Pranayama - Part 1
To call Pranayama (pronounced Prāṇāyāma) simply controlling your breath or Prāṇa would be wrong translation of the word from Sanskrit to English. The very classification of Yoga into eight constituents is to encourage understanding of the subject without info-clutter or confusion. It is not to be understood that the subject yields to a strictly linear study of the components. The rishis of yore must have coined the word to encapsulate a large amount of meanings into one!
Prāṇa ( Prana plus yama)of course means the life-stuff that one takes in and lets out as rhythmic clips in and out of the lungs of living beings. All fauna do this some way or the other. Stop this function and you end life. In the case of vertebrates to which the human belongs, this activity is triggered by the lungs pumping air in and out of the body, as we all know. The continual activity from birth till the 'last breath of life' ensures the inseparable physical contact between nature and the living beings. This article seeks to explore the roles played by the organism in the context of its relationship with nature and the extant to which the former can exert control if any in the form of controlling one's own internal functions by studied measure.
A whole science evolved in ancient India centered around this very theme of man's relationship with the external nature. The basic assumption is that the internal stuff of every being is a reflection of all that exists as outer nature. Terms such as micro and macro seek to explain this relationship. Cosmos or Universe as existing outside of us is referred to as Macrocosm and the little copy as it were that exists and throbs inside of us is referred to as Microcosm. The beautiful metaphor is that of the firmament (ākāsha) inside and outside a clay jug, the thin wall being as fragile as kiln-fired clay itself! Modern physics endorses the theory that essentially all that exists is nothing but Energy in various dynamic forms.
Prāṇa defines as 'that by which one lives'. But the ancients found out a lot more by personal analysis. They further classified the force into five more manifestations taking place inside the organism. They are Prāna, Apāna, Vyāna,Udāna and Samāna. Of these Prāna functions through the nose, the respiratory component or gate. Apāna is the virtual force that follows a downward path and is connected with the functions of excretion and reproduction. Vyāna is to be known as a pervasive force energizing activity such as conscious voluntary tasks. The expert Pranayama practitioner can by will, control all of these forces.
Udāna as a virtual presence is located in the region of the throat. Its natural course of movement is upward. It gets activated at the time when life finally leaves the body. Samāna, the fifth of the Prāṇās is located in the meiddle region of the body and is responsible for the metabolic activity of nutrition including digestion.
A great compendium of knowledge pertaining to the organism's life systems was developed by the ancients never overlooked the intertwined realtionship between the external and internal nature which they understood to be one and the same. Life force is one but the manifestations evolved and mutated into manifold forms, shapes and species. More taxonomy classifies the five prāṇās by the irregular functions they manifest in the organism such as sneezing and yawning. The ancient Indian books of medicine the Ayurveda deals with the bodily science to great depths. Pranayama consists of the study of bringing the Prana under your conscious control.
The Vedantic view of the functions of Prāṇa and the practice of Pranayama presents an interesting study to the serious student of the Evolution of Life. Brahman who is the ultimate goal to be realized is known to act through one of its aspects the Hiraṇyagarbha in the triggering of the process of creation through a cosmic will power. Reality at its essential unity might be a very feeble interpretation but brahman is the causal force that 'twirls all the world and its every living form' (bhrāmayan sarvva bhoothāni) by its external appearances, the magical veils created by māya.
The challenge and aim is to get past the veils and arrive at your own discovery of the Absolute. The ancient rishis of India made the discoveries by introspection achieved by the full control of their internal nature as well as external nature. In a sense all the upanishads and vedanta in general point to this objective of discovering the self by going beyond the changing vagaries towards that one thing which is changeless yet commands change – that souce of light which is not reflected but is effulgent on its own. All references to the Trinity including the Brahman in Indian thought point to this Absolute condition of Experience. The essential objective of all Yoga is to seek to attain this knowledge by experience and not vicarious tuition.
Back to Pranayama. We found that prāṇa manifests as the air we breathe, goes in circulation through the human organism by established channels starting with the nose, the tracheal tubes, the lungs, the absorptions into the blood stream, back to the lungs and exhaled, the air leaves through the gate, the nose. Th rishis also discovered yet another energy system resident within the organism, never in contradiction with science but in fact supplementing it in its own ways.
If poetic justice demands a willing suspension of disbelief, the esoteric explanations of the internal energy systems demand not a concession of the known areas of science but, in the least a submission to a wealth of information resulting from the personal inferences of a multitude of pesonalities of impeccably ethical credentials. Although the Internet is awash with the esoterics surrounding the energy systems variously taught under a variety of banners ancient and modern, this text follows the accounts of the more recent personae whose detailed commentaries and lectures corroborate highly with the original commentators such as the ancient rishi, Patanjali.
Pranayama being a large subject by itself the author has decided to divide it into parts. The next part will deal with how Prāṇa affects the channels and will briefly speak on the channels, the different nodes of energy locales along the channels and the their role in the context of the study of the eight-fold Yoga. The reader is reminded that the physical practice of Pranayama should commence only on professional advice from your healthcare provider.
Your views will further enhance the study of the subject
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Ramakrishnan writes from the Arabian Gulf
Indians, we should practise doing Pranayama and derive its benefits which cannot be explained in words. Of course, do it with the help of a Master. I also suggest to see Bhagavatam in Asianet at 6.00 AM every day (CD's are also available in Guruvayur). It is a masterpiece everyone must understand before his/her body dies.
Ankit wrtes from Chennai
Woooooooooooo it was really something which gave me knowledge. Thanks