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Hindu, Hinduism and Hindustan: Part LXXI
|by Dr. Jaipal Singh|
Continued from Part LXX
What is Pranayama?
Pranayama finds a mention as the fourth limb of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga in Sage Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (Verse 2.29). It is a compound Sanskrit word comprised of Prana and Ayama. Of these, Prana refers to ‘life energy’ or ‘life force’ and colloquially related to the breath while Ayama means control or suspension (of breath). Thus in essence, Pranayama is a scientific breathing technique of measured and controlled administering of the breath that regulates the vital life energy (Prana) in the living being in order to restore and maintain physical and mental health in the upward spiritual evolution. In the Yoga Sutra, the practices of Asana and Pranayama are considered to be highest faculty of self-discipline for the purification of the body and mind, respectively. These practices are believed to generate the physical heat, called tapas or the inner fire of purification allowing the mind to become calm, tranquil and blissful.
The practice of Pranayama involves developing awareness towards one's breathing followed by wilful regulation of respiration as the functional or vital basis of one's meaningful existence. It helps in developing awareness of one's mind as also to establish effective control over the mind. In the initial stages, this is done by developing awareness of the ‘flow of in-breath and out-breath’ (Svasa-Prasvasa) through nostrils. Later, this phenomenon is modified, through regulated, controlled and monitored inhalation (Svasa) leading to the awareness of the body space getting filled (Puraka), the space(s) remaining in a filled state (Kumbhaka) and then it getting emptied (Rechaka) during regulated, controlled and monitored exhalation (Prasvasa). The rhythmic patterns of slow and fast deep breathing strengthen the respiratory system, soothe the nervous system and lessen the desires and cravings, thereby conditioning the mind for Dharana or concentration.
This ancient yogic practice of Pranayama involves a sort of a scientific control of the timing, duration, and frequency of every breath with an underlining aim of establishing synergy and articulation of the body and mind with implied psycho-physiological benefits. Apart from the usual prescribed process in many ancient Hindu scriptures and texts, the different mundane breathing techniques developed over the passage of time involve Nadishodhana (alternate nostril breathing), Ujjayi (victorious breath), Bhramari (honey bee humming breath), Bhastrika (bellows breath), and so on. Also these breathing techniques could be exercised in variety ways, such as while established in yogic asanas, meditation or simply practicing it in a relaxed posture. Some accomplished yogis in the modern age have adopted or coined their own terminologies for Pranayama practice. For instance, Paramhansa Yogananda has described it as “Kriya Yoga” while another living Sage Sri Sri Ravi Shanker have come out with another technique called “Sudarshan Kriya”.
Srimad Bhagavad Gita and Pranayama
Shree Krishna has attached a great significance to different kinds of yogas in the Srimad Bhagavad Gita with the ultimate goal of the practitioners being attainment of salvation and described the practice of Pranayama as a very useful method to move forward on this path of seeking oneness with God. The following verses of his discourse are relevant in the aforesaid context.
Apane juhvati pranam prane ’panam tathapare,
Apare niyataharah pranan praneshu juhvati,
(Seekers offer as sacrifice the outgoing breath into the incoming breath, while some offer the incoming breath into the outgoing breath. Some arduously practice Pranayama and restrain the incoming and outgoing breaths, purely absorbed in the regulation of the life-energy. Yet other seekers curtail their food intake and offer the breath into the life-energy as sacrifice. All these knowers of sacrifice are cleansed of their impurities as a result of such performances.) (BG: Chapter 4, Verses 29-30)
In the context of the Jnan Yoga (Yoga of knowledge) and associated action, while narrating various types of sacrifices offered by the aspirants such as the sacrifice of the material possessions and austerities in previous verses, Shree Krishna strongly recommended Pranayama, the fourth component of Ashtanga Yoga, as an effective method of cleansing the impurities of the body, mind and soul, which is a pre-requisite to move on the path towards the salvation. In essence, the way impurities of the material world are burnt by the fire to become pure, in the same manner the oxidation process through the controlled breath purifies the man of his impurities of the body and mind.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Shree Krishna does not stop by merely underlining the significance of Pranayama or breath-control, He insists that the sacrifice of the breath i.e., the controlled breathing is the key for a human being’s wellness and betterment in all areas of life through all ages. Through the regular practice of Pranayama, a person can get rid of negative attributes and emotions such as desire, fear and anger while simultaneously inculcating positive ones to make him a better soul with every passing day. The practice of breath-control and associated accrued benefits are delineated in the following verses.
Sparshan kritva bahir bahyansh chakshush chaivantare bhruvoh,
Yatendriya-mano-buddhir munir moksha-parayanah,
(Shutting out all thoughts of external enjoyment, with the gaze fixed on the space between the eye-brows, regulating the flow of the incoming and outgoing breath in the nostrils, and thus controlling the senses, mind, and intellect, the sage who becomes free from desire, fear and anger, is ever liberated.) (BG: Chapter 5, Verses 27-28)
The aforesaid may be equally applicable to all human beings including house-holders but is more conducive to ascetics inclined to have regular practice of Ashtanga Yoga or Hatha Yoga. As they are already detached from the worldly chorus, it is easier for them to shut out thoughts of the sensory objects while controlling breath with focus between the eyebrows. For others too, similar state could be achieved through the disinterested action, the reason why Shree Krishna insisted on Karma Yoga in a detached way for the seekers. In the ordinary course, when the eyes are closed, one may be overtaken by sleep, and if they are open, one may have risk of distraction due to tempting sense objects in the surrounding. Hence Shree Krishna insisted on concentrating gaze between the eyebrows and tip of the nose. Then the seeker must try to harmonize the Prana (outgoing breath) and Apana (incoming breath) until the two are suspended in yogic trance, which enables the person to control senses, mind and intellect. Such ascetic practices lead to the realization of Self (Atma-Jnana) leading to oneness with God on the path of liberation.
Philosophy of Pranayama
The life of every living entity, be it human beings or any other animals, begins with the breath at birth and ends with the breath at death. Thus the breath is synonymous with life in a way without which the life ceases to exist. Perhaps this is the ultimate reality that is why the ancient Indian sages and scholars had concluded that the breath contained “Prana”, an invisible energy sustaining all life forms. This life energy is believed to be also present in all life sustaining substances and objects such as water, food and sunshine directly or indirectly. This is the reason why a living being can sustain without these substances for some time but cannot survive without the breath even for a few minutes.
Pranayama is essentially the system of yoga or science controlling and regulating the breathing process which is said to be initially practiced in Hatha-yoga mode. Hatha is a Sanskrit term which literally means ‘force’, thereby the yogic practice involving various physical techniques. The ancient practice involved the control and regulation of air within the body to enable its simultaneous passage in opposite directions with the envisioned goal of controlling the senses with the ultimate aim of the spiritual realization. Apart from the spiritual gains, it is scientifically determined that this yogic practice has several perceptible and visible benefits on the overall physical and mental health of the practitioners.
As mentioned earlier, Pranayama is routinely understood as the control of breath, which essentially involves the following processes:
Scholars hold that both the kumbhakas are advanced techniques in Pranayama that should be practiced only under the supervision and guidance of the qualified teachers, else they might cause harm rather than benefit.
As explained in the beginning, Prana is loosely taken as the breath but this is actually the subtle life energy which pervades the breath including a range of the animate and inanimate objects. It is typically divided into various constituent parts, particularly in the context of the human body. The name and number of such divisions are described in various Hindu scriptures. The Upanishads, Mahabharata and Yoga Sutras mention five divisions, namely Prana (inward moving energy), Apana (outward moving energy), Udana (energy of the head and throat), Samana (energy of digestion and assimilation) and Vyana (circulation of energy).
The five pranas work together to regulate various psycho-physiological functions of the human body. The Prana is considered as the vital life force with its seat in the head, lungs and heart with upward movement; a balanced Prana leads to a balanced and calm mind and emotions. The Apana is seated in lower abdomen with movement outward and downward, which is associated with the excretion, reproduction and skeletal health. The Udana is linked with diaphragm and throat with upward movement associated with the functioning of brain, clarity of speech and respiratory system. The Samana is seated at the naval with spiral movement and is associated with the healthy digestion and metabolism. Finally, the Vyana originates from the heart with outward movement and a balanced Vyana leads to a healthy heart, circulation and nerves. The term Prana is also collectively used for all and finds a mention as Vayu in Hindu texts, another Sanskrit term meaning wind or air, and a generic name so often commonly used for all the five Vayus mentioned above.
