bāhya-ābhyantara-sthambha vr̥ttiḥ deśa-kāla-sankhyābhiḥ paridr̥ṣṭo dīrgha-sūkṣmaḥ
Pranayama manifests as external, internal, and restrained movements of breath. These are regulated and made long and subtle in accordance to place, time, and number.
- bahya = external
- abhyantara = internal
- stambha = holding, restraint, suspension, stationary, retention, cessation, transition
- vrittih = operations, activities, fluctuations, modifications, changes, or various forms of the mind-field
- desha = place, spot, space, location
- kala = time, period, duration
- sankhyabhih = number, count of
- paridrishtah = regulated by, observed by, concentrated
- dirgha = made long, prolonged, slow
- sukshmah = and subtle, fine
When we master breath, we master life itself. This is the belief of the yogis, and tested throughout millennia are the practices presented to us known as pranayama. While asana reduces rajas or restlessness and agitation, pranayama helps to eradicate the tamasic or dull, heavy, delusional qualities of the mind to bring it back to its original inner radiance (sattva). Patanjali highlights 9 parameters for mastery over the pranic force:
1. Exhalation – T. Krishnamacharya said that there is nothing one cannot achieve if one has complete mastery over the exhalation (rechaka). And this is the starting place for us as Patanjali advises. We must first master a slow, long, deep and subtle exhalation, removing all pauses and jerkiness in the breath. That is why all yoga practices begin with learning diaphragmatic breathing, rather than chest breathing, which ensures proper relaxation of the parasympathetic nervous system, as well as the ability to gain a deeper understanding of our mind states. By having a complete and deep exhalation, we empty the stale air from the lungs and increase our capacity for the inhalation as well. Exhalations then become like a tel dhara, or an unbroken stream of oil. One of the best ways to expand our exhalation capacity is to use sound or omkara (chanting the mantra OM)
2. Inhalation – Next, once exhalations have been mastered, Patanjali advises to begin to master our capacity for longer, deeper inhalations (puraka). Inhalations are taken into the body as though one is drinking water from a lily stem – a smooth, unbroken, cool, refreshing stream of prana. Shitali pranayama can be an excellent way to begin to learn to draw the breath in a gracious manner. Like the exhalations, this stream can be trained to remove any jerks or pauses
3. Breath Retention – Breath retention or kumbhaka begins to enter the realm of more advanced pranayama practices – ones that are entirely necessary to be successful in entering the deeper layers of not only the internal organs, but also the subtle pranic body (pranamaya kosha). After mastering the exhalation, then the inhalation, the practitioner (yogabhyasi) begins to work on retaining the breath after inhalation for a pause (antara kumbhaka), felt more in the upper chest region. Eventually, one can practice sama vritti – or the same count for exhale:inhale:retention for at least a count of 5:5:5. When one has really mastered the retention after the inhale, one can go to the more difficult task of mastering retention after the exhale (bahya kumbhaka). This is done through a deepened understanding of the bandhas (locks or bridges) located at the perineum (mula), abdomen (uddiyana), and chin (jalandhara). Bahya kumbhaka and the bandhas should be first learned under the guidance of a teacher.
4. Place (Desha) – Important in pranayama practice is beginning to understand where to control the breath in the body. Different practices have different locations: for example, alternate nostril breathing is focused at the nostrils, ujjayi at the throat, sheetali at tongue, bhastrika at the abdomen, and others up and down the spine etc. Understanding the place of origin in the pranayama will help to train the focus of the mind to that particular spot.
5. Time (Kala) – The length of the exhalation, inhalation, and transition are also consciously regulated. The duration of time is a crucial part of establishing ratios of breathing to control the breath. The inhales and exhales can be even (1:1), or one can begin to double the length of the exhalation to the inhalation (2:1). Ease in these extended ratios begins to prepare the mind for meditation, transcending the more gross breath, and establishing more subtle depths in concentration.
6. Count (Sankhya) – The count, or the number of times one does the pranayama, whether simply counting the inhales and exhales together in diaphragmatic breathing, or counting rounds of alternate nostril breathing, are gradually increased as one becomes more comfortable and proficient. If the practitioner is able to maintain a smooth and deep breath throughout the counts, then one can gradual increase the number of times. To begin with, 3 rounds is recommended for any pranayama to gain familiarity.
7. Complete Focus (Paridrishtah) – Eventually, as one begins to practice pranayama and attention to breath more frequently, we learn how to concentrate the mind completely on the touch of prana itself. This concentration at the place of prana is known as prana sthana, and begins to bring the practitioner into deeper understanding that physical breathing and prana are innately intertwined, but not the same thing. The most powerful prana sthana is the center of the heart. Once we accumulate prana through the practice, we can then direct the prana to the heart center, or to any other place in the body that may need healing.
8. Long (Dirgha) – We all know and practice in the very beginning the lengthening and smoothing out of the breath. This long and uniform quality of the breath will become our greatest friend in observing the mind fluctuations and regulating the nervous system.
9. Smooth/Subtle (Sukshma) – Eventually, when we find the that breath is truly subtle, quiet and deep within, the rough waves of the mind begin to quiet down. Mind and breath are so deeply interrelated, you cannot separate one from the other. Whatever is happening in the mind, manifests in the breath. By learning to establish the subtle breath, the mind becomes a fit vehicle to enter deeper and longer states of concentration (dharana) and eventually meditation (dhyana).
If we practice systematically in the way that Patanjali prescribes, there is no doubt that we can gain access to the endless stream of wisdom within. Never lose sight of the power of your own breath – the breath of life, the gods, and the universe itself exists within you. Hari Om.