A crucial element in the physical perfection is the mastery over the vital element. Prana is the energy giver for all our activities, including the sadhana. The following talk discusses some aspects of Pranayama, one of the traditional ways for this mastery and its relation to the Integral Yoga.
Words of Sri Aurobindo
We can become aware of the existence and presence of the universal Shakti in the various forms of her power. At present we are conscious only of the power as formulated in our physical mind, nervous being and corporeal case sustaining our various activities. But if we can once get beyond this first formation by some liberation of the hidden, recondite, subliminal parts of our existence by Yoga, we become aware of a greater life force, a pranic Shakti, which supports and fills the body and supplies all the physical and vital activities, for the physical energy is only a modified form of this force, and supplies and sustains too from below all our mental action. This force we feel in ourselves also, but we can feel it too around us and above, one with the same energy in us, and can draw it in and down to aggrandise our normal action or call upon and get it to pour into us. It is an illimitable ocean of Shakti and will pour as much of itself as we can hold into our being. This pranic force we can use for any of the activities of life, body or mind with a far greater and effective power than any that we command in our present operations, limited as they are by the physical formula. The use of this pranic power liberates us from that limitation to the extent of our ability to use it in place of the body-bound energy. It can be used so to direct the prana as to manage more powerfully or to rectify any bodily state or action, as to heal illness or to get rid of fatigue, and to liberate an enormous amount of mental exertion and play of will or knowledge. The exercises of Pranayama are the familiar mechanical means of freeing and getting control of the pranic energy. They heighten too and set free the psychic, mental and spiritual energies which ordinarily depend for their opportunity of action on the pranic force. But the same thing can be done by mental will and practice or by an increasing opening of ourselves to a higher spiritual power of the Shakti. The pranic Shakti can be directed not only upon ourselves, but effectively towards others or on things or happenings for whatever purposes the will dictates. Its effectivity is immense, in itself illimitable, and limited only by defect of the power, purity and universality of the spiritual or other will which is brought to bear upon it; but still, however great and powerful, it is a lower formulation, a link between the mind and body, an instrumental force. There is a consciousness in it, a presence of the spirit, of which we are aware, but it is encased, involved in and preoccupied with the urge to action. It is not to this action of the Shakti that we can leave the whole burden of our activities; we have either to use its lendings by our own enlightened personal will or else call in a higher guidance; for of itself it will act with greater force, but still according to our imperfect nature and mainly by the drive and direction of the life-power in us and not according to the law of the highest spiritual existence.
The ordinary power by which we govern the pranic energy is that of the embodied mind. But when we get clear above the physical mind, we can get too above the pranic force to the consciousness of a pure mental energy which is a higher formulation of the Shakti. There we are aware of a universal mind consciousness closely associated with this energy in, around and above us, above, that is to say, the level of our ordinary mind status, giving all the substance and shaping all the forms of our will and knowledge and of the psychic element in our impulses and emotions. This mind force can be made to act upon the pranic energy and can impose upon it the influence, colour, shape, character, direction of our ideas, our knowledge, our more enlightened volition and thus more effectively bring our life and vital being into harmony with our higher powers of being, ideals and spiritual aspirations. In our ordinary state these two, the mental and the pranic being and energies, are very much mixed up and run into each other, and we are not able clearly to distinguish them or get a full hold of the one on the other and so control effectively the lower by the higher and more understanding principle. But when we take our station above the physical mind, we are able then to separate clearly the two forms of energy, the two levels of our being, disentangle their action and act with a clearer and more potent self-knowledge and an enlightened and a purer will-power. Nevertheless the control is not complete, spontaneous, sovereign so long as we work with the mind as our chief guiding and controlling force. The mental energy we find to be itself derivative, a lower and limiting power of the conscious spirit which acts only by isolated and combined seeings, imperfect and incomplete half-lights which we take for full and adequate light, and with a disparity between the idea and knowledge and the effective will-power. And we are aware soon of a far higher power of the Spirit and its Shakti concealed or above, superconscient to mind or partially acting through the mind, of which all this is an inferior derivation.
The Synthesis of Yoga: The Divine Shakti
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Man fulfilling himself in the body is given Hathayoga as his means. When he rises above the body, he abandons Hathayoga as a troublesome and inferior process and rises to the Rajayoga, the discipline peculiar to the aeon in which man now evolves. The first condition of success in Rajayoga is to rise superior to the dehatmak bodh, the state of perception in which the body is identified with the self. A time comes to the Rajayogin when his body seems not to belong to him or he to have any concern with it. He is not troubled by its troubles or gladdened by its pleasures; it has them to itself and very soon, because he does not give his sanction to them, they fall away from it. His own troubles and pleasures are in the heart and mind, for he is the rajasic and psychical man, not the tamasic material. It is these that he has to conquer in order that he may realise God in his heart or in his buddhi or in both. God seen in the heart, that is the quest of the Rajayogin. He may recover the perception and enjoyment of the body afterwards, but it is only to help the enjoyment of God as Love and God as Knowledge.The processes of the Rajayoga are mental and emotional…..
