even superior to men of knowledge. He is also superior to men of action; therefore, be a Yogi, O Arjuna!