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Yoga Sutras 2.49-2.53: 
Pranayama and Breath Control,
Rung #4 of 8
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Click here to return to the main page of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.Fourth rung is Pranayama: The fourth of the eight rungs (2.29) of Yoga is Pranayama, which is regulating the breath so as to make it slow and subtle (2.50), leading to the experience of the steady flow of energy (prana), which is beyond or underneath exhalation, inhalation, and the transitions between them (2.51).

The fourth Pranayama: The three pranayamas are exhalation, inhalation, and the transition (2.50). However, the fourth pranayama is that continuous prana which surpasses, is beyond, or behind the others (2.51).

Thinning the veil of karma: The experience and repeated practice of this fourth pranayama thins the veil of karma, which usually clouds the inner light, allowing that to come shining through (2.52).

Posture is the prerequisite: To successfully practice and attain the full benefits of breath control and pranayama, it is necessary that it be built on the solid foundation of a steady and comfortable sitting posture (2.46-2.48).

Pranayama is preparation for concentration: Through these practices and processes of pranayama the mind acquires or develops the fitness, qualification, or capability for concentration (dharana), which is the sixth rung (3.1-3.3).

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2.49 Once that perfected posture has been achieved, the slowing or braking of the force behind, and of unregulated movement of inhalation and exhalation is called breath control and expansion of prana (pranayama), which leads to the absence of the awareness of both, and is the fourth of the eight rungs.
(tasmin sati shvasa prashvsayoh gati vichchhedah pranayamah)

  • tasmin = upon that (perfection of meditation posture) 
  • sati = being accomplished
  • shvasa = inhalation
  • prashvsayoh = exhalation
  • gati = of the uncontrolled movements
  • vichchhedah = slowing, softening or braking of the force behind
  • pranayamah = expansion of prana, regulation of breath

Slowing the force behind breath: Imagine that you are driving a car, and that you quickly accelerate by firmly pressing the gas pedal with your foot. Imagine that when you want to slow down, you sharply press your foot on the brake pedal. In both cases there is a firm pressure being exerted. Now, imagine that you very gently press the gas pedal to accelerate, and that you very gently press the brake pedal to slow down. You are using less force in both accelerating and decelerating. That backing off, or slowing of the amount of force is what is done with the exertion towards exhalation and inhalation (vichchhedah). Through that slowing process, there is an expansion of awareness of the entire field of prana, which is called pranayama.

Breathing and pranayama practices: This sort of slowing, softening or braking of the effort in breath is used with such foundation practices as breath awareness, diaphragmatic breathing, alternate nostril breathing, and two-to-one breathing. The entire science of breath and pranayama rests on this foundation.

Eliminate the pause: One of the most important aspects of regulating the breath is the elimination of the pause between breaths. The question of intentional breath retention (kumbhaka) is a separate matter, and is built on a solid foundation of well regulated breathing. By consciously practicing the elimination of the pause, allowing the transitions between breaths to be very smooth, with a backing off of effort, a deep sense of calm comes. This is the preparation for deep concentration and meditation, which is described in sutra 2.53.

Sandhya, ida and pingala: This deep calm is called sandhya, the wedding of sun and moon, the energy flows of ida and pingala. From this place the mind only wants to be quiet and calm, going inward to meditate, with the opening of sushumna. (See the pages on describing ida and pingala and balancing ida and pingala)

Absence of awareness of breath: At some point the attention moves inward, past the breath. The senses turn inward (pratyahara, 2.54-2.55) towards concentration, meditation, and samadhi (3.1-3.3), the last three of the eight rungs of Yoga. When this absence of awareness of breath happens, it is as if one forgets he or she is breathing, although it is not a mere forgetting like when one is absent-minded. Rather, it is a case of transcending breath awareness. This is similar to awareness of body (2.46-2.48) falling away when attention becomes absorbed in the breath, and to worldly awareness falling away when attention becomes absorbed in the body and sitting posture. In this systematic process, attention moves inward through all the levels of ones being.

One of the predictable obstacles: In earlier sutras (1.30-1.32) nine predictable obstacles and four ensuing companions were described, one of which was irregularities in the breath (1.31). Although one-pointedness was introduced as the antidote (1.32) for all of those obstacles, a subtler, more specific approach is being introduced here, which is more intimately involved with the obstacle of irregular breath itself.

Awareness of breath: One of the finest methods there is to stabilize and calm the mind is breath awareness. First, be aware of the transitions between the breaths, and allow them to be smooth, without an abrupt transition, and without pausing between breaths. Consciously practice seeing how delicately smooth you can make the transitions. Allow the breath to be quiet, and to have no jerkiness.

