On Prāṇa & Prāṇāyāma
Prāṇa is “the breath of life,” according to the Sanskrit-English dictionary, Monier-Williams. It is also defined as “spirit,” and “vitality.” Another common Sanskrit dictionary by Arthur A. Macdonell defines prāṇa as “vital spirit,” and further suggests that the term goes back at least as far as early Sāṃkhyan philosophy to mean, “vigor,” or “energy,” and is found in Vedānta as the “sign of vitality.” In English, we don’t normally consider the terms energy, breath, and spirit to be interchangeable. And, as both Ana Funes-Maderey and Isa Gucciardi note in their articles this month, little attention is traditionally granted to the breath in western traditions. In fact, from a linguistic standpoint, the move to accommodate energy, breath, and spirit with a single term might affect a total paradigm shift.
To what extent is breath control possible? We can well imagine the Himalayan yogi seated at the fore of a cave in front of a small fire deeply immersed in prāṇāyāma. Yet, is it possible to tie it to everyday actions? In a host of modern day, mundane tasks, awareness of how we breath provides feedback for how the mind and inner consciousness are functioning. Further, modern science is increasingly beginning to reveal that the concerted effort to control the breath in prāṇāyāma, even for a short period of time on a regular basis, can be transformative and healing. Among other articles featured during Embodied Philosophy’s 2019 first quarter on Yoga and Neuroscience that touch on prāṇāyāma, David Shannahoff-Khalsa’s, “My Kundalini Yoga Research Contributions to the Basic Sciences and for Treating Psychiatric Disorders,” introduces a broad spectrum of practices and the gradual effort to study and prove their effectiveness. The articles in this month’s Tarka discuss the nature of prāṇa and methods for teaching and practicing prāṇāyāma from a variety of perspectives.
Ana Funes-Maderey’s “Prāṇāyama as an Introspective and Proprioceptive Eco-Discipline,” discusses the preeminence of prāṇa and prāṇāyāma for eastern traditions in general and looks at some basic concepts found in early yogic texts. She then compares this to the apparent lack of attention generally given to the breath in both spiritual and holistic traditions in the west to construct an argument that critically engages both perspectives. Funes-Maderey suggests that in giving appropriate attention to the breath yoga is an “eco-discipline,” that can support activism and social change.
We have two pieces by Srivatsa Ramaswami in this issue that he wrote originally for his own monthly newsletter. The first and most recent, “Prāṇa,” discusses the meaning of prāṇa as life force and delves into some of the foundational, historical and textual, concepts of how prāṇa functions and how it relates to spiritual practice and yoga. The second article by Ramaswami, “Use of Voluntary Breath Control in Asanas,” delves into the specific teachings of Sri Krishnamacharya, the Yoga Sūtras, and the Upaniṣads to detail how and why breath control is a vital component of vinyasa practice.
Next, Isa Gucciardi’s, “The Role of Breath in Energy Medicine,” connects breath awareness to the awareness of physical and subtle life-energy. This energy is the basis for interpersonal connection, romance, intuition, and healing. In this article Gucciardi discusses how the breath relates to energy and how this informs ancient and modern practices of healing.
Following up on the topic of healing trauma featured in the recent Tracing Trauma conference and certificate program, Caitlin Lanier’s, “Contraindications of Prāṇāyāma as it applies to Trauma Survivors,” addresses the practice of prāṇāyāma in the context of trauma sensitivity. Here breath work can be triggering and it can profoundly support healing. Lanier incorporates guidelines and suggestions from several influential teachers. She concludes with a list of key points that will be helpful for teachers/therapists and a script for guiding breath awareness.
Jensen Martin then delves into a brief history of Paramahansa Yogananda and his unique approach to teaching prāṇāyāma. In this context, individual prāṇa is understood as force or energy and it connects to a universal current of prāṇa called Para-Prakṛti. Thus, the individual is connected to the universal through the basic act of breathing.
Next, Yoganand Michael Carroll offers an excerpt from his upcoming conference talk on the history of prāṇa and prāṇāyāma in the Indian traditions. The talk itself moves systematically through the earliest Vedic texts, Yoga Sutras, and Hatha Yoga texts to look at various early practices and concepts of breath and breath control practices. In this excerpt, Carroll briefly discusses his own specific background of study with Swami Kripalu and argues that modern practitioners can deeply benefit from taking the time to more broadly understand the textual traditions and Yoga history.
Finally, Katy Jane’s, “Pronunciation of Sanskrit and the Preservation of Prāṇa,” relates prāṇa to the study of Sanskrit. Drawing from her study of Sanskrit and Ayurveda, Jane argues that correct pronunciation of Sanskrit words and in chanting has the power to create and move energy. She also suggests that, “…speech in Sanskrit therefore, serves as a powerful form of prāṇāyāma that preserves and enlivens your life force.”
Many of the writers in this month’s Tarka are also guest speakers in the upcoming Embodied Breath conference. In addition, this content supports and relates to the upcoming course, Advanced Kundalini Yoga Pranayams as taught by Yogi BhajanTM, taught by David Shannahoff-Khalsa.
~ Stephanie Corigliano, TARKA Managing Editor