Prāṇāyāma - What is it Really For?
When asking the question ‘What is prāṇāyāma for?’ it might be worth reviewing the most common perception of the word as ‘breathing exercises’ to flesh out a bit more of the meaning.
One translation of the Sanskrit word prāṇāyāma is the expansion, the stretching-out, of breath or ‘Life-force’. The prāṇa part of prāṇāyāma can mean either life force, breath or both whilst the ayama part indicates expansion.
In the Upaniṣads prāna (Life-force/breath) and its synonym ‘vayu’ (wind) were both at times used to indicate Essence Nature.
In one sense, prāṇāyāma refers to breathing generally as a vehicle to understand and experience interconnectivity (implicit prāṇāyāma); and in another, to using specific breathing techniques that increase and distribute energy and harmonise the practitioner with their environment (explicit prāṇāyāma). But its deepest meaning is ‘to Know prāṇā’ or to ‘Know yourself as prāṇā’.
Just as we might ‘know ourselves;’ as the body (deha) exemplified by such statements as ‘my knee hurts’ or ‘know ourselves’ as our stuff (vaśtu) as in the sentence ‘you hit me!’ when someone else’s car impacts on ours, or the ‘know ourselves’ as the mind as in the sentence ‘I am worried’ - we can also know ourselves as prāṇā which is the transpersonal energy that animates all things also known as prāṇāśakti.
If we look at the Tantrik model of the self a series of concentric circles indicates layers, from gross to subtle, of experience that we commonly identify with. While we are identifying with one level, taking ourselves to essentially be our things, body or mind, we simultaneously forget the more subtle layers.
The outer layers; things, body and heart/mind are localised and discreet but the at the prāṇā layer we enter into a transpersonal field - in other words we can start to feel the energy/life-force doesn’t recognise boundaries such as you and me but freely flows from without us to within us and from me to you and you to me. It is this layer of identification that commonly imbues a person with a charismatic air as your stuff and my stuff flow with less boundary into the consciousness of the practitioner who is immersed in this layer of their existence.
It is for this reason that charismatic gurus and yoga teachers can seem to have profound insights and really touch some of the people with whom they come into contact. It is also for this reason that some Upaniṣads see this level as ultimate because it does afford a transpersonal level of insight. As has been demonstrated in some cases however the practitioner is not necessarily home and dry at this as they may be pulled back into identifying with less subtle states such as the heart/mind as the practitioner is pulled back by the power of accumulative tendency to the heart/mind level and they try to contain this experience under the thought ‘I am insightful, I am charismatic, I am powerful”.
This comes when the practitioner is in-experienced and has not spent sufficiently long in this perception and has not built up sufficient strength in convection and understanding not to get pulled back to grosser layers of their being by the power of habituated old patterns (vritti).
If the point of prāṇāyāma practice is to become established in ones identity as prāṇa how does that actually happen?
Playing with the breath is essentially like dancing with someone or surfing on a wave we get to know the through our need and desire to unify with them.
Like a scientist who might learn more about the qualities of a particular substance by heating, stirring, shaking or blending it with other substances - by playing with the various prāṇāyāma practices and by stressing the need to be free of all pressured or tense sensations (which would be an indicator of incorrect practice) we enter into an intimacy with prāṇa that leaves us essentially unified with it. This unity is associated with certain accomplishments (siddhis) and gifts as limits imposed by identifying with the more contained experiences are lifted when engaging withe this free flowing principal.
It is for this reason that the practice of prāṇāyāma, is well known and little understood.
There is a lot of information out there that explains the techniques, and so enables you to engage in the mechanics of prāṇāyāma, but not so much that describes the art of it - as this is only understood when the greater purpose (as described above) is made clear (if you are clear about why you are doing something you will become far clearer about how to do it).
This is of course due in part to the relative ease of explaining mechanics over art.
It is possible to ‘learn’ even ‘advanced’ prāṇāyāma techniques in a few days, or even a few hours. But understanding prāṇāyāma is synonymous with understanding Yoga.
In prāṇāyāma we practice ‘relationship until union’ just as we do when we practice any other form of yoga.
All forms of yoga are essentially an act of listening and adaptation.
They do not involve reaching a set point that we label completion or finished, but rather they are a practice of coming back to a sense of ever deeper centre, and exploring how our relationships (in this case with the breath and the life force that the breath is an observable tangible mirror of) can deepen that sense of centre.
A Basic Practice
The practitioner should chose a clean, quiet space where they know they will not be disturbed for the length of the session.
Pranayama practice should not be undertaken after a meal. Leave 45 minutes to an hour after a light meal, or up to two hours after a heavy meal. Construct a lift from a neatly pleated blanket (or a use a ‘chereode’ Pranayama lift either on the floor or raised on blocks according to comfort) with a securely placed support for your head of sufficient height to ensure the chin inclines towards the chest.
Laying on the lift, make sure that the entire waist is well supported and lengthened (seek the advice of a experienced yoga teacher where uncomfortable).
Lay with the arms a comfortable distance from the body, palms up.
Take a deep breath in and exhale all ‘tidal air’ before starting prāṇāyama practice.
Rechaka and Puraka (exhalation and inhalation). In this elemental Pranayama technique, the foundations for other Pranayamas are laid.
Begin to follow the breath. As the breath arises in awareness, be mindful that your awareness is at least training to be free from judgement and expectation.
Allow a deepening of the breath to originate from natural adjustments that occur through bringing the inner or the imprinted nervous system to lie alongside the actual body or current posture.
Think of your whole body/self as being filled with ever sub dividing energy channels and visualise them soften to receive the energy as it comes in with the puraka keep a grip on the ribs and chest when breathing out rechaka so that the out breath is deep and steady.
After a practice of 5-15 minutes remove your support retaining only a head support to maintain a little chin to chest incline and lay flat with palms up digesting and resting in the prāṇa sensations for at least 10 minutes in savasana - Know yourself as prāṇā for no less than 5 mins.