Ancient Texts on Pranayam

The following pranayama article is an analysis of the application and importance of breathing exercises in the yoga practice as defined by Classical Texts. These texts emphasize control, patience and discipline-elements needed to create a fulfilling and mindful pranayama practice.

After all, the literal meaning of pranayama is “control and expansion of prana!” In the “Samadhi Pada” the first chapter of Yoga Sutra (YS), Patanjali says pranayama is “conscious exhalation and restraint of breath and prana” (1:34).

In the “Sadhana Pada, the second chapter of YS, Patanjali says this about pranayama: “Braking the force and uncontrolled movement of exhalation and inhalation is breath control and expansion of prana” (2:49).

In the next sutra, Patanjali describes the technique for control and expansion of pranayama, “That, pranayama is of three modes; external, internal and the suspension (of breath); observed by locus (place of awareness and concentration in the body), duration, and count, (breath is made) long and subtle” (2:50)

From these descriptions, it is obvious that Patanjali views pranayama as conscious manipulation of breath by a variety of means to ways for control and expansion of prana. According to Hathayoga Pradipika (HP), Svatmarama, author of HP at the very outset of the Pranayama chapter, advises that a yogi should be a master of self-control prior to embarking on the practice (HP 2:1). He goes on to warn practitioners in these words, “Practice with caution and patience! Just as lions, elephants and tigers are controlled by and by, the breath is controlled by and by, in slow degrees. By being hasty or using too much force, it kills the practitioner (HP 2:15)

According to Svatmaram, the author of HP, the three cardinal maneuvers of pranayama, namely, Puraka (inhalation) Rechaka (exhalation) and Kumbhaka (controlled end-inhalation breath holding) (2:71). Most pranayama techniques listed in HP except Kapalabhati & Bhastrika (K&B) involve all the three maneuvers. Svatmaram repeatedly instructs that inhalation, exhalation and retention should be performed mindfully and skillfully, as is evident from the following text:   

“Yuktam, yuktam expel air, yuktam yuktam fill in the air and yuktam yuktam hold the breath in Kumbhaka.” (HP 2:18)

Note: The root verb for Yuktam is “Yuj” which has the same cognate as “yoke” in English, and of course our favorite word, “yoga.” Yuktam, which also appears in Gita, can be interpreted as, “performing an action skillfully and mindfully in a disciplined manner.” The repetition of the word, that is, Yuktam, yuktam is used for greater emphasis.

HP repeatedly emphasizes control and discipline by using such and similar words in a variety of ways in providing instructions for performing various pranayama techniques: “…yogi should fill in the air through the left nostril, hold the breath according to one's capacity and expel it slowly through the right nostril (2:7)

Then filling in the air through the right nostril slowly, perform Kumbhaka (retain breath) mindfully, and then the breath should be exhaled through the left nostril (2:8) “Thus inhaling through the nostril, one just exhaled, and restraining it there as long as one can hold, it (breath) should be exhaled through the other, slowly and not forcibly or rapidly (2:9) Alternate nostril breathing and restraining of breath (Kumbhaka) should be practiced methodically (2:10) Increase the repetitions of Kumbhaka slowly (2:11)

The eight pranayama techniques, identified in HP as “Different types of Kumbhaka” are as follows: Suryabhedna; Ujjayi; Sitkari; Shitali; Bhastrika; Bhramari; Murccha and Plavini. Note Kaplabhati is identified as one of the six “cleansing actions” (Shatkarmas) and not as pranayama proper.   Note that, inhalation, exhalation, and end-inhalation breath retention (Kumbhaka) should be done “slowly (mandam)” “comfortably or with ease (sukha),” “systematically or methodically (vidhivat or yukten), “slowly and slowly (shanaih shanaih or (mandam, (mandam),” “not forcefully (na vegatah) deliberately or effortfully (yatnen), “according to one's capacity or words to that effect appear 20 times in the pranayama Chapter. That, inhalation or exhalation should be done “rapidly” or “with force (vega),” appears only three times in the whole Pranayama chapter and that is strictly in the context of Kapalabhati, Bhastrika and Bhramri. In Bhramari, only the inhalation is done rapidly but exhalation still must be done slowly.

Kapalabhati and Bhastrika (K & B) are the only pranyama techniques described in HP which require rapid inhalations and exhalations. Thus, ancient texts, in specific Hathayoga Pradipika, provide us ample caution about pranayama techniques and adequately emphasize patient, slow and methodical approach while practicing pranayama.

Slow breathing pranayama techniques such as Bhramri, Shitali, Sitkari or Nadi Shodhanam relatively pose less risk as long as practitioner employs steady attention, patience and discipline.   Kapalabhati and Bhastrika, being rapid breathing techniques, pose greater risk. They can accentuate preexisting structural or functional problems or cause excessive strain on the respiratory system.

We can only speculate that when Svatmaram warns yoga practitioners that by being hasty or using too much force while performing pranayama, they can kill themselves, he was particularly thinking of the rapid breathing techniques such as Kapalabhati and Bhastrika.

We conclude with the admonition stated earlier, “Practice with caution and patience! Just as lions, elephants and tigers are controlled by and by, the breath is controlled by and by, in slow degrees…” (HP 2:15)

Click Here to learn more about Vijai Sharma.

Vijai has developed two exercise DVDs and companion workbooks, “Stretching and Breathing Exercises Adapted for People with Severe COPD,” and “Stretching and Breathing for COPD for All Levels of Fitness.” Review his over 600 self-help and self-care articles for insights into emotional stressors, positive mental attitudes and positive health behaviors and choices at www.mindpub.com

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