American yoga students have been fascinated with asana, the physical “postures” taught in American yoga classes for the last fifty years. Yet asana has never, in the long history of yoga in the East, been the primary focus of any school’s practice. Certainly we can’t deny its importance in at least two influential schools—Patanjali’s Classical Yoga and Hatha Yoga—but even in these schools, asana is nothing more than a preliminary to breathing practices called pranayama. Asana is not an end in itself.
If asana is the flashy favorite child that gets all our attention in the States, pranayama is the drab sibling we nearly ignored. The average American student is blissfully unaware of the central role that pranayama plays in the yogic process.
The Sanskrit word prana is often rendered into English as “breath,” and indeed the word literally means “breathing forth.” But actually the breath is only one manifestation of prana, which is the subtle life energy that pervades all of creation. According to the fourteenth-century sage Svatmarama Yogindra, author of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, prana and consciousness—citta—are two sides of the same coin. “When the prana moves,” he writes, “citta moves. When prana is without movement, citta is without movement.” Generally, breath is an indirect though palpable means of contacting and, to a certain extent, influencing prana and consciousness.
Of course the reciprocal relationship between breathing and consciousness is widely accepted, even by people who aren’t spiritually inclined. We’ve all taken a few deep breaths to quiet an agitated mind or stimulate a dull one. But the yogis, being great investigators and experimenters, took this commonplace connection and extended it into the spiritual realm.
Although pranayama is usually thought of as a single practice, there are actually two distinct models. The senior of the two is the fourth stage, or “limb,” of Patanjali’s eight-limbed Classical Yoga, outlined in his Yoga Sutra. To understand the how and why of classical pranayama in the context of the Classical Yoga school requires some background.
In the classical view, everyday human consciousness is a constantly fluctuating material operation. Because of a serious spiritual blind spot, we mistakenly identify ourselves with the contents of this consciousness—our thoughts, memories, dreams and whatnot—and imagine that we are circumscribed individuals, separate from all the other individuals around us and the world at large. Not surprisingly this leads to all sorts of problems, the most painful of which is unremitting existential alienation and sorrow. The question that Patanjali asks, as do all schools of yoga, is, How can I be truly happy?
Obviously there’s a misconception here that needs to be straightened out. We aren’t, as Patanjali informs us, this insulated and sorrowful consciousness, but rather an “eternal, pure, joyful” Self, called purusha. What we need to do is shift our identity away from citta and latch it onto purusha. Once we realize our authentic nature, our everlasting happiness is assured, since all sorrow—as well as our bondage to the wheel of death and rebirth—will end.
This is easier said than done. Classical Yoga is a severely ascetic practice in which we gradually surrender, through a progressively intensifying series of meditations, our attachment to the world, including the world of everyday consciousness.
In order to wean ourselves away from our false identification with citta, all of its fluctuations—both conscious and unconscious—have to be “restricted.” But we can’t start working on citta right off the bat because it’s too elusive; instead we have to approach it slowly, by paring away the more grossly material aspects of the self—the body, breath and senses.
As I’ve noted, American yoga students are well acquainted with the wildly imaginative yoga asanas that mimic dogs and lions and trees, or that honor various saints and sages. These positions, though, are for the most part a product of a much later time; for Patanjali, asana is nothing more than a steady “seat” (the literal meaning of the word asana) that restricts the practitioner’s physical fluctuations, and allows her to sit quietly for meditation.
But no matter how quietly we’re sitting, as long as we’re still breathing we’re still “fluctuating”; after all, when we inhale, our torso expands, when we exhale, it contracts. So once the body is restricted, the next fluctuation that needs our attention is that of breathing. Consequently, classical pranayama is defined as the “cutting-off of the flow of inhalation and exhalation.”
Classical pranayama begins with the careful regulation of the breathing cycle, which consists of three phases—inhale, exhale and a natural pause. These phases are regulated by routing the inhales and exhales to certain areas of the body (such as the heart or lower belly), by lengthening and adjusting the time of the breaths and the intervening pauses, and by counting the number of cycles in one session. The natural pauses are purposefully extended by small increments, until the practitioner can sit and restrict the breath for a good while, subsisting on the accumulated store of prana in the body. Ultimately, as the practice of classical pranayama is perfected and the meditation gets more subtle, the practitioner’s breath halts spontaneously.
Such unpremeditated “cutting-off” of the breath happens occasionally to everyone, particularly during those times when we become so concentrated on, or enamored of, an object of attention, that we stop, or almost stop, breathing. When this state arises in Classical Yoga, it’s called the “Fourth” (after the three phases of inhale, exhale and pause). At the culmination of the practice, the “covering of the inner light disappears,” the so-called “higher mind” shines forth and the practitioner acquires the “fitness of mind for concentration” and meditation.
This rather stark classical vision will not win over the hearts and minds of most modern-day yoga students. The classical practitioner in effect transcends the human condition by becoming decidedly un-human-like, sitting stock-still, hardly breathing or not breathing at all, with the five senses withdrawn from the world. The perceptible world, a constant source of new fluctuations, is completely screened off, and the practitioner can devote her meditative energies entirely to the contents of her own consciousness. It is in this way that the transformation of the Self from the mundane to the divine takes place.
Originally published in Lion's Roar magazine, as part of "Breathing Lessons," in which Richard Rosen, Larry Rosenberg, Edward Espe Brown, and Gaylon Ferguson compare breath practices in yoga and three schools of Buddhism—Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism.
Richard Rosen is a contributing editor at Yoga Journal magazine and the author of The Yoga of Breath.