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pranayama2:1 Breathingjapa

As lions, elephants and tigers are tamed slowly & systematically | So is the case with prana, otherwise the practitioner is des

As lions, elephants and tigers are tamed slowly & systematically
So must be the case with prana, otherwise the practitioner is destroyed

(Hatha Yoga Pradipika 2.15)

Before we get into the pranayama practices, it is our duty to issue a caveat in the form of a traditional metaphor as mentioned in Hatha Yoga Pradipika 2.15.   The process of pranayama is likened to taming a wild beast, like a tiger.   The prana is the tiger, and the tamer is the practitioner.

No one in their right minds would rush into a cage and try to train a tiger without prior knowledge, guidance AND experience!   But people do not seem to mind jumping in and trying to tame prana without relevant knowledge and experience.

If one has the desire to become a tiger tamer, one must apprentice under an expert tiger tamer to gain the relevant know-how.   The expert will impart the necessarily skills in a systematic manner.   If the trainee-tamer is not ready to handle a tiger but insists on trying, the tiger can easily maim or kill the tamer.   Likewise, trying to forcefully control prana without proper guidance, undertaking advanced pranayama techniques like kumbhaka (breath retention) without the help of a pranayama expert can lead to very dire consequences.

This is the warning of the yogic sages, and from our own experiences, we can confidently concur.   We know several very advanced yoga asana practitioners who practiced advanced pranayama practices without expert guidance and became completely imbalanced.   Therefore, always practice pranayama under the guidance of a qualified teacher and practice exactly as you have been instructed.   Never forget - pranayama should be pleasant, not lethal.

Pranayama practices are generally classified as "physical" or "spiritual".   Examples of "physical" pranayama are Kapalabhati, Ujjayi Pranayama, Shitali Pranayama, Shitkari Pranayama, and Bhramari Pranayama.   Nadi Shodhanam pranayama, is considered spiritual.

These are not the only pranayama techniques but they form the basis on which advanced pranayama techniques are built.   Many advanced practices, especially in Kundalini and Tantra Yoga, incorporate these foundational practices but include other elements like visualization and mantra.

We will systematically explore each one of them, Hanuman willing.

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Some of the most advanced practices are the simplest practices.   Do not be fooled by this pranayama's simplicity, 2:1 breathing will be incorporated in some form in advanced pranayama practicces.

True story: there is a real incident of a 40-year old student of meditation who had been practicing meditation for 15 years.   As part of a study, he was hooked up to a biofeedback machine.   He begins to meditate as he has practiced, but after minutes, the biofeedback machine registers virtually no change.   His level of sympathetic nervous system arousal remains almost as high as before he began to meditate.   This is certainly not something you will expect from an "experienced meditator", perhaps even practicing an "advanced" technique.

The biofeedback technician then tells the "meditator" to allow the exhalations to be twice as long as the inhalations and almost instantaneously his level of sympathetic nervous system arousal drops; the heart rate drops, and the meditator reaches a deeper level of rest.

Because of its simplicity, 2:1 breathing is often under-rated, and under-practiced.   But this is one of the best techniques to quiet the mind, and prepare for meditation.


  • Assume a strong, steady, stable, seated posture. Keeping the head, neck and truck in a straight line, the shoulders rolled back and relaxed, the chest open, and the pot of the belly floating.
  • Focus on the breath; relax the diaphragm and begin to breathe deeply and evenly with no pauses, jerkiness, or breaks between the breaths through the nostrils.
  • Once this deep, even breathing pattern has been established, begin to count the duration of the inhalation and exhalation, and making them of equal lengths (inhaling to a count of 3, and exhaling to a count of 3 for a total of 6 counts per breath is a good count to start with). Do manasic counting only! Do not count out loud or move the lips!
  • After establishing a smooth deep breathing pattern of 6 counts per breath, reduce the inhalation to 2 counts and lengthen the exhalation to 4 counts, thereby maintaining 6 counts per breath.   As you lengthen the exhalation, remember to use the abdominal muscles to slowly and steadily push out all the air from the lungs, thereby expelling carbon dioxide and other waste gases more exhaustively.   Squeezing in the abdominal muscles also gently pushes the blood back to the heart and lungs, thus lightening the workload of the heart.
  • Continue 2:1 breathing for up to 20 minutes.

Practice Tips
As with all yogic practices, proceed slowly and steadily - rushing into higher ratios beyond your capacity is counter-productive and dangerous.   If you find yourself gasping for air at the inhalation, this is a sign that you have gone beyond your limit.   Technically, when you slow down your breathing, the carbon dioxide levels rise and the oxygen levels drops, which tells your brain that you are not getting enough air, causing you to gasp.   So make sure that the exhalations flow smoothly into the inhalations, and the inhalations smoothly into the exhalations - seamless, effortless, pleasant - otherwise you have exceeded your capacity and need to work at a lower ratio.   Slowly increase your ratios after you have comfortably mastered the one you are working on.

Also, this is one pranayama technique that you can practice while lying down or even walking!   Next time you are out for a walk, establish a regular, uniform walking pace; then inhale to 4 steps and exhale to 8 (or whatever ratio is comfortable to you).   If you are really gung-ho, you can try this while jogging; in fact, you will most likely find that this improves your performance!

Why It Works
The Autonomic Nervous System controls the functions of the heart, lungs, intestine, bladder, circulatory, and glandular systems.   This system has 2 sub-systems - the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System.

The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is involved in the "fight or flight" response -   increasing heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tone in the large skeletal muscles, sweat secretion, pupil dilation... in short, preparing the body for physical work.   Inhalation emphasizes the SNS.

On the other hand, the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) which is involved in relaxation - decreasing heart rate, blood pressure, skeletal muscle tone - preparing the body for rest or sleep.   Exhalation emphasizes the PNS.

