The Theosophical Forum – January 1944


The spreading of the age-old sciences of the Orient through our Western civilization brings with it dangers as well as blessings. The ancient art of pranayama is attracting much attention with disastrous results in many cases.

Roughly speaking pranayama is the science of breath control. It comes from two Sanskrit words: a compound of prana, breath or vital air; and ayama, restraint. As a word of warning we could say that it is in some cases the death of the breaths.

It is being recognized in the west today that the rhythm of breathing has an effect upon the health of the body. As the years go by this fact will be experimented with and brought more and more to the attention of the public. It would be far better if it could be kept within experimental circles. However some one is sure to see its sensational possibilities and announce that he is a master of the art and for a price will teach it to those who are qualified and worthy.

The yogin of the Orient is able to do many interesting things through the control of breath. However his training is usually supervised by one who really knows the art to perfection and thus the dangers are reduced to the minimum. But even so the yogin of the Orient is tampering with the very delicate and natural balances of forces and perhaps he too shall some day have to pay the price. He is wasting valuable time in the development of physical and psychical powers that could be spent in those things that bring real soul growth. The really worthwhile powers are those of forgiveness, impersonal love, and deep compassion for all that breathes and lives. It is these that bring real wisdom and nourishment to the soul.

Let us give a brief survey of the different breaths in man as discovered by the Oriental investigators. Five are usually given but there are really two more. These breaths are commonly correlated with the chakras, centers of force, and with the principles and senses of man. We are in the fifth root race with five senses developed, so it is natural that five vital airs should be mentioned and not seven.

Usually it is the physiological functions of these breaths which are dealt with. This is unfortunate in that it places too much attention upon the personality and the acquirement of psychical development. H. P. Blavatsky hints in more than one place that the adepts consider the intellectual aspect of these breaths to be far more important than their physiological function.

Prana the breath that breathes forth, from pra, forth, and the verb-root an, to breathe. In our physical body it controls the breathing. Its spiritual function for man, let us say, would be the breathing forth of the higher mind in meditation. In our planetary chain its analogy would be the breathing forth of the seeds of manifestation in preparation for the re-embodiment of the globes.

Apana the breath that breathes away, from apa, away, and the verb-root an, to breathe. In our physical body it controls the casting out of waste materials. H. P. B. hints that it is the inspirational breath which changes the intelligence that does not understand Speech or Words into an awakening of the mind wherein they are understood. Its spiritual function for man would be the breathing down into physical mind the seeds of meditation. In our planetary chain the analogy would be the descent on the downward arc of the life waves and the casting off of the grosser influences on the upward arc.

Samana the breath that breathes together, or "breathes with," from sam, together, and the verb-root an, to breathe. In our physical body it controls the digestion, assimilation and hence the chemical processes of physical nourishment. Its spiritual function for man would be the assimilation by the human mind of the seeds of meditation. In our planetary chain the analogy would be the blending of the spiritual essence of the life waves with the material vehicles which are descending more and more into physical manifestation. On the upward arc the analogy would be the blending of the life waves with more and more spiritual vehicles.

Vyana this could be called the diffused breath, from vi, apart, a, towards, and an, to breathe. In the physical body it controls the circulation and the balancing of the forces. Hence it has an equalizing and sustaining function. Its spiritual function for man would be the harmonizing influence of the seeds of meditation upon the human man, whereby the illusion of the duality of opposites is being overcome and the senses are being brought into the middle path. In our planetary chain the analogy would be the equalization of the spiritual forces and the material forces upon Globe D. Of course when analogies are made they never imply identities.

Udana the breath that breathes upward, from ud, up, and an, to breathe. In the physical body it directs the vital currents upward. Thus prana, apana, samana, and vyana would each have its udana aspect. Its spiritual function for man would be the raising of all that is good in man upwards, and upwards to the God within. The seeds of meditation have been sown in the fertile fields of human aspirations and have flowered into the fruits of evolution. The yogins would probably speak of this fruitage as being the rising of the electric, fiery, or Fohatic power of Kundalini. In other words, the flowering of the best in man awakens the fiery power of the Buddhi-principle. Those who practice the science of pranayama sometimes try to arouse this power artificially. They try to steal the nectar of the Gods before they have earned it by the natural processes of evolution. At best, they can awaken only the lower physical aspect of this fiery power. It is the thirst for personal power that usually promotes such dangerous undertakings. Theosophists know better, but there are people who do not realize what they are doing and innocently believe that they are awakening spiritual forces that will enable them to hear, feel, and see with the eye of the Gods. Sometimes the Oriental yogin can escape the consequences of these practices for a time, but the day of reckoning will come. The novice in the West is usually stricken soon with insanity, death, or prolonged sufferings.

The rhythm of the breaths is a reflexion of the rhythm of forces traveling in the solar universe. As above, so below. Perfect health is the natural rhythm of the breaths in man. By inharmonious thoughts and actions man brings about a disturbance of the rhythm of the breaths with resulting disease. It would be putting the cart before the horse if one would try to cure the disease by tampering with the breaths. It can be temporarily done, but the risks outweigh by far the benefits. Right thoughts, bodily exercise, good food, will hasten the cure of disease in a natural manner, although the cure of a disease may take several lives. Tampering with the breaths will either make it worse or dam it back until another incarnation.

Sometimes advanced people upon the path undergo much suffering from disease caused by past karman in other lives. Instead of damming it back they let it take its natural course so as to be free from it in lives to come. Of course surgery and medicine do much in releasing the sufferer from pain and preventing an untimely death.

The true yogin and adept lets the breaths of his body alone and works only with their spiritual essence. He deals with the spiritual breaths of compassion, impersonal love, and holy aspiration. The yogin of yogins loses sight of personal ambition, desires, selfishness, and lives in the spirit of the stars.

Theosophical University Press Online Edition