Pranayama

The following is the extract of the talk given by Dr. Mala Singh at the India Habitat Center at the invitation of the foundation for the Universal Responsibility of H.H the Dalai Lama on 13th and 24th May 2004 

According to Patanjali’s “Raja Yoga” (which is called Ashtanga Yoga also), compiled in “Yoga Sutra” the textbook of classical yoga deals with eight steps of yoga practice. These can be conveniently considered under three heads: 

Yoga Ethics or way of life i.e. Yoga Carya.

a. Yama – abstentions like non-injury, non-falsehood, non-stealing etc. to promote external ecology.

b. Niyama – cultivation of purity, positive attitudes, self-study r=etc. to promote internal ecology

Yoga practices i.e. Bahiranga Yoga,

a. Asanas- adoption of body postures

b. Niyama –cultivation of purity, positive attitudes, self-study, etc. to promote internal ecology

c. Pratyahara- practices of relaxation through withdrawal of the senses from without

Internal yoga practices i.e. Antaranga Yoga

a. Dharana- concentration of thought force on an object

b. Dhyana– uni-directional flow of thought force to the object

c. Samadhi- unitive experience devoid of subject-object duality

In the above referred classification, the first two sections can and have come under the preview of modern scientific study and research, but the third section has spiritual connotations, which are not easy to grasp and communicate intellectually.

Pranayama should be attempted after purifying the mind and the body through the practice of yamas, niyamas and asanas. The importance of asanas cannot be overruled as asanas clean up the body, strengthen the nervous system by giving massage to the spine in different poses at different places. When one starts concentration on physical level with combination of breathing then his mind is one with body otherwise it becomes mechanical exercise where body goes in one direction and mind goes in other. 

Asanas and Pranayama are interrelated and interwoven. Performing an asana helps to generate and create energy, which is used in rejuvenating the body including the nervous system by giving massage to spine from different angles. While practicing an asana, one must focus on the inner body, drawing the mind inward to; sharpen the intelligence, then the asana becomes effortless as the blemishes on both the gross and the subtle body are washed off.

“AthaasanedridheyogeevasheehitmamitaashanahaGuroopadishtamaargenapraanaayaamaansambhyset.”  (Thus being established in asanas and having control (of the body), taking a balanced diet; pranayama should be practiced according to the instructions of the guru.) -Hatha Yoga Pradipika, 2:1 

Patanjali clearly specifies that pranayama should be attempted only after the asanas are mastered (Yoga Sutra-49). Pranayama is comprised of two roots: ‘prana’ (vital energy) and Aayama’ (stretch, expansion and extension). ‘Vital energy’ or ‘Prana’ is the ‘force’, which exists in all things, whether animate or inanimate. Although closely related to the air we breath, it is subtler than air or oxygen. Therefore pranayama should not be considered as mere breathing exercises or deep breathing. Deep breathing tenses the facial muscles, tighten the chest, makes the skull and scalp rigid and applies the external force to the intake or release of the breath. In pranayama, the cells of the brain and the facial muscles remain soft and receptive and breath is drawn in and release gently. During inhalation, each cell of the body is independently felt by the mind, and is allowed to receive and absorb the prana. There is no sudden movement and one becomes aware of the gradual expansion of the respiratory organs and feels the breath reaching the remotest parts of the lungs. In exhalation, the release of breath is gradual and this gives the air cells sufficient time to re-absorb the residual prana to the maximum possible extent. Pranayama utilizes breathing to influence the flow of prana in the nadis or energy channels of the pranamayakosha or energy body, thus it can be described as the expansion and extension of energy or ‘Life Force’. The technique of pranayama provide the method whereby the “Life Force” can be activated and regulated in order to go beyond one’s normal boundaries or limitations and attain a higher state of vibratory energy. 

Pranayama begins with simple movement of breathing leading us deeper and deeper into ourselves by teaching us to observe the very act of respiration. Patanjali states about pranayama in Yoga Sutra-50 as,

“The breath may be stopped externally, or internally, or checked in mid-motion, and regulated according to place, time and a fixed number of moments, so that the stoppage is either protracted or brief.”

The four important aspects of Pranayam are:

a- pooraka or prolonged inhalation,
b- rechaka or prolonged exhalation,
c- antarkumbhaka or internal breath retention,
d- bahirkumbhaka or external breath retention. 


The most important part of prayama is actually kumbhaka or breath retention. There must be gradual development of breath control over the function of respiration for performing kumbhaka successfully. Therefore, in the pranayama practices more emphasis is given to inhalation and exhalation at the beginning, in order to strengthen the lungs and balanced the nervous and pranic systems in preparation for the practice of kumbhaka. These practices influence the flow of the prana in the nadis, purifying, regulating and activating them, thereby inducing physical and mental stability. Once the mind has been stilled and prana flows freely in the nadis and charkas, the doorway to the evolution of consciousness opens, leading the aspirant into higher dimensions of realizing the“self” Pranayama is also the bridge between the physiological and spiritual aspect of human being. Once the external movements are controlled, there is internal silence and there is no thought as the mind has been dissolved in the “self”. One can experience the elated state of oneness with the “self” through the practice of pranayama. This is a complex process composed of all these. It has to be practiced with the greatest sincerity and precision. One cannot achieve pranayama just because One wants to instead One has to be READY for it. 

The Aatmadrashan yoga tradition the sessions are designed in a wholistic approach by combining Yogic Breathing, Kapalbhati, Anuloma-Viloma (without retention) graduating to higher practice of pranayama followed by some yoga stretches, relaxation and meditation in a comfortable rhythmic flow to stimulate the ‘pranicshakti’ and balance the entire body, mind and spirit. This is the Aatmadarshan Yoga tradition, which believes in practicing asanas, pranayama and meditation all together to recognize one’s inner self. Let us traverse this path of self-discovery, in tune with the motto of Aatamdarshan Yoga “KNOW THYSELF”