According to Vedic philosophy, Prana flows through numerous Nadis (nerves) in the human body. For instance, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (2.1.19) talks about seventy-two thousand nadis (nerves) running out from the heart in the human body and the Katha Upanishad (6.16) refers to hundred and one channels of the heart, with the main channel piercing through the head. However, three most important nadis in the human body are the Ida on the left, Pingla on the right and Sushunma in the centre linking the Muladhara (first & base chakra) located near the tailbone to the Sahasrara (seventh & crown chakra) located towards the top of the head, thus allowing Prana to flow through the subtle body. According to the Vedic philosophy, Pranayama joins Apana and Prana in the Ajna Chakra located in the Bhrukuti of eye-brows. As already mentioned, Prana is the upward moving energy and Apana is the downward one. Though a systematic and calibrated Pranayama practice, once the practitioner is able to maintain stillness and restraint on the movement of Prana and Apana, the Kundalini is activated. The flow of Kundalini energy into Ajna and Sahasrara Chakras leads to the realization of Self (Atman) achieving permanent peace and bliss.
With the passage of time, several different methods and techniques of Pranayama have been discovered and implemented not only for the spiritual progress but also for the mundane health purposes such as the heating of the body, cooling of the body, cleansing exercises of lungs, attaining the calmness of mind, and so on. We can generally say that the breath is intimately linked with emotions; consequently, an agitated or restless state of mind leads to faster breathing while a calm, peaceful and relaxed mind produces slower breath, and Pranayama generally helps to achieve the latter state. However, according to scriptures the chief aim of Pranayama is to enable the practitioner to retain his breath for long in a controlled and systematic way, which ultimately leads to Kumbhaka when the breath is naturally suspended in an effortless way leading to Samadhi and Kaivalya (ultimate yogic state of absolute bliss or inner freedom akin to emancipation).
Science of Kaivalya Kumbhaka
During the yogic practice of Pranayama, Kumbhaka is normally defined as the retention of breath during the two processes of inhalation and exhalation as explained in the previous section. This is also said to be the ultimate goal of the practitioner of the yogic Sadhna (devotion). The name itself is derived from Sanskrit word Kumbha, which means a pot or vessel; wherein the torso (i.e. trunk or main body parts excluding head and limbs) is symbolized to a vessel full of air. Between the processes of the Antar Kumbhaka and Bahya Kumbhaka, the goal of practitioner remains to achieve Kaivalya Kumbhaka represented by the complete suspension of the breath for as long as the he (or she) so desires. To recapitulate two, the breath retained in the lungs for a while is explained as the Antar Kumbhaka while empty state of the lungs is referred to as the Bahya Kumbhaka.
The state of Kumbhaka itself appears in two stages: The Sahaja or Sahit Kumbhaka, which is an intermediate process when breath retention is naturally achieved on withdrawal of the senses, known as Pratyahara finding a mention as the fifth limb of the Ashtanga Yoga described in Sage Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras; and, Kaivalya Kumbhaka as the ultimate stage of Kumbhaka wherein the practitioner is able to suspend the inhalation and exhalation at will, parallel to the state of Samadhi described as the 8th and final limb of the Ashtanga Yoga. The literal meaning of Kaivalya is solitude or detachment and the term also finds a mention as Kevala or Kaivalya-Mukti in different Hindu scriptures and texts. Kaivalya tantamount to the isolation or detachment of Purusha (Divine element) from Prakriti (Material world), thereby leading to Moksha or liberation from the karmic-cycle (birth-death-rebirth).
Sage Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (Chapter 4) deals with the karmic impressions of the endless cycles of birth and the reasoning why such impressions are needed to be erased. There it is concluded that the Yogi who has attained Kaivalya automatically gets entry into the league of entities having achieved freedom from all bondages experiencing the absolute consciousness or Ritambhara Prajna as described in the Samadhi Pada of Yoga Sutras. The virtue of Ashtanga Yoga and Kaivalya could be learnt from the following quotes:
"Only the minds born of meditation are free from karmic impressions." (Yoga Sutras: Chap 4 - Kaivalya Pada, Sutra 6)
"…or, to look from another angle, the power of pure consciousness settles in its own pure nature." (Yoga Sutras Chap 4 - Kaivalya Pada, Sutra 34)
The terms Kaivalya, Kevala or Kaivalya-mukti also find mention in several Upanishads such as the Svetasvatara, the Kaivalya, the Amritabindu, the Yogatattva, and the Muktika Upanishads.
