breathing

The importance of breath

Inhale…

I still remember the gorgeous, sensual, sun-kissed Californian girl teaching a Vinyasa class during my trip to Indonesia back in 2013. She went completely overboard by almost moaning the words ‘inhale’ and ‘exhale’ for every in- and exhalation we took during that class. For me, it seemed really overdone to put that much emphasis on something we are used to do automatically already.

Little did I know…

As a kid, I always felt short of breath. I felt like a part of my trachea was blocked, which restrained me from breathing in fully. While exercising, my body somehow decided to not breathe at al, so whenever I was running, playing field hockey or when I was dancing, I had to stop often because I was close to hyperventilating. After multiple examinations in the hospital, doctors prescribed me with several types of asthma medication, even though my lungs seemed healthy and my lung capacity was perfectly fine. As you can figure, the medication did not make any difference at all.

Only a couple of years later, another doctor looked more closely into the way I was breathing. She noticed that my breath was way too high and that my belly was moving inwards while inhaling and outwards while exhaling. She helped me to become aware of my breath with the use of several exercises. She managed to deepen my breath and got my natural breathing to a healthy level. It is interesting, to say at the least: something that we are supposed to do so intuitively – one of the first things we do when we are born into this world – was actually really hard for me to do in a relaxed and natural way.

While my way of breathing had improved by this, I still always felt short of breath when dealing with stressful situations. I felt like my breath was stuck in my chest and tried everything to elongate the breath to a deeper level, forcefully using my neck and chest muscles. Clearly, no improvements were made by these attempts; it only invited more stress into my body.

In the fall of 2015, after a couple of years of practicing different styles of yoga, I discovered the Astanga Vinyasa practice. Every inhalation and exhalation was not only counted, which was new for me, but also manipulated with the help of a breathing technique called Ujjayi breathing. By slightly contracting your glottis, you make a hissing sound, which allows you to breath more evenly. It also calms down your nervous system, heats up your body and helps you to stay focused on your breathing properly. There was no escape, no space to distract myself and think of anything other than my inhalation and exhalation and the following movements. It was a big liberation for me.

And when you come to think about it… Our breathing has such a great impact on our lives. Just look at the metaphorical influence of breathing on our language: we heave a sigh of relieve when we hear we passed an important exam, we hold our breath when we are at the edge of our seat watching a scary movie and our breath gets taken away when we suddenly bump into the person we secretly have crush on. Our reactions to situations in life influence our breathing unconsciously, that is for sure.

But what if vice versa, we were able to use the breath to influence the quality of our lives? What if the breath could help us to remain calm and neutral in stressful situations and to tame our wild monkey mind that always seduces and distracts us? It is possible…

By getting more in touch with our way of breathing, we can become more aware of the influence of it and even start using our breath to improve the quality and longevity of our lives. The breath then becomes a vehicle to turn our awareness inwards, where we can notice and give space to the ripples on the surface of our being. For me, both Astanga yoga and Pranayama have made a big difference in becoming attentive to this fact. I finally can breathe freely now.

…and exhale…

Pratyahara Sense Withdrawal

yoga meditation

Pratyahara often seems to be the neglected and misunderstood limb of Patanjali’s eight limbed system of Ashtanga yoga. With the other limbs either being more tangible, easier to conceptualise, or so far off we don’t even bother, Patanjali’s vague fifth limb can be easily overlooked. Patanjali himself only dedicated two sutras to pratyahara in his Yoga Sutras. But, regardless of its obscurity, pratyahara is a very fundamental aspect of yoga.

Different yogic texts and different schools of yoga offer a variety of approaches to pratyahara, but its essential meaning remains consistent. Pratyahara is defined as the withdrawal of the senses or the independence from external stimuli. Focusing on Patanjali’s eight limbed system of aśtanga yoga, Patanjali places pratyahara as the fifth limb and the gatekeeper from the outer limbs to the inner limbs. Patanjali still considers sense withdrawal (pratyahara) to be an outer limb while listing concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and absorption (samadhi) as the inner limbs. Pratyahara is our bridge to higher practices of yoga. As long as we remain  dependent on external stimulus and our senses remain scattered rather than bound, our yoga practice shall remain externally oriented within the first four limbs: yama, niyama, asana and pranayama. Though with consistent and faithful yoga practice the limbs will eventually unfold themselves, pratyahara is so essential to our yogic development that it is deserving of more attention and practice than it typically is given.

