BKS Iyengar, the legendary yoga master, in his 93rd year in Pune India, describes prana as the breath of life of all beings in the Universe. We are all born into prana and when we die our individual breath merges with the cosmic breath. But how is one able to approach the invisible and mysterious universal soul? What can we know of liberation in the practice of pranayama?
The ancient texts of yoga, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, says simply, “Breath is the key to ultimate emancipation.” When done properly and when the body is well prepared, the yoga practitioner can practice working with the breath to experience the merging of individual self with the universal soul and know silence within.
BKS Iyengar states that the three stages of breath in pranayama — inhalation, retention and exhalation — are the means by which we can abide in stillness in both body and mind and merge with the great mystery. During inhalation we invite prana into the house, he says. And when prana enters, the individual self moves out of the way for the soul. We generate energy, expansion and awareness within.
Mr. Iyengar believes that in normal breathing the brain is drawing energy to itself. The energy causes tension in the brain and thus the breath is constricted. However during the practice of pranayama the brain relaxes and is kept in a passive, receptive state. Then the physical body initiates active breathing. Rather than sucking in air, or grasping for prana, the body receives the breath as one does a respected guest. BKS Iyengar says we must cajole the breath as one would a skittish animal. Nothing can be forced; receptivity is everything. Do pranayama with the intelligence of the heart — not the brain.
Beginning pranayama is a big step. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Pada Two – Saddhana Pada 49 to 53 state that we must build strength in the body and stability in the nervous system through yoga asanas (poses) before attempting pranayama. He also cautions that if one should feel tension in the head or around the temples, one must revert to normal breathing since you are initiating the breath from your brain and working aggressively.
To begin pranayama:
Take a supine position, lying on the floor with a bolster spine-wise. If you do not have a bolster you can create support by rolling a firm wool or cotton blanket into a cylindrical shape and securing it with string at both ends. You will also need a cushion for the base of the skull and neck so that the forehead skin moves from the hair line downward to the chest. When the props are placed correctly the chest opens and relaxation comes. Be sure that the buttocks are well lengthened from the edge of the bolster and you have placed the back floating ribs on the bolster. See that the skull and neck are supported by the blanket you have cushioned the head with. Release the arms from the side body so that the armpits are open and receptive. Give yourself time to settle into the pose after you make all the small adjustments the body calls for. Let the eyes look downward as if under the bones of the face into the chest.
Pranayama begins with observation of the breath. After a while you will notice that the breath becomes slower and slightly deeper. Notice if the abdomen rises with the breath — if the ribs move and any other markers of breath in the body. Observe the quality, texture and duration of both the inhalation and exhalation. Listen for the sounds that the in and out breath make.
Now, after a long slow smooth exhalation, if a pause comes just let it be there. If you gasp for the next inhalation, your pause was too long. To initiate the inhalation, spread the ribs and the breath diaphragm out to the sides of the rib cage. Let the lower abdomen be absolutely quiet and uninvolved with the breath.
If you feel yourself gasping for air or tension arises in the jaw, throat or temples, it means you are working too aggressively and you must stop and revert to normal breathing until the tension abates.
If you feel relaxed and calm in your body and most especially in your head, continue: a short pause after the exhalation followed by a gentle spread of the ribs and breath diaphragm to entice the next full soft inhalation. Start slowly with 5 -10 minutes including the time spent settling on your bolster and head support. When you conclude your pranayama session, come slowly and gently to a seated position, keeping the eyes soft and the brain quiet. In that way you do not jar your nervous system and you do retain the benefits of this peaceful and powerful practice.
Kelly Murphy is owner of a yoga studio in Nanaimo.