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Pranayama and its relation to Asana

Pranayama is a compound word comprising two words, Prana and Ayama.
Prana is the vital energy, that which distinguishes animate things from inanimate things. Animate things absorb energy from their surroundings, metabolise, feel, act and grow, have a beginning and an end. For us this happens through the in-breath and out-breath. This kind of breathing is characteristic to the biological world. This movement of breath signifies the existence of Prana in the embodiment. The departure of Prana marks the end of respiration too, hence the death of the living being. The closest equivalent of the word Prana in Latin is anima, from which the word animals is derived, that which has Prana. The sanskrit word for animal is Praani. 
The yogic texts define Prana as Vishva Chaitanya Shakti: the illuminating (animating) power of the Universe. Prana is mystical and mysterious. It is so present that we ignore it. Fraught with obscurity, Prana is difficult to decipher in the beginning. To understand that which is so subtle, our intelligence, attention and observation needs to become extremely subtle.

It is important to note that for a layman, breath and prana are synonymous. However, breath is the vehicle of Prana. Prana is seated in breath, and is subtler than breath. Therefore breath becomes the vehicle for us to study Prana. And it is only with time spent observing the body-mind, body positions, sense organs, mental states, bio-energy within the body, physiological functions and their relationship to breath that we can get closer to directly perceiving and hence getting closer to understanding Prana and its all pervading force. It will hopefully become clear in the course of time. All understanding goes from gross to subtle.

We can say that Prana is central to all living, breathing, metabolising, acting and feeling beings from birth, and that which uninterruptedly keeps its presence until the last breath. Prana departs from the embodiment with the death of the individual being. The prefix ‘pra’ represents that which precedes the breath.

We not only live by Prana but all that we do with the body and in the body, mentally, sensorially, cognitively, psychically, emotionally, intellectually, whether voluntarily and involuntarily, is because of Prana. Respiration is invariably linked to Prana. This fact logically brings us to see that all our actions and activities have a direct concomitance with breath.

At a gross level of understanding, Prana, chaitanya shakti and respiration are all
considered indistinct. But as we dig deeper in our explorations, we discover that there are subtle distinctions. Owing to this lack of clear distinction and to the subtlety of their differences, the neophyte considers regulation of breath as Pranayama. With time and practice, this illusion will be unveiled to the inner eyes of a dedicated and sensitive practitioner. Regulation of breath is also a very superficial endeavour. The encounter with Prana is quite something else.

However, breath and Prana being so close to each other, we deal with the breath and breath conjoined action. And this is so essential to understanding Yoga.
Prana being so subtle, requires immense sensitivity, and this sensitivity cannot be forced. It is hence the reason why we are so prudent with Pranayama. All ancient texts warn the practitioner to not take up Pranayama until the effort in the asana becomes effortless. In other words, one has to find stability and benevloence of spirit, before coming to Pranayama. Breathing has to be first studied in the asanas. For this we need to find ease in the asanas. For this we need to overcome the struggle in the asanas. Therefore we strongly advise, as the ancient scriptures and Yogis of the past do, to have a careful, patient and prudent approach to Pranayama. 

The myriad range of physical postures in yoga have different breathing patterns and impact on the body-mind. Standing, sitting, prone, supine, inverted poses, backward extensions, forward extensions, lateral extensions, rotating asanas and so on, create expansion, extension, churning, opening, lengthening, strengthening, rejuvenating, revitalising, quietening and sensitivising of the body, mind and intelligence. All these positions provide a fabulous canvas to carry out the study of breath and breathing. Let this first be attempted before we jump hastily into Pranayama or meditation. Yoga is a slow process and needs to be approached prudently with competent teachers.

Healing the heart through yoga

Through the practice of Yoga, one experiences a series of progressive transformations in the quality of the mind. We are not made up of different minds. The same mind goes through a change. This happens in the course of one practice session but also within the course of many years.

Hṛdaya literally means the heart. But here it is not meant to be the physical heart. We could say, it is the mind when the parasympathetic nervous system is dominant. It is the mind that has put down its guard. Then a deeper intelligence begins to function. This is where true listening happens. Hrdaya is where benevolence, kindness, understanding, choiceless-love, compassion and peace are experienced. Only the Hṛdaya-mind is capable of being in total connection. This is why we are so absorbed in what we do when we “love” doing it. We are able to connect.

Hṛdaya  is where dharana happens, that is the mind is freed from drifting and wandering. In Dharana, vrtti nirodhah has happened. The quality of minds that follow are Yogic Minds. Once we come back to our heart-mind, almost any transformation is possible.

The line between the External mind (the mind of survival and instinct) and the internal mind (the mind of reflection and intuition) is Fear. Survival in its essence needs both fear and desire. Without fear and desire there can be no survival.

