Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pranayama, Sahita and Kevala Kumbhaka

I want to talk today about pranayama to clarify some of the practices that we have been working on here in Santa Fe. The book is still in the works and I have not posted much lately as this year has been a busy transition year for myself and family.

Pranayama is at the heart of Hatha Yoga sadhana. Some attempt to separate the 8 traditional limbs of yoga, dealing with each of them in a linear, separate way, but if one is intelligent with practice, one realizes that this is impossible to do.

One of the earliest definitions of yoga is samadhi, the control of the mind through several stages. This process is described in full detail in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This process is brought to full understanding in the teachings of the ancient Hatha yoga texts, which quoting from Yoga Vasistha, tell us that the mind has two causes, vasana or conditioning, and samirana or respiration. To control the mind through controlling the conditioning is one of the oldest methods utilized. We will not deal with that here but rather will focus on the control of respiration to control the mind.

The Hatha Yoga recognizes the truth of Arjuna's statement in the Bhagavad Gita that "the mind is as difficult to control as the wind." On first read of this statement one might be bewildered and discouraged. However, the wind referred to in the secret understanding is not the external wind but the internal wind, the prana.

Prana is related to wind or vayu and according to ancient Samkhya teaching, the wind element is associated with sparsa or the deep inner feeling that encompasses one's immediate sense of being. In simpler terms, prana is felt. This is important to understand. Another common misperception is that prana is something which must be discovered. However, this isn't true. Prana is always present. It is inseparable from attention/feeling itself. Let me state that again. Prana is not something we discover. It is inseparable from base attention itself.

Understanding these basic truths, one can immediately proceed to contain and control attention/feeling through various techniques which are given in the ancient teachings. In the process, the citta or mind will come under control rather rapidly.

It states very clearly in the Hathapradipika 2.77 and also the commentary on Yoga Sutra 1.34 by Hariharananda Aranya that at the end of all breath retention the mind should be made free of objects. This quickly dispells the notion that pranayama is mere breath exercise. Full pranayama should be done according to Hariharananda, first with associated relaxation of body, then full relaxation of mind. This is done according to sutra 1.35, first with the instrumental sensory feeling body, and then the mind rests according to 1.36 in the base level luminosity, the experiential heart of consciousness itself. This process described in the sutras is equivalent to the deep process of mudra described in the hatha texts. There is a lot to say on this process.

There is a common misperception within the yoga community that kumbhaka or retention of the breath is done with only the gross breath. However this is a very gross understanding. Many utilize the bandhas and mudras only on the physical level. However, pranayama is useless without the stabilizing of consciousness. It is at this level that we enter the fifth stage of yoga, the pratyahara. Pratyahara according to one of the definitions of Yajnavalkya and Vasistha is the stabilizing of prana in particular configurations, traditionally at the various adhara points. Many other texts also describe  ways to stabilize and hold the attention energy. This holding of attention/energy in the sparsic field is what I would call the "subtle breath" as opposed to holding the gross breath which is holding inhalation and exhalation.

In the texts, the holding of breath or kumbhaka, done with inhalation or exhalation is called sahita. Without inhalation or exhalation, the breath hold is called kevala. Many interpret this meaning to be that inhalation and exhalation holds are themselves sahita while kevala kumbhaka is an "in between" hold done somewhere between the inhale and exhale. I have heard other interpretations as well. I would say that after years of practicing these ways, I consider these interpretations to be very gross.

I now interpret the sahita kumbhaka to be just what it says, a hold of the prana, which is inseparable from attention/feeling with inhalation or exhalation (a gross inhalation or exhalation). In other words, the gross breath matches the subtle breath. Kevala kumbhaka is a hold in which the attention/energy is held separately from the inhalation and exhalation movements or pauses. In other words, the subtle breath separates from the gross breath. This can be done with gross breath held and subtle moving, or the subtle held and the gross moving, or both held or both moving. The important point is that there is a separation of gross and subtle that occurs in the kevala.

This separation process in kevala kumbhaka is an important thing to understand. In fact, the term kevala means isolated or unmingled. In other words, kevala is a separation or an unmingling of the gross and subtle breaths. This is not as complicated as it may appear.

