These are a few selections on the topic of Pranayama(rhythmic breathing). Sri Aurobindo & The Mother did not prescribe any particular type of Pranayama for their disciples because their very Presence was sufficient to transform the consciousness of their disciples.
Pranayama balances the five Pranas in the body, improving physical vigor and mental stability. The practice of Pranayama has to be tailored to the individual; some need long years of practice in order to reach an appreciable state of calmness; others may be able to naturally quieten the mind without a lot of practice.
There are many types of Pranayamas defined by ancient sages. The Gheranda Samhita (chapter 5, verses 46-96) describes eight types of Kumbhaka (retentions) : Sahita, Suryabheda, Ujjayi, Sitali, Bhastrika, Bhramai, Murchha and Kevali. English translations of the Gheranda Samhita by James Mallinson and Sri Chandra Vasu are available in book form.
- Suryabheda has a heating effect on the body. It alleviates sinus and vata dosha.
- Sitali has a cooling effect. It corrects pitta dosha according to the Kundali Upanishad and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
- Candrabheda has a cooling effect.
- Ujjayi controls phlegm (kapha dosha) and alleviates Asthma.
- Bhastrika harmonizes the breath.
If you want to learn Pranayama, there are well-known Yoga schools and teachers which you may want to explore. I have a list of books on Pranayama at the end of this webpage.
Sri Aurobindo’s practice of Pranayama
Sri Aurobindo: When I was doing Pranayama I used to feel the breath concentrated in the head. My skin began to be smooth and fair. The women of our family noticed it first, as they have a sharp eye for such things. And it was at that time I began to put on flesh. Formerly I was frail and thin. Then I noticed something unusual in the flow of my saliva. It was that substance perhaps that gave the change of colour and the other things. The Yogis say some sort of Amrita, that is, nectar, flows down from the top of the brain that can make one immortal.
[Nirodbaran, Talks with Sri Aurobindo, Vol 1, 1 JANUARY 1939]
Nirodbaran on Sri Aurobindo: Before he turned to the practice of yoga, Sri Aurobindo had started on certain practices of pranayam having learnt some rules from an engineer friend, Devadhar. Sri Aurobindo said that he practised it “on my own for five or six hours a day for nearly four years. As a result, the brain became full-of light, prakashamaya. The mind worked with great illumination and power. My power of writing poetry as well as prose increased tremendously. Usually I wrote about 200 lines of poetry a month. After the pranayam I wrote pages and pages in a single day and that flow I never lost. I used to feel that an electric energy was all round the brain because of which the mosquitoes did not bite me during the pranayam. My health too improved, even the skin became fair and there was a peculiar substance in the saliva which probably produced these changes. I adopted a vegetarian diet. That gave lightness and some purification. But that was all and there was no farther advance. Besides, politics kept me too busy and owing to irregularity in the practice of pranayam I fell seriously ill. It nearly carried me off.”
[Nirodbaran, Sri Aurobindo for all ages, Chap IV]
Sri Aurobindo explains why Pranayama is useful
Disciple : What part does breathing exercise – Pranayama – play in bringing about the higher consciousness?
Sri Aurobindo : It sets the Pranic – vital – currents free and removes dullness of the brain so that the higher consciousness can come down. Pranayama does not bring dullness in the brain. My own experience, on the contrary, is that brain becomes illumined. When I was practising Pranayama at Baroda, I used to do it for about five hours in the day, – three hours in the morning and two in the evening. I found that the mind began to work with great illumination and power. I used to write poetry in those days. Before the Pranayama practice, usually I wrote five to eight lines per day; and about two hundred lines in a month. After the practice I could write 200 lines within half an hour. That was not the only result. Formerly my memory was dull. But after this practice I found that when the inspiration came I could remember all the lines in their order and write them down correctly at any time. Along with these enhanced functionings I could see an electrical activity all round the brain, and I could feel that it was made up of a subtle substance. I could feel everything as the working of that substance. That was far from your carbon-dioxide!
Disciple : How is it that Pranayama develops mental capacities? What part does it play in bringing about the higher consciousness?
