Monday, April 18, 2011

AIR ELEMENT-STAGE 4 of the 8-Fold Path of Patanjali

And now we come to the middle step on the eight-fold Path of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga. We are half-way, as it were, to the goal of life: cosmic consciousness (Oneness, or samadhi). The elemental aspect of step 4 is AIR. The Sanskrit name of the fourth stage is PRANAYAMA. So let’s do some exploratory digging:

Pranayama. This term is comprised of two basic Sanskrit terms: prana, and, yama. Prana refers to the intelligent energy which activates and underlies everything in creation. In the practice of yoga it is associated with the breath and its many qualities and manifestions such as movement (in, out, up and down, restrained, expelled) or qualities (warm, cool, energizing, calming, oxygenating, detoxifying and so on). The physical breath is prana’s most visible, most material manifestation. Hence if a person is breathing we say “He is alive.” If he’s not breathing, we say “He is dead.” In the deeper or more advanced practices of yoga (meditation), prana refers less to the physical breath and much, much more to the astral (or subtle) energy which moves in the central astral spine known as the sushumna.

Prana has many other manifestations on the subtle astral realm such as light (seen in the forehead in meditation), as sound (heard inside the right ear and expressed in human vocalization as AUM), bliss, calmness, love, peace, vitality, and wisdom.

Yama we have seen in the first article as the term for the first stage of the 8-Fold Path. It means, simply “control.” Control here is more than the “grit-your-teeth-I-am –in-control.” Rather it means that one has an inner awareness of the realities of consciousness that gives one access, realization, and power over their innate qualities.

Now before we go to the qualities of the AIR element, we have some more work to do. No single blog article can do this stage justice. Pranayama also describes the basic thrust of many, if not most, yoga practices. We have breathing techniques which are described by this term. For example, the alternative breathing technique, sometimes referred to as nadi shodamam is a pranayama.

We have the advanced meditation technique of kriya yoga, popularized by Paramhansa Yogananda in his “Autobiography of a Yogi,” and it, too, is a pranayama. The term “pranayama” refers (like the term “yoga” itself) to BOTH the practices and the goal of the practices. A deep lesson is thus implied for while we seek the goal (of union), the goal is already there, just behind our seeking!

The fourth stage of the 8-Fold Path also is characterized by the heart’s quality of feeling. The most central feeling of our nature is love. Here, at the half-way point to cosmic consciousness, the feeling aspect of consciousness, known as chitta¸ must make a decision (from moment to moment, day to day). Should our feeling descend the subtle spine and go out through the lower chakras to identify with and seek fulfillment through the senses and the world of sense objects? Or, do we ascend the upward path that dissolves our ego-body-identified consciousness and expands toward Infinity? Do we love because we feel more joy in loving than in judging? This upward feeling of love moves toward Love itself, which is to say, more practically speaking, towards devotion to God, one of His aspects, deities, or through the guru.

And now, at last, the element of AIR. I confess that in relation to the importance of both pranayama (practices) and devotion to God, the aspects of AIR seem less vital or relevant to me than in the three chakras which precede this one. Still I offer some thoughts in our contemplation and meditation upon the AIR element.

Air is vital to life. Its relationship to pranayama (seen now as breathing techniques) is obvious. This chakra controls the vital functions of heart, lungs and the strength and mobility of arms and hands. Through our arms (and hands) we grasp the world, we hug our loved ones. But air gives to us (physically) our very life. If we think of air as encircling the earth in a blanket of life-sustaining oxygen, we see air as the very basis, however invisible it is to us, of our life. And what is life, without feeling? Without love? Surely life has no meaning without love?

An eagle soaring high above the earth sees the earth in a perspective unlike that of earth-bound mortals. This eagle sees all life in its interdependence, seeing both its diversity and its unity. Thus air gives life and the eagle of life appreciates, respects, and loves all, as parts of a greater whole. This eagle, if truly wise, looks upward to the heavens to the Giver of Life, to the source of Love itself. For we do not invent love, nor yet the impulse to seek and express it. It is an inextricable aspect of life itself and cannot be separated. Life, love, breath have a relationship that cannot be merely understood, but only experienced.

The more we live in the pure AIR of love that is without attachment or condition, the greater satisfaction we can experience. For love with attachment is bound to suffer. Rarely is true love found in the earth-bound, desire driven egos of humans. Death itself, if not betrayal or disillusionment, robs us of the object of our love. It is Love, Life, and Air (as a symbol of the others) that silently draws us onto Itself.

For those of us in our practice of meditation who employ pranayamas, we would do well to bring to the table of our practice the quality of devotion and feeling, lest our will-direct breathing techniques become dry and mechanical. Even hatha yoga can be performed as an act of devotion. Love life, love each breath, as the invisible manifestion of Spirit in human form. Worship, then, if you will, if you dare, on the altar of Spirit, in the temple of silence, in the flow of the Breath of Life.


Nayaswami Hriman