One may definitely overcome the obstacles to yoga (samadhi or the realization of wholeness) by the practice of pranayama. - Patanjali's Yoga Sutra 1.34
Many people who begin to meditate have the idea that they will sit down, close their eyes, focus their attention on a single point such as awareness of the breath, and enter into a clear, peaceful state. What they notice instead is usually a distracted state of mind with thoughts and emotions swirling around, awareness of sensations arising in the body, intermittent responses to sensory stimulation (what was that sound?) interspersed with short, fleeting moments of noticing the breath. Momentary success at being focused on the breath gives way to lengthy excursions into the thought activities of memory or future planning, only to catch awareness emerging sometime later, like a diver coming up for air.
Attempts to forcefully restrain these thoughts result in increased mental activity, including a running inner commentary of how your meditation practice is going. Fortunately, the science of yoga has provided several remedies for this common difficulty. Among them is the practice of pranayama.
What is Pranayama?
Be successful with pranayama by understanding what it is and what the philosophy is behind it—why it works and how to do it.
Pranayama is the fourth step in the eight limbs of meditation practice taught in the Raja yoga system. Raja yoga means the "royal way." It is an integrated yoga practice, which combines basic lifestyle guidelines with progressive steps to meditative awareness for Self- and God-realization. This path includes an eight-step system, a fundamental approach to meditation found in several yoga traditions, including Kriya Yoga.
The first two steps, yama and niyama, address the necessity for the proper attitude and lifestyle necessary for success in meditation. Then, the next six steps direct the aspiring meditator toward the experience of samadhi, or unity consciousness. The third step, asana, is the correct posture conducive for meditation, and the fourth is pranayama or enhancement of vital force. After pranayama, the next stage is the interiorization of attention through pratyahara. The last three progressive steps are concentration or dharana, meditation or dhyana, and samadhi.
What is Prana?
Prana is the subtle vital force that enlivens the mind and body. Imagine it as being similar to electricity while the body and mind are like a light bulb. Just as a lightbulb cannot shine without electricity passing through it, so the body depends on prana. When prana is balanced and flows freely, the body and mind are radiantly alive. Prana is part of the subtle body's energy system, connecting the physical body with the soul. The practice of pranayama enhances awareness of the connection between our body, mind, and spiritual nature.
Prana or life force is directly related to breath. An observable connection exists between our breathing patterns and mental activity. When breathing is balanced and slow, the mental field is calm. When breathing is rapid, there is a related activity in mind. Notice the difference between sitting quietly, breathing gently, and the quick, uneven breath associated with anger or fear. In the first instance, the mental field is calm; in the next, it is agitated. Regulating the breath is our connecting link to subtle energy and our ability to alter our state of mind. Pranayama means enhancing our awareness of life force through restraint or control (life force = prana, ayama = enhancement, and yama= restraint or control).
Three Principal Nadis
Prana operates and flows through thousands of channels, or nadis, in the subtle body. The three principal nadis are ida, pingala, and sushumna. Sushumna is the central channel that corresponds to the physical spine. Ida and pingala are the channels on either side of sushumna, one on the right and one on the left. As energy travels through ida and pingala, it travels in a crisscrossing pattern from the base of the spinal area until it meets at the third eye, the spiritual center located at the midpoint between and above the eyebrows.
Throughout the day, vital force moves through ida and pingala in alternating currents. Ida is called the moon current. It is associated with coolness and the feminine, or receptive, quality of our nature. It exits the body through the left nostril. Pingala is the sun current associated with heat and the masculine, our actively creative qualities. It leaves the body through the right nostril. The physical breath through our nostrils connects to the energy patterns that move through ida and pingala. When these two alternating currents come into balance, the vital force enters sushumna, the central channel. This harmonization of the modifications of energy calms thought waves in the mental field. Pure, unmodified awareness then prevails. The light of the soul shines unimpeded into the mind. Meditation is then spontaneous as we rest in our true nature as pure existence being.
Pranayama Practice: Alternate Nostril Breathing
The practice of alternate nostril breathing is a form of pranayama that harmonizes the flow of subtle energy in ida and pingala and shepherds it into sushumna, thus supporting the experience of meditation. To practice alternate nostril breathing, follow these steps:
- Prepare for meditation with correct posture and interiorization of attention.
- Position your index and middle fingers of your right hand on your forehead at the spiritual eye. Those two fingers will remain stable during the exercise to anchor your inner gaze at the third eye center. (You will use your thumb to close the right nostril and your ring finger to close the left.)
- Bring attention to the breath by gently but thoroughly inhaling and exhaling one time through both nostrils.
- After exhaling, close the right nostril with your right thumb and breathe in through your left nostril to a count of 4.
- Using your thumb and ring fingers, close both nostrils and retain the breath for 16 counts.
- Keep the left nostril closed and open the right as you breathe out through the right side for a count of 8.
- With the left nostril still closed, breathe in through the right side for a count of 4.
- Once again, close both sides and retain the breath for 16 counts.
- Now open the left nostril, while keeping the right nostril closed, and breathe out for eight counts. This alternation makes one complete round.
The breath count pattern for alternate nostril breathing of 4:16:8 may be modified to 2:8:4 for those who have difficulty retaining the breath in the beginning. As you practice, the length of time in retention may be proportionately increased to 8:32:16, as is comfortable and natural.
Six complete rounds is a useful number to begin with. There should never be any strain with pranayama. Anyone with grave medical or psychological problems should consult their health care provider before using it. Women should generally avoid pranayama during pregnancy to allow vital force to flow spontaneously.
Even the beginning student of pranayama can notice positive benefits from this simple practice when practiced regularly with focused attention. We have found a way to conquer the restless nature of the mind and experience the soul's radiant peace.