In the Stillness of Breath
Praanaayaam (Pranayam) for Meditatiors
by Brijendra, Robert William Eaton
You can live for a very long time without exercise.
You can live for a month or more without food.
You can live for several days without water.
You can live for at most a few minutes without air.
Which of these do you think is most vital to your life?
How much care and attention do you give to your breathing?
Exercise: A great deal of attention goes towards the importance of exercise in our daily life. This is excellent news for the well-being of humanity. Also, many people are now aware of how effective the practice of hath yog (yogic exercises, often called “yoga”) is in maintaining health and purifying and opening up the innumerable channels of life-energy in our bodies.
Food: Quite a large part of your day is spent in acquiring or preparing your food and, if you are reading this writing, you have probably given quite a bit of thought to what kinds of food are most beneficial, not just for your health and sense of well-being, but for your spiritual practice.
Water: The same goes for your intake of liquids. You might be conscientious about the purity of the water you drink and what beverages are least harmful to your health.
Breath: Unfortunately, many of us spend no time taking care of our breathing, even though breathing goes on moment-to-moment in our day and, if it were to stop for more than a few minutes, the body would perish. How important breathing is! Yet how little attention we pay to it! It makes sense to learn a little about our breathing and to spend a few moments in our day to practice a few breathing exercises that, easily and gently, expand our breathing capacity and at the same time bring about balance, focus, and a refreshed and enlivened state of praanic energy, our life force.
Food is the most solid of our means of sustaining life and, because it is the most solid of the above four necessities, it draws most of our attention. Liquid exists at a similar level of physicality, though more fluid and diffuse. Because it is known in the realm of perceivable form, it also attracts much of our attention. Air, and its praanic constituent, is less physically perceivable and even more diffuse than water, and so it attracts less of our care and attention. This is because it is not “in our face” in the same way as the more solid or perceivable forms of earth and water are, even though if you are denied air you will soon know how vital it is.
This is the nature of human attention—it is attracted by, and resides in, the most easily perceivable forms.
Every cell of your body breathes. In the human body trillions of cells, all needing to breathe, require a system for bringing oxygen and praan to the individual cells, and so the vast surface area of the lungs was created for that purpose, because not enough air or oxygen from outside and carbon dioxide from inside could pass directly through the skin.
Air, though less noticeable, is actually more immediately vital to our existence than the more solid states of our sustenance, yet we almost ignore it. Internally, we just let our breathing take care of itself; and externally we have polluted our air with abandon, setting in motion possibly devastating effects if left unchecked, e.g. global warming and increased suffering from respiratory problems and diseases. If somebody were to put poison in your food or in a glass of water and hand it to you, you would be justified in accusing them of attempted murder or at least of gross negligence. But if countless factories and vehicles pour poisons into our common vessel of air, the atmosphere, for some reason we do not consider this lunatic, perhaps because we ourselves are contributing to it. This may be strongly worded, but the main point holds, which is that the subtler the level of existence, the less attention human beings pay to it, or even consider it worthy of attention. The result is a decrease in our health and vitality and a deterioration of our inner life.
To take this discussion of what we attend to a further degree, we can consider and investigate that which is subtler than air with a thought-experiment. We started by observing that we can live without exercise for a long time, without food for a month or so, without water for a few days, and without air for a few minutes. But if that which gives us life withdraws our life, then we will not exist for even one nanosecond longer. So, while life-energy, or praan, is critical to our existence, the source of that praan is the most important of all. Yet it is rarely acknowledged.
These five aspects of life are essential for our existence:
Praanaayaam, or the practice of breathing exercises, is applied at the level that falls between the more formed realms of exercise, food, and water on the one hand and the extremely subtle and refined level of the source of our life on the other. All five levels are essential to our existence. Exercise, food, and liquid are taken care of because our attention is naturally drawn to those more solid levels. But, because it is subtler, we take breathing for granted, considering it to be an automatic function of our bodies. And the source of our breathing is the most subtle of all, with the result that most of us pay it no attention at all. We will address this last oversight and relate it to praanaayaam in our practice of Praan Chintan.
It is true that our ongoing breathing is ensured due to its regulation by the autonomic nervous system. However, we use praanaayaam, or conscious regulation of breathing, to enhance and refine the effectiveness of our breathing to bring balance, vitality, and health to our bodies and minds through opening up the subtle channels of praan, our life force.
A further result of tuning up our breathing is that the resultant state of clear, balanced attention, while being inestimably useful in all areas of our practical, daily life, will be found to be especially useful for those who practice meditation. As we easily overlook the subtle existence of our air and breathing, similarly we tend to overlook the continued flow of the source of life, our life-spring. In yog saadhanaa, or the practice of yog, we use the practice of praanaayaam to arouse and regulate the praanic energy that maintains our body and mind; and we use meditation to attune ourselves to the unseen, yet existent, source of that praan, the source of our life.
There you have it: exercise, food, drink, breathing, meditation.
A simple rule of thumb:
Each day do:
3 – Dhyaan – meditation, 3 times
2 – Praanaayaam – breathing exercises, 2 times (Core Seven in the morning, Eight Kumbhaks in the afternoon)
1 – Hath Yog – physical exercise, yog aasans, 1 time.
Use this recommendation as an ideal. You will, of course, adjust it according to your needs; for instance, you might enjoy your hath yog practice and so do it twice a day.