Elongation of exhalation: Second, after establishing sound and steady awareness of the breath, allow the exhalation to gradually elongate, such that the amount of time spent exhaling is longer than the amount of time inhaling. The air will move outward more slowly with exhalation than with inhalation. Gradually allow the ratio to be two to one, where the exhalation is approximately twice as long as the inhalation. Pranayama is often translated as breath control. The root ayama actually means lengthening. Thus, pranayama more specifically means lengthening the life force

Not rechaka, puraka, and kumbhaka: There are other breathing practices that include rechaka (exhalation), puraka (inhalation) and kumbhaka (intentional holding of the breath). These practices are not the intent here in this sutra, particularly not the practice of breath retention. Though these may be useful practices at some stage of practice, they are not the subject of this sutra in relation to stabilizing the mind and making it tranquil.

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2.50 That pranayama has three aspects of external or outward flow (exhalation), internal or inward flow (inhalation), and the third, which is the absence of both during the transition between them, and is known as fixedness, retention, or suspension. These are regulated by place, time, and number, with breath becoming slow and subtle.
(bahya abhyantara stambha vrittih desha kala sankhyabhih paridrishtah dirgha sukshmah)

  • bahya = external
  • abhyantara = internal
  • stambha = holding, restraint, suspension, stationary, retention, cessation, transition
  • vrittih = operations, activities, fluctuations, modifications, changes, or various forms of the mind-field 
  • desha = place, spot, space, location
  • kala = time, period, duration
  • sankhyabhih = by these three, number, count of
  • paridrishtah = regulated by, observed by
  • dirgha = made long, prolonged, slow
  • sukshmah = and subtle, fine

Train three aspects of breath: Three aspects of breath and prana are trained when doing any of the specific breathing practices:

  1. Exhalation: Training the exhalation is removing the jerkiness, allowing the flow to be slow and deep, as well as diaphragmatic.
  2. Inhalation: Training the exhalation also means eliminating jerkiness, breathing slowly, and using the diaphragm.
  3. Transition: Between exhalation and inhalation, and between inhalation and exhalation there is a transition, which is experienced as suspension, retention, or cessation, etc. The training of the transition is to make it very smooth, as if there were no pause at all.

Suspension means transition: When the word stambha is translated as suspension or retention, this can be taken to mean the intentional holding of the breath over some period of time, which is a practice called kumbhaka. However, it is stambha that is used here, not kumbhaka. Between exhalation and inhalation there is a transition when one is neither exhaling nor inhaling. Between inhalation and exhalation there is also a transition when one is neither inhaling nor exhaling.

Slowing the breath: A slowing or braking process was described in the last sutra (2.49). This gentle regulation and releasing of effort is very important to understand and practice with all three aspects of breath: exhalation, inhalation, and transition.

Regulation by place, time, and number: During breathing practices, the cycles of breath (exhalation, inhalation, and transition) are witnessed and regulated in three ways:

  1. Place (desha, spot, space, location): The awareness of breath or its flow of energy is intentionally focused in some location, such as the diaphragm, one or both nostrils, up and down the spine, throughout the whole body, or with attention placed in one point (navel, heart, or eyebrow centers, etc.). The different points of attention will bring different experiences and different depths of benefit.
  2. Time (kala, period, duration): The timing of exhalation, inhalation, and transition are also consciously regulated. The pause between breaths is gently eliminated, or later, in the case of kumbhaka practices, might be intentionally lengthened. Exhalation and inhalation might be made of equal duration, or exhalation might be lengthened, such as in two-to-one breathing. As the pauses are eliminated, the exhalations and inhalations might become quite slow, transcending the gross breath (2.51), and bringing a great peace to the mind, leading to concentration and meditation (2.53).
  3. Number (sankhyabhih, count): One may count the number of seconds or heartbeats associated with inhalation and exhalation, causing the number to be the same for exhalation and inhalation. For example, one may initially count 6 seconds each for inhalation and exhalation, which is a total of 12 seconds per breath, or 5 breaths per minute. With two-to-one breathing, one might exhale 8 seconds and inhale 4 seconds, which is also 12 seconds per breath, or 5 breaths per minute. The counts may be made higher, allowing the breath to be longer. Another way of counting is by measuring the distance below the nostrils at which the flow of air can be felt with the hand or fingers. The further the distance can be felt, the quicker the breath. The less the distance the air can be felt below the nostrils, the slower the breath.

