Prāṇāyāma: The Breath of Meditation

From Birth to Breath Control

We breathe from the moment we enter this world until we leave it. It happens without our conscious effort, a testament to the marvel of the human body. But have you ever wondered if it’s possible, or even necessary, to control this seemingly involuntary function? And if so, for what purpose? This article explores the ancient practice of Prāṇāyāma, revealing how controlling the breath can become a powerful tool for meditation and self-discovery.

The Essence of Prāṇāyāma (118-120)

चित्तादिसर्वभावेषु ब्रह्मत्वेनैव भावनात् । निरोधः सर्व वृत्तीनां प्राणायामः स उच्यते ॥ ११८ ॥
निषेधनं प्रपञ्चस्य रेचकाख्यः समीरणः । ब्रह्मैवास्मीति या वृत्तिः पूरको वायुरीरितः ॥ ११९ ॥
ततस्तदूवृत्तिनैश्चल्यं कुंभकः प्राणसंयमः । अयं चापि प्रबुद्धानामज्ञानां घ्राणपीडनम् ॥ १२० ॥

cittadi-sarva-bhaveşu brahmatvenaiva bhāvanāt, nirodhaḥ sarva vṛttīnām prāṇāyāmaḥ sa ucyate. (118)
nişedhanam prapancasya recakākhyaḥ samiraṇaḥ,brahmaivăsmīti ya vṛttiḥ pūrako vāyuriritaḥ. (119)
tatas-tadvṛtti-naiścalyam kumbhakaḥ a-samyamaḥ, ayam capi prabuddhānām-ajñānāṁ ghrana-pidanam. (120)

चित्तादिसर्वभावेषु – in all mental states such as memory; ब्रह्मत्वेन – as the Truth; एव – verily; भावनात् – through understanding; निरोधः -restraint; सर्व वृत्तीनाम् – of all modifications of the mind; (य: -which ); प्राणायामः – pränāyāma (control of the vital forces); सः – that; ईरितः – is called निषेधनम् – negation; प्रपञ्चस्य – of the phenomenal world; रेचकाख्यः – known as recaka (exhalation); समीरण : breath (अस्ति– is); अहम् – I ; ब्रह्म – the Truth; एव – alone; अस्मि- am; इति – that; या – which; वृत्तिः – thought; (सा – that); पूरकः – püraka (inhalation); वायुः – breath; ईरितः -is called ततः – thereafter, तद्वृत्तिनैश्चल्यम् the steadiness of that thought; कुंभकः – kumbhaka (holding the breath); ( उच्यते – is called); प्राणसंयमः – the control of the vital force ( i.e. prānāyāma); ( भवति – is); अयम् -this; अपि च – also; प्रबुद्धानाम् – of the enlightened; अज्ञानाम् – of the ignorant, घ्राणपीडनम् – pressing of the nose; ( भवति – is )

Verses 118-120 delve into the essence of Prāṇāyāma:

  • Verse 118: “The restraint of all modifications of the mind by regarding all mental states like the memory as the Truth alone, is called Prāṇāyāma.”

Here, Prāṇāyāma is defined as the ability to quiet the mind by recognizing the underlying Truth that permeates all our thoughts and experiences.

  • Verse 119: “The negation of the phenomenal world is known as Recaka (exhalation), the thought, ‘I am verily Brahman’ (the Truth), is called Pūraka (inhalation), and the steadiness of that thought thereafter is called Kumbhaka (holding the breath).”

This verse breaks down Prāṇāyāma into three stages:

  1. Recaka: Letting go of the external world through exhalation, symbolizing the release of attachments and desires.
  2. Puraka: Filling oneself with the awareness of being one with the Truth through inhalation, represented by the thought “I am Brahman.”
  3. Kumbhaka: Sustaining this awareness of oneness by holding the breath, allowing the mind to settle and integrate the experience.
  • Verse 120: “This is the Prāṇāyāma of the enlightened, whereas the ignorant only torture the nose.”

This verse highlights the difference between the mindful practice of Prāṇāyāma and the forceful manipulation of breath. True Prāṇāyāma involves a gentle awareness of the breath, not forceful control.