Patanjali does not elaborate on how to practice or achieve pratyahara. In fact, the only limb he does describe in detail is samadhi. For the remaining seven limbs he only describes the results of these limbs once they have been achieved and does not give insight into technique or their practice. In Sutra 2.54 Patanjali states in Sanskrit sva vishaya asamprayoge chittasya svarupe anukarah iva indriyanam pratyaharah, which can be translated as “when the mind is withdrawn from the outside then the senses follow and disengage from the sense objects. This is pratyahara.” When we turn our attention inwards and detach from the stimulations and distractions of the external world then this is sense withdrawal. Patanjali continues in the next sutra 2.55: tatah parama vashyata indriyanam, or, “from that comes supreme command over the senses.” When we are no longer attached to or distracted by external gratification and stimulation, then we have achieved command over the senses and can focus the mind inwards. Therefore there are two aspects to pratyahara. The first aspect is the detachment from external aversions or desires by reigning in our wandering senses and withdrawing from the outer world. The second aspect is the going inside and realising that everything we need is already inside us.

As long as we believe we need external sensory stimulus the longer we continue to be a slave to our senses, our desires and the external world. This is not to advocate shutting out or negating the external world, as the world is our road to freedom. It is also not the say we shouldn’t enjoy the external world or sensory pleasure. Instead, it is to assert that the more we believe we need sensory stimulation and the more enslaved we are to external pleasures or aversions, the more difficult it will likely be to discover the inner world of consciousness and freedom. This is why we practice pratyahara.

Prana goes where the mind goes and it is no shock to say that the mind is generally unfocused. Therefore when our senses are unregulated, our mind follows our senses outwards, we attach to objects, and our prana becomes dispelled. When the senses reach out and we identify ourselves with the external world, we are pulled away and prana can not be accumulated and arrested inside the body. By pulling the senses inwards we begin to steady the mind fluctuations and retain prana. The accumulation and retention of prana is fundamental to practicing the higher limbs of yoga.

Seeing as pratyahara is quite important, as it leads us from the outside to the inside (which, as Yogi Sunil Sharma always emphasises, is a defining factor of yoga); how does one practice it? As mentioned above, Patanjali describes the effects of achieving the limbs but not their practice. As with most yogic traditions, practical technique is meant to be taught by a qualified teacher according to the capacity of the student. Even later more instructive texts, such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, are meant to be taken in conjunction with a guru’s teachings. Just as there are delineated techniques for the practice of asana, pranayama, and meditation, so there are also described techniques for the practice of pratyahara. Where asana works on a physical level, pranayama on an energetic level, and meditation on a mind level, pratyahara works on all three levels and thus is practiced in asana, pranayama, and meditation.

An important technique to withdrawing the senses is to bind them to something else. We do this in our daily ashtanga asana practice, sometimes without realising. As we breathe and move through our postures we remove our attention from the external world, beginning by focusing on our body alignment and movement. The sense of sight is bound by the practice of dristi, or, the prescribed focal point of the gaze. The sense of hearing is bound by listening to our ujjayi breath. The tactile sense is bound by our body in asana and by the consistent activation of bandha. As our asana practice becomes more advanced so does our capacity for pratyahara and we become more adept at disengaging from environmental stimulation.

There are also specific asanas that help to induce sense withdrawal. Supta kurmasana, or bound tortoise pose, is an excellent example of this. As a leg over head posture (and the first leg over head posture of the ashtanga vinyasa system), it functions as a very deep forward bend. Forward bends themselves function as the first steps on the path inwards. Supta kurmasana is compared to a tortoise  withdrawing its limbs into its shell from the outer world. The shell is our mind and the limbs are our senses. This asana is a direct practice of the faculties of sense withdrawal.