It is difficult, though not impossible, to do the practice of Pranayam according to Patanjali’s system without perfect bodily stillness. It can be done and has been done even while walking about, but this is not so easy or usual. Now Pranayam in its proper sense, the mastery of the vital force in oneself and Nature, is essential to every Rajayogin, but it can be brought about by much simpler methods. The only physical process that the Rajayogin finds helpful enough to be worth doing, is nadishuddhi or purification of the nerve system by regular breathing and this can be done while lying, sitting, reading, writing, walking. This process has great virtues. It has a wonderfully calming effect on the whole mind & body, drives out every lurking disease in the system, awakens the yogic force accumulated in former lives and, even where no such latent force exists, removes the physical obstacles to the wakening of the Kundalini shakti.
But even this process is not essential. The Rajayogin knows that by tranquillising the mind he can tranquillise the body, by mastering the mind he can master both the body and the prana. This is the great secret of the Rajayoga that mind is the master of the body, creates it and conditions it, body is not the master, creator or lawgiver of the mind. It may be said that the body at least affects the mind, but this is the other discovery of the Rajayogin that the body need not in the least affect the mind unless by our consent we allow it to do so. The kumbhak or natural cessation of the breathing is essential to the deeper kinds of Samadhi, not to all; but even so he finds that by the cessation of the lawless restlessness of the mind, which we mistakenly call thought, we can easily, naturally and spontaneously bring about the cessation of the breathing, a calm, effortless and perfect kumbhak. He therefore dispenses with physical processes, easy or laborious, and goes straight to the root of the problem, the mind.
Sri Aurobindo: Early Cultural Writings
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Words of the Mother
But for us who want an integral realization, are all these mantras and this daily japa really a help, or do they also shut us in?
It gives discipline. It’s an almost subconscious discipline of the character more than of thought.
Especially at the beginning, Sri Aurobindo used to shatter to pieces all moral ideas (you know, as in the Aphorisms,for example). He shattered all those things, he shattered them, really shattered them to pieces. So there’s a whole group of youngsters’ here who were brought up with this idea that ‘we can do whatever we want, it doesn’t matter in the least!’ – that they need not bother about all those concepts of ordinary morality. I’ve had a hard time making them understand that this morality can be abandoned only for a higher one … So, one has to be careful not to give them the Power too soon.
It’s an almost physical discipline. Moreover, I have seen that the japa has an organizing effect on the subconscient, on the inconscient, on matter, on the body’s cells – it takes time, but by persistently repeating it, in the long run it has an effect. It is the same principle as doing daily exercises on the piano, for example. You keep mechanically repeating them, and in the end your hands are filled with consciousness – it fills the body with consciousness….
Are you doing it without instructions?
There’s a traditional way of doing it, I know the formula.
How does it go?
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.
Are these the “official” figures?
Yes; I mean that’s the proportion: inhale 4, hold 16, exhale 8.
It has to be double the exhalation. If you do 8, then it’s 8-32-16.
I did it myself for years, using the same system: inhale, hold, exhale, remain empty. But holding the lungs empty is said to be dangerous, so I don’t advise it. I did it for years. Without knowing it, Sri Aurobindo and I did it nearly the same way, along with all sorts of other things that aren’t supposed to be done! This is to tell you that the danger is mainly in what you think. In the course of certain movements, both of us made the air go out through the crown of the head – apparently that’s only to be done when you want to die! (Mother laughs) It didn’t kill us.
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 think holding for 16 is too long. I used to do it simply like this: breathe in very slowly to the count of 4, then hold for 4 like this (I still have the knack of it!), lifting the diaphragm and lowering the head56 (Mother bends her neck), closing everything and exerting pressure (this is an almost instantaneous cure for hiccups – it’s handy!). Then while I held the air, I would make it circulate with the force (because it contained force, you see) and with the peace as well; 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, hold, exhale and empty – you are completely empty. It’s very useful; very handy for underwater swimmers, for instance!
I had trouble breathing in slowly enough – that’s a bit hard. I began with 4 and eventually managed to do 12. I did 12-12-12-12. 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.
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.
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.
I do my japa in the morning, at noon, and in the evening.
You can lie down on a mat, look at a flower or a patch of sky if there’s any to see …..And if you do your pranayama along with this “relaxation” you will notice yourself growing extremely strong – storing, storing, storing up energies. And then if you have to make an effort, there’s nothing to it – it’s as easy as pie.
February 24, 1962