The Connection Between Breath and Mind

After establishing a steady posture in meditation, the next step is to address the breath, which is intimately linked to the mind. Our thoughts and emotions directly impact our breathing patterns. When agitated, our breath becomes rapid and shallow, while calmness leads to slow and rhythmic breathing. In deep sleep, when the mind is still, our breathing pattern transforms completely.

Since controlling the breath (Prāṇā nirodhaḥ) is generally easier than controlling the mind (Vṛtti nirodhaḥ), Prāṇāyāma becomes a powerful tool to purify, refine, and focus the mind. This practice also carries significant benefits for the entire body and its functioning.

Different Forms of Prāṇāyāma

There exist various Prāṇāyāma techniques, each with its unique approach. Some involve simply observing the breath (Prāṇā Vīkṣaṇa), while others incorporate activities like chanting (Japa), gentle rocking, or walking to establish a rhythmic breathing pattern, promoting calmness in the mind.

Haṭha Yoga offers specific methods for controlling the exhalation (Recaka), inhalation (Pūraka), inner breath holding (Antar Kumbhaka), and outer breath holding (Bāhya Kumbhaka). Some commonly practiced Prāṇāyāma techniques include Anuloma-Viloma (alternate nostril breathing), Kapāla Bhāti (skull-shining breath), Bhastrika (bellows breath), and Ujjayi (victorious breath). It is crucial to learn these techniques under the guidance of a qualified teacher to ensure safety and effectiveness.

Prāṇāyāma as a Meditation Technique

In our daily lives, we categorize, analyze, and judge our thoughts, labeling them as good, bad, or neutral. However, these distinctions are often superficial and impermanent. Just as gold ornaments may appear different in shape and function, their essence remains the same – gold.

According to Vedanta, the true essence of Prāṇāyāma meditation lies in recognizing all thoughts as manifestations of the Self or Truth. Through this practice, the mind transcends its usual categorizations and achieves a state of stillness where all diverse thoughts cease to arise (Sarva Vṛttīnāṁ Nirodhaḥ).

Letting Go of False Notions

We often feel trapped in our daily routines, bound by social obligations, responsibilities, and attachments to loved ones. However, upon closer examination, we realize that we are the ones clinging to the world, holding onto pleasures, relationships, and self-imposed duties.

A story illustrates this point: A disciple, seeking liberation, asks his Master for help, claiming to be trapped by the world. The Master climbs a tree and pretends to be caught by a branch, shouting, “I am caught by the tree (world). Save me! Free me!” The disciple simply replies, “Don’t hold on. Just leave the branch. You are already free!”

Our sense of being trapped stems from two fundamental misconceptions:

  1. Identification with the not-Self (Anātmani Ātma Buddhiḥ): We mistakenly identify our true essence with impermanent things like our bodies, minds, and external possessions.
  2. Giving absolute reality to the ever-changing world (Jagati Satyatva Buddhiḥ): We attribute absolute reality to the fleeting and ever-changing world around us, leading to attachment and suffering.

To overcome these misconceptions, Prāṇāyāma meditation offers various practices:

  • Recaka Prāṇāyāma Meditation: This involves contemplating the impermanent nature of the body, mind, and external world while exhaling. By letting go of the breath, we symbolically let go of our attachment to these false notions.
  • Pūraka Prāṇāyāma Meditation: While inhaling, we fill our minds with the thought, “I am the infinite Truth, which alone is real and absolute.” This practice cultivates awareness of our true nature beyond the limitations of the body and mind.
  • Kumbhaka Prāṇāyāma Meditation: We hold onto this awareness of the Truth with unwavering focus, allowing it to permeate and transform our entire being.

Beyond Technique: The Essence of Transformation

While the techniques of Prāṇāyāma offer valuable tools, it is crucial to remember that true transformation lies beyond mere breathing exercises. Prāṇāyāma becomes a powerful meditation technique when accompanied by a sincere desire for self-knowledge, detachment from the world, and a longing for the Truth.

By integrating Prāṇāyāma with other yogic practices like ethical living, selfless service, and self-study, we embark on a transformative journey towards lasting inner peace and liberation.