For illustration, the Muktika Upanishad (1.18–29) refers to the discourse of Sri Ramchandra to Hanuman, wherein Kaivalya is explained as the most superior form of emancipation even higher than the four types of Mukti (Moksha) explained as Salokya, Saameepya, Sarupya and Sayujya in many other scriptures. Then in the Section 2 of the same Upanishad, Sri Ram reiterates the Kaivalya-Mukti as the ultimate liberation inclusive of both the Jivanmukti and Videha-mukti from the Prarabdha Karma. It can be achieved by any practitioner or aspirant through the learning of Upanishads under the supervision of a realized guru. According to the Dattatreya Yogashastra, believed to be a 13th century text, once unaccompanied breath-retention (Kaivalya), free from exhalation and inhalation, is mastered, there is nothing in the world that remains unattainable.
Undoubtedly, the Kaivalya Kumbhaka is a rare yogic state that only an accomplished yogi would be able to achieve and the ordinary practitioners can only cultivate and tap mundane benefits of Pranayama. In this context, an accomplished yogi Paramhansa Yoganand has explained the science of Pranayama and Kumbhaka under the chapter “The Science of Kriya Yoga” in his autobiographical work in the modern age. According to him, this yoga is a simple, psycho-physiological method by which human blood is decarbonated and recharged with oxygen. The atoms of this extra oxygen are transmuted into life stream to rejuvenate the brain and spinal centres. By stopping the accumulation of venous blood, the yogi is able to minimize or prevent the decay of body tissues transmuting his cells into energy.
According to Swami Yoganand, Shree Krishna (BG: 4.29-30) refers to this Kriya Yoga only when he mentioned “Offering the inhaling breath into the exhaling breath and offering the exhaling breath into the inhaling breath, the yogi neutralizes both breaths; thus he releases Prana from the heart and brings life force under his control.” According to his interpretation, the yogi arrests decay in the body in this process by securing an additional supply of Prana (life force) through quieting the action of the lungs and heart as also arresting mutations of growth in the body by controlling Apana. Thus by neutralizing the decay and growth, the yogi learns the art of life-force-control. By giving the illustrations of animals like snake, elephant and tortoise known for their slower breathing and longevity of life, Swami Yoganand also tried to establish the mathematical relationship between the man’s breathing rate and variations in his states of consciousness in his autobiography.
Benefits of Pranayama
As mentioned in the previous section, several techniques and methods of Pranayama have been discovered and put in practice by the sages and yogis in the modern age, which apart from being useful in the spiritual progress of the practitioners are also beneficial for the purpose of material existence and physical and mental health in general. It is widely believed that the regular practice of Pranayama keeps human body free from various ailments and diseases by balancing and neutralizing the life style related disorders and ill-effects. Besides, it is also useful in improving the mental strength, willpower and alertness of the practitioner which are key determinates of our vital force to match the struggle of achieving set vision, dreams and goals in life. At the ethical and emotional levels too, it is helpful in improving the mental faculty and determination to overcome various limitations and problems.
Importance and benefits of Pranayama is time and again reiterated in the following two quotes:
Pranayama removes the veil covering the light of knowledge and heralds the dawn of wisdom. (Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, 2.52)
The mystery of life and death, whose solution is the only purpose of man’s sojourn on Earth, is intimately interwoven with breath. Breathlessness is deathlessness. Realizing this truth, the ancient rishis of India seized on the sole clue of the breath and developed a precise and rational science of breathlessness.( Paramahansa Yogananda in “Autobiography of a Yogi”)
Paramhansa Yoganand himself entered mahasamadhi i.e. the yogi’s final conscious exit from the body, in Los Angeles, California on 7 March 1952. The following extracts of an eye-witness account of Mr Harry T. Rowe, Los Angeles Mortuary Director should be suffice to vindicate the spiritual significance of Pranayama in the context of an accomplished yogi of the twentieth century. The body of yogi was kept under the casket with a glass lid under observation for approximately three weeks after his mahasamadhi.
