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Pranayama Techniques from the School of Hatha Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, and Mantra Yoga

Having gained an understanding of the necessity for the human being to gain control over the individualized unit of prana that permeates the physical body, the student of Yoga naturally wishes to begin the practice of Pranayama. The ancient Yogis, realizing that students will approach Yoga and the control of prana with many different attitudes which result from differences in personality, upbringing, and karmic patterns, devised many schools of Pranayama which reflect and respond to the stage of evolution the beginning Yogi acts from. The goal of the different Yogic paths is the same, but the methods of reaching that goal vary and are not equal.

Mantra Yoga

The school of Mantra Yoga may be the best suited for a certain type of individual, but it is not the best school of Pranayama. Indeed, it is the slowest and lowest path of Yoga. Mantra Yoga is a school of practice designed for individuals that are unable to comprehend the finer manifestations of prana in the mind and body. Those who engage in ritualistic chanting, the repetition of root word sounds or bija mantras, prayer, the repetition of affirmations or the Hail Mary, or engage in the creation of devotional items or in superficial meditation practices like mandala gazing, are Mantra Yogis. In short, Mantra Yoga is for those who feel the need to keep outwardly busy. The word "Mantra" comes from the root "man" or "mind" and "tram" or "to save or liberate." Thus Mantra Yoga is a system of practices that keep the mind busy with external sounds, and occasionally visual stimuli, in order to liberate the mind from the incessant train of restless thoughts. Over time, a very long period of time, the mind begins to withdraw from its preoccupation with the sensory world and is able to focus entirely on the various mantras in subconscious mental chanting or in superconscious chanting, which is to say listening to the internal astral sounds emanating from the spine and brain. This stage of Mantra Yoga is called Laya Yoga or the Yoga of absorption. In Laya the mind melts as it is absorbed in the internal sounds which a lifetime of Mantra Yoga practices were just mimicking. However, these days a lifetime of Mantra Yoga produces individuals which are little more than religious administrators.

Even the students that spend a lifetime practicing Mantra Yoga often never reach the stage of Laya Yoga due to the limited nature of mantric practices. Those who remain satisfied with their spiritual practices because such were the methods practiced for generations in their church or temple never taste the Bliss of the superconscious state which arrives from mastery of prana. Why then did the Yogis devise Mantra Yoga if it was incapable of bestowing Bliss in a single lifetime? Indeed, Mantra Yoga was never meant to be a comprehensive path within itself but was rather meant to be a stepping stone to higher paths of Yoga. "Graduates" of Mantra Yoga who did not become attached to the endless recitation of prayers and liturgical habits passed on to Kundalini Yoga which in turn leads to promotion to Hatha Yoga (not asana practice). Mantra Yoga, which comprises most of the religious practices extolled by the organized religions of today, is not the end of spiritual life though it may be the beginning for many. While many Yogis begin with Mantra, Kundalini, or Hatha Yoga Pranayama, it is impossible to start Pranayama practice as a Raja Yogi since Raja Pranayama assumes a tremendous amount of control over prana from the student from the outset. So it is necessary to begin Pranayama practice by controlling prana indirectly through some medium as opposed to directly through will power as the Raja Yogi does. Mantra Yoga affords a crude method of controlling prana while Kundalini Yoga and Hatha Yoga systems offer more advanced and finer methods of Pranayama. Ultimately, all techniques of Pranayama that involve the control of prana through an overt medium, which in the case of Mantra Yoga is through the prayers, chants, and affirmations, are lesser variations of the high science of Raja Yoga Pranayama which controls prana directly through will power. Mantra Yoga also has angas or limbs, like Classical Yoga. These limbs include devotion, purity, posture, liturgy, ethics, concentration, breathing, hand gestures, mantra, sacrifice, meditation, and superconsciousness.

