Let the breath be subtle and smooth
Pranayama should help the practitioner achieve this quality
The prana or the breath is like a horse. The mind is the rider. If the rider does not have a sure touch or is inattentive, the horse may become restless and throw the rider off, especially when attempting an advanced manoeuvre. So it is with the mind in pranayama.
If I am inattentive, overconfident, or simply lacking in technique, pranayama can create problems. Hence the classical texts caution that the breath must be tamed slowly, like you would a wild animal. Like valuable packages in transit, the breath must be stamped, “Handle with care!” because the breath can create problems in both body and mind if managed inappropriately.
Physiological problems and mental disturbances can develop over time in those who practise inappropriate and forceful pranayama. People do notice when asana practice causes them pain or injury. The warning signs are not so apparent when the pranayama they do is harming them. The effect of imbalanced pranayama can be insidious, manifesting as gradual and subtle problems in the body physiology or psychology.
The word loma in Sanskrit means “hair.” This word appears in relation to pranayama — anuloma or viloma pranayama, for instance. What does hair have to do with pranayama? It is a metaphor, of course; we are not practising pranayama through our hair! But what does this metaphor indicate? Look at a strand of hair and notice how thin or subtle it is. Touch a strand of hair and feel how smooth it is. This is how the breath should be in the pranayama practice — subtle and smooth. In fact, these qualities of the breath should be developed in asana practice itself.
The less the strain in an asana, the longer and smoother the breathing should be. When the breath becomes long and smooth, it serves as the anchor of the yoga practice. It weaves a constant thread through the asana, pranayama, and meditation. A quality of pervasive steadiness underpins a practice supported by a long and smooth breath.
To define pranayama as “breath control” is like defining meditation as “mind control.” Meditation cannot be forced by repressing the thoughts in the mind. Neither can pranayama be forced by trying to control the breath. The root of pranayama is the subtle experience of the breath. Pranayama is a constantly evolving practice with one eye on the present quality of the breath and the other on the place of length and smoothness we wish to guide the breath to.
Fast breathing techniques are rather popular in some styles of yoga nowadays. Fundamentally, fast breathing techniques are better considered as cleansing techniques than as pranayama. Fast breathing is hyperventilation, and physiologically, it can quite easily result in dizziness. Therefore it should logically be taught for a limited count or duration and interspersed with much greater counts or duration of long and deep breathing.
It also needs preparation and balance through asanas. In short, fast breathing techniques should be practised considering one’s needs and health. To avoid problems in pranayama practice, here is a simple principle to remember — pranayama begins as just breath awareness and the quality of breath awareness is part of the practice at all times. That is, we must never lose the awareness of and comfort with breath in the pranayama practice.
This article appeared in The Hindu newspaper.