Yoga is a science and pranayama is an application of this science.Subtle breath alone, as a purely mechanical operation,can create an appropriate effect on our body, mind and spirit. However, it has been observed that the effect of these techniques can be greatly amplified when they are applied with sensitivity and awareness of their subtle influences, and with a deeper understanding of the relationship between the body, energy and mind.
Application of a technique without awareness will produce results; however, the process becomes more efficient with awareness, and the inner knowledge begins to awaken.
By developing the sensitivity of subtle breath from the gross to the subtle levels, one understands the secrets of the intimate relationships in the cycles of life. Once this knowledge awakens, self-mastery follows. In daily life, most things are mechanical and automatic. One eats, works and plays, experiences anger, jealousy and joy, without awareness of what one is doing or feeling.
This lack of awareness is carried over into the yogic sadhana also. Many practitioners perform as many practices as possible in the allotted time, so they can finish in time for breakfast. But what do they accomplish? Where is the awareness?
The following techniques are methods of increasing sensitivity to the subtle levels of subtle breath, the flows of swara and the pancha pranas. These practices are intended to awaken an insight into the aspects of subtle breath, prana, body and mind, which are normally beyond the mundane awareness. Although they may be regarded as preliminary techniques, they can also be practiced at any level of sadhana.
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Awareness of swara
Swara is the flow of breath in the nostrils. One can easily know which nostril is flowing by blocking one nostril at a time, and observing which flow is stronger. A detailed examination of the breath in the nostrils will give quite specific information about one’s psycho-physiological state.
The aspects to be examined include:
Distance the breath extends beyond the nostrils
Predominance of either the right or left nostril
The breath flows into and out of the nostrils.
The observation techniques described below will show that these three aspects are quite variable. When the swara is observed over a long period, it will yield a wealth of information. These techniques can be practiced at any time and during any situation. It is suggested that one observe the swara throughout a range of activities and experiences; for example, sitting, eating, talking, walking, exercising, working, relaxing, meditating, feeling anger, sorrow, happiness, depression, exhilaration, contentment, stress and so on.
The breath may be checked before, during and after each of these situations. The practitioner should relate his observations to what he already knows about the ida/pingala system, various tattwas and the pancha pranas. This can become a very involved sadhana in itself.
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Technique I: Observation of Swara for Subtle Breath
- Sit in any comfortable position.
- Focus the awareness on the natural breath in the nostrils. Place the back of the hand in front of the nostrils. Try to determine how far the exhalation flows out beyond the nostrils by feeling the breath on the hairs on the back of the hand.
- Observe the breath and determine its length.
- The natural length of the breath is between 7-12 finger widths (angular) from the nostrils. During states of emotion and excitation the breath can extend to 36 finger-widths. During extreme physical exertion, it may extend to 100 finger-widths.
- The next step is an even more subtle observation. Try to determine the direction in which the exhaled air leaves the nostrils, using the back of the hand.
- Observe whether the exhaled breath flows from the center of the nostrils (signifying the predominance of prithvi tattwa, the earth element), upwards (signifying the predominance of agni tattwa, the fire element), downwards (indicating apas tarrwa, the water element), from the sides (indicating vayu tattwa, the air element), or in a diffused flow, without any predominant direction (indicating akasha tattwa, the ether element).
- At this stage one need not contemplate what each flow signifies; simply be aware that they exist on witnessing the breath flow.
- Observe the various flows of swara minutely.
Practice note: A more sensitive measurement can be made by holding a small down feather or a cotton thread in front of the nostrils. By observing the direction of the emerging breath over a period of time, one will see that subtle breath emerges at various angles at different times, and even at differing angles from each nostril. This is a perfectly normal occurrence.
Technique 2: Akasha pranayama (space breath)
- Sit in a comfortable meditative posture, preferably siddhasana, siddha yoni asana or padmasana.
- Practice kaya sthairyam for a few minutes, and then observe the breath until it becomes silent and steady.
- Perform nasikagra drishti, gazing down at your nose tip.