About breath measurement, depth and so on

Touchy questions that I am often asked on seminars, specifically about the practice of prāṇāyāma.

Which ancient texts mention “full breathing”? Is there a description that firstly you need to fill the lower part of the lungs, then the middle and finally the upper one? Why various sources differently correlate inhalation and exhalation with prāṇa and apāna?

Let’s start with the “full breath”. In truth, I have never met such a description of the “wave” going from the bottom or top in ancient texts, as can be found in the works of later authors. Some modern teachers recommend to fill your belly from the bottom and spread the filling upwards, while exhale backwards. Others recommend to fill your belly from the bottom going upwards, and to exhale, too, from the bottom, gradually emptying the top.

In the classical texts, everything is described simply as “take a breath in and exhale” But often there are recommendations regarding the use of your belly. Find some examples below.

Haṭhayogapradīpikā, the description of bhastrikā includes the following:

When the belly becomes full of inhaled air, close the nostrils with thumb, middle and little fingers. (2.64)

Dattātreyayogaśāstra:

He (a yogi) should inhale through the right nostril, gently filling his belly. After holding the breath as long as possible, he should exhale calmly through the left nostril. (63)

Yogabīja:

A wise yogi should inhale through the both nadīs on sides of the kuṇḍalinī and hold it in the belly, then exhale again through ida. (104)

Viveka Mārtaṇḍa

Inhaling through the solar nostril, you should slowly fill the belly with air, then, according to the method, hold your breath, then exhale through the lunar nostril. (100)

Haṭhayogapradīpikā:

अथ प्लाविनी।
अन्तः प्रवर्तितोदारमारुतापूरितोदरः।
पयस्यगाधेऽपि सुखात्प्लवते पद्मपत्रवत् ॥७०॥

atha plāvinī |
antaḥ pravartitodāramārutāpūritodaraḥ|
payasyagādhe’pi sukhātplavate padmapatravat ॥ 70॥

Now begins plāvinī.

Fill the abdomen with air to the limit and you can move freely on the water like a floating lotus leaf (2.70).

The term आपूरित āpūrita – “filled” – is used here, the word पूरक pūraka, which is translated as an inhalation, in fact, also means “full” or “whole” (from “filling” or “filling up”). There is already the idea of fullness in the term itself, the root पूर pūra means “overflow”.

However, as I said above, the concept of breathing is not quite what many understand. In that regard, the “overflow” could “contradict to physiology”. Here’s another example from the Haṭhayogapradīpikā:

आकेशादानखाग्राच्च निरोधावधि कुम्भयेत्।
ततः शनैः सव्यनाड्या रेचयेत्पवनं शनैः॥४९॥

ākeśādānakhāgrācca nirodhāvadhi kumbhayet।
tataḥ śanaiḥ savyanāḍyā recayetpavanaṃ śanaiḥ ॥ 49 ॥

He holds his breath until the air is held in his whole body from the fingernails to the top of the head (crown). Then he exhales slowly through the left channel (2.49).

The texts of yoga are not only about the physical side, (even if “physical exercises” are there) as all the exercises are a combination of meditation and physical activity. That is the full breath in both the physical and energetic sense.

I think there is a lot of confusion because of various factors. I suggest to move to the analysis of the terminology itself. The root अन् an means “breathing”, prefix प्र pra – “forward” and अन् an or आन āna – “breathing”, i.e. “breathing forward”, resulting in the term प्राण prāṇa. अपान apāna – from अप apa –  “outside” and आन āna – “to breathe”. Just like समान samāna from सम sama (“balanced”) and आन āna (“balanced breathing”) or उदान udāna – from उद् ud (“up”) and आन āna (“breathing up”), व्यान vyāna from वि vi – “separately” and आन āna – “breathing”, that is, distributed “breathing” (in different parts of the body). Breathing is not always understood only as a physical process, you сan see that, at least, by the example of breathing “distributed over the body”. I would not take as an example such a description of prāṇa as in Prāṇa-sūkta from Atharvaveda, which is a hymn dedicated to prāṇa as the Absolute itself, i.e., kind of a pulsating force or energy.

