Yoga is a Sanskrit word meaning “union with God.” The type of yoga we are most familiar with in the West is undoubtedly Hatha Yoga: ‘Ha’ is Sanskrit for sun and ‘tha’ is moon. Hatha therefore is the bringing together of all existence into a wholeness and unity.
Hatha yoga begins with physical postures–asanas–designed to strengthen the physical body and nervous system. The spine is strengthened and all internal organs and functions are enhanced.
Once these postures, or ‘asanas,’ are mastered (and this can easily require years of daily, regular practice), we begin the practice of pranayama. Pranayama is the practice of regulating one’s breathing. The mind is affected by our breathing and our breathing is affected by our mind. When we are fearful or nervous we take shallow, short breaths. When we are calm and relaxed, we breathe deeply and fully. By recognizing this interconnection we can devise ways to make our minds calm and peaceful by slowing down our breathing patterns.
This is the essence of pranayama. The breathing process is lengthened and slowed by a conscious filling of the lungs as fully as possible. This involves a conscious contraction of the stomach muscles, a lengthening of the spine and diaphram, and a determined effort to opening the lungs to as much air as possible which involves the muscles of the ribs, shoulders and spine.
Once pranayama is mastered (and this, it is said, should never even be attempted without the guidance of a genuine spiritual master) the seeker has gained immense awareness of the wonderous powers within the human frame. The seeker comes to know the universe by knowing the individual’s universe: the body. The same force which guides the galaxies courses through the human frame. As we breathe in we can feel all of existence coursing through our veins. It is now that the seeker awakens the potentiality of existence, consciousness and delight-bliss lying in unmanifested seed form in the base of the spine. This energy embodies creation, preservation and transformation and is the essence of all. As this energy rises through the spinal column the psychic energy centers awaken and the human being awakens from finite consciousness into infinite consciousness.
There are other paths of yoga that lead to the same result though through different means. All yogas must present a means whereby the mind is transformed from its current level of awareness and made fit to provide a channel whereby the human consciousness can receive purer and more unified perceptions. In Hatha yoga the mind is stilled by regulating the physical organism.
To take a closer look at the concept of prana, which is central to the success in Hatha yoga I reference a definition by spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy from his authoritative book entitled: The Vedas, Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita:
“Prana is a Sanskrit word. It may be translated into English in various ways. It may be called ‘breath’ or ‘energy’ or even ‘ether’. Prana is life-energy. This life-energy is not material, it is not physical, but it is something that maintains and sustains the physical body. The source of prana is the Supreme. In the field of manifestation prana is indispensable. Prana is the soul of the universe.
In India the term ‘prana’ has a special significance of its own. Prana is not just breath. Daily we breathe in and out thousands of times without paying any attention. But when we use the term ‘prana’, we think of the life-energy that is flowing within and without in our breath.”
Breath control is essential in the asanas and pranayama of Hatha yoga. You can live for many days without food; you can live for a few days without water, but you cannot live for more than a few minutes without breath. Breathing is essential to your life and health. Not only do you bring essential elements into yourself when you breath but seventy-five percent of the toxins expelled from your body are removed via your breath. Awareness and control of your breathing is one of the essential keys to super health.
To begin with, it is best if you can breathe in and out through your nose as much as possible. Breathing through the nose has three main advantages:
- you clean the air
- bring the air closer to body temperature before it reaches your lungs and
- you stimulate the brain as the air moves through the nasal cavity.
From this simple exercise you can begin to get the feel of prana and let that feeling guide you in the asanas-body postures. Holding onto breath awareness throughout the day will offer you tremendous progress along the path of yoga.
“Light on Yoga” by BKS Iyengar is one of the finest books on Hatha yoga that I have read.
by Sri Chinmoy