Blissful Breath


By Leslie Peters  |  

You’ve probably heard that the word "yoga" comes from the Sanskrit root yuj, which means to yoke or unite. And that the ultimate goal of yoga is liberation, also known as samadhi,through the union of the individual self with the universal soul. But just how do we unite what we perceive as a small individual self with something as vast, invisible, and ineffable as the universal soul?

An ancient yoga textbook, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, offers this simple answer: "Breath is the key to ultimate emancipation." The Upanishads, the Hindu sacred scriptures, likewise equate prana, in the form of breath, with the universal soul. When it is done properly and when a yoga practitioner is ready, pranayama, the yogic practice of regulating and channeling one’s breath, can provide a bridge between the individual self and the universal soul.

B.K.S. Iyengar explains how the three stages of the breath in pranayama—inhalation (puraka), retention (antara kumbhaka), and exhalation (rechaka)—can connect us to the universal soul. During our inhalation, we are inviting prana to come in. According to Iyengar, the individual self must then move out of the way in order to make room for the soul. Iyengar believes that through this process, we are able to generate energy, expansion, and awareness within.

Iyengar tells us to think of the contact of the breath against the inner lung as the connection between universal soul and individual self. When we consciously stop the flow of breath (retention), we organize the mind’s thoughts and the body’s experience. The length of the retention varies. It should last just until the content (prana) begins to move away from the container (the lung). We must keep the mind connected to the experience of the body to know when it’s time to exhale.

The Breath/Brain Bond

It is our goal to know at exactly what second the soul and the self begin to release away from each other. That is exactly when the exhalation should begin. Developing the ability to feel something as subtle as when the universal soul and the individual self begin to separate in the course of a breath takes regular practice and is what pranayama is all about.

Iyengar believes that in normal breathing, the brain initiates the action of inhalation and draws energy to itself. This keeps the brain in a state of tension. When the brain is tense, the breath is constricted. But in pranayama, the brain remains passive, and the lungs, bones, and muscles of the torso initiate the inhalation. Rather than suck in air, the lungs, diaphragm, ribs, and abdomen receive the breath. In describing the practice, Iyengar says that the breath must "be enticed or cajoled, like catching a horse in a field, not by chasing after it, but by standing still with an apple in one’s hand. Nothing can be forced; receptivity is everything." We are to do pranayama with our intelligence, as opposed to our brains, Iyengar says.

By practicing pranayama and regulating the flow of prana with measured observation and distribution of the breath, the mind becomes still. When this happens, we can allow the energy we normally spend engaging with and processing the world to bend inward.

According to Iyengar, asana practice makes the body fit for pranayama, and pranayama practice makes the mind fit for meditation. In order for us to reach the ultimate union of our individual self with the universal soul, we must first experience dhyana, or true meditation.

Iyengar insists that true meditation cannot be done if the practitioner "is under stress, has a weak body, weak lungs, hard muscles, collapsed spine, fluctuating mind, mental agitation, or timidity." Furthermore, he says that sitting quietly is not considered true meditation, nor does he recognize meditation as a stress reliever. He believes that the practitioner should already have achieved a stressless state in the body and brain before meditation can occur. When performed correctly and without strain, pranayama cools and rests the brain and floods the body with vital energy. It relieves stress and, therefore, prepares us for true meditation.

A Word to the Wise

Patanjali wrote in the Yoga Sutra that moving from asana to pranayama is a big step. He warned that we must build enough strength and stability in the body and nervous system through our asana practice first, in order to withstand the increase in energy flow that pranayama generates. Pranayama is an advanced practice. It was only after many years of asana practice that Iyengar says he slowly began to build a pranayama practice. It took him many more years and great effort to sustain it. He didn’t have the guidance of a teacher and made all the mistakes that Patanjali warned against. Because making these mistakes can be quite harmful, Iyengar advises that if you want to practice pranayama, you should do so only if you have a teacher with whom to work.

Iyengar also cautions that if at any time during the practice of pranayama you experience pain in the head or tension in your temples, it means that you are initiating the breath from your brain, not your lungs. If this happens, return to normal breathing and relax.

Supine Pranayama

In the ancient yogic texts, the practice of pranayama was always taught in a seated position. However, Iyengar noticed that maintaining the correct seated posture required so much effort for many students that they were not able to practice the various breathing exercises without great strain. He decided that allowing practitioners to lie down in a variation of Savasana, in which the spine and chest are supported, created enough relaxation so that the breathwork could be done safely. He recommends that students lie down if they are new to the practice or are ill or fatigued.

The drawback to lying down is that the breath is constricted because the back lungs press against the support. Longtime practitioners prefer to sit because the entire torso is free to move— in front, in back, and on the sides. In Light on Pranayama, Iyengar says the practitioner needs two essential things: a stable spine and a still, but alert, mind. Both of these are built up with a strong asana practice. Given the hazards of forcing a pranayama practice, it’s best to build your practice slowly and with care.

When lying down for pranayama, use blankets to support the spine and head. When the props are positioned correctly, the chest opens and relaxation results. When positioned incorrectly, the lower back and neck harden. Lie so that the buttocks rest on the floor and the blankets support the sacral and lumbar regions of the back. Your height and level of flexibility will dictate the distance between your buttocks and the end of the bottom blanket as well as between the bottom edges of the two blankets. The end of the top blanket will be between three-fourths of an inch and an inch and a half from the edge of the bottom blanket. If your head tips back when you lie down, put a block under it with a blanket on top. The skin of the forehead should flow toward the eyebrows.

Pranayama begins with observation. As you lie there, relax your entire body and begin to observe your breath. After several minutes, you will notice that your breath has become slower and slightly deeper, because you have relaxed. As you breathe normally, notice where you feel the breath in your body. Does your abdomen move with each breath? Do you feel your ribs move when you inhale and exhale? At the end of a normal exhalation, pause for a second or two before taking your next inhalation. It should be soft and smooth. If you feel tense, or are gasping for air, your pause was too long. Add a slight retention at the end of the exhalation several times. Then try taking a slightly deeper inhalation. To initiate the breath, move your ribs outward to the side. Instead of forcing the breath in, move the ribs to allow it in. When you have taken that slightly deeper breath, pause for a second before you slowly and smoothly exhale.

If you feel tension anywhere in the body, or if you find yourself gasping for air, you have done too much and have been too aggressive. If you feel relaxed and calm in your body, especially in your head, practice the complete cycle: a short pause at the end of an exhalation; then a slow, relaxed inhalation initiated by the rib cage moving outward; a slight pause at the end of the inhalation; then a slow, complete exhalation followed by a short pause. All of this should be done without any tension in the body. If you feel tense or nervous at any time, simply return to normal breathing, observe your breath, and relax. Practice this pranayama as long as you can stay focused and relaxed. Start slowly and build up your practice over time.

Seated Pranayama

Sitting properly takes a great deal of effort and strength. In order to do pranayama in a seated position without strain, the body must be quite supple and strong. A steady asana practice will build the necessary strength and flexibility to sit correctly. When you’re learning to do seated pranayama, it is essential that you feel stable in the posture before adding the breath. If you cannot take a deeper inhalation without strain while seated, just practice sitting without adding the breath. You can continue to learn the breath while lying down. When the seated posture is correct, the breath will come. Don’t force it.

Sit in a simple cross-legged position. Use enough blankets under your hips so that your knees are parallel to or below your hips, not above them. In an attempt to lift the spine, many of us harden the lumbar spine and draw it inward, which moves us to the front of our sitting bones. To sit correctly, center yourself on the points of the sitting bones and draw the front spine and side chest up without creating hardness in the low back. Release the back of the neck and move the head down.

When you practice pranayama in a seated position, you must move the head down to create Jalandhara Bandha. A lifted head brings pressure to the heart, brain, eyes, and ears.

Post-Pranayama Savasana, variation

After practicing pranayama of any kind, it is important to end with Savasana in order to soothe the nerves and erase any tension that you may have inadvertently created during the practice. Also, after pranayama, you should wait at least 30 minutes before practicing asanas. It is too jarring to the nervous system to go immediately from the quiet, calming practice of pranayama to the more active, physically demanding practice of asana. Allow for a gentle transition between your pranayama and any activity you choose to engage in following the practice.

To set yourself up properly place one thin, folded blanket on the floor. Lie over it so that the blanket is perpendicular to the spine and below the base of the shoulder blades. Place another folded blanket under the head. Allow the shoulders to rest on the floor. This support creates a gentle lift for the sternum, which is soothing to the nerves.