On the whole, I am a supporter of the version that recaka is prāṇa, and pūraka is apāna. Recaka comes from the root रेच (rec), which means “devastation”, this root produces रेचक (recaka) or रेचन (recana), which can be both adjectives and nouns in three genders. The term रेचक (recaka) can also mean “purification”; in this connection, it could mean अपान (apāna) from अप (apa) – “back” (opposed to “pra” or “prāṇa”), “down” or “away”, and आन (āna), which means “breathing”. Something that “moves outwards” – matches with recaka, but something that goes “backwards” – doesn’t. The meaning of “purification” could be qualified for category अपान (apāna) in connection with its function of removing unnecessary substances from the body. But in the case of रेचक (recaka), that is the exhalation of carbon dioxide through the nose, which is not connected, for example, with the discharge of excrements, menstrual blood, etc. As for the term पूरक (pūraka), there is a connection with पूर (pūra), which means “filling up, flooding, satisfaction, overflow, fullness”. Also, there is an obvious connection with the root पॄ (pṝ), which also means “filling, satiation, satisfaction”. Accordingly, पूरक (pūraka) is “filling” or “filling up”, or, simply speaking, – inhaling. If प्राण (prāṇa) consists of the prefix प्र (prā), which means the forward movement, the initial movement, and the suffix kvip, आन (āna), indicating the one who breathes, then it can also be associated with रेचक (recaka), since recaka is an exhalation of air outward. However, there are different interpretations, another common one is: प्राण (prāṇa) comes from the root पॄ (pṝ), पृणाति (pṛṇāti) which means “to fill, nourish, satiate”, and therefore it is related to पूर्ण (pūrṇa), fullness. If we look at the term प्राण in that context, then it could be similar to पूरक (pūraka), because it can mean “filling” too and there is the idea of ​​“satiation”.

I think both versions regarding प्राण (prāṇa) and अपान (apāna) have the right to exist, the point of view can vary depending on the specific sampradaya and even the specific Guru, which is normal for India. I am more intimate with the idea of ​​inhalation – as satiation and, accordingly, as the symbol of nectar, soma, associated with watery fluid; and exhalation – as fire, which purifies and absorbs the soma. Fire in the Indian tradition is very significant for purification, it accepts offerings and transfers them to heaven to Indra and other Gods. Thanks to the fire offering, Indra sends rain to the earth and everything starts to grow, to blossom. We also have a havan-kuṇḍa in the lower part of our body, the fire of kuṇḍalinī rises upward when it is nourished by the nectar from sahasrara-cakra. Fire, of course, is also a symbol of purification, and a symbol of passion (kāma) leading to death, that’s why many yogis avoid the outer fire as a symbol of gṛihastha life, but they have the inner fire in the form of kuṇḍalinīśakti.

Some descriptions of the breathing process in yogic resources are full of symbolism, in such cases, of course, one can derive a variety of interpretations. For example, here is an interesting description in Vāyu Purāṇa:

नालेन तु यथा तोयं यन्त्रेणैव बलान्वितः।
आपिबेत प्रयत्नेन तथा वायुञ्जितश्रमः ।। ११.२६ ।।

nālena tu yathā toyaṃ yantreṇaiva balānvitaḥ।
āpibeta prayatnena tathā vāyuñjitaśramaḥ ।। 11.26 ।।

Just like water is absorbed with effort by a pipe or a mechanical device, so a yogi should drink air diligently, but not bringing himself to fatigue.

नाभ्यां च हृदये चैव कण्ठे उरसि चानने।
नासाग्रे तु तथा नेत्रे भ्रुवोर्मध्येऽथ मूर्द्धनि ।। ११.२७ ।।

nābhyāṃ ca hṛdaye caiva kaṇṭhe urasi cānane।
nāsāgre tu tathā netre bhruvormadhye’tha mūrddhani ।। 11.27 ।।

The wind should be maintained gradually in the navel, heart, chest, throat, mouth, tip of the nose, eyes, between the eyebrows and in the head.

