By Swami Harshananda
Prāṇāyāma literally means 'controlling of prāṇa’.
Prāṇa is the cosmic energy or life-force which is permeating not only the inanimate universe but also all the living beings. The sages had discovered even from the most ancient times, the techniques of controlling and channelizing this life-force and put it to various uses. This science of controlling prāṇa is known as prāṇāyāma. The word ‘prāṇāyāma’ has been defined as lengthening or dispersing the prāṇic energy so as to pervade the whole body in a uniform manner. The subject of prāṇāyāma has been dealt with not only in Rājayoga and also in Haṭhayoga.
Prāṇāyāma as per Rājayoga
In Rājayoga, it is listed as the fourth of the eight steps of yoga leading to samādhi. Since there is an intimate connection between the mind and the prāṇa, which again, can be regulated through the regulation of the breathing process, the mind can be brought under control by controlling breath. This is the philosophy behind prāṇāyāma as given in the Yogasutras.
Procedure of Prāṇāyāma
In this work, prāṇāyāma is described as having three steps:
Air has to be inhaled through the left nostril, should be retained in the lungs for some time and then exhaled through the right nostril. The same process should then be repeated in the reverse order. This forms one round of prāṇāyāma. The relative proportion with regard to time can be 1:4:2; or 1:2:2; or 1:1:1. In other words, if puraka or inhalation is done in 8 seconds, kumbhaka or retention must be for 32 seconds and recaka or exhalation for 16 seconds.
Regulations on Prāṇāyāma
Prāṇāyāma is regulated by three factors:
- Deśa - distance of air measured during exhalation
- Kāla - time taken for each of the three processes like 4 seconds: 16 seconds: 8 seconds
- Saṅkhyā - the number of prāṇāyāmas per sitting
These should be gradually increased until the following limits are reached, if possible: 24 to 36 inches; 16:64:8; 80 per sitting and 320 per day. However, these limits are for extraordinary and highly qualified sādhakas who practice it under the direct guidance of an expert guru. Hence it should never be attempted by others. This threefold prāṇāyāma must be preceded by what is called nāḍīśuddhi. In this exercise, only the puraka and recaka are practiced without kumbhaka.
Prāṇāyāma as per Haṭhayoga
The works on Haṭhayoga describe not only various kinds of prāṇāyāmas but also various avasthās or stages involved. They also predicate various kinds of phalas or fruits resulting from their practice like getting rid of sins and curing of ailments.
Do's & Don'ts of Prāṇāyāma
Prāṇāyāma being a highly complicated process fraught with serious consequences, if wrongly done should be practiced only under the direct guidance of adepts in the field. Several preconditions like purity of physical and ethical life, should also be strictly adhered to.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore