While controlling the breath in pranayama practices there are four important activities. These are:
Antar or antaranga kumbhaka (retention of breath after inhalation; i.e. with lungs full of air)
Bahir or bahiranga kumbhaka (retention of breath after exhalation; i.e. with lungs emptied as much as possible).
The different practices of pranayama involve various techniques; but they all basically utilize the four listed above. There is also another mode of pranayama which is called kevala kumbhaka. This is an advanced stage of pranayama which automatically occurs during high states of meditation. During this state the pressure in the lungs becomes the same as atmospheric pressure. Respiration ceases and the lungs stop their activity. Under these circumstances the veil which prevents us seeing into the deeper aspects of existence is lifted and we obtain an intuitional apprehension of higher truths.
The most important part of higher pranayama practices is really kumbhaka, or retention of breath. In fact, in the ancient texts pranayama is also known as kumbhaka. However, to be able to perform kumbhaka with some degree of success there must be a gradual development of one’s control over the function of respiration. As such, in most of the practices of pranayama, there is a lot of emphasis on inhalation and exhalation, which are also important in revitalizing the physical and pranic bodies. As such we will introduce all aspects of pranayama practice that will be of use to the reader and will include all the four modes we have already mentioned.
The role of pranayama in meditational techniques
Pranayama is an essential prelude and integral part of kriya yoga and various other meditational practices. Control of one’s breath leads to control of prana. In turn, control of prana implies control of one’s mind. By regulating the flow of prana in the body one can tranquillize the mind and free it, at least for some time, of the incessant conflicts and thoughts that make higher awareness difficult. By manipulating prana in the psychic body one is able to make the mind a suitable vessel for meditational experience.
Pranayama is an indispensable tool. Meditation can be experienced without pranayama, but pranayama is the supercharger that makes meditation possible for most people. For verification of this let us refer to Ramana Maharshi. He said: “The principle underlying the system of yoga is that the source of thought on the one hand and of breath and vital forces on the other, is one and the same. In other words, the breath, vital forces, the physical body and even the mind are all no more than forms of prana or energy. Therefore, if any of them are effectively controlled then the other is automatically brought under control. Yoga aims at influencing the manolaya (subsistence of the mind) by means of the pranalaya (subsistence of the breath and vital forces), which is brought about by the practice of pranayama.”