ISSUE #016 - Jul 09, 2019

Use of Voluntary Breath Control In Asanas 

Srivatsa Ramaswami

The very first instruction I received from my Guru in Asana practice was “Inhale.” Sri Krishnamacharya had started coming to our house in the mornings to teach my brother. A few days into it, I came to the room to join my brother and father. All were standing in Tadasana or Samasthiti, and Sri Krishnamacharya with his default head down position had given the first instruction.

“Inhale slowly with a hissing sound and a rubbing sensation in the throat and raise your arms,” he said, (in Tamil and a bit of English) and raised his arms slowly breathing in.

The inhalation started when he started the movement of the arms and the inhalation went all along the movement continuously until he completed the upward movement, interlocked his fingers, turned them outward and gave a good stretch to the body. We followed suit. After a moment he instructed, “Exhale.” He said, “Exhale and slowly lower the arms.”

He started the exhalation with a hissing sound and synchronized the slow downward movement of the arms with the breath. “Follow the breath closely,” he added, after a couple of movements, and thus completed the basic instructions regarding breathing in asana vinyasas. He taught like that for the nearly 3 decades I studied with him and, as far as I know, he did not teach in any other way to others.

I was overawed by the smoothness, flow, and fullness of his breathing. His chest would expand like a balloon, an expansion I had never seen. His face tucked against the breast bone would look like it was getting smaller against the background of his expansive chest movement. Likewise, his exhalation would be complete, the stomach muscles going deep into the abdominal cavity and the diaphragm into the thoracic cavity. That was the first time I had ever seen a yogi doing movements completely synchronized with the breath and with such unimpeded fullness of the breath. I was reminded of an episode I used to read when I was young. My mother had given me a tiny volume in Tamil of
Balaramayana (Ramayana for kids). In it there was reference to the episode in which Anjaneya would prepare himself to leap over the Indian Ocean to reach the shores of Lanka in search of Sita, Rama’s
wife. To make that giant leap for the sake of Lord Rama, he would go up a hill and breathe in deeply, expand his chest like an ocean and control the breath in his chest. I used to imagine Anjaneya standing
on top of a hill with a huge hairy chest ballooning and that image came to my mind looking at this extraordinary yogi.

Whenever I speak about breathing in asanas and vinyasas, I feel that generally people do not pay much attention to the breathing aspect. There are a few who would say with tongue in cheek, “we always breathe when we do asanas, don’t we all do that?” There are others who would say that their breath is slow and not hurried. Some practice asanas breathing heavily or bordering on ‘breathless’ and a few long-standing practitioners appear to develop the “second wind.”  Of course, a number of people who practice asanas vigorously leave the breath to take its own course.

The breath in asana practice I learnt from my Guru involved complete control of the breath throughout the practice. The breath was always following the movement, there being a perfect synch between movement and the breath. Breath under involuntary control or autonomic control between the sympathetic and parasympathetic is known as ‘swaabhaavika prayatna” or natural breathing. In this the body, or more particularly the chitt’s normal vritti (samaanya or saamaanyakarana vritti) adjusts the breath rate depending on the needs of the body.

According to some commentaries on Taittiriya Upanishad explaining the prana maya kosa, it is said that the main forces prana and apana, believed to be associated with puraka and racaka, are controlled by udana.  But in vinyasakrama as taught by Sri Krishnamacharya, the breath is brought under voluntary control and kept under this control throughout the asana practice. One may say that the yogi maintains a good control over udaana. So, for about half an hour to one hour of asana practice and then during pranayama the breath remains completely under the yogabhyasi’s control. The more the breath is brought under voluntary control, the more the yogi can bring the citta under voluntary control.

Of all the involuntary functions, breathing lends itself to dual control. The yogis take this route to slowly bring the mind and the heart under control. When cortical higher brain control is achieved over one basic function (here the breathing), it is possible to achieve control over other basic functions like the heart. Thus, a yogi who uses voluntarily controlled breathing in asana practice, and follows it up with a good pranayama practice, has a much better preparation for meditation than someone who practices asanas with involuntary breathing and no pranayama.

There are other important advantages of use of breath in asanas performed with variety of vinyasas. In vinyasakrama one can do about 5/6 vinyasa movements per minute and in a 30 minute stint one can do about 150 movements. Doing each vinyasa twice one can probably do about 70 to 75 vinyasas, much less if one has to take frequent breaks to recover the breath. There are many experienced practitioners who can do vinyasa practice for about a half hour without having the need to take rest breaks in savasana due to shortness of breath resulting in the inability to maintain an acceptable slow rate of breath of about minimum 5 seconds each for inhalation and exhalation.

