By Jonathan Rosenthal
Even before I started practicing yoga, I foundthat inhaling deeply, holdingmy breath as long as is comfortable,and exhaling very slowly was themost effective technique to regulate my thoughts and actions in moments of indecision and doubt.
“Before he eats, before he drinks, before he resolves to do anything, Pranayama should be performed first and then the nature of his determination should be clearly enunciated and placedbefore the mind.” – Swami Sivananda.
Prana, however, is not solely breath. Breath contributes to prana, but not all prana is derived from breath.
Swami Sivanandasays, “The Prana may be defined as the finest vital force in everythingwhich becomes visible on the physicalplane as motionand action, and on the mentalplane as thought. The word Pranayama, therefore, means the restraint of vitalenergies.” Thisseems to suggestthat prana is fed by the needs of air, water and food and then directed towards the vayus, like thoughts and actions. Prana is hard to conceptualize, and therefore visualize and manipulate directly.
Perhaps the control of breath is a startingpoint to control prana. According to Swami Sivananda, “If you control the flywheel (the prana) you control the wheels (the other organs).” Similarly, Sri Dharma Mittra says, “the attention is a magnetfor prana.” Perhaps combining control of breath with the guidance of attentionallows one to indirectly manipulate prana.
Breath is the most compulsory need for survival. Itis impossible to survive without breath for the amountof time one can survive withoutfood and water. This is why controllingthe breath is such an important tool, both in and out of yoga. Returning to this basic need shatters the illusion of all the other “needs (e.g. fears, desires, doubts)” – almost like throwing a wrench at a triangular enclosure of mirrors that reflect and deceive you endlessly.
Fears and doubts are no match for Pranayama. By removing the focus from these ungrounded anticipations and placing the focus on the most basic and essential need, Pranayama shatters the mirrored labyrinth of imaginary and illusory needs.
I imagine that all “needs”are really illusions. We are not really hungry, it is thebody that is hungry; we are not cold, it is the body that is cold. In fact, Swami Sivananda describes Pranayama techniques that eliminate needs like hunger, thirst, and sleep and these same techniques can even cool or warm the body – sitkari and sitali are cooling,suryabheda and ujjayi are warming, and bhastrika restores normal temperature. Further, sitkari and sitaliboth trump hunger, thirst, and sleep. All of theseseem to suggestthat pranayama is a practice mainly used to shatter the illusion of needs.
It is interestingthat Swami Sivananda advises specifically to avoid straining while doing Pranayama: “Some people twist the muscles of the face when they do Kumbhaka (breath retention). It shouldbe avoided. It is a symptom to indicate that they are going beyond theircapacity.”
If practicing Pranayama becomesa need in and of itself,it has become an illusion extraordinaire. This is much like a drug given in excess quantitythat then becomesa poison. In pursuingPranayama as a need in and of itself,the practitioner has only replaced an unnecessary “need” with a new one.
Pranayama should be practiced each and every day, but it is not the end of the world to miss a day; Pranayama should be practiced not as a need in and of itself, but as a technique that, by focusing on the only real need, prana, shatters the illusion of the others.
Jonathan Rosenthal took his DharmaYoga Life of a Yogi 200-Hour Teacher Training in June 2013. His motto is: “With everything I do, I try to remember we are yogis first and foremost and that we should view life as a task to be done, but with compassion, sincerity, angry determination, and a renunciation of the fruits of actions. I am grateful to the teachers who made this perspective possible and try to return the favor by teaching others.” He is in the internship phase of his LOAY teacher training.