Pranayama Supreme Tapas
Pranayama is the practice of regulating the breath, in order to gain steadiness of the mind. Prana means life force, and ayama means extension or expansion. So through this practice we are expanding this energy throughout our body. This deep practice, works on our mind, intellect, and deeper states of awareness. We work with our Para-sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for activities while the body is at rest and can help to neutralize the negative effects of “fight or flight” overactivity.
Many people relate Pranayama to a breathing exercise, or a physical practice to increase lung capacity. According to the Yoga Sutras, Pranayam should not be looked at as a physical exercise, but a psychological one. It may seem like we are increasing the amount of air into our lungs, but in reality, we are reducing the amount of oxygen we take into the lungs, and instead, increasing the quality of Carbon Dioxide. We do this through a specific type of breathing, inhaling for one count and exhaling in double time. During the practice, our internal organs are craving for more oxygen, and we are telling them no, I am practicing Pranayam. A signal is sent to the front part of the brain, this is where you decide, and learn to control the breath, making it more steady and long.
One example of Pranayama is Bhastrika. During the first part of this practice, there is a rapid inhalation and exhalation, resulting in expansion and contraction of the diaphragm. We may feel pain in the chest, and upper back during this stage, as we start waking up dormant muscles. This expansion and contraction of the semi-voluntary muscle has a very powerful effect on the brain. So many external things influence the breath and then the mind on the conscious and unconscious level. Fear, anxiety, tension all cause direct contraction of the diaphragm, breath, body, and then our mind. So when we sit up straight and expand the diaphragm, this will lead to expansion of the body and mind. When we begin to work with the diaphragm, then all this tension which is stored on an emotional level begins to empty. Releasing all that is not needed inside us, and preparing us to withdrawal the senses, and turn all awareness inwards.
Another example is Nadi Shodhana. Through this alternative nostril breathing practice, we seek to purify the nadis and energy channels in the body. We bring these dueling energies (Left and Right sides of the body) into one, which is the purpose of Hatha Yoga, to gobeyond this conflict and create balance. When first practicing Nadi Shodhan there are 2 paths. One, it can create anxiousness or restlessness. Another, the practice can induce drowsiness, but when you learn to practice with full awareness and a Sattvic mind, the practice can help to withdraw the senses and turn awareness inwards.
Looking at Pranayama in totality, the practice is a case of supreme Tapas. Tapas has different meanings, but can mean to heat, burn, or in this case, burn off all impurities that reside in us. Cleaning the slate, and purging dormant emotions we have held on for too long. Through this practice, deep emotions are lifted and brought to the surface. Through this, we begin to dilute these sanskaras and emotions and work with them in a gentle manner. As discussed prior, the breath and emotions are linked. So when we make the breath steady and long, increase our awareness, we invite these stored emotions to the surface. Most of us live with a sort of fake coating. We turn to self help books to heal, but most of the time, these books just pamper us. Sunil Sharma related this to just applying more makeup to an already dirty face. Pranayama works differently, we are not reading about something external, we are doing this practice, it is real, and being experienced now. Pranayama does not apply more make-up to a dirty face, but wipes this makeup off our face, and brings out our true being. Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Ch.2/19) states, “When the Nadis are purified there are external symptoms. Success is definite when the body becomes thin and glows.”
In order to increase our awareness, and confront the ego, we have to go through many layers. We hold tension in the gross physical body, the breath, and lastly in our thoughts. If we dig enough, and move through all these layers we can reach a state of freedom. Pranayama is a powerful practice that allows us to dig into the ground and bring up all that is not needed.
So when these emotions eventually rise, we should not run away from them, hurt them, but instead just let them go. Allow them to come up, and set them free. Become friendly with this pain, increase awareness of ourselves and let them go. We learn to empty all thoughts, whether they are positive or negative. When all thoughts are eventually emptied we experience a point of silence. Retention, or “Kumbhaka” should result in this silence. What will be left, are feelings which transcend beyond; love, compassion, freedom, and bliss. in.