Ever wondered as to which of the physiological functions in humans are both voluntary and involuntary? On a brief reflection on this question, you will come up with the answer – breathing and blinking of the eyes. Involuntarily, breathing happens 24 hours of the day, without our knowledge or intervention. However, it is one of the key physiological functions that can also be modified voluntarily.
The great ancient yogis recognized this fact about the breath. As they always were experimenting with the natural phenomena around them, they must have decided to experiment with the variability of their breath. They realized that the breath can be varied in multiple ways – it can be made short, long, loud, soft, forced, unforced etc. In addition, one could even stop the breath for a certain amount of time. Not only could the breath be varied in all these ways, they also found to their great delight that each one of these variations also provided great benefits at multiple levels.
We are all familiar with instances when our emotions can control the breathing rhythm. For example, when we are very angry or agitated, our breathing is very uneven, fast and shallow. When we are very sad, we breathe uneven, sobbing breaths. When we are calm or engrossed in some pleasant activity, like listening to some soulful music, our breathing is very gentle, even and soft. When we are trying to thread a needle, we naturally suspend our breathing as we attempt to move the thread through the hole. These examples demonstrate that our breathing pattern is a good indicator of the state of the mind that we are experiencing at a given time.
What these yogis from the past found out was that the reverse of the above situation is not only true but highly desirable. Which is to say that by controlling and managing our breathing pattern in different ways, we can potentially control our emotions. All of us, at one point of time or another, are overtaken by negative emotions like anger, jealousy, hatred, greed etc. There are other times when we experience positive emotions like love, compassion, tenderness etc. By consciously introducing modifications into our breathing pattern, we can potentially bring about a major change in our emotional backlog.
It is our great teacher, Patanjali, who, in the Yoga Sutras, beautifully summarized the possible changes that we can bring about to our natural breathing pattern in the following two sutras:
तस्मिन् सति श्वासप्रश्वासयोर्गतिविच्छेदः प्राणायामः॥४९॥
tasmin sati shvaasa-prashvaasayor-gativichchedah praanaayaamah (Sutra 2.49)
Having established a steady and comfortable sitting posture, pranayama is to introduce conscious control of the natural cycle of inhalation and exhalation.
In this sutra, the term "vichCheda" has been interpreted and translated differently by various authors. Some of the terms used to translate it are "control", "stoppage", "cessation", "management", "regulation" etc. I personally prefer to go with "stoppage" or "cessation" which basically implies that pranayama means not only to control the flow of inhalation and exhalation but also to control the retention of the breath both after inhalation and exhalation.
बाह्याभ्यन्तरस्तम्भवृत्तिर्देशकालसंख्याभिः परिदृष्टो दीर्घसूक्ष्मः॥५०॥
baahya-abhyantara-stambha-vrittir-desha-kaala-sankhyaabhiH paridrishto dirgha-sukshmah (Sutra 2.50)
The modifications of the life-breath are either external, internal or stationary/suspended. They are to be regulated by space/location, time and number and are either long or short.
This sutra expands upon the concept mentioned in sutra 2.49. Here, a few parameters that can help us control the inhalation, exhalation and breath retention, have been mentioned – space, time, number, long, short and breath retention. Let us look at these terms briefly:
Desha (Space) has been interpreted in two different ways:
- Space may mean the nostril through which you are breathing. So, one could breathe either through the left nostril, the right or through both nostrils.
- It represents a location in the body where you fix your attention while practicing pranayama. For example, you may focus on the "third eye" (ajna chakra) – the spot between the two eyebrows or you may focus on one of the other chakras – the heart chakra, the throat chakra, or the root chakra etc.
- You may even pick some other spot on the body as your point of focus.
Example: In Alternate nostril breathing (Nadi Shuddhi or Anuloma Viloma), one breathes through only one nostril at a time. In Kapalabhati, you breathe through both the nostrils.
Kaala (Time) refers to the duration of each inhalation, exhalation and retention.
Example: In Alternate nostril breathing (Nadi Shuddhi or Anuloma Viloma), the effort is to make the exhalation twice as long as the inhalation.
Sankhyaa (Number) refers to the number of rotations of each of the pranayama cycles.
Example: while practicing "kapalabhati" you may go for 50 expulsions of air or, if you are more experienced, you may go for up to 100 or even more number of breaths in each round.
Dirgha (Long) and sukshma (short) signify if the breath is deep or shallow.
Example: in the ‘alternate nostril breathing’ pranayama, each breath is very deep and soft. On the other hand, in kapalabhati, the expulsion of breath is brisk, forced and short while the inhalation is allowed to be passive and gentle.
Stambha (breath retention) means that the breathing can be suspended after inhalation, exhalation or any time during the breathing cycle.
Example: the practice of Kumbhaka (breath retention) is a very integral part of many of the pranayama techniques. In Sama-vritti (equal rotation) pranayama, for example, we follow the pattern of inhale/hold/exhale/hold – making each of these components identical in time duration.
Based on these guidelines provided by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras, and using different permutations and combinations of these variables, a large number of breathing techniques have evolved over time. One of the main sources of information on various pranayama techniques is the "Hatha Yoga Pradipika", a classic yoga text which was written by Swatma Ram about a thousand or so years ago. This contains a complete section on Pranayama and lists a variety of pranayama techniques. In the book titled, "First steps to higher yoga", Shri Yogeshwaranand of Yoga Niketan, Rishikesh lists 70 different pranayama techniques.
In the yoga classes that I teach and also in the special 14-day pranayama intensive programs, I teach several different pranayama practices. You may like to visit the pranayama page on my blog to get a list of these techniques, as well as links to detailed descriptions on the blog.