Prāṇa, the Sanskrit word for vital force, can be rendered as the breath of life. We can all observe how the air we breathe sustains our life from moment to moment. As air flows in and out of our bodies, it links our inner and outer world. Moreover, when we breathe consciously and freely, we're more likely to feel at ease in our surroundings, to feel connected with them. We experience this tranquility to be as nourishing as the breath itself.
In A Sweet Surprise Satsang this year, Gurumayi affirmed that people from all corners of the globe wish for peace, śānti. Gurumayi went on to elucidate how bringing about the world peace that we long for must begin with cultivating peace within ourselves.
The tranquility that Gurumayi benevolently guides us to can be uncovered within our breath. Centuries ago, yogis discerned that the way we breathe—our awareness of the breath and of the vital force that underlies the breath—is an essential tool for making the mind tranquil and steady. The Haṭhayogapradīpikā states that the breath affects the mind; when the breath is steady and even, the mind naturally follows.1
Try it for a moment. Bring your awareness to your breathing. Let your in-breath and out-breath be smooth and easeful, so that the flow of air feels even and steady as it flows in and out of your body. Look away from the screen, and focus this way for three complete cycles of breathing…
Good. Now, observe the state of your mind. It is likely you notice that your mind has become more peaceful and focused as a result of steadying the flow of your breath.
Prāṇāyāma and Gurumayi's Message for 2018
The sage Patañjali illumines the interconnection between the breath and the mind in his Yogasūtra, a collection of aphorisms that lay out a system of yogic practice for first calming and then dissolving the thought-waves of the mind. This yogic discipline culminates in a state of fully absorbed meditation (samādhi) in which the seeker directly experiences the supreme Truth, Consciousness, unmediated by the mind. In sections of this text, the sage presents prāṇāyāma, the regulation of the breath, as one of the means to focus and quiet the mind.
During A Sweet Surprise Satsang this year, Gurumayi included a prāṇāyāma exercise to prepare participants to focus within. Prāṇāyāma is one of the ways Siddha Yogis are studying and practicing Gurumayi's Message for 2018: Satsang.
With this in mind, let us further our study and practice of Gurumayi's Message by considering the following aphorism of the Yogasūtra, which states:
pracchardana-vidhāraṇābhyāṃ vā prāṇasya
[The mind may] also [be calmed] by exhaling and retaining the breath.2
||expelling or drawing out
||to hold within, restrain, or retain
||of the breath (prāṇa)
In this aphorism Patañjali gives a simple prāṇāyāma exercise for making the mind peaceful and focused, preparing us to commune with the indwelling Truth. The exercise has two phases—first, exhalation of the breath and, second, suspension of the breath before the next inhalation. Now, let's examine in more detail these two phases of the breathing process as they pertain to this sūtra.
Exhalation in this prāṇāyāma is a slow and smooth releasing of the air in your lungs. There is no need to expel all the air. Instead, let the exhalation end when you feel the flow of air ceasing. Although there is clear energy in your exhalation, you are not forcefully pushing with the respiratory muscles. When you exhale in this manner, you will often feel a sense of calm and well-being along with the out-breath.
Suspending or gently holding the breath occurs naturally at the end of the exhalation, as the movement of the air flowing outward ceases. The pleasant feeling of inner stillness and well-being may continue as you simply allow the breath to pause for a few moments, relishing the inner stillness. You do not need to apply effort to maintain the suspension of breath; it is fine if the pause in your breathing is for just a second or two. Your focus is on enjoying this suspension and letting it be effortless.
Although the sūtra makes no reference to the inhalation, Swāmi Hariharānanda Āraṇya3 states in his commentary that one can simply allow the inhalation to take place naturally when the impulse to breathe in arises.
Practicing This Prāṇāyāma
Here are some steps to follow in your practice of this prāṇāyāma:
- Maintain an aligned and easeful posture, free of muscular tension, throughout this exercise.
- Feel your sitting bones connect with the surface beneath you, whether you are seated in a chair or cross-legged on the floor.
- Let your upper torso be at ease, and allow your spine to release upward, while your shoulders and neck let go of any sense of holding.
- Remain aligned and balanced over your sitting bones. This allows the breath to flow freely in and out of the body and facilitates your focus on the breath and on calming the mind.
