THE Science of Yoga with its various branches justly claims, as we have already seen, to unravel the mysteries of life and death. Some of the advanced thinkers in Western countries are beginning to understand the importance of this noble science and to explain the problems of existence by it; but modern physiologists, anatomists, biologists, and medical practitioners are still uncertain as to the proper solution of these problems; the more they investigate, the more doubts arise in their minds. Within the last fifty years the various researches in the different departments of science, such as physics, chemistry, physiology, and biology, have apparently ended in the conclusion that life is nothing but the result of physical and chemical actions in the organic structure, that there is no such thing as vital force distinct and separate from the physical and chemical forces which have been discovered in the scientist’s laboratory.
Some of the students of science are even anxiously waiting in the vain expectation that some day they will hear of the discovery of a substance, artificially produced in the laboratory, which will live, move, grow, multiply, and die like a particle of living matter. The majority of modern thinkers, in fact, hold that vitality is merely the result of the mechanical activity of the organs; that life comes directly from dead matter, and obeys physical, chemical, and mechanical laws; that a living animal is nothing but a machine; and that all of his actions whether of body or mind are purely mechanical. They say that a living protoplasm is only a combination of certain chemical elements, subject to ordinary chemical laws; that living and non-living are one; and that the living comes directly from the non-living. According to these scientists a human being is no more than a mechanical resultant of certain chemical changes governed by the laws of physical nature. If, however, we ask them what force it is that determines these physical and mechanical modifications, what is the power that causes all these chemical changes in such numberless varieties, they answer that they do not know.
Are we really like machines, subject to mechanical laws and nothing more? Is our growth entirely due to the process of accretion and aggregation of matter in the non-living world? Are we merely some accidental precipitation, deposition, or crystallization of atoms and molecules which are governed by no power higher than the chemico-physical forces? Students of physiology now learn in their text-books this physico-chemical theory of the origin of life. They laugh at those who use such expressions as “vital energy,” “vital force,” “vitality,” or “life force,” in the sense of some power separate and distinct from the physico-chemical forces of nature. In fact, when they study physiology they throw aside all ideas of vitality or life force; they believe in a nature devoid of vitality or life, and try to explain the formation of brain cells, nerves, tissues, and the construction of the various organs of a living animal without recognizing the existence of a vital agency. A reaction, however, has taken place recently in Europe, and a class of scientific thinkers has appeared, Dr. Lionel S. Beale being the most prominent, who, having found no satisfactory explanation of life through these theories, have, after closer observation and experiment, come to the conclusion that there is a vital force entirely distinct from mechanical or physico-chemical forces, and which manifests itself through living particles of matter.
It is true that the human body is a machine, but not like any machine made by man. It is a self-moving, self-regulating, and self-adjusting, vital machine governed by will-power and intelligence. It was produced by a germ of life which possessed vitality, and which had the capability of becoming conscious, of willing, thinking, and producing psychic activity, in which are included all emotions and thoughts belonging to a human being. By a germ of life is meant that germ of matter or substance which contains the potentiality of life and mind. Although the manifestation of this vital force depends upon organic structure, still it is not the same as any of the familiar forces known to us; it is not like heat, electricity, magnetism, or molecular attraction. On the contrary, it is a force which governs and directs all these grosser physical forces. It is the director of the telegraphic current which notifies the energy of the muscle when and how to exert itself. It coordinates all automatic movements, controls the system as a whole as well as in detail, and is itself the principle of purely animal life. The special organ through which it functions chiefly, and which has been constructed to differentiate it from other energies, to give it a form and a purpose, and to afford it a vehicle of expression, is the spinal nerve of the vertebrate and the equivalent organ in other animals.
This mysterious and invisible vital energy or vital force is called in Sanskrit “Prâna.” That branch of the Science of Yoga which treats of this mysterious force, describing its origin and nature, and teaching how it can be controlled and utilized to produce wonderful results, is known as the Science of Prâna. Ordinarily it is translated into English by the word “Breath,” and called the “Science of Breath”; but Prâna is not simple breath. In the Upanishads it is defined as the cause of all motion and life in both the organic and inorganic worlds. Wherever there is the slightest expression of motion, life, or mind, from the smallest atom, or animalcule, or amœba, or bioplasm, up to the largest solar system and the highest man, it is the manifestation of the all-pervading force called Prâna. It is one, yet appears as manifold through its divers expressions. It is the mother of all forces, psychical, chemical, and physical. Vedânta Philosophy describes it as the ultimate generalization of the multiple forces of nature. It is indestructible; the death of the form through which it manifests cannot destroy it; but it must not be confounded with molecular attraction for it is much finer; it cannot be seen, touched, weighed, measured, or captured by any means.