Slow and subtle are the goals: The goal of the practices are to make the breath slow (dirgha, made long) and subtle (sukshmah, made fine). It is very useful to keep in mind that these two are the goals, regardless of which specific breathing and pranayama practices are being done. It allows the mind to stay focused on why the practices are being done, and how they fit into the scheme of the eight rungs of Yoga (2.29), leading to deep meditation and samadhi (3.1-3.3).

Posture is prerequisite: To successfully practice and attain the full benefits of breath control and pranayama, it is necessary that it be built on the solid foundation of a steady and comfortable sitting posture (2.46-2.48). Surely one can do breathing practices without the foundation of posture, but the benefits are not as rich.

Diversity of views on pranayama: There are a wide range of opinions and teachings about breathing and pranayama practices. Some are compatible and some are conflictual, and it seems unlikely that the differences will, or can be completely resolved and integrated. Understanding this allows one to be able to choose wisely about which practices to follow, as well as how and when to implement them. Some of the confusion stems from not understanding the subtler, more internal practices of meditation, and thus believing that pranayama has solely to the more mechanical aspects of muscular breath regulation. The deeper pranayama practices have more to do with awareness than mechanics.

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2.51 The fourth pranayama is that continuous prana which surpasses, is beyond, or behind those others that operate in the exterior and interior realms or fields.
(bahya abhyantara vishaya akshepi chaturthah)

  • bahya = external
  • abhyantara = internal
  • vishaya = region, spheres, realms, fields 
  • akshepi = going beyond, surpassing, setting aside
  • chaturthah = the fourth

The fourth pranayama: The fourth pranayama is that continuous prana which surpasses, is beyond, or behind those others that operate in the exterior and interior realms or fields. It refers to that pure prana that is beyond the three aspects we know as exhalation, inhalation, and transition between these. It is a process of transcending breath as we usually know it, so as to drop into the energy of pure prana that is underneath, or support to the gross breath. This comes after working with the three pranayamas, and these rest on the foundation of the Yamas, Niyamas, and Asana, which are the first three rungs of Yoga.

Like waves and the ocean: Imagine that you are sitting at the ocean, just where the waves come ashore. When a wave comes, it washes over you and runs up the beach. Then, the wave turns around, and recedes over you, going back to the ocean. Then, the current turns again, and another wave washes over you. Over and over, you experience this cycling process. This is like the breath, which exhales, transitions, inhales, transitions, and then starts the process again. However, imagine that you swam away from shore some distance, and dove down to the bottom (wearing your scuba tank). There, you would sit on the bottom with no waves coming or going. You might feel a very gentle motion, but very slight; you are beyond, or deeper than the surface motion of the waves. So it is also with breath.

The fourth pranayama transcends the waves: Similarly, in the fourth pranayama, your attention transcends the process of coming and going of exhalation and inhalation, as well as the transitions between them. In the fourth pranayama, you experience the prana itself as an ever existing force, beyond the surface currents. Through that pranayama the veil of karmasheya (2.12) that covers the inner illumination or light is thinned, diminishes and vanishes, allowing the inner light to come shining through.

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2.52 Through that pranayama the veil of karmasheya (2.12) that covers the inner illumination or light is thinned, diminishes and vanishes.
(tatah kshiyate prakasha avaranam)

  • tatah = then, thereby, thence, from that
  • kshiyate = is destroyed, thinned, diminishes, vanishes
  • prakasha = light, illumination
  • avaranam = veil, covering

Results of the fourth pranayama: Through the experience and repeated practice of that fourth pranayama the veil of karmasheya (2.12), which covers the inner illumination or light is thinned, diminishes and gradually vanishes. The practice of pranayama, and the repeated experiencing of the fourth pranayama (2.51) is a most significant part of breaking the alliance of karma, which was introduced in previous sutras (2.12-2.25).

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2.53 Through these practices and processes of pranayama, which is the fourth of the eight steps, the mind acquires or develops the fitness, qualification, or capability for true concentration (dharana), which is itself the sixth of the steps.
(dharanasu cha yogyata manasah)

  • dharanasu = for concentration, for dharana
  • cha = and 
  • yogyata = fitness, preparedness, qualification, capability
  • manasah = mind

Fitness for concentration: Through these practices and processes of pranayama, which is the fourth of the eight steps, the mind acquires or develops the fitness, qualification, or capability for true concentration (dharana), which is itself the sixth of the steps (3.1). Implicit in this is the fact that pranayama leads to the withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), which is described in the next two sutras (2.54-2.55).

 

The next sutra is 2.54 

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