- Breathe through the nose if you can—it is best for this type of prāṇāyāma. If this is uncomfortable, however, you may breathe through the mouth.
- Whether you are performing this exercise to prepare for meditation or at other times of the day, you can do so with your eyes either open or closed. Notice which method works best for you. If your eyes are open, keep your gaze soft.
Initially, limit this prāṇāyāma to three to five minutes at a time. This will allow your body—especially your lungs and respiratory muscles—to adjust and become attuned to this practice. Once you become accustomed to this exercise you can increase the duration.
Another Element of Exhalation: Stilling the Mind
The commentator4 on this sūtra explains that the exhalation in this prāṇāyāma includes two elements. The first element, which you learned about earlier, involves making the exhalation clear and smooth. The second consists of focusing the mind on becoming free from thought during the exhalation. These two elements are combined as you exhale.
Here is a way to practice this:
- During the out-breath imagine that in emptying the air from your body you are, at the same time, becoming free of thoughts.
- By the time you complete your exhalation your mind is empty.
- As instructed earlier, after the exhalation is complete, you gently pause and suspend the breath for a few moments.
Try this now for a few breaths, exhaling easefully and steadily while simultaneously imagining that your mind is becoming thought-free.
Do you find focusing on the sensation of the air moving out of your lungs and nose helps to dissolve the thoughts in your mind?
Another method for making the mind free of thoughts is to focus on empty space, an inner void, while exhaling.
You might feel or imagine this empty space in various ways; for example, as a tranquil void in your chest or as a peaceful space in the back of your head. Engaging with this exercise over time, you'll discover a focus or image for dissolving thoughts that works best for you.
Whatever approach you adopt, an essential principle of this prāṇāyāma is that focusing the mind to make it still and regulating the breath go together.
Try this now: exhale while dissolving thoughts, followed by a brief pause, for a few cycles of breathing. Here, the effort is to let your attention rest in the stillness that exists after the exhalation, for as long as it feels natural and pleasant to you. Recognize that the stillness you feel and the bliss that may arise in this moment of pause, are qualities of the Truth that is always present within you. Let your entire being relish the experience.
Tips for This Prāṇāyāma
Remember, with each breathing cycle, you allow the inhalation to take place naturally. It is beneficial to make the gentle effort to keep the mind empty and free of thought on the inhalation as well.
Bear in mind that it is not necessary to pause the breath after each exhalation; you might find that it's most comfortable to practice the suspension of breath at intervals, e.g., once every three breathing cycles, or whatever feels right to you.
Over time and with practice, you'll be able to retain the breath more frequently after exhaling. Eventually, you may notice that the inhalation, exhalation, and suspension meld together in one smooth process. When the mind becomes more focused during this exercise, you may find yourself spontaneously entering meditation.
As stated in the Yogasūtra, the goal of this prāṇāyāma exercise is to gradually increase the periods in which the mind rests in a state of stillness, a state free from thought. Although it is a good preparation for meditation, a special feature of this prāṇāyāma is that it can be practiced at almost any time, and it is very effective for cultivating inner peace and tranquility. You may discover several ways you can implement this prāṇāyāma into your day—when you sit at your desk before beginning your work, as you prepare to enjoy a meal, when you take a walk, or before you sleep…
In A Sweet Surprise Satsang, Gurumayi guided us to learn how to access the Truth within ourselves by creating our own satsang, at any place and at any time. This prāṇāyāma exercise is one way we can do that. Gurumayi further encouraged our practice when she stated that the more we make the effort to connect with the Truth within, the easier it becomes for us to do so. This teaching from Gurumayi sheds light on the benefits of persisting in our sādhanā. Patañjali calls this steady effort abhyāsa (yogic practice), which he defines as “the consistent effort to be firmly established in that [thought-free state].”5
Prāṇāyāma is a wonderful way to study and practice Gurumayi's Message for 2018. To experience the full benefits of this practice, it is best to engage with it on a regular basis. The Siddha Yoga Meditation Sessions via Live Audio Stream 2018 offer further opportunities to engage with Gurumayi's Message through the practice of prāṇāyāma. Each session includes a specific prāṇāyāma exercise led by a Siddha Yoga meditation teacher.