James and I have been talking quite abit about pranayama and about what the mantras mean and here Ramaswami goes into detail about how his Guru, the great Krishnamacharya taught him. So here is the newsletter, a treat to read really.
Sagarbha pranayama done with pranayama mantra from the vedas, which
also includes the potent gayatri as a part of it, has been in vogue
since the vedic times. Sri Krishnamacharya in his yoga work
“Nathamuni’s Yoga Rahasya” gives a number of instructions for doing
pranayama towards the end of the first chapter. He commends the use of
Pranava and the pranayama mantra with gayatri while doing pranayama
practice. Usually pranava (OM), the most potent mantra and the mother
of all mantras, as a stand alone mantra is used by renunciates like
consummate yogis and advaitins. And the gayatri impregnated vedic
pranayama mantra is used by householders and others in all pranayama.
In fact Manu in his famous Manusmriti says that the pranayama mantra
which consists of prnava, the seven vyahritis, the gayatri and the
head or siras portion should be recited while holding the breath in
Kumbhaka three times to be called as pranayama. Sri Krishnamacharya
also emphasizes the need to meditate on the meaning of the mantras
like the suggestion of Patanjali in YS.
Most people who do ritualistic pranayama in India use the pranayama
mantra referred to earlier. Manusmiti says as follows
“sa vyahritim sa pranavaam
gayatriim sirasa saha
trifpateth ayataf pranah
Here is the translation“Pranayama is that in which the seven vyahritis
(bhuh bhuvaha…) each preceded by pranava (OM) then the gayatri, then
the siris are (silently) recited.”
It should be chanted (silently) while holding the breath (kumbhaka).
When it is done three times it is called panayama. The pranayama
mantra is 64 syllables and takes about 20 seconds to chant, more or
less. The verse quoted above says three times and some interpret it as
chanting the mantra three times while holding the breath, but
generally it is chanted once and three such pranayamas will make one
bundle of pranayama. If you try to do the chant thrice in one go it
would taken a minute and holding the breath for one minute could be a
real challenge to most and so most people stick to the earlier
What about the duration for inhalation and exhalation? Sri
Krishnamacharya says in Yoga Rahasya that it should be vishamavritti
indicating that the time duration for inhalation exhalation and breath
holding would vary. So many go by the 1:4:2 ratio.
One may inhale for 5 seconds then chant the mantra during internal
holding for 20 seconds and then exhale for 10 seconds. The breath
holding after exhalation is considered a hathayoga practice and many
orthodox people who do pranayama as part of the Puja or Japa ritual
dispense with bahya kumbhaka and the bandhas. The quickie pranayama is
three times but it is recommended that on should do 10 times the
samantra pranayama. (Contrast this with the hathayoga approach of
going up to 80 times mantraless pranayama).
Since children sometimes as young as 5 were initiated into vedic
studies, it becomes obligatory for them to do sandhya and hence mantra
pranayama and silent gayatri chant. But then because they are young
they may not be taught to do calibrated pranayama. Usually in course
of time they would learn to do long inhalation and exhalation say in
nadishodhana. Later they will be taught the whole vishamavritti
pranayama as explained earlier.
So the mantra is chanted silently in pranayama. But most people just
chant the mantra without the pranayama–they may merely touch the nose
but not do the pranayama. So we have one set of people who do
pranayama without mantras as most hatha yogis do and another group
especially in India who chant the mantra faithfully but do not do the
prnayama at all and thus both lose out. It even led the much revered
previous Sankaracharya of Kanchi to remark that if only Indians would
hold the breath (kumbhaka) rather than just touch/hold the nose they
would all become great yogis and spiritual persons.
My Guru also said that when doing any mantra in japa, in pranayama or
meditation, one should think of the meaning or import of the mantra.
That makes it lot more powerful and meaningful. What does this mantra
signify, many times we get initiated into a mantra routine without
knowing what it means. All yogis know that Patanjali insists on
contemplating on the meaning of pranava when doing pranava japa to get
the grace of Iswara.
“Om Bhuh, om bhuvah, om suvah, om mahah, om janah, om tapah, om
satyam; then the gayatri and then the siras which runs like this, ”om
apah jyoti rasah amrtam brahma bhurbhuvassuvarom” is the pranayama
mantra. This mantra appears in Mahanarayana Upanishad, the last
chapter of Yajur veda. This upanishad also contains several beautiful
mantras used on a daily basis like the offering to the five pranas
(before taking food), meditating within the heart etc. I got the whole
chapter (about 45 minutes of continuous chanting) recorded some 25
years back by “Sangeetha” and I believe it is available in some stores
in Chennai, India. You may learn the pranayama mantra—visit my website
www.vinyasakrama.com/chants and click on the “Learn Pranayama Mantra
So what is the meaning of this wonderful pranayama mantra? Again there
are different interpretations. The conventional meaning for the seven
vyahritis is seven different worlds starting with the world we live in
to six other higher worlds. But the word loka is interpreted in a more
esoteric sense by a few scholars. They say that the words loka and
look are derived from the same root . And the seven lokas are the
seven perceptions of the ultimate reality which is Brahman the pure
non changing consciousness.
So this approach which gels with the advaita philosophy would be as
follows: According to the Upanishads, Brahman in its pristine state is
alone and there was no time or space (aksha and avakasha) in
contention. The Brahman once thought that it should become many
(bahusyam praja yeyeti). Then in the next stage It deeply contemplated
as to how it should create the universe and make many microcosmic
individual consciousness. This state was known as the stage of tapas
of the Brahman (sa tapo tapyata). Then after deep contemplation and
planning It created the entire Universe (idam sarvam asrujata). After
this creation the Brahman entered and permeated the entire Universe
(tat eva anupravisat) and every being as the individual Self.