By whatever means or whatever path one chooses, healing the heart becomes possible only through allowing oneself to be open and vulnerable. Which means, the Buddhi (rational mind), Ahaṁkāra (I-ness) and Manas (sensual mind) have transformed into Sattva Guna (unclenched state), revealing first the Hṛdaya (the heart), which organically transforms into more sensitive and fluid states of mind.

Yoga begins in the heart. Only when our heart is reached and touched, the inward process begins. This is why from the first day we begin to bow our head down to the heart, the chest. So Yoga reveals itself to one who is willing to be vulnerable in stability, so that that line, that fear, that keeps the mind external, is crossed. The fear is a river. On one side of the river is survival. On the other is the freedom to think clearly and to be free in one’s heart, to go beyond survival, to experience love.

Sorrow is tamasic (heavy) in nature and keeps us from crossing that river. Benevolence, joy and contentment have a Sattvic effect on the mind that brings lightness. This line between the external mind and the internal mind which we call fear becomes thicker and thicker with sorrow. Walls are built. The inner minds close up. Sorrow weighs us down, in our abdominal region. Literally, the organs become heavy. 

This is why Patanjali says the practice of asana is to find sthiram (stability) and sukham (pleasantness, lightness). When one is light, one will be interested in looking deeper into one’s own heart. Though happiness is not really the goal, it is a stepping stone to freedom. A mind that is traumatized, hurt, saddened and tired needs to first be lightened. The burden needs to be dropped. This is why Patanjali introduces Kriya Yoga to find stability and true happiness. This stability and happiness manifest as lightness in mind and body. This lightness begins the process of healing the heart.

Understanding gunas to find balance in your life

Everything in Prakriti consists of three gunas (qualities). In western understanding this is close to “energy”. These three qualities are present in all objects to varying degrees. One quality is always more present or dominant than the others. The three gunas are Sattva (light, perception, equanimity, stillness, balance), Rajas (fiery, transformational, action, movement) and Tamas (inertia, heaviness, darkness, sluggishness, inaction). The gunas are present in everything; humans, food, animate and inanimate things.

The gunas affect behaviour, attitudes, actions, relationships, decisions, attachments, etc. We can examine this in ourselves. When we eat a very heavy meal for example, we are dominated by Tamasica Guna, hence we feel heavy and slow. When we wake up at the hour of sunrise, provided we have had a good nourishing sleep, a more sattvica guna is present all around. A certain lightness pervades. Nights are dominated by Tamasica guna due to the lack of Sunlight. Our eyes also hence have difficulty to open up as soon as we wake up from sleep. Tamas induces sleep.

The body-mind organism is like mercury. Very unstable and can fluctuate very easily from one predominant guna to another.

Sattva – Harmony

Sattva manifests as purity, prideless-knowledge and harmony. It has the quality of goodness. It makes our mind to “levitate” from human struggle and strife, from effort, success and failure, pleasure and pain.

Even the light of the Sun is more Sattvic early in the morning, more Rajasic later in the morning, and Tamasic in the afternoon and again Sattvic by sunset and so on. Foods can also bring Sattvica guna as a reaction to their consumption. Fresh fruits and vegetables, provided they are consumed discerningly and appropriately, encourage a sattvic mind-body complex, and this has been extensively explored by Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine. The practice of inverted asanas also brings a sattvica quality to the mind-body complex. Sattva brings us closer to clear perception.

Rajas – Passion

Rajas is represented by passion, action and movement. Rajas is characterized by a desire driven mind. For desire to exist, there has to be attachment. Rajasica guna is necessary to learn. Without Rajas, we cannot overcome sluggishness, complacency and procrastination. But Rajas when out of control, leads to greed and arrogance which bring misery that comes from never being content. Yet it is a stepping stone to Sattva.

Tamas – Inertia

Tamas manifests as sleep which is necessary, but also as laziness, heaviness and darkness if out of control. When the mind is Tamasic, it is quite clouded. Away from clarity. Alcohol, overeating, oversleeping, long afternoon naps, foods that take more than 4 hours to digest, sugar, processed foods, all encourage tamasica guna. Tamasica guna too is necessary to be restful. But Tamasica guna should not be confused with Sattvic stillness. Too much Tamas leads to decay and drains vitality. Sorrow also is Tamasic in nature. Which is why we find it difficult to forget our pains and hurts. Tamas also feeds fear and the desire to gratify one’s senses.

The three modes of energy Sattva, Rajas and Tamas always co-exist. They cannot be separated. One guna can never dominate indefinitely. They are codependent and always changing.