In many of his thorough and well researched books on yoga Gregor Maehle prescribes inversions (headstand, shoulder stand, etc.) as a direct practice of pratyahara. Citing many yogic texts and scriptures, Maehle states clearly that by accumulating and arresting amrita, the nectar of immortality, in the cavities of the skull associated with our highest chakras, then pratyahara will be achieved. This is done by the correct and responsible practice of inversions. He even suggests that in our daily asana practice we should extend our practice of inversions and  recommends that 60 minutes be spent on asana and 30 minutes be spent on inversions and closing postures. Maehle’s in depth and clearly explained research on inversions and pratyahara can be found in his book on yogic meditation.

The breath is a powerful vehicle that brings us from our outer world into our inner world. Through the consistent practice of breathing exercises and pranayama we are using our faculty of pratyahara by binding our attention to our breath. Assuming we have become sufficiently competent in the elementary practices of pratyahara from proficient asana practice, we can now practice binding our senses to the finer aspects of our breath and subtle bodies. By focusing on evening the force and length of the breath, counting the length and number of our inhalations and exhalations, using proper yogic breathing cycles and breath waves, and becoming aware of our breath and prana moving through our subtle body, we are practicing an intermediate level of pratyahara.

 The practice of Bhramari pranayama (humming bee breath) as outlined in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika can also be considered a direct practice of sense withdrawal. During the practice we use the fingers and hands to pull in and close our senses to the outside world. The fingers cover the eyes and close the ears to external awareness. By humming like a bumble bee we are aware only of the buzzing sound, bringing the agitated mind to a tranquil state and bringing the senses from the external to the internal.

A yogic meditation practice for pratyahara, though outside of the traditional ashtanga system, is yoga nidra meditation. Yoga nidra, meaning psychic sleep, is a practice that uses body awareness to withdraw from the external world and enter into the subconscious and unconscious realms of the psyche. Instructions are given during this guided meditation to bind the senses to various things such as sounds and points on the body. Through the process of binding the senses they are  automatically withdrawn, allowing the practitioner to completely relax and access the deepest parts of the internal world. Yoga Nidra meditation is a powerful practice that effectively trains and strengthens our capacity for pratyahara.

 As pratyahara is the gateway from the outer to the inner limbs, and dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) are the limbs that subsequently follow pratyahara, it is to be assumed at this point that as a yoga practitioner our capacity for withdrawing the senses is sufficiently developed as these practices are more advanced. Again, as with asana and pranayama practice, there are also systemised techniques in ashtanga system for the practice of meditation. Though many understand the practice of meditation to be simply sitting still and watching the breath, that method functions more as a practice in relaxation and self awareness rather than a meditation practice. While it is a good preparatory exercise for meditation and will fine tune the capacity for pratyahara, we are unlikely to get very far by just watching the breath. As we have learned to control our breath and have become more familiar with our energy body and our flow of prana, we can use pratyahara practice during meditation to begin to train the mind to bind. By removing our senses inwards, listening to our breath and feeling the sensation of prana  moving through the subtle body, we can begin to focus our attention on our shoshumna (central energy channel) and chakras (central energy centres). This is the beginning of learning to bind and suspend the mind, which is the beginning of yogic meditation.

The sixth and seventh limbs are when the ability to bind the senses transmutes into the ability to bind the mind. Once all the activity of the mind is bound during meditation, the mental fluctuations suspend, and the eighth limb samadhi (of which there are eight sub-limbs), or absorption, can be experienced and practiced. This is how the mastery of pratyahara will ultimately lead us from the outer limbs to the higher practices of yoga and internal exaltation. As is written in the Maitri Upanishad: “if the fuel of the senses is withheld, the mind is reabsorbed into the heart.” When the senses are withdrawn through the practice of pratyahara, the inner limbs of yoga begin to blossom and a whole other universe is placed at our fingertips.