In yogic texts, sometimes there is a description of inhalation as “drinking” of air or prāṇa, in which case it can be assumed that the body is like a pitcher into which air is poured and held during kumbhaka. So, if the water is gradually poured into the vessel, firstly it fills the bottom, then the middle part and so on up to the top. Then it can be like above described in Vāyu Purāṇa, in one of the sections dedicated to yoga. That is the filling up and the movement of prāṇa goes from nābhi (belly), then hṛidaya (chest), throat and even higher up to the head (if we take the energetic part of the process into consideration). In that case, at least, we can deduce the “gradual filling” and the context of full breathing, as many do now.

The description of matras (counting the length of inhalation, exhalation and breath-holding). In different texts, there are various definitions of what is a high level, for example 16-64-32 (in Gheraṇḍasaṁhitā), somewhere smaller ratios are given. How to make a right choice of matras, if there are such contradictions in the texts? What do you consider to be lower, middle and higher levels as you master prāṇāyāma?

As for the counting of breath on inhale, while breath-holding and on exhale, you can find a lot of recommendations in the texts. Usually, texts divide mastering of prāṇāyāma onto three levels. It is said that at the lowest level of prāṇāyāma the fire rises in the body and sweat is produced, on the middle level there is a strong vibration, and at the highest – the state of lightness. However, the texts actually give different ratios for the number of counts. For example, in Gheraṇḍasaṁhitā, the highest ratio is 24-64-48. According to the Jogpradīpikā, “matras” (counts) during breathing are not only different, but there is one for those who practice according to the Vedas and the other – according to the Tantras. According to the Vedas, the highest level in sahitaprāṇāyāma is 8-19-9, and according to the Tantras it is 25-50-25. Viveka Mārtaṇḍa, as well as a number of other texts, gives the following prescriptions:

“In the beginning, it has twelve measures (i.e. 12-16-10), then twice as many (24-32-20), and the best one is three times as much (36-48-30). With the initial prāṇāyāma sweat is produced, with the middle one – the body starts to shake, and with the highest prāṇāyāma one reaches the immobility. So, a yogi should control the air” (107-108).

Obviously, in the latter version there is some connection with solar, lunar and fiery kalā (energy rays). However, I think that whatever regulations the texts give, it is necessary to be oriented on something different. The first thing which is necessary to understand is why texts recommend using the mental repetition of the mantra as a count and what connection is there between the mantra and breathing. The thing is that breathing and sound have the same origin, they both come from vibration, spandana, which manifests itself in us, for example, in the form of a pulse, etc. If we want prāṇāyāma to bring us full value, then during prāṇāyāma we need to learn to listen to yourself. We do not need to forcefully push our own capabilities of inhalation, breath-holding or exhalation, moreover, we should not try to immediately reach the proportion of 24-64-48. We must completely change our attitude to what is considered as vital energy and its manifestation in the form of breathing and other functions, and in the same way to the mantra. It is not by chance that in the Vedas there are hymns dedicated to prāṇa as the divine power and Brahman himself. And how can we put pressure on what is absolute? The same is with the mantra: the mantra is the spiritual body of the Divine, this is the Divine itself. We can perceive prāṇa at the level of vital functions or the Deity – at the level of mūrti, but these are only manifestations of that highest power, and we must learn to see what is behind the form. Furthermore, we must treat the form carefully, the Divine gives us signals through it, teaches us.

