ISSUE #016 - Jul 09, 2019

A History of Prāṇā & Prāṇāyāma: excerpt from the conference talk

Yoganand Michael Carroll

Note: The following article is an excerpt from the concluding comments to the video lecture that will be featured in the on-line conference: Embodied Breath.  The full talk provides an in-depth look at the history and evolution of prāṇā and prāṇāyāma in Indian textual traditions.

Swami Kripalu was once asked how many prāṇāyāmas there were. His answer was: 400-600, most were variations of the small original group.

When Europeans came to and dominated India, there was a decline in Haṭha Yoga. By the late 1800’s Haṭha Yoga had almost ceased to exist there.

With the Indian independence movement there was a revival of the old culture, and with that a revival of Haṭha Yoga. It was considered patriotic to practice Haṭha Yoga and the best way to introduce it into the society was thought to be in the schools.

Prāṇāyāma techniques that activated yoga fire were not considered appropriate for this audience so they were mostly left out.

A yoga culture emerged focused very much on the physical with prāṇāyāma limited to techniques that calm the mind, very much as the Yoga Sūtra recommended over a millennium before.

In the tradition that I practiced, most of our understanding of Prāṇāyāma came from Swami Kripalu who was a traditional Haṭha Yogi. His teaching and practice were not filtered through the Indian School system and contained a level of yoga fire activation and consciousness expansion that would not be considered appropriate or understood by most practitioners today.

When teaching prāṇāyāma to teachers today I tell them that a little practice of most prāṇāyāmas have a calming effect on the mind and this is useful.

However, if the prāṇāyāmas were practiced in the sequence and amount recommended in the Haṭha Yoga Pradipika they would observe:

If they were happy the prāṇāyāma would make them happier

If they were sad it would make them more sad

If Angry, more angry.

A prominent effect of a classical prāṇāyāma practice was to magnify emotions. This can only be positive is someone is prepared for it and willing to accept it. This would lead to the experience that we are not the rational creatures we try to be. Seeing what we really are feeling and accepting it can lead to an expansion of our identity. We see that we are not what we thought we are and have the opportunity to accept the fullness of our experience.

A process of preparation was considered necessary for the student to have the effects of Haṭha Yoga prāṇāyāma be digestible.

There has never been a yoga Pope. Yoga evolved as independent schools, little silos where students studied with a teacher and learned that particular teacher’s approach to the philosophy and the techniques. Different schools would be influenced by a different combination of texts. One school may use the Yoga Sūtra, but not the Bhagavad-Gtā. One may use the Haṭha Yoga Pradipika and one or more Upaniads.

In studying the cryptic descriptions of asanas and prāṇāyāmas, teachers might interpret them drawing upon one of these philosophies informed by their personal experience and make assumptions about how the practices should be done. These assumptions were practiced and passed on to students through the generations.

Throughout the history there has been a teaching in yoga that the guru’s word is gospel. Students did not challenge it and sometimes prided themselves on their ability to embrace their school’s approach wholeheartedly. It was probably very easy to be a practitioner when information was fed to the students from one source and accepted and practiced with faith.

In modern times many schools and teachers have gone public, presenting their teachings and the practices on the internet and through books. These teachers may speak with confidence and faith in their approach. And students may accept a teacher and an approach, and then be surprised when they encounter other teachers with very different approaches.

When working with asanas, a teacher might say that a particular alignment is the correct way. This alignment approach may be validated by a modern anatomical understanding of how the joints and muscles work. It is much harder to validate a way of practicing prāṇāyāma without an understanding of its intended results, and a knowledge of how those results fit into a philosophy.

This has led to many students focusing on the basics, those practices and understandings, which they experience to be experientially positive and not in conflict with whatever worldview they hold. It has led to folks shying away from the deeper practices where there might be conflicting messages from the teachers.

When one teacher says to do bhastrika one way, for example, and another teacher describes bhastrika completely differently, it is easy for the student the step away, avoiding the practice and the conflict.

When one teacher says that tantra yoga is a non-dual system, which it was in the ninth and 10th century. And another teacher says that tantra is strongly dualistic seeing the god and goddess everywhere, which it was in the sixth and seventh century, it’s very easy for student to feel confused and avoid the whole issue.

I believe that for yoga teachers, those practitioners who are carrying yoga into the future by passing it on to others, an understanding of the philosophy beyond sectarianism is essential. Then we can understand that bhastrika prāṇāyāma could be practiced several different ways leading to the same result, and that Tantra evolved from dualism to non-dual and a student could practice under either philosophy, then we have the power to both adapt techniques and philosophy to best serve individual students, and to pass on the whole topic to the generations that will follow.

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ISSUE #016

On Prāṇa & Prāṇāyāma
Image: On Prāṇa & Prāṇāyāma

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