In the first two posts of this series, I talked about the yamas or “laws of life” and the niyamas or “rules for living,” so now we come to pranayama and meditation, both of which flow through and are essential for the previous two limbs. When I was going through teacher training and we learned about each yama and niyama, I started to feel anxious thinking about all of the work I had to do to change myself. I had this mental checklist running through my head. As I began to examine the deeper meanings behind the yamas, such as violence which can be as subtle as thinking a harsh thought towards someone who is making your life difficult at work, I really started to panic.
When you really dissect all of the subtle ways we can be “in violation” of these universal moralities and personal observances, it can quickly become a challenge to stay present and not judge yourself. So, I read more and listened more and started to see that simply ‘noticing’ when I’m in a situation in which I have an opportunity to practice non-violence or moderation, my actions naturally began to shift. Add pranayama and meditation to the mix, and these qualities of living a yogic life begin to arise unconsciously; they become part of your DNA.
Pranayama is the art of breath control. Prana means energy. Breath is energy. When you can learn to control and direct the breath, you learn to control and direct your energy. This can be easily observed when you’re in a stressful situation or even having a panic attack. Whether you’re having a full blown attack or simply feeling overwhelmed sitting in a meeting or the doctor’s office, you can change your body’s response to the situation through concentration on the breath. When the inflow of your breath is equalized with your outflow of breath, the mind calms, the body calms. In asana, pranayama is vital in setting the pace for the poses. Both are considered essential disciplines in the practice of yoga. As a teacher, I often remind my students to flow with their breath, to let their breath regulate their flow through postures, not the reverse. When the breath is controlled, the physical practice is more deliberate, focused and beneficial. Physically, pranayama helps to increase breath capacity, regulate blood pressure and oxygenate the blood.
Asana and Pranayama also settle the mind in preparation for meditation or dhyana. For starters, and to avoid the whole “yoga is a cult” nonsense that is permeating the internet thanks to one William J. Broad, meditation is not religion. The goal of eastern meditation is to have no goal. Unlike guided imagery or visualizations which are just a different form of mind activity, eastern transcendental meditation is allowing the mind to be as it is. Thoughts float in and float out, and we don’t attach our minds to them. We don’t try to actively push thoughts out, for that is again more mind activity. Instead, we sit quietly with our eyes closed and allow silence to settle in. In transcendental meditation, specifically, a mantra (sanskrit sound) is often used to allow the mind to effortlessly transcend into a deep state of restful consciousness. It is the mantra that we silently, eventually unconsciously repeat to bring about a deeper connection with the inner self. In fact, the mantra is often used to replace thought patterns so that we can return to stillness.
My teacher described consciousness as an ocean, and turbulent thoughts are like the waves at the surface of the deep peaceful ocean. A calm mind is not disturbed by the waves of thoughts. If you do no more than take a few conscious breaths, and sit in stillness for five minutes, you will begin to open the door to peace.
– Your Charmed Yogi