Why breath-regulation (Prāṇāyāma) for a naturally healthy body and serene mind. An insight into the universal theoretical framework of this ancient Indian discipline, which lies in your own direct experience, and which you cannot deny.
A poem by William Wordsworth begins,
A simple Child, That lightly draws its breath, And feels its life in every limb…
A simple child, as we all know, draws its breath lightly because its mind is very less burdened, uncomplicated and joyous; the child feels its life in every limb because life flows through its limbs without impediments.
The life-force that we generate by drawing in breath is called prāṇa in the ancient language of India, Sanskrit. There are several observations about the nature and activity of prāṇa in Indian systems of thought which lie in our own direct experience and hence cannot be denied. Let us explore and learn to recognise them, and thereby see how we can turn them to our advantage.
Prāṇa, mind and emotions are intertwined
According to most schools of Indian philosophy, prāṇa is inseparable from the mind (manas), and both originate from a common source - simultaneously. We need not delve into metaphysics to ascertain this; this fact stands evidenced by our own experience if we are cognisant enough, and it is so palpable and universal that every major language has many phrases that that link mind and emotions with breath.
We ‘gasp’ when we are awed; we wait with ‘bated breath’; we ‘sigh’ with relief; we ‘sob’ as we weep; we ‘roar’ with laughter; we ‘choke’ on our words; we ‘cry’ in pain; we ‘breathe’ easy; fear or beauty takes our ‘breath away’; we ‘catch our breath’ when tired; we take a ‘deep breath’ to gather courage; we ‘hiss’ in secrecy; we curse under our ‘breath’; we ‘scream’ in terror or excitement; the list can go on.
The basic observation here is that the mind, characterised by emotions, is invariably interlaced with variations in breathing.
Emotions and physical exertions disturb the natural balance of prāṇa
This, too, lies in our own experience, if we are vigilant enough about our breathing patterns under various circumstances. In deep sleep, for instance, when the mind is suspended, breathing is extremely deep, slow, balanced and rhythmic, which is why we later wake-up cheerful and invigorated with increased levels of prāṇa. Conversely, when tired, excited or enraged, we breathe heavily.
Mind and the breathing rhythm, undisturbed, subsist in a natural state of balance until any emotion or physical exertion, be they positive or negative, disturb that balance. The resultant of this imbalance is a variation in the natural breathing rhythm and the consequent expending of energy, or vigor, or life-force - termed prāṇa - from the body. The resultant also is that there is an increased neural activity, faster heart rate, increased hormonal activity, increased secretion of digestive juices, faster metabolism, et al.
The obverse is true, and it can be engineered
Ancient Indians observed and reasoned that if physical exertion and excited minds are characterised by heavier, quicker breathing, the obverse must also be true: controlled, regulated breathing should result in a calmer and serene mind, and a vigorous, healthy body that conserves the quantum of prāṇa that otherwise gets expended. Tangentially, we may also take cue from contemporary observations that the animals that expend less energy live longer. In fact, we are not new to this either. We do the reversal intuitively, and often. We do take a deep breath to gather ourselves, don’t we? The system of Yoga formalises and codifies what is intuitive into techniques with more precision, and to achieve specific and desired results.
Such a regulation, control, definitive design or framework is called āyāma in Sanskrit, which, when applied to prāṇa, gets termed, prāṇāyāma. This prāṇāyāma is a breathing discipline, having several variants, which forms the fourth stage of the eight-staged system of Yoga (Aṣṭāṃgayoga) developed by the venerated Indian philosopher, sage, and yogi, Patañjali. The three stages that precede prāṇāyāma are, the universal and personal disciplines (yama and niyama) one has to imbibe, followed by the ability to hold one’s body for a reasonable length of time in a firm but comfortable posture (āsana) that doesn’t disturb or agitate the mind (Patañjali’s Yogasūtra-s, Ch 2, 48).
While Patañjali has only codified the system of prāṇāyāma and its broad philosophical framework in the form of short aphorisms (sūtra-s), the actual techniques are delineated in later works – chiefly, the Haṭhayogapradīpikā. It is to be remembered that breath in itself is not prāṇa; however, getting a hold on prāṇa, which is the vitality that sustains life in us according to Yoga, can be accomplished through regulation of breath.
The ‘natural triad’, their regulation, and naturalising the ‘fourth’
Breathing, as we know, can only be: (a) internal (inhalation) (b) external (exhalation) and (c) a very short span of interval between them; these three repeat in cycles as long as we live, and they inevitably vary with emotions. In prāṇāyāma, these three natural processes are regulated to become elaborate and subtle by subjecting them to place (in the body), duration and number of breaths (Patañjali’s Yogasūtra-s, Ch 2, 49, 50).
However, Patañjali says, there is a fourth prāṇāyāma which, in stages, transcends this triad by observing the body centres from which they originate (Patañjali’s Yogasūtra-s, Ch 2, 51). The necessary metaphysical grounds for the practical philosophy of Yoga is drawn from its sister philosophical system of Sāṅkhya, according to which, prāṇa is an infinitely expansive web - a continuum - that pervades and sustains the entire universe. Through diligent practice of the fourth prāṇāyāma, the prāṇa within coalesces seamlessly and effortlessly with this universal Prāṇa. The result is a state of supreme tranquil, where the mind is in an inexplicable bliss that is unaffected. Despite transcending the natural triad, the supply and flow of life-sustaining prāṇa remains unimpeded. This can actually be experienced and brought into control.
Patañjali says that with the sustained practice of prāṇāyāma, the veil that covers the light of wisdom within the mind gets thinned (Patañjali’s Yogasūtra-s, Ch 2, 52). Regulation of prāṇa is regulation of mind, its impulses, stress, strain and imbalance. However, these techniques are not limited only to the regulation of the breath, but also extend to its observation. A qualified teacher of prāṇāyāmatrains us to be vigilant of the flow of life breath. Our minds, for too long, have been attuned only to the external world. As we advance in prāṇāyāma, we can ‘see’ the subtle flow of prāṇa in our body. We realise that the internal is more beautiful and expansive than the external.
With a calm and regulated mind, our emotional reactions to all that impinges on our psyche from the external world are rendered more calm, mindful and balanced. We stop succumbing to emotions and mood swings; rather, disciplined by the prolonged practice of prāṇāyāma, we gradually learn to objectify and master them, thereby rendering our intellects more discerning and gainful. Our relationships with others, especially as regards speech, are made more amicable, compassionate, empathetic and loving. Prāṇāyāma is a very effective technique to remain fortified from negative emotions of anger, impatience, sloth, inadvertence, and such. It needs to be asserted here that prāṇāyāma can be very helpful in coming out of addictions. As an agent of the enhanced power of concentration, it is no doubt a growth booster.
With a peaceful and healthy mind, cheer, calmer nerves, relaxed muscles and less expending of energy, the body, naturally, remains healthier with increased longevity.
The actual utility of prāṇāyāma, however, is beyond these benefits. Such a healthy mind-body is only a perfected tool for contemplating on something higher (Patañjali’s Yogasūtra-s, Ch 2, 53).
Perfection of prāṇāyāma qualifies the mind for the succeeding four stages of Yoga. According to the metaphysics of Sāṅkhya-Yoga, the universe is an admixture of Purusha (the sentient principle) and Prakriti (the insentient principle that reflects Purusha’s sentience and evolves into the material universe). To be unshackled from the bounds of Prakriti and merging with the Purusha is the final goal, called Kaivalaya. This is the goal of all schools of Indian philosophy.
It is very recommendable to find a qualified prāṇāyāma teacher and get trained in this ancient life-giving discipline. Breathe easy.