Sri Aurobindo : It is the Pranic – vital – currents which sustain mental activity. When these currents are changed by Pranayama, they bring about a change in the brain. The cause of dullness of the brain is some obstruction in it which does not allow the higher thought to be communicated to it. When this obstruction is removed the higher mental being is able to communicate its action easily to the brain. When the higher consciousness is attained the brain does not become dull. My experience is that it becomes illumined.
[A.B. Purani, Evening Talks With Sri Aurobindo, 19-9-1926]
The Mother Mirra Alfassa on Pranayama
Satprem: Do you object to my doing some pranayama[[Pranayama: breathing exercises. ]] before I begin working?
Mother: I think it would do you good, mon petit.
Satprem: I began three days ago, but I keep getting entangled with the traditional formation around it: “Oh, it’s dangerous, it’s dangerous, be careful.” So this morning I thought I’d better speak to you about it.
Mother: Are you doing it without instructions?
Satprem: There’s a traditional way of doing it, I know the formula.
Mother: How does it go?
Satprem: The time varies. You inhale through the left nostril for let’s say 4 seconds, then you hold your breath for 16 seconds, raising the diaphragm and closing all the openings; after 16 seconds you exhale for 8 seconds through the other nostril.
Mother: Are these the “official” figures?
Satprem: Yes; I mean that’s the proportion: inhale 4, hold 16, exhale 8.
Satprem: It has to be double the exhalation. If you do 8, then it’s 8-32-16.
Mother: I did it (Pranayama) myself for years, using the same system: inhale, hold, exhale, remain empty. Without knowing it, Sri Aurobindo and I did it nearly the same way! This is to tell you that the danger is mainly in what you think. No, the “danger” is MAINLY a thought formation.
You can achieve excellent control of the heart. But I never practiced it violently, never strained myself.
I used to do it simply like this: breathe in very slowly to the count of 4, then hold for 4 like this, lifting the diaphragm and lowering the head (Mother bends her neck), closing everything. Then while I held the air, and I would concentrate it wherever there was a physical disorder (a pain or something wrong somewhere). It’s very effective. The way I did it was: inhale very slowly to the count of 4, hold for 4, exhale very slowly to the count of 4 and remain empty to the count of 4 – you are completely empty.
I had trouble breathing in slowly enough – that’s a bit hard. I began with 4 and eventually managed to do 12. It took me months to reach that, it can’t be done quickly. To breathe in very slowly and hold all that air isn’t easy. I count: 1-2-3-4 … no quicker.
And exhale slowly – that’s very difficult – being careful to empty the top part of the lungs, because air often stagnates there. This seems to be one of the most frequent causes of coughs and colds. I was familiar with the method: you learn to hold the air and then release it slowly, slowly, so as to keep singing nonstop.
I advise you to practice it.
How much time do you spend on it?
Satprem: Eight to ten minutes, three times a day before my Japa.
Mother: Oh, that’s very good.
Satprem: I don’t know why, but I got entangled with that traditional formation which says it’s dangerous.
Mother: Someone put it on you, mon petit!
Satprem: It troubled me.
Mother: No, it’s not at all dangerous, at least if you don’t overdo it. If you do it simply…. I think some people practice pranayama with the idea of gaining “powers.” That idea of gaining powers fouls it up more than anything. But if you do it simply as a help to your progress, there’s no danger.
At any rate, Sri Aurobindo and I both did a lot of things considered dangerous, and absolutely nothing happened to us. Not that it’s necessary to do dangerous things, but nothing happened to us, so it all depends on how you do them.
I think you can safely forget about this formation.
But instead of doing equal amounts of time, it might be better to do less for inhaling and more for holding the breath. The holding part is extremely interesting! When the air is inside, let’s say you have a headache or a sore throat or a pain in your arm, anything – then you take the air … (Mother demonstrates) and direct it to the unwell part … very, very helpful and pleasant and interesting. You see the force go to the spot, settle in and stay there, all sorts of things
[Mother’s Agenda, February 24, 1962]
Books discussing Pranayama
- Swami Niranjanananda. Prana and Pranayama (amazon)
- Read Chapter 13 of Sŕivatsa Ramaswami’s book Yoga for the three stages of life (amazon) (google books)
- Swami Rama. Path of fire and light (amazon) (google books)
- Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine, Alan Hymes. Science of Breath (amazon) (google books)