Question: Could you speak a little about the secret of yogic breathing or Pranayama?

Sri Chinmoy: We have three major Yogas according to our Hindu spiritual philosophy: Jnana Yoga, Karma Yoga and Bhakti Yoga; the path of knowledge, the path of action and the path of devotion. In Jnana Yoga, the path of knowledge, there is a branch which is called Raja Yoga. Raja means ‘king’. This branch is called the royal Yoga. In Raja Yoga there are eight steps or stages in the seeker’s Godward journey, and the fourth is called pranayama. It is the Yoga of systematic breathing, of controlled breath. We all breathe, but most of us do not know how to breathe properly. Yet if we can breathe correctly, we can free ourselves from disease and ultimately we can even defy death.

There are two kinds of breath: one is prana and the other is apana. When we breathe in cosmic energy to purify and energise our life, we call it prana. When we breathe out our impurities, it is called apana. When we breathe in prana, we conquer disease, and when we breathe out apana, we put in perfect condition the physical organs that are not functioning well; that is to say, we put the entire body in perfect order. Here is a simple exercise which you can do at any time. While you are walking, for five steps breathe in and for five steps breathe out very regularly. If you do this for only two blocks, you will feel refreshed.

There are three steps in proper, systematic breathing. The first is puraka, or inhalation; the second is kumbhaka, or retention; the third is rechaka, or exhalation. When you breathe in, you have to feel that you are breathing in the Breath of God, the Supreme, the divine Beloved. When you hold the breath, you must feel that you are holding the all-fulfilling Breath of the Supreme. And when you breathe out, you have to feel that you are offering God’s immortal Life-breath or energy to His entire creation.

To practise systematic breathing, when you are breathing in, just utter the word puraka mentally or silently. Then, while you are holding the breath, silently utter kumbhaka. And when you breathe out, silently utter the word rechaka. Or you can repeat the name of God as you breathe in, while you retain the breath, and again as you breathe out. Use the name you use when you pray to God — Supreme, God, Aum, whatever name pleases you most. When you are in trouble or in danger, immediately you utter somebody’s name, because you feel that he is the one who is going to save you. While you are breathing, you also have to feel that the one who comes first and foremost in your life should be invoked.

The rhythm of your breathing is most important. If you breathe in for one second or for one repetition of the name of the Supreme, then you should hold the breath for four seconds or four repetitions. Then, when you breathe out, it should be for two seconds or the time it takes you to repeat the name of the Supreme twice. The breathing should be done softly and silently. When you breathe in and out, you should do it so gently that, even if there were a thread right in front of your nose, your breathing would not move it.

In normal breathing both of our nostrils are usually functioning. But when we breathe properly through alternate nostrils, we get immediate relief from mental anxiety, worries, depression and many other things that cause disturbances in our nature. Alternate nostril breathing is a most important breathing exercise. We start by using our right thumb to close our right nostril. Next we breathe in with the left nostril, silently repeating the name of God, Supreme or puraka, just once. Then we close the left nostril with the fourth finger of the right hand, and with both nostrils closed, silently repeat the name of God, Supreme or kumbhaka four times while holding the breath. Finally we lift the thumb from the right nostril, still keeping the left nostril closed, and exhale, repeating God, Supreme or rechaka twice.

After some time, we can gradually increase the number. Instead of this short one-four-two breath, we can practise a four-sixteen-eight count breath. Some of the Indian Yogis do this exercise for hours, but it should be done comfortably and without force or strain.

But if we overdo this exercise, we will get heart disease. That is why Pranayama has to be taught by one who has practised under a great spiritual figure. If you do it by yourself, instead of reaping the benefits, you may ruin your health. So the best thing is to start with the one-four-two technique. Three times a day you may do it — early in the morning, at noon and at evening — and you will feel how much you will be able to increase it with time.

While we are breathing this way, our thoughts should be very, very pure. If an impure thought enters into us while we are breathing in, it is like bringing in poison. If limitation, ego, or any thought which will eventually bind us enters into the breath, then it is poison which is entering. If we can practise this exercise soulfully three or four times daily, the benefits will be unimaginable.

This Pranayama defies time and space. If we are really successful in doing this, we can easily conquer disease and obtain spiritual power. Right now I am here, but if I think of my mother, father or friends who are far away, and if I am successful in this breathing technique, I can enter into anyone’s consciousness and obtain full information about what he is thinking. If you have a violent headache or some other ailment, this alternate breathing will help in many ways to improve your condition. If you are afraid of doing something which is good, if you are afraid of speaking to someone, do two or three minutes of Pranayama and you will be able to do it. If you are angry with someone and want to conquer your anger, then at that moment, right where you are sitting or standing, practise alternate breathing and your anger will disappear.

You may feel that it is impossible to live without breathing for more than a few minutes. But if you practise this exercise you will be able to remain even for a few hours without breathing. It is not only possible: it is inevitable. This is my own personal experience. I started learning this technique twenty years ago and, whether you want to believe me or not, I wish to tell you that for two and a half hours at a time I have been able to stop my own breathing. I used to go in the evening to a park near my home to meditate, and I did this. So if I can do it, you can also do it if you wish to.

Most of you have heard about Kundalini. This is the most sacred Yoga. Inside our spine in our subtle physical body, we have three currents. They are called Ida, Pingala and Sushumna. Pingala has a connection with the sun, Ida with the moon, and Sushumna with the Highest. We have six spiritual centres in the spine, connected by these three currents. If we can open these centres we can become the possessors of infinite Peace, Light and Power. One other centre, which we call Sahasrara, the thousand-petaled lotus, is located in the cerebrum and is not counted with the other six. The other centres are Muladhara at the base of the spine, Svadisthana at the spleen, Manipura at the navel, Anahata at the heart, Vishuddha at the throat and Ajna in the forehead. We can open these centres with the power of our concentration, or with spiritual alternate breathing.

It need not take years to get liberation; it can be a matter of months. One can get Self-realisation within six months, eight months, or a year if he has the capacity to control his breath and focus all his attention on each of the six spiritual centres. This is not a theoretical idea of mine. There have been a great many Indian spiritual aspirants who have attained this elevation by practising Pranayama for seven or eight months. But it has to be done with utmost faith and utmost dedication. The aspirant must have perfect mastery over all the senses and over the mind. If one can practise this Pranayama sincerely and devotedly, then Self-realisation is within the reach of everybody in this meditation room in this very lifetime.