In one sense, the eight limbs (astanga) of yoga, as expounded in Patanajali’s Yoga Sutras, are linear; and in another they are interdependent, bleeding back and forth, supporting, augmenting and deepening each other. In the sense that they are linear, we find Pranayama evolving from asana – it is as if as each limb develops and grows, it evolves into the proceeding limb. As we develop depth and sophistication, intelligence and absorption, in asana (posture) practice, the life force expands and suffuses what we do. This in itself has an overt manifestation in the form of the breath opening, expanding, integrating, and settling into the pose and our awareness.
The breath, we can say, is the primary tool with which we can investigate the posture and our relationship to it (Swadyaya). We can ‘reference’ the breath to reveal the mode of relating with which we are engaging with the practice. If the breath is limited, if it lacks the kind of liberation with which the breath is infused at times of deep relaxation, then it is likely that prana is not expanding out into the body, which in itself reflects a lack of intelligence (prana is also associated with a sort of immediate form of intelligence, if you like a direct ‘knowing’). Most of us have some experience of this kind of letting go, this kind of expansion. It might be the deep-breathing moments after slipping into a deep bath, the door locked, candles burning, your favourite oil or bath essence in the water. Or it might occur when relaxing in the countryside, good friends around us, nowhere to go, nothing to do but just relax and take in a beautiful view, a deep sigh heralding the beginning of a deeper breathing pattern.
The ‘expansion of the breath’, then, is an expression that principally points to the feeling tone of the breathing process, and it is one indication that the mind is becoming unhooked from its compulsive attachment to ‘thinking’. Thinking is used here to mean the neurotic obsessive fuelling of thought links, arbitrarily and un-creatively formed from the constant extrapolation of one thought into another. In the Buddhist tradition, this is succinctly called ‘mental proliferation’.
As we move along the astanga path, as one limb grows, expands, and flowers into the next, we are moved from thinking into feeling, towards total absorption (Samadhi) via sense withdrawal (Pratyahara), concentration (Dharana), and meditation (Dhyana); and this change first starts to really shift at the point where the breath expands.
Recognition relaxation and release
Yoga teaches us very clearly how to move along this path from knowing (as in grasping ideals and values and identifying with them as representative of ourselves), to ‘Knowing’ (as in a direct un-grasped but comprehended experience). This is due to the level of intimacy afforded through the letting-go or ‘allowing’ that yoga fosters, that lets us go beyond the limitations of thinking into a direct experience. This is impossible through thought, which can be used to point at reality if held lightly but which isn’t actually reality itself. Yoga teachings within the context of the Yamas and the Niyamas which precede asana, directly point at how to move from this indirect and divisive relationship into a direct, unified experience. This is achieved through the three R’s of yoga: recognition, relaxation and release.
Recognition starts through observing the breath during a moment of awareness. This awareness might be variously: of a specific body area, of the whole feeling in a pose, or, of a thought or emotion present at any given moment. This awareness is sometimes referred to as ‘Sthira’ (steady attention). Conditions brought to awareness by this attention are then treated according to the yoga tradition with non-violence (Ahimsa), non-grasping (Aparigraha), and contentment (Santosa), any of which could also be described as ‘allowing’. This allowing does not work just as another thought, as in ‘I really should allow thinking’ or ‘I should practice being more spacious’, but as a deep, direct relaxation which is then mirrored by the breath’s expansion. This attitude towards attention, the yoga tradition describes as ‘Sukham’ (ease). Together they form ‘Sthira Sukham’ or ‘easy attention,’ ‘spacious attention’ or ‘relaxed attention’.
Together, recognition and relaxation give rise to release, or more traditionally ‘non-attachment’. This is not a getting-rid of thinking or emotion or sensation, but just not being tied to, identified with, or limited by any of them. It is like being out in a prairie or meadow with a wild, untamed horse (thinking): if you are tied to it when it moves on or runs off, it may drag you with it through brambles, rivers or across rocky ground. Occasionally it might bring you to a pleasant pasture for a while but there is no predicting how long it will stay or where it might take you next. If you are not attached to the wild horse, it might buck and run for a while but you are not pulled with it, then it may settle and graze nearby. Another time it might disappear altogether, only to reappear at a later time, but you are not caught up in its movements.
This principal of spaciousness, disentanglement, ease, is applied not just to thinking but all conditioned things: thinking, emotions, physical sensations. Otherwise, when they move we are pulled with them. This in turn leads to identification with the conditioned, ‘it’s just what I do’, ‘I can’t help it, it’s just the way I am’, we hear ourselves say sometimes, rather hopelessly! When we identify with the conditioned, we identify with conditionality’s marks ‘I am limited’, ‘I am not free’, ‘Life is unpredictable’, ‘I am unpredictable, out of control’.
When we practise applying attention to our experience, we lift out of unconscious habits and have the choice to apply sukham, leading to that often misunderstood expression ‘non-attachment’. Non-attachment does not imply anything has been taken away or destroyed, simply that we are not tied any longer; this points to harmonious coexistence with our senses and thoughts, rather than their destruction; a non-violent, spacious relationship.
“Practise and non-reaction are required to still the patterning of consciousness; otherwise consciousness takes itself to be that patterning”
All six sense organs and their sense objects (e.g. the nose and odours, eyes and sight), including the mind and thoughts, can be viewed like this. There is no need to kill the horse, or get rid of it in any sense; all that is needed is for us not to attach ourselves to it. This is where allowing comes in, as a mode of easiness, trust and non-violence. The release, then, is a release from the kind of agitation that these kind of pulls place on the nerves, which in turn prohibit connection (yoga). Grasping is a product of thinking, as is doubt, and these two conditions of the mind are amongst the most damaging to the experience of connection. Grasping causes disconnection through ‘reaching out’ and doubt through unplugging us, draining us of any energy needed to engage.
The breath, on the other hand, through the means described above, can lead us from grasping and doubt back to absorption. So, as we see, implicit pranayama not only deepens our postures but also conditions absorption.
Explicit Pranayama then is a term for the overt, specific techniques that are used by practitioners of Hatha yoga to create energy, eliminate toxins and develop more subtle, refined and responsive states of consciousness. As we follow the astanga path it acts as a bridge from relatively gross states of mind to the increasingly subtle states of sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation and absorption.