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Practice Pranayama: The Art of Inhalation and Exhalation

By B.K.S. Iyengar

We are all born as composites of nature (prakriti), the elemental aspect of our being; energy (vishva chaitanya shakti), commonly called prana, and absolute consciousness (prajna). Together, matter, energy and absolute consciousness create action and stability, motion and mobility, understanding and creativity.

The prime driving force of our existence is the vishva chaitanya shakti, a cosmic energy that exists in everything. It acts as a hidden force within us that simultaneously engulfs everything outside us. Ancient yogis understood the essence of prana, studied it and devised methods and practices to master it. These practices are called pranayama.

'Pranayama' is a compound word comprising 'prana' and 'yama'. It also means maintenance of prana in a healthy state at all ages and in all circumstances.

Prana makes the body function, creating potency and power. It acts as a bridge connecting matter and consciousness, helping prajna to discover prakriti (nature) and chitta (soul). It uncovers the veil (ahamkara) between prakriti and purusha (man), so that matter (bhutas), energy and absolute awareness become one.

The prana latent in us helps absorb the cosmic energy through inhalation and release the drawn-in breath through exhalation. When the cosmic energy is inhaled in full, prana manifests as individual energy or vyaktika shakti. This individual energy is then released through exhalation to merge with the cosmic energy. Pranayama helps you regulate the rhythmic intake of vishva chaitanya shakti, its utilization, and the release of vyaktika shakti.

The building blocks of pranayama are inhalation (puraka), exhalation (rechaka), retention after inhalation (antara kumbhaka) and retention after exhalation (bahya kumbhaka). For the microcosm that is our body, puraka is the generative force, kumbhaka the sustaining force, and rechaka the destructive force that removes toxic substances. Physiologically, the practice of pranayama helps tone the cells, sinews, tendons, ligaments, and stimulates the heart muscles with proper circulation and ventilation. Psychologically, it takes consciousness to an optimum level of efficiency.

To practice pranayama, your senses have to build up passivity and receptivity so they can properly receive shakti in puraka and release it in rechaka. With time, the sadhak (seeker) becomes adept in the use of his senses. He uses the ears to control vibrations in puraka-rechaka. He feels with the skin the pleasant sensation of the breath's touch and learns to control the flow. The roof of his palate notices the coolness or hotness of breath and the sadhak uses this as a guide to regulate breathing. The nose receives and smells the fragrance of both vishva chaitanya shakti and vyaktika shakti.

The body is a temple whose door (dwara) is the nostril. The soul (antaryami) resides in the innermost chamber. Just as you have to travel from a temple's outer chambers through the inner chambers to reach the sanctum sanctorum, in the same way the breath has to penetrate the various sheaths (kosha) of the body to reach the antaryami. The outermost chamber of our body is the anatomical (annamaya kosha), represented by the element of earth (prithvi). Next is the physiological (pranamaya kosha), represented by the element of water (apa). Then comes the mental body (manomaya kosha), represented by the element of fire (tej). This is followed by the intellectual body (vijnanamaya kosha), represented by the element of air (vayu). Finally, you reach the conscious body (chittamaya kosha), represented by the element of ether (byom).

To reach the antarayami, you have to move from the elements (panchbhutas) and the external senses (bahya indriyas) to the conscience (antakarna), which is called the dharmendriya. When you open the gates of the dharmendriya—which, according to the Yoga Sutra is dharma megha samadhi—you reach the self.

Each inhalation (puraka) has to move from the outer to the inner, and each exhalation (rechaka) from the inner to the outer chambers. The breaths meet at the kumbhaka, where the universal merges with the individual in the sanctum sanctorum.

Before practicing pranayama, you should know that your respiratory organ contains different paths for breathing. Learn to trace these paths. As you use the intelligence of your sight to avoid accidents on a road, you must utilize the intelligence of your consciousness to breathe on specified avenues formed by nature.

In pranayama with open nostrils, the entry path for inhalation is the passage underneath the sinus bones or the cheekbones. The path for exhalation is the lower eyelid above the cheekbones. When you use fingers to modulate the breath flow, the inhalation touches the surface of the septum and exhalation touches the nostril's inner membranes.

While doing pranayama, the sadhak has to create mental dikes so that the breath does not gush in or out, but is allowed to slip in gradually through the windpipe, the trachea, the bronchial tubes and the cells of lungs. Inhalation is not just gasping in air but receiving air. Similarly, exhalation is not expelling but releasing the breath. You must remain passive. Even if there is slight force, it pricks like needles and the breath remains at the surface and does not reach the depth of the lungs.

When you retain the breath, you are helping the source of life to energize your cellular system. Through the vehicle of prana, the cosmic energy that is drawn in reaches the cells and draws out all toxic elements. The vitiated air must, therefore, be released consciously and carefully.

To know more on Iyenger Yoga, please log on to Iyengar Yoga School of Northern New Jersey
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