As the student progresses from one stage of Pranayama to the next, many practices are maintained while others are discarded. The following metaphor illustrates this. When a child learns to ride a bike, the training wheels may be taken off, but the other wheels remain. Perhaps after mastering the bicycle the child may be given a motor bike and later a motorcycle. Finally two wheels are exchanged for four and the child is given a car. Perhaps years later the child grows and learns the truck or the race car, or even a plane. Very few though make it to outer space and fly a shuttle. Even so, if you were brought up going to church or temple, in a Buddhist monastery or in a mosque, most likely you were brought up with practices which stem from the ancient school of Mantra Yoga. Do not be discouraged, but neither should you think that there is nothing else to the search for spiritual attainment than regularly going to church, doing good deeds, following the rules of morality found in the Bible, praying and singing, etc. Remove the training wheels which slow down your spiritual advancement and graduate to higher schools or Pranayama. If Hatha Yoga is the airplane route, Raja Yoga is the space shuttle. Many practices from the school of Mantra Yoga must be continued even after higher levels of Pranayama have begun. Only when a practice is found to be redundant or obsolete should it be thrown away. If you reach Raja Yoga in this lifetime you will come to realize that the direct control of prana is far greater than doing good, praying, mind-bound meditations, or chanting and so only the Raja Yogi can justify the removal of all lesser spiritual practices. However, Raja Yogis generally maintain many of the salutary habits which preoccupy lesser Yogis so that they may be examples of proper conduct to others.

One branch of Mantra Yoga is called Japa Yoga. Japa Yoga consists of the continuous repetition of a mantra or phrase throughout the day. Through such repetition one attains even-mindedness even when confronted with adversity. This practice has the disadvantage of easily becoming something done by rote. Still, from among the many practices of Mantra Yoga, students are advised to take a phrase or mantra and repeat it with concentration throughout the day when there is a free moment. This mantra or phrase will then become "home" for the Yogi's mind and it will become increasingly easier to quickly center the mind in the peace that the mantra bestows. This practice is so beneficial that only when one reaches Raja Yoga can it be discarded. Raja Yogis easily maintain a magnetic pull of prana at the point between the eyebrows which they can discernibly feel throughout the day. This pranic pull at the sixth chakra is their continuous mantra. Indeed, the mental repetition of a mantra as in Japa Yoga only reflects the sound which emanates when the sixth chakra is constantly lit with prana. For those who need to repeat a mantra the best to repeat is the syllable AUM (rhymes with "home"). Often, the diksha or initiation from a guru, a requirement for real advancement, involves the transmission of a mantra, among other things.

Mantra Yogis are instructed to selflessly serve others and to see humanity as one's larger Self. This practice of Karma Yoga is a system in its own right and so will be discussed in greater detail in a later lesson. Suffice it to say for now that students of Pranayama must make every effort to make service their ultimate goal in their work. Any other goal is a lesser goal. One needs to make money, to be sure, but making money should not be the goal of one's active existence. Those who make money their goal never find happiness from the money acquired. Money is best used to help others after one as fulfilled the responsibilities to family. When service towards others is most prominent in one's mind all abundance is forthcoming. When greed is the motivating principle one will never find that there is enough wealth no matter how much material abundance is enjoyed. Realize that your ultimate lasting happiness is a direct result of your mastery over prana. Once this happiness is attained, no individual nor any circumstance can take it away from you. Further, this Bliss is beyond comparison to any paltry pleasure that others may gain through wealth, fame, property, etc. The practice of Mantra Yoga develops the devoted heart and perhaps the greatest manifestation of spiritual devotion is in the spirit of service to others.

