By Jonathan Rosenthal
Pranayama (control of Prana through breath) is the main focal point for managing thoughts and actions, according to The Science of Pranayama by Swami Sivananada.
Even before I started practicing yoga, I found that inhaling deeply, holding my breath as long as is comfortable, and exhaling very slowly was the most effective technique to regulate my thoughts and actions in moments of indecision and doubt.
“Before he eats, before he drinks, before he resolves to do anything, Pranayama should be performed first and then the nature of his determination should be clearly enunciated and placed before the mind.” - Swami Sivananda.
Prana, however, is not solely breath. Breath contributes to prana, but not all prana is derived from breath.
Swami Sivananda says, “The Prana may be defined as the finest vital force in everything which becomes visible on the physical plane as motion and action, and on the mental plane as thought. The word Pranayama, therefore, means the restraint of vital energies.” This seems to suggest that prana is fed by the needs of air, water and food and then directed towards the vayus, like thoughts and actions. Prana is hard to conceptualize, and therefore visualize and manipulate directly.
Perhaps the control of breath is a starting point to control prana. According to Swami Sivananda, “If you control the flywheel (the prana) you control the wheels (the other organs).” Similarly, Sri Dharma Mittra says, “the attention is a magnet for prana.” Perhaps combining control of breath with the guidance of attention allows one to indirectly manipulate prana.
Breath is the most compulsory need for survival. It is impossible to survive without breath for the amount of time one can survive without food and water. This is why controlling the breath is such an important tool, both in and out of yoga. Returning to this basic need shatters the illusion of all the other “needs (e.g. fears, desires, doubts)” - almost like throwing a wrench at a triangular enclosure of mirrors that reflect and deceive you endlessly.
Fears and doubts are no match for Pranayama. By removing the focus from these ungrounded anticipations and placing the focus on the most basic and essential need, Pranayama shatters the mirrored labyrinth of imaginary and illusory needs.
I imagine that all “needs” are really illusions. We are not really hungry, it is the body that is hungry; we are not cold, it is the body that is cold. In fact, Swami Sivananda describes Pranayama techniques that eliminate needs like hunger, thirst, and sleep and these same techniques can even cool or warm the body - sitkari and sitali are cooling, suryabheda and ujjayi are warming, and bhastrika restores normal temperature. Further, sitkari and sitali both trump hunger, thirst, and sleep. All of these seem to suggest that pranayama is a practice mainly used to shatter the illusion of needs.
It is interesting that Swami Sivananda advises specifically to avoid straining while doing Pranayama: “Some people twist the muscles of the face when they do Kumbhaka (breath retention). It should be avoided. It is a symptom to indicate that they are going beyond their capacity.”
If practicing Pranayama becomes a need in and of itself, it has become an illusion extraordinaire. This is much like a drug given in excess quantity that then becomes a poison. In pursuing Pranayama as a need in and of itself, the practitioner has only replaced an unnecessary “need” with a new one.
Pranayama should be practiced each and every day, but it is not the end of the world to miss a day; Pranayama should be practiced not as a need in and of itself, but as a technique that, by focusing on the only real need, prana, shatters the illusion of the others.