According to Vedânta, before the beginning of creation the unconditioned causal state of the universe contained potential Prâna; Vedânta does not make the absurd statement that life has come from non-life. It does not admit that vital energy is the result of mechanical forces, but, on the contrary, tells us that it is a force which operates simultaneously with physico-chemical forces. They are all, in fact, expressions of the one living energy of Prâna. Although some of the modern scientific monists acknowledge that all matter and force spring from a common source, or from one eternal energy, still at the same time they deny the existence of life or vitality in that energy and declare that it is not living. They try to prove that life is the product of some kind of motion of dead matter; while Vedânta teaches that all the phenomena of the universe have evolved out of the one eternal substance which possesses Prâna or cosmic vital force, cosmic mind, cosmic intelligence, and consciousness. These may be interdependent, but as they all exist in a human being, so the infinite variety of forces exist in that one eternal living Being whose body is the universe.
The Science of Yoga claims that this Prâna is the final cause of all the manifested forces of nature. Why does an atom move and vibrate? A scientist does not know, but a Yogi says because of Prâna. That force which produces vibration in an atom or a molecule is one of the expressions of the energy of Prâna or the cosmic Life-principle. The same Prâna appears as that power by which a germ of life works on the physical plane, arouses motion in the molecules of its cells and builds up a suitable structure, repairs injuries and reproduces its kind. It causes activity in a protoplasm, in a bioplasm or an amœba, as well as in the highest man. It is closely related to the mind, which includes all the psychic activities and intelligence displayed by that germ in the different grades of its evolution. Vital power and mind are, indeed, two aspects of one Prâna. A germ of life possesses mentality as well as vitality, and the phenomena of these two aspects are most intimately connected with one another. In the science of Yoga the relation between mind and Prâna is described as that of a horse and a rider, Prâna being the horse which the individual mind rides. The body moves like an automobile carriage when it is propelled from within by the force of Prâna and guided by the driver of the intelligent mind. The activity of the mechanism of the body stops if Prâna or vital force ceases to vibrate. Again, when the vibration of Prâna is arrested, the mind no longer operates on the physical plane. It is for this reason that vital force or Prâna is called the medium through which the mind expresses its powers on the physical plane.
The animal organism is nothing but a mechanism for the manifestation of the powers of the soul. When the soul wishes to express certain powers on the material plane it creates through Prâna some suitable organism to fulfill its desire. If the mental activities of any living creature change, the organic structure of the nerves and cells will also change. Various experiments have been made by different scientists which clearly show that mental effort underlies all physiological conditions and organic functions. An abnormal activity of the mind will invariably give rise to certain pathological conditions, because it will affect the vital action; and when the vital power, which gives life to every cell of the body, is influenced, the cells will begin to vibrate in a different manner; and the result will be abnormal activity in the cells of the organs, which in turn will produce various diseases. Conversely, when the vital activity is normal, the psychic function is also natural. The mind is just as much affected by a diseased body as the physical system is disturbed by a diseased mind. He who can regulate his mentalities knows how to preserve his vitality and keep a healthy body; while he who has control over his vital functions understands the secret of keeping a healthy mind. The man who is thus able to dominate both body and mind is the master of himself, the king in his own conscious domain. But he who is not the master of himself lives like a slave to passion, to sense-objects, to wealth, property, ambition, and all earthly desires. Those who do not know how to regulate their vital forces are always unhappy, for they constantly suffer either mentally or physically.
Every irregular activity of the mind will produce chemical and physiological change in the nerve centers, in the organs, and eventually in the whole body. This can be shown by analyzing the chemical properties of the secretions of different organs, and especially by analyzing the breath. If we analyze the breath of a person who is strongly moved by anger or any other violent passion, we shall find that his whole system is poisoned for the time being. By letting his breath pass through a certain solution in a glass tube, we shall readily see that distinct changes are produced in the solution. These variations, furthermore, are only the outward signs of the internal modifications that have taken place in the entire nervous system. It is, in fact, these organic changes that modify the breath; but in a normal, healthy state of mind and body the chemical solution will remain perfectly unchanged. The breathing is then regular, deep, and strong. Every impulse of passion that takes possession of the mind, causes a corresponding variation in the respiratory functions; anger, hatred, or jealousy for instance, are marked by short, quick breath, while thoughts of peace, of true happiness, and of divine love produce long, deep breath.
