Foundations of Yoga, and, the Spiritual Life – Part Four
The forth step toward achieving divine union according to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is Pranayama.
Pranayama, aka pranayam, in Sanskrit means ‘life force (prana) control (yama).’ Most people familiar with the term believe it refers to yogic breathing exercises and, since life force and breath are intimately related, breath techniques are used to cultivate energy control – but only until it can be governed by mind alone. Paramahansa Yogananda explained that “pranayama is a condition, not a technique.” Its purpose is to establish complete mastery over life force because the only way to unite with God is through such control. That is the true meaning and purpose of pranayama.
What does life energy control have to do with uniting with God? Yogananda said:
God answers all prayers, but restless prayers He answers only a little bit. If you try to give someone something that doesn’t belong to you, your gift won’t mean much to him, will it? However touching the gesture, it will be lacking in substance! So is it when your mind is not your own. You may want to give it to God, but you can’t. Your prayers, then, are hardly more than a gesture. Get control over your mind. When you can pray with concentration, the Lord will know that you mean what you are saying. He will answer you, then, in wonderful ways.
An adept practitioner of a scientific pranayama technique – such as Kriya yoga – learns to control their life force such that it can be withdrawn from the body, sensations, thoughts, memories, desires, and be focused singularly upon centers of higher perception that reveal spiritual realities and, ultimately, lead to divine-union in samadhi meditation.
Yet breathing techniques aren’t the only means to control energy. Thoughts and actions guided by Patanjali’s first two steps, Yama and Niyama (spiritual dos and don’ts), help dictate whether energies are dissipated in worldly distractions or raised toward spiritual realization. That is why his 8 steps are progressively inter-related. Each is distinct but subtly bound to others such that none can be teased apart and made inherently viable without the supportive foundation of the rest. It is an integrated system derived from realizing how soul and consciousness descend from Spirit into bodily manifestation and how, in turn, they can be raised back to Source again. This is the nature of the spiritual path and why the counsel of sages like Patanjali are universal in nature and timeless in scope.