We should steady the mind and the body before doing pranayama
Breathing is the link between body and mind in the yoga practice. The breath can lead the body toward wellness and the mind toward calmness. In truth, breathing is a foundational link between body and mind, period.
Breathing is an involuntary process that is also partly voluntary. We have no direct control over other involuntary body functions such as digestion, hormone secretions, or our immune system, but we do have a degree of voluntary control over the breath. Furthermore, breathing is a vital life function. This is a unique combination. Thus breathing is a voluntary doorway to the involuntary body, a conscious doorway to the subconscious mind.
Breathing directly influences the state of body and mind in ways that are not always apparent, at levels that are not always visible on the surface. The breath is ever present as a companion in asana and in meditation. In pranayama though, the breath is the central player. Pranayama is the yoga practice of working with the breath. In doing pranayama, it is important to settle both the body and the mind. When the body is still and the mind is settled, we effectively access the subtle experience of the breath. So we should not practise pranayama mechanically. We should pay active attention to steadying the mind and the body before and during the practice.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika’s description of hatha yoga is centred on the practice of pranayama. The mind and breath are deeply connected. It is in our experience that disturbed breathing disturbs the mind in turn. Similarly, when our breathing is calm, we can notice that our minds also tend to be calm. For instance, if we are watching a suspenseful scene in a movie, we tend to hold our breath. By controlling the breath, we may control the mind. In pranayama, we attempt this. By slowing down and controlling the breath with attention, we aim to bring focus to the mind. When we practise such pranayama, it is necessary that we keep the body still, usually seated, thus ensuring the actions of the body are minimised and the senses are not distracted or restless. And when we do such pranayama, we must focus the mind on a steady object of attention.
My guru Krishnamacharya used to say, “To cure the ills of the body, use the body. To cure the wandering of the mind, practise pranayama.” Asanas and disciplined food habits are important in modifying the course of disease in the body. When the mind is disturbed though, the most powerful tool, over time, is pranayama.
Therefore Krishnamacharya included pranayama in most yoga practices he prescribed, with or without a mantra, depending on the person. Pranayama is also sometimes referred to as the yoga of inner touch in classical texts. This is a key understanding in pranayama practice.
This inner touch that we cultivate should be pleasant and easy. As the mind settles onto that feeling, it leads to progressively greater inner awareness, and the senses are drawn inward. As the sensation of the prana within is pleasant and easy, mental focus on it is not difficult. Thus pranayama becomes a pathway to establish the next two limbs of yoga — sense control and meditation. Needless to say, if we are to succeed in such pranayama practice, awareness and pleasantness of the breath should be cultivated whenever possible in asana itself. Hence the emphasis on breath focus in asana in Krishnamacharya’s teachings.
This article appeared in The Hindu newspaper.