There are various ways of learning the relation that exists between vital activity and mentality. A Yogi says that all abnormal and diseased conditions of the body are caused directly by imperfect or weak expression of the vital energy, and indirectly by improper mental activity. The curing of a disease, therefore, means the removing of the obstacles which prevent the Prâna from working in an absolutely normal way. This can be done either by physical processes or by regulating the mental functions. A Yogi heals disease in himself by increasing the vital action; by rousing the latent powers of the Prâna, which is the source of all life force. He knows how to fill his whole body, nay, every cell, with increased vitality. By regulating the polarity of the cells through the higher vibrations of Prâna he generates a strong current of vibratory Prâna, directs its course through the disordered cells of his organs, and changes the structure of these cells by creating a rapid circulation of the blood charged with the healing power of Prâna, and sending it to the parts affected. In this way the cells are restored to their normal condition and the disease is cured. The Yogi does this consciously and in the most scientific manner with the help of breathing exercises accompanied by concentration. According to the Science of Yoga all nervous currents and all molecular motion in the brain cells and nerve centers are caused by this Prâna. If the molecules of the cells be filled with a new and strong current of Prâna or vital force, their vibration will be enormously increased; and this will enable them to throw off the impure matter that retarded their natural activity, and recover their normal healthy condition.
The same Prâna is also the propelling power in circulation. A Yogi says that the vital energy is stored up in the nerve centers of the spinal cord. It is the cause of the motion of the lungs, which in turn produces respiration; and respiration is the cause of the circulation of the blood and of all other organic activity. Modern physiology tells us that every portion of our body, every tissue and cell breathes; that the lung is nothing more than an instrument in the respiratory process, the chemical operation, which is the essential part of this function, occurring elsewhere in the cells and tissues themselves. The lung is only the door through which oxygen enters the system. The physiologists of the eighteenth century held quite different views; even the father of modern chemistry, Lavoisier himself (1743-1794), supposed that the main act of respiration took place in the lungs. What really happens is that oxygen, introduced into the lungs, filters through the thin walls of the pulmonary capillaries, where it finds in the red corpuscles of the blood a substance called hemoglobin, with which it unites to form a compound known as oxy-hemoglobin. And a very unstable compound it is, for throughout the tissues, in the capillary vessels of the whole body, oxygen is allowed to escape freely and to effect its work upon the cells. The blood, therefore, is merely a vehicle. The “organic combustions” do not occur in the lungs, their seat being in the cells and tissues throughout the whole system. Physiological chemistry tells us that all things mineral, vegetable, and animal, are mainly composed of four principal elements–oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen. Of these oxygen is of the greatest importance, since it is the most widely diffused, constituting by weight one-fifth of the atmosphere, eight-ninths of the ocean and all water, nearly one-half of solid rock and of every solid substance, and more than one-half of all vegetables and animals. If a man weighs one hundred and fifty pounds, one hundred and ten of his weight is oxygen. It is the chief cause of all activity in mechanical, chemical, muscular, and mental forces. The amount of energy or activity of an animal is determined by the amount of oxygen he respires; and the degree of force manifested in the human organism is in proportion to the rate at which oxygen is introduced into the system. It is the first requisite of vital action. Without it all other materials of life will be of little avail; and the respiratory organs are the medium through which it enters the system. The blood which has been once used in our bodies would be of no further service if it were not purified by the lungs. Ordinarily air when inhaled, contains 21 per cent oxygen, and when exhaled, 12 per cent, having lost 9 per cent. In a healthy adult man the average pulsation is 75 in a minute and about two ounces of blood are driven by each pulsation from the heart to the lungs, or nine pounds and six ounces in a minute. The quantity of blood in the human body is considered to be about one-fifth of the weight of the entire body, or twenty-eight pounds in a man weighing one hundred and forty pounds. The full quantity of blood in the system will, therefore, flow through the lungs in the short period of three minutes; in other words, the vast amount of thirteen thousand five hundred pounds in every twenty-four hours.
It is well known now that as a rule only one-sixth of the full capacity of the lungs is used; if the remaining five-sixths were properly brought into play who can say what marvellous results might not follow? Nature has not given capacity to any organ without a purpose; and we are sure that, if every one were to use the full capacity of his lungs, weak or diseased lungs would be a thing of the past. If we understand the science of breathing, we can develop our lung power to its utmost capacity; then by well-regulated breathing exercises we can purify every particle of matter in the cells of the organs, and with the help of the current of Prâna can ultimately drive out all physical weakness.