The disciple is not the one who imposes, but the one who learns to perceive and that is the one who is the practitioner. It’s just the outside world teaches us to seise everything, take it by storm, and often we automatically extend this inclination to spiritual practice. During practice of any prāṇāyāma we always have to focus our own attention on necessity to “let ourselves go”, leave “expectations” in order to report to someone that I have reached something in a long breath-holding. The texts say that one must be very cautious day by day, very carefully, to increase simultaneously the length of inhalation, exhalation, and breath-holding. Of course, you can, as it is recommended by many, firstly start to make equal proportions: 1-1-1, then 1-1-2, then 1-2-2, then 1-3-2 and go to 1-4-2. After, you can increase the number in that scheme: 4-16-12, gradually moving on to 5-20-10, etc. However, I would recommend to perceive all these schemes, even though they discipline and “set the course”, keeping the main goal in mind. The main thing is to dissolve your consciousness in spanda (anāhatanāda) coming from inside, it is necessary that your mantra would also be absorbed by the source of its own origin (anāhata). In short, the goal is to accept oneself, one’s nature, to perceive oneself as the eternal ātman, in which consciousness, mantra, feelings, and even a Devata as “saguṇa” dissolve. Then prāṇāyāma will really purify the nadīs and save you from many troubles, etc.

In that regard, contrary to the widespread descriptions of prāṇāyāma in many texts, which claim that prāṇāyāma with mantra is higher than prāṇāyāma without it, there are other interpretations that exist, and I would like to give an example. Devī-bhāgavata-purāṇa says that prāṇāyāma could be of six kinds:

धारयेत्तत्र चात्मानं धारणां धारयेद्‌बुधः । सधूमश्च विधूमश्च सगर्भश्चाप्यगर्भकः ॥
सलक्ष्यश्चाप्यलक्ष्यश्च प्राणायामस्तु षड्‌विधः । प्राणायामसमो योगः प्राणायाम इतीरितः॥

dhārayettatra cātmānaṃ dhāraṇāṃ dhārayed‌budhaḥ ।
sadhūmaśca vidhūmaśca sagarbhaścāpyagarbhakaḥ ॥
salakṣyaścāpyalakṣyaśca prāṇāyāmastu ṣaḍ‌vidhaḥ ।
prāṇāyāmasamo yogaḥ prāṇāyāma itīritaḥ॥

“Let the awakened one practice dhāraṇa, concentrating on ātman. Sadhūma (unstable breathing), vidhūma (unfluctuating breathing), sagarbha (breathing with a mantra), agarbha (breathing without a mantra), salakṣhya (with the concentration on a Deity within oneself or a divine symbol), alakṣya (beyond attributes) – these are six kinds of prāṇāyāma. In yoga, there is no higher method than prāṇāyāma.”

I.e. that focusing on alakṣhya or “alakh” (as Nāthas say in Hindi) – the eternal ātman, which is outside of any forms, is considered higher than with using the mantra. The immersion into the nature of ātman (into oneself), according to the Devī-bhāgavata-purāṇa, is the best guideline for prāṇāyāma, which differs from many other texts, where samantrakaprāṇāyāma (with a mantra) is higher. Then the body becomes like a metal, under the intense temperature of fire it acquires the qualities of fire. The body of feeling, immersing in nature, spiritualises.

When it’s said that prāṇāyāma improves health, it means that you achieve your natural state by getting rid of the unnatural. Health in Sanskrit is “svastha”, from the roots sva (own) and stha (existing),  but the meaning is much more than that. From yoga point of view the normal state includes a natural state of mind, feelings, etc. If we return to the subject of counting, I even received such recommendations as to use rhythm while chanting a mantra, so the mind immerses itself into the repetition of the mantra easier. It’s easier for immersion, because we won’t see anything spiritual in the practice of prāṇāyāma if it’s based only on counting, but after all prāṇāyāma removes the worldly state of mind. Theoretically rhythm captures the mind as for instance in the theory of chandas in Sanskrit poetics. I think, the practice of measuring the breath with the use of “matras” can be compared to riding a car to some destination, but somewhere, say, a traffic jam has been formed. Then a driver can look for another way, a little longer or shorter, but still to the same destination. There are basic guidelines during practice, but some small temporary deviations are permissible, if a practitioner feels they are needed.

However, all these subtleties, even such seemingly simple as matras, should be explained by a Guru. Because such elements as mantras, anāhata, etc., are more than simple technics as everybody understands them nowadays. Yoga is the highest level of spiritual practice, although it is bonded with simplicity and nature, many lost it in the artificial world and the artificial way of life. There should be a balance between the spiritual and the physical in yoga, that must always be remembered.