We have seen that the root cause of sickness is an absence of awareness. Used properly, pranayama can be an effective means to bring about the needed awareness. It is important to remember that the goal of Yoga is freedom, whether it be freedom from disease or freedom from our mental taints. The means to achieve freedom is through the practice of Yoga, especially pranayama.
Pranayama can be likened to the blowing of air from a bellows, which are used to stoke a fire. And our mental colourings or taints can be likened to the ash removed from a stove and chimney, by using the bellows to stoke the flames. The result is that the taints that previously obscured the inherent fire of knowledge (jnana) have been removed. Through the practice of Pranayama, we gain clarity of both perception and awareness. The basic practice of Pranayama involves consciously changing the pattern of breathing. This can be achieved either through passive observation or active modulation of the breath. We can achieve clarity of perception and awareness through the active modulation of the four components of the breathing cycle — inhale, hold, exhale, and hold. The active manipulation of these four components of the cycle of breath is a specifically yogic form of Pranayama and meditation.
Now despite the term that is used, the so-called ‘passive’ form of Pranayama actually involves an active observation of the breathing process. The word “passive” has only been used to distinguish it from the active modulation of the four different components of the breathing cycle. In passive observation, we rest our mind on our breath, but we do not attempt to actively regulate or manipulate our breathing. That is, we passively observe our breathing without interference. By such observation, the breathing itself will change spontaneously, simply because we are aware of it.
By contrast, in active modulation, we emphasise one or more of the different components of the breathing cycle. For example, in active modulation we might extend the length of exhalation, without changing the length of inhalation, specifically in order to induce a calming effect. Focusing the mind on the breath or on some internalised image, combined with the use of mantra, can be very effective in bringing about changes in the mind.
Changing the pattern of breathing can be a very powerful tool because it can change the flow of Prana through the body. However, Pranayama can also be abused if the practitioner is not clear on how to use it properly.
Pranayama is a natural process of give and take in the breath. In order to restore balance, we must understand how the flow of breath occurs and how to flow with it. Any Pranayama practice must consider the following points:
a) The posture used during pranayama
b) Right methodology
c) Ratio of the four components of breath
d) Time of practice
e) The person, in all their uniqueness.
As personalised knowledge of pranayama grows deeper in a practitioner, one will come to see that its effects are pervasive indeed.
The writers are yoga practitioners and authors of several books