Tattvas and the Breath


In the Chandogyopanishad it is stated that the five tattvas have evolved from the mind,the mind has evolved from prana and prana has evolved from pure consciousness. Thus the tattvas are present in every form of creation. In the physical body, they manifest as chitta shakti, prana shakti and atma shakti, which act on the body and mind through energy channels or nadis and the breath or swara.


Swam means ‘flow’ or ‘movement’. Nadi also means ‘flow’. Nadi is the flow of shakti in the subtle body, and swara is the flow of shakti in our breath. Therefore, the swara shastras deal with the science of the flow of breath and nadis.

The three shaktis flowing in the breath are channelled through three main nadis in the body, known as

  • Ida
  • Pingala
  • Sushumna

It is said that, within the physical framework of the body, there is a network of 72,000 nadis. All these carry prana or vital energy throughout the entire body, but out of them the three nadis, ida, pingala and sushumna have a major influence on the psycho-physical and spiritual states of the body, mind and consciousness.

Chitta shakti, or the force of ida, is the vital mental energy which governs all the functions of thought, mind and chitta. All mental activity is a result of the flow and dominance of ida. This flow of energy is connected to the flow of breath through the left nostril, which is known to influence right brain hemisphere activities. It is also known as Chandra (moon) swara and considered as the negative polarity of energy within the body. ’

Prana shakti, which flows in pingala, is the vital life force and positive polarity of energy which governs all active physical functions. The physical work you perform throughout the day is a direct consequence of the level of prana shakti that is flowing in you. The activities of pingala are connected to the flow of your breath through the right nostril, which influences left brain hemisphere activities. It is also known as smya (sun) swara.

The third shakti or energy, atma shakti, is channelled through sushumna nadi, the central passage of prana. Ida is the channel of the mental energy force and pingala is the channel for the vital energy force, sushumna on the other hand is the channel for spiritual energy force. Sushumna is a neutral energy and when it is active, the breath flows through both nostrils simultaneously. Then the flow of both ida and pingala are harmonised, and this occurrence is known to influence the activities of the higher dormant brain centres.

In the physical body, these three nadis correspond to the parasympathetic (ida), sympathetic (pingala) and autonomic (sushumna) nervous systems. However, throughout the life of most people, sushumna remains dormant. Until sushumna is awakened through the practices of tantra, yoga or other spiritual practices, an individual is entirely under the control of chitta and prana shakti ie. ida/pingala. These three aspects of energy manifest in the physical breath or swaras in a cyclical pattern. The flow of ida or the Chandra swara lasts for approximately one hour, after which it changes to pingala for the next hour and then back to ida.

At the time of changeover, there is a brief span of a few seconds when the third nadi, sushumna, flows. This cycle continues day and night and is strongly influenced by the lunar/solar movements, adjusting itself to the bright and dark fortnights of the lunar cycle.

As the entire body and mind structure is made up of the five tattvas, they are inherent in every aspect of our existence and can even be witnessed in the flow of the swara. Each tattva has a particular pranic frequency and affects the various body mechanisms. The activities of the tattvas cause the breath or swara to flow in different directions, for varying distances and durations, and influence the energy system of ida, pingala, and sushumna.

The two nadis, ida/pingala, channel shakti or energy into the various chakras or energy centres situated in the spinal column, beginning from mooladhara, right up to ajna chakra. These centres increase in vibration and are intersected by ida/pingala. The influence of the tattvas is also conveyed to the chakras through the swara.

Each chakra is dominated by one of the five elements

  • Mooladhara by the earth element (the lowest vibration of prana)
  • Swadhisthana by water
  • Manipura by fire
  • Anahata by air.
  • The subtlest element, ether, rules over vishuddhi chakra, the throat centre
  • The chakras beyond vishuddhi fall under the influence of the subtler elements of the antah karana.

    Just as the different swaras influence and govern different spheres of mental, physical and spiritual experience, the five tattvas also have individual characteristics which affect our state of mind, body and consciousness.
    For example, when Prithvi or earth element is active, yourb thoughts may be materialistic, whereas if ether is flowing then there are no such thoughts, but complete stillness or shoonya.
    Therefore, to understand the levels of awareness we are experiencing, other than the awareness of which tattva is active we also need ton know which swara is flowing through our body at that time. In the final analysis, it is a combination of both the swara and predominating tattva which influences our physical, psychological and transcendental states of mind.

It is said in the Shiva Swarodaya that if the element of fire is predominant during the flow of sushumna, it consumes the fruit of all your actions. This is because when sushumna flows, the awareness is absorbed in the subtlest tattva, paramtattwa, which is beyond action and result. Agni tattva, in combination with sushumna, intensifies this effect. This is why it is said that when sushumna begins to flow, one should stop all work and sit down for meditation or spiritual practices.

If the element of ether is active during the flow of sushumna, then the mind travels at a very great speed; like a swift rocket, it is catapulted into the higher consciousness. At that time it is easy to transcend material or external awareness, and meditation during that period will undoubtedly give good results. However, this combination is known to occur very rarely.

During the flow of ida and pingala, these five tattwas arise separately in succession. In each hour of the Chandra and surya swaras, all five tattwas are active individually in the following order:

  • Air
  • Fire
  • Earth
  • Water
  • Ether

Each tattva has a fixed duration during which it flows, and when that is over it is replaced by the next tattva. It is possible to detect the prevailing tattva in the swara at any particular time in several ways.

A tattva yogi, who has complete knowledge or jnana of the tattwas in relation to the swara, can judge his physical, mental, emotional and spiritual state and act in accordance with that. However, more important than this is knowing how to induce the experience of your true nature through awareness of the tattwas in the different swaras.

How to recognize the tattwas from your Breath or Swara


A tattva yogi can define the active tattva that is flowing, by examining the nature of the perceptions arising therefrom. After developing proficiency in the art of defining the tattva, he develops the experience of the tattvas through several tantric practices that accentuate their flow.

One of these practices is trataka on the tattva yantras. The yantras can be inscribed on metal or drawn on paper with their respective mantras and appropriate colours. Then one performs trataka on each yantra for a number of days, mentally repeating its corresponding bija mantra.

Beginning with the Prithvi element, first develop proficiency in one yantra, before going onto the next. At the end of each practice, examine the flow of the tattwas by gazing into chidakasha, the space in front of the closed eyes (chidakasha dharana) and witnessing the forms and colours which arise. As the tattwas are intimately connected with the tanmatras or sense perceptions, one can even experience the senses in their subtle form. This should also be observed as it is a vital indication.


For example, one may hear inner sounds, smell fragrances, taste ‘different things, or feel the touch of something against the skin without an external cause.

Another practice which is useful for witnessing the tattwas is naumukhi mudra (closing of the nine gates) and yoni mudra or shanmukhi mudra (closing of the six gates).While performing this, you should analyse the colours and forms which appear in front of your closed eyes.

The active tattva can also be detected by breathing out through the nose onto a mirror and observing the shape of the vapor made by your breath.
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