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Pranayama: the Vital Technique

S.P. Austen has practiced, written on and taught the subject of meditation for over 40 years.

To define prana, the ancient Indian Sanskrit word that is referenced in the term pranayama, is an almost impossible task. Prana is said to be the underlying substratum of all living things, the 'vital force' which drives everything into existence and maintains its life and health.

So far, this vital force called prana has eluded scientific discovery, but certain seers and mystics have claimed it to be composed of energy globules which emanate from the sun. We might think of them as photons, which are radiatory particles of light which carry an electromagnetic frequency.

In essence, our best comprehension of prana is perhaps to think of it in these terms, as light emanations which fill up the space around us and within us, bringing energy and vital force to all living things. Prana operates in the physical and vital bodies rather like a form of photosynthesis, the mechanism of light absorption found in plants. The practice of pranayama is to show us how to utilise this vital force and absorb it more completely.

The yama part of the term pranayama means 'practice' or 'restraint.' So, in other words, when we perform pranayama, we are practicing breath control (restraint and control of breath) in order to regulate the flow of prana in our physical body as well as the more subtle bodies in our make up. Pranayama, therefore, has a profound effect upon the subtle vehicles of expression, such as the astral body and the vital or etheric body.

Breathing and Prana

When the breath enters the body via the nostrils, it is warmed and humidified as it passes over the bony turbinates and conchae of the nasal cavity. The mucus which lines the nasal cavity traps dust particles etc. which are then moved upwards and outwards by the hair-like cilia of the nasal walls, where such debris is then moved towards the throat to be swallowed and disposed of in the gut or coughed out.

Physiologically, this is one of the main reasons why we should breathe via the nostrils, not the mouth, as the air is sent through this natural air-purification system. The lungs then receive the incoming air in the best possible condition before that air is circulated throughout the general system. Many disease states can be kept at bay merely by learning to breathe only through the nose and not through the mouth.

As the air comes in via the nostrils, the vital prana which it carries comes into contact with the nerves in the upper palate, and the prana then travels directly to the brain via the Tenth Cranial Nerve, known as the Vagus Nerve. The Vagus Nerve originates in the base of the brain stem and is the most important and extensive nerve in the Parasympathetic Nervous System. This nerve is so important that its ramifications extend nerve fibres into the lungs and heart and most of the abdominal organs. It therefore controls and regulates many vital functions, without which there would be no life, and the quality of life would be severely impaired if its functions were diminished in some way, either through disease or trauma. If you examine the diagram below, it will give you a good indication of just how many vital functions in the body rely on a healthy and vigorous Vagus nerve.

Vagus Nerve Branches: Artwork by SP Austen

Vagus Nerve Branches: Artwork by SP Austen

As the Vagus Nerve basically governs 70% of the parasympathetic nervous system, a healthy Vagus Nerve is most vital. It regulates the activity of the heart, slowing it down. During meditation, especially when engaged in pranayama practice, you are assisting the Vagus to calm and stabilise the heart rate which has many beneficial effects, physically, emotionally and mentally. A calm nervous system is a calm heart.

As pranic currents come into contact with the nerves in the soft upper palate the prana directs those impulses to the Vagus Nerve which lies above in the brain stem, and the Vagus, in turn, transmits the pranic current throughout the system, calming, strengthening and regulating the heart, aiding the digestion, increasing digestive capacity, improving organ function and balancing the metabolic rate. The entire nervous system is fortified, and its sensitivity and awareness are enhanced. Memory and learning capacity improve. Intellect and intuition unfold. The emotions and the mind find more stability and the spiritual life makes gains of comprehension.

Breath Suspension

Many pranayama techniques involve suspension of the breath, and this practice has a potent effect upon the nervous system and how it is regulated. It takes time and training to develop this kind of breath suspension, but most people can attain certain degrees of it safely if they use common sense.

According to the mystic traditions of the East, when we suspend the breath like this, we are in fact assisting the prana or vital force to circulate throughout the being. We breathe in, suspend the breath and then slowly exhale the old, stagnant breath, and again on the next breath we inhale the pranic currents on the flow of air and hold it in the body to allow it to circulate and revitalise.

When you use pranayama techniques that involve suspending the breath, you are increasing manifold the capacity of prana to enhance the physiological, emotional and mental benefits as the prana is absorbed much more effectively into the system. You will discover that the breathing has a natural tendency to enter into a suspended state during meditation, and you can use this tendency to advantage; sometimes that suspension is on the out-breath, and this may be effective as a cleansing of the system before drawing in the next inhalation. Just allow the breath to suspend where it will, either after an in-breath or after an out-breath. After some months of diligent pranayama practice, you will discover that you are always in touch with the status of your breathing, particularly when sitting for meditation, and you will find a natural way of using the breath effectively and to advantage.

Digital Pranayama

For this Pranayama practice, we will be using the fingers and thumb of the right hand to manipulate the breath as it enters and exits the nostrils, by closing the nasal passages off and releasing the air out of them in a controlled manner. Hence, this practice is referred to as Digital Pranayama because we are using the fingers or ‘digits’ to manipulate the pranic currents. It is also known as Alternate Nostril Breathing.

Please refer to the diagrams for the proper utilisation of the fingers and follow the instructions herein carefully in order to truly understand the practice. Once you master this technique, you will find it thoroughly relaxing and enjoyable.

To begin with, I recommend that you blow your nose as you will need to have very clear and clean nasal passages in order to be able to breathe properly and gain the most from this technique. Ideally, you will seat yourself either in the Full or Half Lotus, but if that is not possible or manageable for you, then sit on a chair that has no arm rests and that will support you in an upright position.