Opening of the Higher Consciousness
Excerpt from, In the Stillness of Breath,
Praanaayaam for Meditators,
As the air moves in currents in the atmosphere, or water moves in currents in a lake or ocean, so in the human system praan, too, moves in currents. The channels of these currents are called naadis. The naadis range from physical channels, such as arteries, veins, and nerves to subtle channels which, though unseen, exist and are vital to the living manifestation of a human being. In the natural, externally focused growth and development of a human being, life is considered to be dependent upon the physical channels, as seen, felt, known through the five senses. But these physical channels are manifestations of subtler currents of praan. When a person takes up yog saadhanaa, he or she is purifying the naadis, and this purification will progress from the more physical to the subtler or inner aspects of the person.
When the naadis are refined and purified, the praan flows unimpeded, becoming concentrated, and it enters the sushumnaa naadi where it rises up through the various dimensions, or chakras, of praanic existence. If the praanic naadis are blocked, due to impurity in the system such as too much tamas and rajas, the praan is unable to become concentrated and fine, and so cannot enter the extreme subtlety of the sushumnaa channel, which is not a physical place. This is why the praan has to be refined through saadhanaa. In this way the yogi’s development is from physical to praanic to conscious being. Ida, pingalaa, sushumnaa naadis The three main naadis (which according to various accounts range from 72,000 to several hundred thousand) are ida, pinagla, and sushumnaa. Ida: The channel of the moon, or chandra; cooling or cool, left side, pale, receptive, passive. Pingalaa: The channel of the sun, or soorya; hot, right side, active, instigating. Sushumnaa: The supreme channel, neither right nor left, neither hot nor cool, neither active nor receptive; the channel of bliss and of higher, transcendent consciousness. Sushumnaa is the most important of all the naadis; however, it only becomes known when kundalini awakens and begins to rise into the sushumnaa. Until then the kundalini shakti is dormant and is manifesting through the channels of ida and pingalaa, alternating between the two. In the normal human state, the praanic flows will sometimes accentuate the left, ida, side and at other times accentuate the right, pingalaa, side with the result that a person shifts throughout the day and night between the more receptive, cooling, passive states and the more active, heating, aggressive states.
It should be noted that the practice of Anulom Vilom Praanaayaaam, or Alternate Nostril Breathing, is specifically designed to balance these otherwise dynamically shifting energies. When ida and pingalaa are balanced, the praanic shakti, flowing neither left nor right, nor active nor passive, is in the sushumnaa channel, which actually is not in time and space. Although sushumnaa is like pure space, neither hot nor cold, active nor passive, time nor space–due to lingering patterns of identification––there may be experiences triggered when the praan’s shakti enters the sushumnaa at the base of the spine and begins to rise up through the dynamic dimensions of one’s being called chakras. When the praan shakti, having become awakened as kundalini shakti, rises, awakened and alert, up into the highest, purest space at the crown chakra or sahasraar, the purity is complete, and consciousness is established in its true nature as one indivisible Self. However, on the way to this state of one’s true indivisibility, the kundalini shakti may trigger experiences as it passes through and liberates the levels of bound or contracted dynamism. It is due to the infinite power of kundalini, passing through the previously bound, dynamic chakras, that the releasing of bound experience is sometimes described as transcendent experiences or celestial experiences or extreme releases of energy and emotion. When a river is in flood, everything in the way of that dynamic surge is whirled and churned when the energy of the flood touches it. Branches, tree trunks, rocks, rubbish, all are swept along, and these blockages create whirls and waves in the river water. It is a cleansing process. If there are no blockages, the flood passes through unimpeded. It is a similar situation with the kundalini shakti. When there are blockages or impurities in the system, the flood of kundalini shakti will be experienced as a churning up of those bound and limited perceptions of one’s self. This results in all kinds of experiences, many of which will vary from individual to individual according to the mind. Some will be transcendent, celestial experiences; some will be churnings of all kinds of emotions such as love, fear, etc.
If the system is quite pure the kundalini shakti encounters no impedance and the result is like a pure infinite space of consciousness. Given this fact, yog saadhanaa, in the form of Ashtaang Yog, as described by Shree Patanajli, may be viewed as a preparation as well as a triggering of the awakening of kundalini. For the yogi this is the importance of praanaayaam; that is it both prepares the yogi for the opening of kundalini vastness and it triggers the opening awakening of kundalini. Praanaayaam accomplishes the two fold process of purifying the naadis from the physical to the subtle and awakening the kundalini shakti. In the beginning of praanaayaam practice, it is generally not realized how powerful, effective, and wide-ranging the practice of praanaayaam is; but as one continues in the practice, it is revealed how pervasive praan is and how effective the practices of praanaayaam are at tuning us into our praan, which ultimately is universal praan, not just individual. It is for this reason that the practicing yogi takes up a steady and persistent practice of praanaayaam, daily or a few times daily. This steady persistence in the practice builds up the power of the praan, which is a subtle field of existence. Although initially this steady build up and concentration of the praan may go unnoticed by the physically oriented mind of the beginner, he or she should stick to a continued practice of praanaayaam, in the received knowledge, passed down through thousands of years, that the steady practice of praanaayaam will indeed bring about the opening and awakening of kundalini and the resulting opening of the Highest Consciousness.