Kundalini Yoga

Kundalini Yoga is a system that lies as a stepping stone between the practices of Mantra Yoga and Hatha Yoga. While it takes many of its techniques of asanas and Pranayama from Hatha Yoga, it also includes lesser practices from Mantra Yoga like group chanting and discussion on spiritual topics. In some schools of thought, Kundalini Yoga is considered a branch of Tantra Yoga. While Mantra Yoga often encourages the expression of one's spiritual experiences, higher paths of Yoga entirely forbid one to speak of one's Yogic advancement. Such discussion is purely egoistic and amounts to nothing more than gossip. Mantra Yoga encourages such an exchange because most beginners have few real experiences to speak of and require encouragement. Most such experiences that are considered to be profound, however, are the result of the workings of the subconscious mind. Mantra Yogis can never understand this but will argue that their experiences are real. However, as Mantra Yoga is designed to directly react in the subconscious mind, expelling the mental and emotional debris and organizing the flow of energy and consciousness into the body and brain, it is only natural for such subconsciously induced experiences to erupt on a fairly regular basis. In that regard, they are indeed real, but not Real. Speaking of them further releases them though it often enforces them as well. This may be damaging if the student does not progress to higher levels of Yoga and so gain the understanding that such experiences were but part of clearing out the past and at best were reflections of the true Yogic experience of Bliss in the breathless state. Still, to the Mantra Yogi these experiences will seem real and they are no less real that what we perceive with our senses. The are the residue left in the mind from sensory experience. Both the subconscious fantasy and the conscious sensory life are equally misleading. However, one must pass through subconsciousness, clearing out past misuses of memory and debilitating karmic patterns, before one can aspire to reach the superconscious state. Some Yogis claim that even advanced Yoga students may spend up to ten years of Yogic practices in the subconscious plane. Through the use of the stepping stone of Kundalini Yoga the student of Pranayama begins to reach for the conscious control over Pranayama that Hatha Yoga and later Raja Yoga promise.

Some of the meditation techniques of Kundalini Yoga that are taken from Mantra Yoga include the repetition of a mantra with the inhalation of breath and another with the exhalation of breath. This practice of observing the breath is the precursor to regulating the breath in more advanced Kundalini Yoga and Hatha Yoga techniques of Pranayama. This technique has several names, but as it is designed to increase the power of concentration, it is called Dharanasana. Dharanasana1) The back must be kept very straight during the practice of Dharanasana. This is extremely vital. The chest must be puffed out. The shoulders must be pulled back. The feet remain flat on the floor. The chin is kept parallel to the floor. The palms can be folded on the lap or placed in jnana mudra with the arms extended, the tips of the index and thumb touching, and the remaining three fingers stretched out. The eyelids are closed with the eyes focused on the point between the eyebrows. That point is the center for concentration. The mind should not waver from that space. The tongue is pulled slightly back with the tip of the tongue touching the part of the palate that turns from bony to soft. The mouth is kept closed so all breathing is done through the nostrils. While many meditators sit on the floor, most have not actually mastered their asana as the back is not fully straight. It is therefore recommended to sit on a chair in assuming Dharanasana. However, perhaps the most crucial aspect of the position is that one must not move at all but rather sit entirely still.

2) A round of Dharanasana implies that the body has breathed twelve times of its own accord. With every inhalation the practitioner must mentally chant "Hong" for the duration of the breath. With every exhalation the practitioner must mentally chant "Sau" (rhymes with "saw") for the duration of the breath. A round is counted by using prayer beads or simply by counting on the twelve digits of the four fingers with the thumb as the counter. Counting the breaths is an aid to keeping the mind on the act of breathing. However, the mind should be centered on the point between the eyebrows, not on the expansion of the lungs nor the flow of breath in the nostrils. This is a very important key to the success of the practitioner of Dharanasana.

3) Practice twelve rounds twice daily to start (which equals on hundred and forty-four breaths) and work up to one hundred and forty-four rounds or seventeen hundred and twenty-eight breaths. This is one of the greatest techniques to master the mind. Control of the mind is perhaps the penultimate achievement of a human being. No effort should be made to regulate or control the breathing in any way at any time during Dharanasana. If the mind wanders from counting Hong-Sau, simply bring it back to the exercise. A regular practitioner can be sure that simply sitting in the correct position for regular periods of practice will result in the slowing and ultimate cessation of breath, even assuming little to no effort at controlling the mind. This is the goal of Dharanasana and all Pranayama techniques.

