From Pranayama to Meditation
When Patanjali laid out the formula for Yoga in the Sutras, he placed Pranayama immediately prior to the inward-focusing practices leading to meditation. The ancient Yogis, developing their craft, understood that mastery over their breath led to mastery over their mind. But to make that leap from pranayama to meditation, we need to understand what is really meant by the term pranayama.
What is the real Pranayama?
The term pranayama has come to be used as the all-encompassing name given to any yogic breathing practice, whether it is the full yogic breath, nadi sodhana, kapalabhati etc. However, according to the traditional texts, the true practice of pranayama only takes places when we are using ‘kumbhakas‘, or breath retention:-
II:49 tasmin sati shvasa prashvsayoh gati vichchhedah pranayamah
Pranayama is the regulation of the incoming and outgoing flow of breath with retention.
II:50 bahya abhyantara stambha vrittih desha kala sankhyabhih paridrishtah dirgha sukshmah
Pranayama has 3 movements: prolonged and fine inhalation, exhalation and retention, all regulated with precision according to duration and place.
(Translation from BKS Iyengar “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”)
Swami Muktibodhananda Saraswati, in his commentary on the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, states “Patanjali defines pranayama as the gap between inhalation and exhalation. Pranayama is usually considered to be the practice of controlled inhalation and exhalation, combined with retention. However, technically speaking, it is only retention. Inhalation/exhalation are methods of inducing retention“. (Page 135)
This is an important distinction to make, as it is kumbhaka, the spaces between the breaths, forged gently over time, that bring the mind into a state of stillness, and help us to move towards meditation, towards mindful bliss, towards samadhi.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika explains beautifully how this process works:-
“When Prana moves, chitta (the mental force) moves. When Prana is without movement, chitta is without movement. By this steadiness of Prana the yogi attains steadiness and should thus restrain the vayu (air)”.
Hatha Yoga Pradipika Chapter 2 Verse 2
In his commentary, Swami Muktibodhananda Saraswati goes on to explain that “Prana and mind are intricately linked. Fluctuation of one means fluctuation of the other. When either the mind or prana becomes balanced, the other is steadied. When you retain the breath, you are stopping nervous impulses and harmonising the brain wave patterns. The longer the breath is held, the greater the gap is between nervous impulses and their responses in the brain. When retention is held for a prolonged period, mental agitation is curtailed.” Page 134
The spaces that we develop between the inhale and the exhale, and between the exhale and the inhale, create a state of spaciousness for the mind, where no thinking (or very little thinking) takes place. As we slow down our breath, we slow down our mind.
Working with Pranayama, particularly with kumbhaka, or breath retentions, is the perfect practice for anyone who struggles with meditation, or concentration. It’s a halfway point between asana and dhyana. Working with ratios (the usual framework for introducing breath retentions), gives a focus, a direction. Something to anchor the wayward, busy mind. It’s an easier path to meditation for those who are not able to sit for a formal meditation practice.
“When the breath stops completely, or when there is an almost limitless extension of kumbhaka, the state of dhyana or samadhi can occur”.
Swami Niranjanananda, ‘Prana, Pranayama, Prana Vidya’ (pg 144)
But kumbhaka practice shouldn’t be taken lightly. Remember that we are not just holding our breath, but retaining prana. The subtle body needs to be primed and prepared to withstand this increase of pranic energy. It takes time to prepare the body, the lungs, and the nadis. If we rush into a kumbhaka practice, without building up to it slowly and steadily, we are likely to increase, not decrease, any mental agitation. Just in the same way that we would work through weeks and months of physical preparation to be able to practice a headstand for the first time, we need to take the same consideration when working with kumbhaka.
It takes time. It takes patience. It takes persistent, regular practice. And it needs a good teacher to guide you on your way……..
Julie Hemmings is running CPD Teacher Training Days on Integrating Pranayama into every aspect of Yoga Teaching, and will also be running a Pranayama Training Module later in the year.