“The absence of any visual signs of decay in the dead body of Paramhansa Yogananda offers the most extraordinary case in our experience….No physical disintegration was visible in his body even twenty days after death…No indication of mold was visible on his skin, and no visible desiccation (drying up) took place in the bodily tissues. This state of perfect preservation of a body is, so far as we know from mortuary annals, an unparallel one…”
According to many scientific studies and observations, Pranayama may benefit the practitioners’ health in a variety of ways. Various techniques and methods of Pranayama not only relieve tension leading to a relax body and elevated mood but also physiologically help to detoxify and release toxins, strengthen body immune system and lungs, and improve the blood quality and cellular regeneration. Some of these mundane benefits are listed as follows.
1. Reduction of Stress: Regular and sustained Pranayama leads to the decreased stress levels among the practitioners. According to various studies, it is achieved through calming and cooling down of the nervous system that improves the stress response of the person by reducing the anxiety level. Researchers give credit for this to the increased oxygen uptake during Pranayama impacting vital organs including the brain and other spinal centres.
2. Improved Sleep Quality: With the decreased stress and anxiety levels owing to Pranayama, the length and quality of sleep is better. For instance, observations show that the practice of Bhramari Pranayama for five minutes leads to slowing down of the breathing and heart rate, which is said to calm down body for a sound sleep. Research studies suggest that Pranayama is also helpful to people suffering with obstructive sleep apnea, snoring and daytime drowsiness.
3. Improves Lung Functioning: It is scientifically established that Pranayama exercises involving slow, medium and vigorous breathing techniques strengthen the functioning of lungs. This observation is also based on several studies and many lung conditions such as asthma, allergic bronchitis, and even pneumonia and tuberculosis are known to get a favourable response with commensurate breathing exercises.
4. Helpful to Control Hypertension: High stress level is one of the major causes responsible for the high blood pressure which may cause serious ailments like stroke and heart disease if not properly controlled and regulated. Pranayama has both direct and indirect effects to minimize such risk by reducing stress and promoting relaxation of the body tissues. When a practitioner focuses on breathing, it calms down the nervous system which in turn impacts circulatory and other body responses to eliminate or minimize the risk of hypertension.
5. Cognitive Performance: As is clear from the description in the previous paragraphs that the Pranayama has direct bearing on the brain and other spinal centres. Thus it clearly improves the overall functioning of the nervous system, which naturally includes the practitioner’s working memory, reasoning skills, cognitive ability and reaction - response impulses. Some studies also suggest that Pranayama has favourable effect on the auditory memory and sensory-motor performance in the human body. The increased oxygen uptake during the Pranayama certainly seems to have role in providing extra energy to brain cells for improving its performance.
6. Enhances Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a Western concept which is believed to be essentially an offshoot or at least based on the Hindu concept of Dhyana (meditation). Through this practice, the person purposely tries to focus his attention in the present moment without evaluation, rather than getting entangles with the past and future events. According to some studies, the aspirants who practiced Pranayama displayed higher levels of mindfulness than the others who did not indulge in similar breathing practice. This attribute is also ascribed to the calming effects of Pranayama, which supports the human ability of becoming more mindful. The ultimate science behind the yogic practice appears to be that Pranayama leads to a greater rate of the removal of the carbon dioxide while simultaneously raising oxygen level in the tissues including the brain cells, which would contribute to improving mindfulness through the improved focus and attention.
As a yogic practice, Pranayama finds a mention in several ancient Hindu scriptures and texts including Upanishads, Srimad Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras. While accomplished yogis have made use of it to achieve superior levels of consciousness along with other tools like asanas and meditation, the ordinary practitioners do it for their physical and mental health and well-being. While in the eyes of the traditional sciences, the trick is played through the faster and better exchange of pure (oxygenated) and impure (carbonated) air (breath) in the body, the ancient scientific philosophy synonymises breath as Prana or life force which if correctly tamed can even pave the path of the spiritual progress leading to the liberation (Moksha). Accordingly, yogis are known to have made good use of it for own emancipation while the ordinary souls pursue it for multiple benefits associated with the physical and mental health including the brain function, the lung function and the blood pressure. While the mundane practice of Pranayama or breath control favourably impacts the body and mind of people, the accomplished yogis are able to go with breath into a state of breathlessness called Kaivalya Kumbhaka achieving Paramananda (Divine bliss).
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