By carefully choosing appropriate vinyasas for one’s practice, it would be possible to reach almost every ‘nook and cranny’ (nook and corner) of the body. The slow movement and stretch/contraction help to squeeze out used blood into the venous system enhancing the muscle pump effect of the various muscles and tissues. Simultaneously the deep breathing used helps to accentuate the respiratory pump effect and suck in more venous blood to the heart. Thus, even as one practices asanas, both the vinyasas and synchronized breathing help to improve the rakta sanchara, thereby considerably reducing the strain on the heart and supplementing its work.

Sri Krishnamacharya used breath very judiciously, altering the kriya between brahman (expansion) and langhana (reduction) kriyas and interspersed with occasional kumbhakas (holds) after rechaka (exhalation) or puraka (inhalation). Generally forward bends, twists, side bends, back rounding, knee bends, etc. will be done on exhalation or langhana kriya as it facilitates contracting the abdomen and doing these movements more easily. Back bends, expansive movements like raising/stretching the arms or the lower extremities, raising the head and looking up will be done on synchronized slow inhalation or brahmana kriya. Brahmana kriya on back bends and extensions also helps to increase the inter-vertebral space slightly of the thoracic spine and is very beneficial to the spinal cord which contains an enormous nerve bundle. But there are exceptions according to my Guru. People with elevated blood pressure or those who are obese, tense, or generally older would be encouraged to do these movements using langhana kriya.

Several years back, in the early 80s, I wrote a series of articles in an Indian magazine called Indian Review. In one article. I think on shalabasana, I mentioned that the back bend in that asana should be done on exhalation as I used to prefer that. When the article was read to my guru, he asked me to change it to brahmana kriya as that was the correct breathing for that movement and what I was doing was a permissible exception. He was very clear about the use of controlled breath in asana practice. He also modified the breathing to suit individual requirements when people came to him for therapeutic help. Breathing in asana movements was an important tool he employed while treating patients.

Patanjali in his Yoga Sutra does not claim that his Yoga Sutra work was his brainchild but was based on tradition and as per the Vedas (anusasana). Likewise, Sri T Krishnamacharya would mention that the unique use of mindful breathing he advocated in asana practice was not his innovation but was based on traditional and authoritative texts like Vriddha Satapata and Yoga Sutras. Further texts that support this approach would be Navya Nyaya and also Vachaspati Misra’s, Yoga Sutra commentary, Tatva Vaicaradi.

In the Yoga Sutra, the phrase of two words, prayatna saithilya (YS II ) means a lot. Prayatna is a word used to indicate effort, but the old texts like (navya) nyaya explain effort as beings of three types, pravritti, nivritti and jivana prayatna. Pravritti and nivritti are activities that one does to get, respectively, what one wants or to get rid of what one does not want or wants to avoid. Patanjali uses the term citta-vritti and he groups them fivefold. But citta-vritti can also be classified as above. But in addition to the citta-vrittis mentioned above (fivefold or twofold), the citta incessantly is engaged in another vritti which the samkhyas call as samanya vritti or samanya karana vritti, which is the lifelong effort of maintaining life. Hence the pranic activity is called samanya vritii and in nyaya they call it jivana prayatna or effort of life. So, in the above sutras, the word prayatna does not refer to pravritti or nivritti, nor the normal bodily movement one does in asana practice, but samanya vritti or jivana prayatna or simply put ‘breathing’.

Vachaspati Misra in his commentary on Yoga Sutra, Tatva Vaicaradi corroborates this interpretation of prayatna as pranic activity. He says, “samsiddhika hi prayatnah sarira dharakah.” Here he says that samsiddhika or the innate prayatna or effort (of the yoga practitioner) is sarira dharakah or that of sustaining the body. What innate effort sustains the body?  It is the breath.

The root of the word dharaka, ‘dhru‘ is used to refer to the prana’s function in an important major Upanishad called Prasnopanishad. In it there is an interesting episode. Once all the organs of the body, eyes, ears, etc. started arguing which among them was the greatest. The disagreement reached a crescendo when the innocuous and incessantly working Prana stepped in to say that it, the prana, dividing itself into five different forces, holds up and sustains the body and it was the greatest. It uses the term ‘dharayishyami (I sustain)’ the same root (dhru to sustain or support) used by Vachaspatimishra in the YS commentary, sarira-dharaka. The sense organs thought it was incredulous and said so to Prana. Then Prana to prove a point collected its forces and started leaving the body. Suddenly all the senses started losing their bearings and realized how dependent they were on the main prana. They all fell at the feet of Prana and beseeched it not to leave the body. Hence, according to my Guru, the term prayatna mentioned in the sutra is not the ordinary physical effort associated with the movements of the limbs when one does asanas but the breath itself.