These 2 sub-systems act in antagonism, hereby maintaining balance.   If you get excited, the SNS makes the heart beat faster, and if not for the PNS, the heart will not slow down and you can potentially have a heart attack.   But you don't because the PNS slows the heart down and provides balance.

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Japa literally means muttering, or whispering.   In this context, it is the continuous muttering of mantras, usually with the aid of a mala.   A mala is similar to the rosary in form and function: it is a string of beads, usually numbering 108 (though you can find some in 54, or 27), which is used to count the number of repetitions you do of a mantra - one repetition per bead.   Thus, if you complete one round on a standard mala of 108 beads (1 mala), you have completed 108 repetitions, although you only count 100 repetitions   Practically speaking, it is because we acknowledge that we do not have perfectly one-pointed minds, and we assume that (approximately) 8 out of the 108 repetitions, the mind is not focused on the mantra, but somewhere else; mystically speaking, the first 8 repetitions are always offered to Ganesha - the force that removes all obstacles in our spiritual practice.  

Actually, the mala with 108 beads has 109 beads (108 + 1), the 1 extra is usually tasseled, and it is called the meru bead.   This bead represents pure divine consciousness in the form of God / Guru.   We never count the meru bead when we use a mala, we start on the bead right next to it, and when we complete one round, we return to the bead next to meru bead but on the other side.   Traditionally, if you desire to do more than 1 mala, you flip the mala around to begin the next mala, returning to whence you started.   Remember that when doing japa with a mala, the mantra leads the mala and not the other way round.

According to the Tantrasāra, there are 3 ways to do japa:

Vācika Japa (voiced) - physical
Vacika japa is performed out loud - vocal chords vibrate, tongue moves, lips mouth, sound comes out of the mouth. Every syllable is articulated audibly.   This is the simplest form of japa and suitable for everybody.   It is particularly helpful for beginners and for people with disturbed minds.   Because there is a whole host of things for the mind to attend to - the whole articulation process and the actual sound of the mantra, you are not demanding that your mind focus solely and silently on a series of (possibly) foreign sounding syllables.   Therefore, you are occupying your mind with a task to perform, instead of giving it space to wander and be distracted.   The gross vibrations of the mantra also create a very pleasing atmosphere, making it more delightful to dwell and delve in(to) the practice of japa.   Practicing vācika japa in a group is a very powerful experience, and the easiest way to experience the vibrations of mantra.   Vacika japa can be performed with the eyes closed or open.

Upamshu Japa (whispered) - emotional, energetic
This is done with the lips and tongue moving but you are not making any clearly audible sounds.   Sometimes, the lips move but there is no sound, at other time the mantra is just loud enough to be heard ONLY by the practitioner.   This is more refined practice, and can be done when it is not practical to perform vacika japa but preferably when the mind is more settled and concentrated.

Manasa Japa (mental) - causal, spiritual
This is the most subtle form of japa - done in 'silence' - the lips and tongue do not move, and no sound emanates.   Manasa japa is the hardest to perform - not recommended for one with a disturbed, stupefied or distracted mind, for the risk of running wild and off track on the train of thought, falling asleep, or daydreaming is high.   Manasa japa is always performed mentally and with the eyes closed.   When practicing this form of japa, it is almost as if you are listening to the mantra repeat itself, rather than repeating the mantra.

A fourth method of japa may be considered, it is:

Likhita Japa (written)
Likhita japa is repeating a mantra in any of the above ways, but at the same time writing it down (although, traditionally, it is performed with manasic japa).   It would be best to learn the Sanskrit, but writing the English transliteration is fine too.   By tradition, the writing is done with red, blue or green ink.   The writing is always accompanied by a sense of sacredness and not hurriedness - thus, penmanship is important - we try to write as neatly and beautifully as possible (after all, you are writing down the name of the Beloved).   Remember a time when you were infatuated / newly in love and would doodle the name of your beloved over and over again?   Likhita japa is performed in a similar fashion, with love, great care and total absorption.   Also, the smaller you write, the greater concentration is required.

Vacika, Upamshu & Manasa Japa are can be done with or without a mala, these 3 methods of japa are not mutually exclusive.   You can start out with vacika japa, move onto upamshu japa when you feel more centered and calm and onto manasa japa.   Conversely, you can move from manasa japa to upamshu japa if you feel yourself getting distracted.

When you perform japa with the eyes closed, you can focus your attention at the ajna, or anahata chakra; allow the mantra to draw your attention naturally to either of these points of focus.   If you are practicing the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra for personal healing, allow your attention to rest at the manipura chakra.   Closing the eyes results naturally in pratyahara, making it conducive to do japa, but it is not advisable while driving, operating heavy machinery and / or attending to other tasks that require vision.

Japa is best done with a mala, and 108 repetitions are best.   Although, 54, 36, 27, 18, 11, or 1 done sincerely and with full concentration are better than a million mindless repetitions.   It is a wonderful habit to allow the mind to rest in a mantra whenever it is not engaged in world duty (with or without the use of a mala).

Japa Mudra (see photo on the top of this page)
Japa mala is normally held with the right hand:

  • drape the mala over the right finger, where it will rest
  • grab each bead with the middle finger and the thumb and pull the mala over the ring finger as you count the mantra repetitions
  • the index finger does nothing, and normally does not come into contact with the mala
You can place the mala in a bag while doing japa. Traditionally, we do not allow the mala to touch the floor, for similar reasons as to why we generally do not eat off the floor. It is good to treat the mala with reverence since it is an official tool with which we use to 'contact' God. The japa mala is so important to a sadhaka that there are even mantras that praise, thank and sanctify it.

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