“This life is empty breath.
If I can hear one clear truth,
I’ll be fortunate.” – Lalla
“If you live on the breath,
You won’t be tortured
By hunger and thirst.” – Lalla
Prāṇāyāma is introduced as a discrete practice in the 49th verse of the second chapter of the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. Patañjali begins by pointing out that some āsana work must precede praṇāyāma practice, so that we have a stable and comfortable foundation in our physical body. This does not mean that’s necessary to perform any elaborate acrobatics, but just the ability to maintain a basic posture with the back straight.
In our comfortable and stable posture, we can begin to practice prāṇāyāma by extending and regulating the inhale and exhale. The breath is through the nose and the qualities that we are aiming for are slowness, relaxation, evenness, and smoothness. Gradually, we can extend the breath in this way and extend the pauses between breaths.
Yogic breath practices imply that there is some concentration of mind as well. The breath itself is seen as a cause for the concentration of the mind, so the act of each inhale and exhale bring the mind back to our focus and object of meditation. This should be done first with inhales and exhales, ensuring that the breath meets the criteria above and that some basic focus can be maintained, then we can begin to practice in the stops of the breath as well. The retention of breath should be seen as a close holding of the mind on the object as well.
“The object of concentration should be present in the mind during each act of inhalation and exhalation, or the inhalation and exhalation are to be looked upon as the predisposing causes bringing the thought of the object of concentration; thus union between the breath and the object of concentration has to be practised. When this becomes habitual, then the suspension of the movement (of breath) has to be practised. During this practice, the mind has also to be kept fixed on the object of concentration. That is, suspension of breath and the mind’s fixation on the object of concentration should be made as a single effort. Or the idea has to be entertained that by the suspension of breath the object of meditation itself has been held tightly in mental embrace. This form of suspension of movement of the mind, as long as the suspension of breath is maintained, indicates one real Prāṇāyāma.” – Swami Hariharananda, The Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali 258-259
When retention of breath is practiced after the exhale, it is called an external hold. When it is practiced after the inhale, it is called an internal hold. It can also be practiced at any point within the cycle of breath and this is called a stationary hold.
Holds can be measured by their location, time, and number. The aim is to make the breath long and subtle.
Location can refer simply to the depth of breath that is practiced, but it is usually take to mean where the sensation of breath is felt during the course of the breath cycle. Swami Hariharananda recommends a pattern where we bring the sensation to the entire body during the inhale, felt especially on the skin, palms of hands, and soles of feet, and then to bring the sensation inward to the central channel or heart space during the exhale. He says this brings a sense of ease to the body.
The breath can also be inhaled into the belly and then exhaled out to a foot in front of the nose. This technique is taught in the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra and is often taught by Dr. Lad.
Hariharananda argues that location can also be observed as a way of increasing subtlety of breath by imagining that the range of the exhale is shorter and shorter to the point where a fine cotton wool placed in front of the nose would not be disturbed.
Time refers to how long the breath is suspended. This can be observed by counting. Certain ratios can be adopted such as a count of four for the inhale and four for the exhale. We can also include the holds and count four for the inhale, four for the internal hold, four for the exhale, and four for the exhale hold. When the count is even in this way, it is called a samavṛtti prāṇāyāma, or even timing. If we practice with a more complex ratio, such as four for the inhale, sixteen for the internal hold, eight for the exhale, and eight for the external hold, then this is called viṣamavṛtti, or uneven timing. The length of the count can be extended and longer holds can be maintained, but the practice should always feel relaxed and easy to perform.
Rather than simply counting, it is especially effective to use a mantra for keeping track of the time of the breath cycle. For example, the mantra could be internal recited twice during the inhale and twice during the exhale to maintain a simple samavṛtti prāṇāyāma. This practice allows the mind to become fixed in the flow of sound, facilitating both concentration and the rhythmic timing.
Number refers to how many breath cycles are practiced. One could simply count, one could roughly keep track by practicing over a set period of time, or one could use a japa mālā to count repetitions of mantras or breaths.
Gradually through practice, the breath becomes slower and less perceptible, quieter and smoother.
Sometimes we use more complex and specific breath patterns for prāṇāyāma, such as alternating nostrils, but the practice can also be quite simple as well. With specific breath practices, sometimes internal engagements, called bandhas, or locks, must be employed to practice correctly. These can allow the suspensions of breath to be held for much longer. This is the means employed by Haṭha Yoga, the more “forceful” type of Yoga, where the stilling of prāṇa is used to still the mind. The softer forms of Yoga instead employ the gradually stilling of mind as a means of allowing the breath to become more still. Swami Hariharananda explains this by saying that focus and devotion bring about an intensity of joy that we get a strong desire to hold it as if in embrace and this will cause the breath to become more still on its own accord.
“Through practice of devotion to God and Dhāraṇā of the Sāttvika type, the intensity of joy that is felt in the innermost being, gives rise to a strong desire to hold it as if by an embrace of the heart, which producing a Sāttvika form of contraction of the nerve-centres may stop the activities of the Prāṇa. Just as in the process of Haṭha-Yoga the impulse of contraction is externally produced, in this process it is internally induced.” – Swami Hariharananda, Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali p.262
Through whichever means, as the breath becomes almost imperceptible, it seems to disappear on its own. Here we can enter a fourth type of retention that is said to transcend internal and external.
In higher states of meditation, we can start to feel that even the movement of the breath is a disturbance to our concentration. When everything is quiet in our mind, the breath can start to sound like the loudest thing around. So, progressively making it subtler until it starts to almost disappear would be useful for that depth of mental stability.
This special fourth kind of prāṇāyāma can also be interpreted to mean that the movement of life force, or prāṇa, in the body can now be extended to subtler realms and not merely cycled inside and out of the body. The projection and absorption of this energy starts to make ordinary distinctions between outer and inner lose some of their import.
Through this kind of prāṇāyāma, the veil over inner light is thinned and the mind becomes fit for concentration.
Vyasa argues that there is no tapas superior to prāṇāyāma. It removes impurities and makes the light of knowledge shine. He says that the karmas which cause ignorance and prevent clarity of discernment dwindle away due to the practice of prāṇāyāma. This limb can be seen as an elaboration on the breath meditation that was mentioned in the first chapter.