Read an Excerpt
Introduction: I Take Refuge in the Breath
I take refuge in the breath. Breath is all this, whatever there is, and all that ever will be. I take refuge in the breath.—Chandogya-Upanishad
This is my second book on pranayama. The first, The Yoga of Breath: A Step-by-Step Guide to Pranayama (Shambhala Publications, 2002), covered the beginning ABCs of the practice along with a program that, in the best of all possible worlds, would take a diligent student about a year to eighteen months to complete. Now the wonderful folks at Shambhala have asked me to do a follow-up book—the DEFs, I suppose—that presses on bravely to more challenging material.
This new book is written for more experienced pranayama students, those who are relatively familiar with the material in the first book and follow a fairly regular, if not daily, practice. To spell this out more clearly, to benefit from this book I recommend that you have, at minimum, the following:
- A reasonably clear understanding of the “why” of breathing, the four traditional stages of practice, prana (and its five branches) and the two traditional pranayama models (classical and Hatha), pranayama benefits, obstacles and aids, and practice foundations (how often, when, where, and how long)
- A good working relationship with your Witness and the ability to quiet your sensory organs (especially the eyes, inner ears, and tongue) and watch your breath fairly consistently for at least ten to fifteen minutes (whether in Corpse Pose or during pranayama)
- A reasonably accurate “map” of the outer contours and inner spaces of your physical body (with the understanding that this cartography is an ongoing project that will never be completed definitively)
- Some familiarity with and appreciation of your unique breathing identity and the “qualities” of your breath, which you will remember from the first book we’re calling time, texture, space, and rest
- Regular practice of Conqueror and Against-the-Grain breaths in the reclining position for between six months and a year, and subsequently in the sitting position for at least six months
- A reasonably easy and balanced sitting position, even if you still need to sit on a chair, that you can sustain without too much fidgeting for at least ten to fifteen minutes
- A familiarity with basic pranayama “tools” (for example, Unspoken Hymn, Skull Brightener, and both equal and unequal ratio breathing)
- A comfortable relationship with short inner breath retention and its supporting techniques (such as throat and belly bonds)
I won’t be reviewing much of this earlier material; if I do repeat myself, it means that the subject has been altered or amplified in some significant way. Remember that although books are fixed in time, a practice isn’t; in the past three years, I’ve come up with some new ideas as well as modified (and hopefully improved) others.
When and How Did Pranayama Originate?
Of course, any “new ideas” I may have stumbled across are probably new only to me. Since pranayama has been around for many centuries, there’s a good chance that somebody somewhere thought of each one of them long before I did. In fact some scholars trace pranayama’s origins back thirty-five hundred years (and possibly more) to the Vedic sacrifice. I wish we had the time and space to consider this fascinating ritual in detail, but alas, we don’t. Mainstream Western scholars tell us these sacrifices, usually sponsored by powerful and wealthy royals, were originally attempts to symbolically “feed” and thus petition the favor of the gods, through their go-betweens, for some personal gain—sons and cattle (the Vedic equivalent of modern-day real estate holdings in California) being high on the list. But a number of Indian pundits and their Western supporters vigorously maintain that there was much more to the ancient sacrifice than meets the eye. They insist the outward motions and words were cloaked in mystical symbolism, and far from being a mere grab for material gain, the sacrifice was instead a highly charged spiritual performance.
Whatever the case, there’s no argument that the presiding priests believed that for the sacrifice to be effective—to get what they were asking for—everything about it (for example, the construction of the altars or the preparation of the sacrificial libation) had to strictly adhere to a rigidly fixed script. Any deviation or alteration, however small, might not only offend the gods, but actually incur their wrath. This ritual propriety was so important that one of the four primary officiating priests was assigned to monitor the performances of the other three (and their assistants), and immediately intervene to correct any mistake. This close attention to detail included the proper order, pronunciation, and intonation of the sacrificial hymns sung to the gods.
So along with memorizing hundreds of hymns—in those days writing hadn’t yet been invented in India (and even when it was, the priests continued to prefer oral transmission)—the singer-priest must have been trained like an opera diva to consciously and meticulously regulate his breath. Eventually somebody, or more likely some group of singer-priests, noticed something intriguing: when they altered their everyday breath in the way needed to sing the hymns accurately, they felt different somehow, though they couldn’t quite put that feeling into words.
This must have occasioned some curiosity among the singer-priests, who then set out to investigate this strange phenomenon. Like modern scientists examining an aspect of nature, they constructed and conducted various breathing experiments, took notes, and exchanged information among themselves. These early experiments must have lasted several generations, and no doubt progress was not always straightforward: there must have been dead-end disappointments and an occasional disaster when somebody went too far too fast and blew a fuse.
Finally the singer-priests made an exciting discovery: they confirmed that breath is indeed related to and an influence onof consciousness. Altering our breathing allows us not only to shape the contents of our consciousness in significant ways, it also allows us to penetrate through the levels of those contents to the very source of consciousness itself.
Early reports of these findings are scattered through a haphazard collection of books known as the Upanishads, or Secret Books. By the time of their composition, the external sacrifice of the kings and priests had been symbolically internalized by the forest hermits and other practitioners of yoga. The oldest (surviving) book, which may be upward of twenty-five hundred years old, equates our breath with the “supreme brahman” (Brihad Aranyaka-Upanishad 4.1.3). This word means “immensity” and signifies what we might call the “root self,” the “light” or consciousness that manifests both as the individual self (atman), which “shines out through all beings” (Mundaka-Upanishad 3.1.4), and its universal counterpart, the world self (paramatman).
Early on, pranayama was used to dampen the endless perturbations of our consciousness in order to prepare for intense meditation. This form of practice is actually what we know today as kumbhaka, or breath retention (we’ll go into this more deeply in chapter 18). Later, during the great Hatha revolution, when the feminine principal reemerged from its thousand-year slumber in the masculine shadow, pranayama developed into a means of awakening our dormant spiritual identity. You might say we are the inheritors of this breathing tradition; our first responsibility is to understand its traditional lessons as fully as possible and then to respectfully assimilate these lessons to our own needs and goals.
The material in this book is divided into three parts. Part 1 is by far the shortest, with only two chapters. Here we’ll look briefly at traditional Hatha pranayama and ask ourselves the big “Why pranayama?” question; cover three pranayama props; reaffirm our upright (“up and right”) sitting position; and reacquaint ourselves with our old friend, the Witness.
Part 2 material addresses the physical arena of practice. There are exercises for the head, eyes, and tongue; the hands; and the diaphragm, ribs, and spine. I’ve also come up with seven asana-based exercises (along with a few variations) that serve as preparations for both sitting and breathing. Finally, there are two chapters on the “bonds” (bandha, which I translated as “lock” in the first book).
In part 3, we arrive at the nitty-gritty of the practice. Here we’ll first work with “sound” and imaginary breathing exercises; next with four little known traditional pranayamas (two straight up and two modified); then with what’s currently called “digital pranayama,” the purposeful alteration of the breath using the fingertips to manipulate our nostrils; and finally with breath retention. Sound like fun?
The appendixes include practice suggestions for using the audio instructions on the enclosed CD, a description (just for your edification) of a few traditional internal cleansing exercises, which are a central part of Hatha-Yoga; and a pair of traditional breathing exercises that I dug out of the ancient books. All the way through this book, I’ve sprinkled a number of short Sidelights, which I hope will help illuminate yoga in general and pranayama in particular.