Faith-healers, mental-healers, and Scientists cure disease without giving drugs; the Yogis of India do the same, but in a more scientific manner. Faith-healers and Scientists ask us to believe in a certain thing and to declare that we are not suffering. A Yogi says that we can get better and surer results if through breathing exercises we can control the Prâna, increase the vital current, and fill the whole system with the healing power of Prâna. By polarizing the activity of the cells, and removing the obstacles that prevent the proper manifestation of the vital current in those cells, we shall get rid of the disease. If mental-healers and faith-healers knew the secret of controlling the Prâna, they would have been undoubtedly more successful in their attempts. Some among them are now beginning to take up breathing exercises, and perhaps in time they will learn the truths contained in the wonderful science of breathing.
Generally people who know nothing of this science think that it teaches merely the mechanical process of breathing in and out; but its province is much more extended, for it likewise shows how to control the Prâna, how to increase the vitality of the system by generating new nerve currents of a higher order, how to polarize the vibration of the cells, and how to awaken those powers which lie dormant on the sub-conscious plane as well as in the nerve centers of the spine. It also tells us that when the powers begin to manifest, we rise above the influences and changes to which ordinary mortals are subject. India is the only country where from ancient times this science of breathing has been carefully studied in all its aspects by the Yogis. Through centuries of investigation they discovered different methods of regulating the breath, following which marvellous results, both mental and physical, could be obtained. Out of these various discoveries grew up the science of breathing, which, besides the control of the breath, also explains what relation the process of respiration bears to Prâna, and how, by harmonizing the vibrations of nerve cells with the higher laws of life force, one gains mastery over Prâna. This control of Prâna brings complete subjugation of all the forces which govern the mind and body.
The aim of a Yogi is to establish absolute harmony between his vital actions and his mental functions, to transcend all laws, to rise above the influence of all environmental conditions, and to be the supreme ruler of the mind and of the entire system. According to the Yogi, this perfect self-mastery and consequent freedom do not come to one who has not learned the secret of regulating the vital energy, and who has not acquired the power to direct it wherever it is needed. Before anyone can control this invisible vital force, he must know its principal seat in the body; he must learn where this unseen king of physical activities is enthroned, who are his attendants, and how lie governs his kingdom.
A Yogi says that the king or Prâna resides with his attendants in the nerve centers of the spinal column. These centers are the main stations where this vital force is stored. There are many centers in the spinal cord out of which proceed the motor and sensory nerves which cover the whole body, including its organs. All sensations and motions of the limbs depend upon these nerve centers in the spinal column and the brain. There are two currents which flow in and out of the brain through the spinal column and nerves; they are called afferent and efferent currents–in Sanskrit, “Idâ” and “Pingalâ.” They run through the anterior and posterior channels of the spinal cord, and these furnish the two paths over which the currents of Prâna travel. The nervous energy itself being scattered throughout the system, the only means of regulating it is by controlling the principal centers or stations in the spinal column. If, therefore, any one wishes to control the Prâna, he must first learn to govern the chief stations through which it works. After studying the relation of these different centers the Yogis found that there were six of primary importance. Those who wish to know their names can refer to the volume on “Râja Yoga” by the Swâmi Vivekananda.
According to the science of breath, the King of these six leading nerve centers in the spinal cord is enthroned in the center opposite the thorax; it is the respiratory center and in Sanskrit bears the name “Anâhata.” It moves the lungs, causes respiration, and gives activity to all the other centers, which are dependent on it. If the royal center is disturbed or vibrates abnormally, those which are subject to it, and through them the whole system will act in a corresponding manner; and the result will be disease, organic trouble, or continued ill-health. So long, however, as the royal center is in a normal condition, the movement of the lungs which causes inspiration and expiration will be regular. Therefore the Yogi who desires to subjugate the nerve centers first strives to gain control over the respiratory center. The science of breathing teaches that, by regulating the breath, the motion of the lungs and the functions of the whole nervous system can be regulated. It also says that, by controlling the nerve centers in the spinal column, mastery over the currents flowing throughout the system, and ultimately over the mind itself, with its various dormant powers, can be easily gained. If the mental powers that are now latent on the subconscious plane can be aroused, all the experiences of past incarnations, and the impressions gathered during previous lives, will come up on the conscious plane and we shall remember them all.
The Yogis say that the great majority of people breathe irregularly and that there are differences in the breathings of men and women. The causes of this irregular breathing are many–food, drink, fear, sickness, sorrow, nervous excitement, passion, anxiety. These do not affect the breath directly, but they do influence it indirectly by producing abnormal activity of Prâna, first in the nerve centers, then in the movement of the lungs, which expresses outwardly as irregular breathing. Hence irregularity of the breath is the external sign of abnormal action of the respiratory center in the spine.