So as we can see, Yoga does not see people as good or bad. Yoga looks at their body-mind to understand the Guna that dominates their life and seeks to help them (if they want to help themselves) to overcome the predominant tendencies towards rrajasica guna or tamasica guna, for these are the two extremes of the pendulum and most people fall from one extreme to the other. Sattva demands self-discipline and inquiry which is a more difficult path.

It is quite obvious that most sane and healthy people would choose Sattva over Rajas or Tamas. However, here is the true search of Yoga. It reveals to us our subtle attachments and greed. Greed is greed even if it is for clarity and knowledge. It is only when we realise that attachment to any of the three gunas, is nothing but expecting permanence from the impermanence of Prakriti, which is an unintelligent and unwise way of life, that we can abide in the acceptance of change. But we do so while carefully overcoming stagnation and complacency. We do so by moving closer to clear perception through the use of the body and breath and through our choices and decisions to avoid Tamas when unnecessary in our practical everyday life.

7 body parts to know in Sanskrit to memorize the names of yoga postures

Viparita Karani, here resembling Sarvangasana, illustrated in the 1830 manuscript of Joga Pradīpikā originally written by Ramanandi Jayatarama in 1737

Posture names are sometimes difficult to remember for a beginner. By learning a few basic Sanskrit words, one can easily decipher the names of the most common asanas and thus better understand and remember them.

1. Hasta – हस्त = hand, arm

Example: Urdhva Hastasana – उर्ध्व हस्तासन​ = Arms upward/raised up

Urdhva Hastasana in Svastikasana

2. Pāda = leg, foot

Example: Urdhva Prasarita Padasana – उर्ध्व प्रसारित पादासन​ = Legs extending upward

Urdhva Prasarita Padasana (or legs up the wall)

3. Mukha = face

Example: Adho Mukha Śvānāsana – अधोमुखश्वानासन = Downward-facing dog

Adho Mukha Śvānāsana or Downward-facing dog

4. Śīrṣa= head

Example: Śīrṣāsanaशीर्षासन​ = Head posture

Śīrṣāsana to the wall

5. Aṅga – अङ्गा = limb

Example: Sālamba Sarvāṅgāsana – सालम्ब सर्वाङ्गासन = Supported all limbs pose (shoulder stand)

Sālamba Sarvāṅgāsana

6. Paścima – पश्चिम = literally ‘west’ side of the body, i.e. the back

Example: Paścimottānāsana – पश्चिमोत्तानासन = intense extension of the back

Paścimottānāsana with a bolster

7. Purva = literally ‘east’ side of the body, i.e. the front

Example: Sālamba Purvottānāsana – उत्थित पूर्वोत्तानासन = Supported intense extension of the ‘east’ side of the body (i.e. the front)

Sālamba Purvottānāsana

How Yoga brings transformative quality to everyday living

The entire universe can be divided into 2 main categories: Prakriti and Purusha.

Prakriti is matter + energy. Prakriti is limited by time, space and form. Prakriti functions on cause and effect, which popularly people call Karma. Karma is the principle of cause and effect. Wherever there is a cause, there will be an effect.

Purusha is the underlying principle that is differentiable from Prakriti. There is something that is beyond time and space in this universe that we as embodied beings are able to access and experience. It isn’t a physical entity and so formless. And hence not a “thing”. It has no gender. Since it is out of space and time, it is not even an “it”.  It is experienced as dynamic-stillness. It moves everything, but doesn’t seem to move. From Yoga’s point of view, the power of Prakriti, that is, the mind, the intellect, the body and consciousness itself receive their light from this principle. To give a simple explanation, Purusha is to the universe, what electricity is to a light bulb.

Science studies Prakriti objectively devoid of self-study and introspection. That is a philosopher’s job. Yoga says no to this approach. According to Yoga, the material world cannot be separated from the one who observes it. Moreover, without self-knowledge, all observations will be conditioned and coloured by one’s past. So yoga seeks to uncondition and free the observer from his past, which colours perception. This is done through transformatory efforts, introspection and very importantly wisdom. Yoga studies both the subject (the observer) as well as the object (the observed) all the while urging us to practically experiment and explore to understand that thought (citta vrtti) creates a separation between the subject and object. So when citta-vrtti nirodha happens, the subject-object split dissolves, which is the definition of Yoga as given by Patanjali. This happening is called Samadhi.

Since Prakriti is within the realm of space and time, it is impermanent and modifiable. We can look within to understand this. Everything that is impermanent within us falls under Prakriti. Body, vitality, physiology, biochemical processes, neurological movements, feelings, emotions, thoughts, states of mind such as sadness and happiness. All of these are impermanent and modifiable. Yoga recognises this aspect of Prakriti as an opportunity. It first works to bring some harmony within this dimension, which is still within the reach of voluntary action. This is where self-discipline (asana, pranayama, ahara, nidra) and inquiry (vitarka), probing and questioning (vicara), play an important role.