Having explained that prayatna in this context refers to Jivana prayatna or that of the sariradharaka or prana/breath, Vachaspati Misra proceeds to explain another important element of Patanjali’s teaching viz., saithilya, which means to make it smooth. Here the instruction is that the breathing should be smooth which can only be achieved by controlling the breath. There are two types of breathing as we have two centers that can control breathing. One is under the autonomic nervous system with only very limited voluntary override, in which the sympathetic is involved the inhalation and the parasympathetic in the exhalation through the respective breathing centers. But breathing can also be brought under the cerebral cortex when we willfully take over the control of the breathing process. So here we take control of breathing as we do the various movements or vinyasas. The main message is that the breathing, if involuntary, will adjust to the metabolic requirements– slow while resting and hurried under physical stress like weight lifting or doing Yoga as if like a workout. But in asana practice as per this sutra it would be under voluntary control, doing the movements with the breath under control and voluntarily.

Vachapati Misra explains this beautifully. He says that the natural/ involuntary (swa-bhavika) prayatna or breathing will not be helpful in attaining the posture, actually it would be a hindrance. “upadeshta vyaasanasya ayam asaadhakah, virodhi cha swaabhavika prayatnah) Hence one should voluntarily control it and make it smoother (saithilya) which is what Sri Krishnamacharya did. Here is the quote from Vacaspati Misra “tasmaat, upadhishta niyama asanam abhyasataya svaabhaavika prayatna saithilyaatma asteyah, naanyata upadishta aasanam sidhyati iti| swaabhaavika prayatna saithilyasya aasana siddhi hetuh.”  Therefore, when the intended asana is attempted, the breath should be made smooth/controlled, and in no other way can the intended asana be perfected. Thus, the cause of asana siddhi (power) is indeed making the natural breath smooth (by controlling it).

To reinforce this concept, Patanjali adds that the mind should be focused on the breath indicating that the breathing should be mindful or in the voluntary mode and not allow the auto mode. Here he uses the word ananta to indicate the breath. The word ananta can be split as most people do as an+anta. The prefix ‘an’ meaning ‘not’ rhymes with the English un used as ‘not’ in English. Anta means end or limit so
ananta would mean endless or limitless and hence ananta is usually translated as infinity and many commentators recommend focusing the mind on infinity.

However, the word ananta, here more appropriately should be broken as a word derived from the root ‘ana‘ to breathe (ana, svase) like prana (pra+ana, vyana, vi+ana, etc). The word ending ‘ta‘ would indicate containing so ananta is containing or controlling the breath. “prayatna saithilya ananta samapattibhyam” is the sutra about how to use the breath in asana practice. The instruction loud and clear is that one should bring the breath under voluntary control while doing asanas and not allow it to be under autonomic control. And Patanjali is the incarnation of Nagaraja or the cobra king also known as ananta. And cobras are said to live on breath, of course a mythological belief. So, some say one could have the image of ananta or Patanjali in mind while practicing asanas– a  symbolic way of saying ‘focus on the breath.’

Whenever one says that one practices hatha yoga, I have an urge to ask if one does any yoga breath work like pranayama, because hatha yoga is pranayama as per Brahmananda, the Hathayoga Pradeepika commentator. So if one would have controlled breathing in asana practice as discussed
above and also does pranayama, it would mean that the yoga bhyasi would be in total control of her/his breathing during the entire period of hatha yoga practice.  After all, hatha yoga means activity under complete control of the breath, as can be seen from the Yoga Sutras and the definition of hatha yoga of Brahmananda. Sometimes, when the breath would get out of control, Sri Krishnamacharya would ask the student to lie down in savasana and regain the breath before continuing with the asana practice. Some need more rest pauses and some less and some hardly any. It was how Sri Krishnamacharya taught me Yogasanas for decades–, to have complete control over the breath while practicing asanas and apply the breath thoughtfully and well to different individuals and different conditions and in different movements/

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ISSUE #016

On Prāṇa & Prāṇāyāma
Image: On Prāṇa & Prāṇāyāma

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