While singing and chanting have little to no value in developing a Yogi's power to control prana, chanting does have its benefits where balancing one's emotions are concerned. Simply listening to music is not sufficient. Playing or singing music has a far greater therapeutic effect on the body and mind. If you play an instrument or sing you may rightly consider you practice as integral part of the Yogi's balanced life. If you do not play an instrument nor sing then consider the possibility of picking up an instrument or learning the basics of singing. Virtuoso playing or singing is hardly called for where harmonizing one's moods and emotional life is concerned. The right attitude is a far more important factor. For those of you that write poetry or prose or are a visual artist, these mediums also help as does chanting. However, according to Yoga science, sound is more effective than sight or thought in altering one's frame of mind and state of consciousness, especially in removing negativity from the mind. Therefore, poetry is instead used as a means of developing concentration and the visual arts assist in developing creativity. Singing and chanting, like Dharanasana, may be incorporated into one's spiritual life until one reaches the shores of Raja Yoga.

Many techniques of Pranayama are employed by both the schools of Hatha and Kundalini Yoga. Some of the most effective are offered by The Pranayama Institute. Still, one must daily practice square breathing in order to develop the lungs and pave the way for higher methods of Pranayama.Sama Vriti PranayamaThere are few techniques like Sama Vriti to achieve both calmness and energy, both relaxation and an awakened state. This technique can be performed while sitting or while walking with the rhythm corresponding to one's step. The ratio of inhalation, retention, and exhalation is always maintained at 1:1:1. Start with a six second inhalation followed by a six second retention and a six second exhalation. Increase the amount of time only when you can perform twenty four continuous breaths comfortably and uninterruptedly. This a perfect exercise to take a break with, get some fresh air, or simply center the attention and the emotions. The basis of all Pranayama techniques in the school of Hatha Yoga rely on the ability of the practitioner to breathe slowly and evenly. Long and slow breathing is the key to success in the practice of Hatha Pranayama. Through such concentrated and patient practice the mind begins to realize its nature as a wave of prana and learns to control prana with prana. This is called the act of "putting the mind in the mind." Thought is transcended and with the mind melting only prana and consciousness remain.

Hatha Yoga

The word "Hatha" means "force." Perhaps Hatha Yoga is the most misunderstood of all the schools of Yoga. Many consider Hatha Yoga to be exercises and stretches, postures and some breathing. This is simply not the case. Hatha Yoga is primarily the practice of Pranayama, mudras, and bandhas and secondarily the adherence to the Yogic moral injunctions of yama and niyama. Only in the West and in the last few decades has the stage of asanas or postures been held up in such high regard. Ours is a mundane and superficial society so it is little surprise that the most mundane aspects of Hatha Yoga have been seized upon to the point that Hatha Yoga is now defined as the practice of asanas. Unlike the other paths of Yoga, none of the practices of Hatha Yoga Pranayama can be discarded until the control of prana in the breathless state is reached. Indeed, technically no other techniques of Pranayama beyond Hatha Yoga and before Raja Yoga exist. If a Yogi has passed through all the stages of Yoga yet still cannot control prana in the semi-breathless state, then he or she is a Hatha Yogi by default. Such a Yogi still must use force to manipulate pranic currents. However, once the control of prana is accomplished without the need to regulate the breathing, the Yogi has graduated from Hatha Yoga and becomes a Raja Yogi. Only then may the techniques of Pranayama from the various schools be discarded for all such techniques are simply distortions on the high science of Raja Yoga. All the greatest techniques of Hatha Yoga, including Sankara Saranam's personal guidance for those who aspire to reach the stage of Raja Yoga, are offered through the Pranayama Institute.

In later lessons we will go over other paths of Yoga and what may be gleaned from their teaching to the greatest benefit of the aspiring Raja Yogi.