Rest the left hand on your left knee or in your lap, and bring the right hand up before your face. On the right hand, fold the index and middle fingers into the palm of the hand and hold the thumb, little and ring fingers out. Some people like to fold in the ring finger also, keeping only the little finger and thumb exposed. Begin your practice by taking a few regular breaths in order to centre yourself.

Digital Pranayama: Artwork by SP Austen

Digital Pranayama: Artwork by SP Austen

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Bring the right hand to the face, leaving a gap between the armpit and the body and holding the arm in such a manner that it feels relaxed and comfortable. On a full out-breath, close off the right nostril with the thumb and breathe in via the left nostril only, to a count of 4 seconds.

Next, close the left nostril off with the little and ring finger (or just the little finger if you prefer) keeping the thumb closed over the right nostril. You are now holding the breath for a count of 8 seconds. Release the thumb and expel the air through the right nostril to a count of 6 seconds.

This is the ratio of breath throughout the practice – 4, 8 and 6. Breathe in through the right nostril to a count of 4 seconds, keeping the little and ring fingers over the left nostril. Close the thumb over the right nostril again, keeping the left nostril closed to a count of 8 seconds. Expel the air from the left nostril, keeping the right closed to a count of 6 seconds.

Alternate Nostril Breathing: Artwork by SP Austen

Alternate Nostril Breathing: Artwork by SP Austen

The above constitutes one round of Digital Pranayama. Each full round begins with the in-breath via the left nostril and ends with the out-breath through the left nostril once again. The air circulates, therefore, from left to right, then right to left. The ratio is 4 seconds for the in-breath, 8 seconds (or less if you are struggling) for the breath retention, and 6 seconds for the out-breath. I recommend practicing 5 full Digital Pranayama rounds like this to begin with.

In order to keep track of the number of Digital Pranayama rounds it is a good habit to count them by using the left hand. The method is easy and saves mental focus on counting, and means that you can give fullest attention to the pranayama breathing.

By using the index finger of the left hand, you will be able to count by placing the tip of the index finger on the joint of the thumb of the left hand when you start at Round 1. When you begin at Round 2 you then move the tip of the index finger to place it on the tip of the thumb. Round 3 begins with the middle finger placed on the tip of the thumb, Round 4 begins with the ring finger on the tip of the thumb, and finally, Round 5 begins with the little finger tip on the thumb tip.

Finger Counting: Artwork by SP Austen

Finger Counting: Artwork by SP Austen

So, you move the fingers in this manner, each one marking the progress of the rounds, so that your mind is free to focus on the technique. When you progress in the practice, you can go on up to perhaps ten, fifteen or twenty rounds, counting again in this manner, after each group of five rounds, beginning with the index finger once again and so on.

Over time, you may be able to breathe in for a longer count, retain the breath for a longer time and breathe out for a longer duration also. You must find your own level, but it only has benefit when it is comfortable and without strain.

Perhaps you will arrive at an in-breath of 8 seconds, a retention of 16 and an out-breath of 8 seconds. Eventually, you will dispense with counting the seconds altogether and will be able to easily judge your own capacity. This will come only with practice of the actual technique. There are no rigid rules on the breath counts, so please do be flexible with yourself and go easy on your capacity. Any straining will only serve to make you agitated and will not have desirable effects. If your capacity is much less than that prescribed above, by all means, trim the time down accordingly, whether on the in-breath, the retention or the out-breath.

You should feel refreshed, cleansed and clear-headed after Digital Pranayama. It has a wonderfully centering effect and demands concentration of a high degree, because you must remember to keep the special sequence of rounds going from left to right and right to left again, keeping all of the mind focussed on the breathing technique as well as the use of the fingers and the thumb.

In addition, the left-hand digits are continually monitoring the count, so this too will require attention. All of these factors make Digital Pranayama one of the supreme methods for breath control, pranic absorption and concentration exercises that are available to you. Regular practice in this will add much to your ability to meditate expertly and gain more from the concept of meditation. Eventually, Digital Pranayama will come together as second nature, and you will become pleasantly surprised by how much you can perform this technique with complete concentration yet in a relaxed and easy manner.

The Benefits of Pranayama

Like an athlete who trains his or her body regularly and therefore learns to use the lungs differently for the sport that the athlete is engaged in, you are also training the lungs to work in a controlled and regulated manner that will beneficially assist you to achieve results in meditation.

At the physical level, pranayama breathing practices will cleanse the blood and body tissues of toxins and bring the electrical current of prana right into the cells themselves. Your body will develop greater cellular immunity, strength and general enhanced health. It is rightly said that people who meditate with spiritual intent often look and feel much younger than their physical years.

Through the pranayama exercises your heart rate will slow down just like an athlete’s, and your pulse rate too will reduce. Not that you will become a saint overnight, but many of the negative emotional and mental states which have existed in you prior to setting out on the path of meditation will come under control, and some of them will be eliminated altogether. You will naturally develop a higher form of morality and find yourself living from higher principles in your daily dealings.

Pranayama techniques will enhance your ability to concentrate in many respects, and this will affect a large number of areas in your life in innumerable positive ways, either at work, at home, in relationships with others, in creative expression, life direction, etc. There will not be an area in your life that will not benefit in some way or another.

Remember that the breathing affects the mind, and the mind affects the breathing. These two become interwoven as one, and with practice, you will experience that vital connection for yourself. The clue to controlling and calming the unruly emotions and wayward thoughts is always via the breath.

© 2018 S P Austen

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