One of the first breath techniques that I teach to understand this concept is derived from a powerful technique given in Yoga Vasistha and Vijnanabhairava. Traditionally the technique involves breathing in and out to two locus points, termed the bahya and antar dvadasantas. Bahya is external, antar is internal, and dvadasanta means the twelve finger width distance. Traditionally the bahya dvadasanta is held twelve finger digit width distances beyond the nose. The antar dvadasanta is twelve finger digit widths down from the nose base (located at approximately the heart). One focuses on these two points. After years of practice with this, I expanded the location feeling of these two points into the twelve finger digit width distance all around the body from the skin (bahya dvadasanta) and expanded the inner dvadasanta to include the entire central column. This is discussed further in Yoga Vasistha.

Stage 1
So the technique now goes as follows: breath out to the twelve finger width distance space around the entire body (like an external aura) and then breath in to the central column. When you breathe out, focus the breath/attention/feeling at the external field, wait until the body relaxes and then the mind relaxes. Employ Shambhavi Mudra here if you know it. When you breath in, hold the breath/attention/feeling in the central column, all along it, relaxing first body then mind. Shambhavi mudra again. When I say relax here, I mean relaxing everything that is not associated with holding the attention/energy/feeling at the specific location. There is much more to say on this but we'll keep it simple for now. Continue this process, holding the attention/energy/breath/feeling at each location, in sync with the gross breathing. This is sahita pranayama and kumbhaka (holding). In other words, the gross breath is in sync with the subtle attention/breath.

This is Ujjayi breath, the true Ujjayi. What does it mean to have Ujjayi? It means to be victorious. To conquer. It means to conquer the movements of the waters of prana. In other words it means to have true pranayama. Control of the prana.

Stage 2
After some time, switch the gross and subtle movements and holds. In other words, inhale to the external field and exhale to the internal field. This is also sahita but it is reversed.

Stage 3
After some time with the second technique, try the third one. This technique is the first experience of kevala pranayama. Go back to the first technique and breath out to the external field and inhale to the internal field. Then after some time, stop the gross breath, holding it in. Now, push the subtle breath attention out to the external field, while holding the gross breath in at the spine. Hold for some time, relaxing body and mind in the same way. Then bring the subtle breath/attention in back to the spine and hold the gross and subtle together. Then breathe both subtle and gross breaths out to the external field and then bring them back in together to the center and repeat the separation process again. If you do this right you will notice certain physical processes arise in the body. This process starts to naturally activate bandha and mudra.

Stage 4
The fourth stage is another kevala practice. Here, we stop the gross breath somewhere in between the inhalation and exhalation and forget whether we are inhaling or exhaling. Then we push the subtle breath/attention out to the external field, hold it with bodily and mental relaxation, and then draw it back in and hold it centrally with respective relaxations. This process can be done rapidly or slow. Take normal gross breaths in between. This is an extremely powerful practice that starts to electrify the central column and may produce deep physical reactions in the eyes and chakra regions. Kundali and the inner vibrations can be aroused in this practice.

The first two techniques are a normal and reversed sahita process. The last two are all kevala techniques in that the 3rd technique holds the gross and moves the subtle, the 4th does the same but in a different way.

These techniques should be learned slowly and ideally under the direction of the teacher. They help us to achieve control of the prana. Understanding these techniques leads to a deep understanding of prana, apana, mind, energy, mudra, and kundali, as described in the hatha texts.

This process of discovering kevala pranayama and kumbhaka leads to a deep process of separation of the subtle and gross bodies and one quickly learns how to work with the subtle field of sparsa. It is here that one truly starts to understand the instrumental and lower levels of the expression of consciousness as described by Patanjali. Then one is rapidly drawn in to yoga citta vrtti nirodha through the practice of prana nirodha. In other words, the inner limbs of yoga ripen as a fruit of the practice and meditation is in the palm of your hand, effortlessly.

One other interesting thing to note is that kevala and kaivalya are similar words. Kaivalya is that isolation that is described in the fourth chapter of the yoga sutras. The Hatha Yoga teachings lead us to that Kaivalya through the sublime practice of Kevala.