[This passage has been taken from a lecture given by Swami Veda on the 3rd of June 2007 in Hong Kong. It was previously published in the December 2016 edition of the AHYMSIN newsletter.]
The title today is what is pranayama? What really is pranayama? First of all, I’d request that everyone who practices any form of yoga should at least have some familiarity with the Sanskrit alphabet because it’s being mercilessly butchered. The Sanskrit language carries power in the very sound of words and that is the first principle of the mantra science. So, it’s my request please be kind to us from the 21st century B.C. What is pra-na-ya-ma? It is a combination of two words but four parts. Prana and ayama. Pranayama. The word prana is prefix pra, and verb root an. That is the verb root that comes in the words like anima and animal, animate, animation. The prefix pra means forth, breathe forth, but it more correctly means perfectly. Perfect breathing, perfect breath, perfect breath not in the sense of the breath in the nostrils but the sense in which an anima animates and animal. An animal like a human being. An animal like the human being is perfectly animated by the force. That force is called prana, the animating force.
So, prana and all the other sub-pranas are the same way. Now, ayama means expansion. Expansion of the animating force is pranayama. The force that animates you, that makes you an animal. Animal means animated being who has, if you want to use Jungian terminology, who has anima, the spirit. The spiritual force, very much like the Greek concept of pneuma, from which now days you get pneumatic pressure, originally the animating force within a human being. This is the force of the breath. So, expansion of the animating force is called pranayama. In yoga, this means the expansion bringing the animating force to pra, perfection, so that it is a perfectly animating force. Right now, it is only partially animating us. The rest of us is dead. We walk about half dead, not fully animated. That force, expanding that force, bringing it to a state of perfection, is pranayama.
All of these terms have many, many definitions. In my commentary on the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras in appendix two, three and four I have given some detailed explanations and I have referred in the first appendix to sixty-eight Sanskrit texts. There are as few angas of yoga as one or two and there as many as fifteen. The definitions of these angas of yoga differ from school to school not in contradiction to each other but in complementary sense, in a complementary manner.
For example, if you take the great sage Shankacharya, the founder of our order of monks, and you take Tejobindu Upanishad, upanishad of the drop of light. We have these three or four Upanishads: Tejobindu, upanishad of the drop of light; Nadabindu, upanishad of the drop of sound; and Brahmabindu, upanishad of the drop of Brahman. [In] Tejobindu Upanishad, the upanishad of the drop of light and in the work of Shankacharya for example, these terms, the angas, are defined completely differently.
[Take the terms] Rechaka, puraka, kumbaka, the three parts of pranayama. Normally people say rechaka, breathing out; puraka, breathing in; kumbaka, holding as inside a vessel. Kumbaka, holding it as inside a vessel, the same word occurs in the word like kumba mela. Shankacharya defines it differently. Rechaka, what you call exhalation process, he says emptying oneself of all thought and cognition except that I am Brahman. That is Shankacharya’s definition of rechaka. Puraka, filling oneself with the cognition awareness that I am Brahman and kumbaka, holding that cognition.
So, there is that end of the spectrum of pranayama and then there are all these different pranayamas that are taught by masters of hatha yoga, teachers of hatha yoga. Yesterday I spoke to you on the meaning of the word hatha yoga because the physical end of the spectrum of hatha yoga is so well known I do not touch it. My task from the Masters, from the acharyas, from the rishis, is to bring you that which is not popularly taught. Even if my audience diminishes by the day.
Nowadays pranayama is taught as exercise of physical breath. Many different exercises, they are an essential preparation, as the body preparations are essential for sitting correctly and going into meditation but there are subtler, deeper aspects.
My interest in pranayama is as part of the meditation system. Tomorrow I’m speaking on divergences and convergences among the various meditation systems. There is one part on which all the meditation systems converge. There is one rule that is common to all meditation systems. It applies to the Sufis and the Hesychasm with which you may not be familiar even though some of you are Christian. It applies to the Taoist with which you may not be familiar even though many of you are Chinese. Unfortunately, so many of you don’t study your own traditions. All these systems of meditation, of the Tibetan Masters and the Zen Masters and the Himalayan yogis have one thing in common in teaching meditation and that is breath awareness. In the dhyana yoga, in the tradition of the yoga of mediation, we use that as the word for pranayama. We use that as the meaning of pranayama, expansion of breath.