The seven vyahrutis are considered as representing the seven states of
the same consciousness four at the microcosmic level and three at the
cosmic level. So when doing pranayama during breath holding
internally, one would say ‘om bhuh’, contemplate on the consciousness,
represented by pranava or ‘om during the waking state. Then as the
second vyahriti ‘om bhuvah ‘ is recited, one would think of the same
consciousness being aware of the individual dream state.
‘om suvah” would refer to the same consciousness witnessing the deep
sleep stage. Om mahah, the fourth vyahriti is the consciousness beyond
the three earlier mentioned known amongst the vedantins as the fourth
state of the mind (turiya) or the yogi’s kaivalya state. The same
consciousness now is identified with the Brahmana that created the
Universe (Om Janah). Then the next mantra, the sixth “Om tapah” would
represent the Brahman as one deeply contemplating and finally the
pristine state of consciousness “Om satyam” the one and only Brahaman.
With this the abhyasi is able to identify and meditate upon the same
one Brahaman as seen in different states. The theory that there is
only one consciousness that exists both at the cosmic and at the
microcosmic level is the bedrock of the advaita (No two
conciousnesses) viewpoint. So an advaitin while doing pranayama is
able to reinforce the advaitic conviction.
Then the second part of the pranayama mantra is the gayatri mantra. It
again refers to the ultimate reality as the inner light. Just as the
sun with its lustrous orb lights the entire world, the Brahman/Self
lights the entire chitta or the internal world of the meditator, so
that the chitta vrittis are experienced or ‘seen’ in the mind’s eye .
The last portion known as the siras or the head, is an encomium to the
ultimate Brahman. It refers to It as OM., pure consciousness, the
universal light, the essence of the entire Universe, immortal
(unchanging), the source of the universe, and is known to the
individual as the inner Self during the three states of waking, dream
and deep sleep.
This meaning of the pranayama mantra is vividly brought to the mind as
the pranayama mantra is recited silently during antah kumbhaka. Then
it is known as samantraka or sagarbha pranayama. According to Manu
this samantra pranayama is the greatest Tapas/meditation.
It is said that those who are well versed in the chakras are able to
identify the seven vyahritis with the seven chakras in the body using
the respective bijakshara or seed mantras. Some make an effort to
visualize the cosmic Brahman in the seven chakras in the microcosm
There are other types of mantras used. For instance saivaites tend to
chant the siva mantras as they hold the breath as mentioned in the
Tamil Saiva classic “Tirumandiram”. The mantra “sivasiva” of four
syllables is chanted 16 times during one breath hold corresponding to
64 syllables as in the pranayama mantra referred to earlier.
Here is a pranayama for renunciates:
While doing puraka or inhalation the thought would be that the entire
universe is ultimately drawn into the Brahman. Then while in
antahkumbhaka the contemplation would be that the outside Universe and
I are no different from the Brahman. Then while exhaling the ego “I’
with the entire Universe is discarded as nothing but an illusion, not
real, not significant. And in bahya kumbhaka one would contemplate
that pure Brahman alone is real, It alone exists.
Those who believe in the reality of world and the trinity (Brahma,
Vishnu and Siva), would use pranayama to reinforce their faith.
Inhaling through the left nostril one should think of the four faced
Brahma the creator aspect of the trinity and of blood red hue (rajas
guna) while chanting Om 16 times. Then closing both the nostrils and
holding the breath in kumbhaka one should think of the white colored
(satva guna) Hari, the protector/sustainer chanting pranava 64 times.
Then while exhaling through the right nostril one should meditate on
Siva of dark color (tamo guna) chanting pranava 32 times. Then one
should start inhaling through the right nostril for 16 matras chanting
pranava 16 times and continue the pranayama for a predetermined number
of times with both mantra and bhava.
Different smritis and very old yoga texts refer to a variety of
pranayamas with and without mantras. Almost all the puranas have a
section on yoga which describe different asanas and pranayamas. (I
think with all this evidence one may say with some conviction that
Yoga is more than 100 years old). For more information on pranayama
you may consider referring to my book “Yoga for the Three Stages of
Life” pages 189 to 211.
Sri Krsishnamacharya’s Yoga teachings were unique and very rich. In
Vinyasakrama asana practice, breath synchronization with slow
movements is an essential element. One would start the movement with
the beginning of inhalation or exhalation and complete the movement
with the completion of that breathing phase. The time taken in actual
practice may be between 5 to 10 or 12 seconds depending on one’s
capacity and control. If it goes below 5 seconds one would stop the
practice and rest to regain the vinyasa krama acceptable breath. My
Guru, Sri T Krishnamacharya would say ‘breathe with hissing sound’ (a
la cobra, refer to ananta samapatti in YS) or ‘with a mild rubbing
sensation in the throat’.
In this way, with long deep inhalation and exhalation, the intercostal
muscles are stretched and toned up and by the time pranayama is
started the accessory muscles of breathing are well exercised so that
one has a well oiled breathing apparatus for a very productive
pranayama practice. And while doing pranayam introduction of mantras
and bhavas helps to bring the mind to a focus which will be of
considerable help when one starts the meditation process. Thus Sri
Krishnamacharya following the tradition of yoga described in old yoga
texts like the yoga sutras, the puranas, smritis and other ancient
texts helped to understand and achieve the best of an outstanding
ancient system called Yoga.