A Yogi whose respiratory center functions regularly and is under perfect control is free from weakness, ill-health, and all disease. As, by controlling the activity of Prâna in the nerve centers, the movement of the lungs and the respiration are regulated, so, conversely, by regulating the breath, the lungs and nerve centers will be controlled, for they work simultaneously. Those who are suffering from ill-health should devote especial attention to the study of the science of breathing, as it is absolutely necessary to the building up of a healthy mind and a healthy body.
The chief aim of a Yogi is to observe his own nature closely and to learn clearly what forces are operating in his system, and what relation they bear to one another; for by gaining a complete knowledge of his own nature he will gain correct knowledge of the whole universe, since the laws that govern the human body are universal. All these laws are nothing but the modes in which Prâna operates in nature. Therefore a Yogi seeks first to understand the individual Prâna and the vital laws which govern his own system.
In India this fact was recognized and the science of breathing was carefully studied by the sages, who had no other ambition or purpose in life than to acquire knowledge for its own sake. They explained this science, practiced breathing exercises (noting the results), and instructed their pupils, but not to make a profession of it, or to earn money, or to gain fame in society. On the contrary, they refused to teach those who came to learn for professional ends; and it is because of this disinterestedness on their part that the knowledge of the Yogis is so pure and unadulterated by ambition or selfish motives. They also realized the dangers which might arise from ignorant practice of these exercises. Those who are studying under inexperienced teachers should be on their guard, for there is great risk in letting the nerve currents flow in a wrong direction. It may produce abnormal results and may even end in mental disorder. Right breathing, on the contrary, brings the greatest benefits to mankind when properly practiced; but if it is abused it must do a corresponding amount of harm, just as any medicine will when improperly applied. As by studying Materia Medica a man cannot cure himself without the aid of a trained physician, so the mere study of Yoga cannot bring about truly good results unless it is carried on under the guidance of an experienced Yogi. It should be remembered, furthermore, that in a written book everything is not given, that each constitution is different from every other, and that that which is helpful to one may not be so to another.
Anyone who practices faithfully, according to the instructions of an experienced living teacher, will surely gain highly beneficial results both in mind and body. He will learn how to manufacture vital force and to increase the vitality of his whole organism. He will be able to remove all impurities from his system and to overcome all abnormal and diseased conditions, that is, where decomposition and disorganization have not advanced too far. He will likewise no longer be a victim to cold, chills, Grip, fever, rheumatism, stiffness of the joints or muscles, paralysis, and other ills; for he knows how he can remove them by increasing the vibrations of Prâna and thus giving new life to the cells of the organs.
Every individual, whether old or young, man or woman, is bound to get some result if the breathing exercises be practiced faithfully for six months. By breathing exercises, however, is not meant here merely deep breathing, such as is taught by teachers of music, Delsarte, or physical culture. Deep breathing is very good for drawing a full supply or oxygen into the system, and undoubtedly has its value, especially for women who wear tight dresses. Many of the diseases from which they suffer are directly traceable to a lack of the adequate quantity of oxygen necessary for organic combustion and for the maintenance of the activity of the organs. The organs of many people in this country are undeveloped, or abnormally developed, because of the unnatural clothes worn; and for all such deep breathing will be exceedingly beneficial. But too much of it is injurious, as it inflates and strains the lungs, and, if continued, the increased development of the tissues will after a time decay and produce various troubles. Those who are taking lessons in deep breathing from inexperienced teachers should stop to consider this. By breathing exercises we mean that process by which control over the motion of the lungs and of the nerve centers, as also, in the end, over the Prâna or vital energy can be acquired.
A Yogi declares that the practice of breathing will bring whatever result is desired, whether physical, psychical, or spiritual. He who has gained perfect control over his breath can suspend it for hours, and through this generate a power in the system which will levitate the body, even counteracting the tremendous force of gravitation. A Yogi conquers death by the control of Prâna. There are many Yogis in India who can tell the exact moment when they will leave their bodies. They say, “I am going to depart on such a day at such an hour,” and at the appointed time consciously give up their bodies in the presence of many. There are some again who can prolong life indefinitely, and can subsist for long periods without taking any kind of solid or liquid food.
When so much can be accomplished through the control of the vital energy of Prâna, it is not strange that these Masters say to the world:
“Oh, ye mortals, study the science of breathing; learn the secret of controlling Prâna or the vital energy; strive diligently to regulate the breath; for the control of Prâna will bring all happiness, earthly and spiritual, and through it will come perfect health, mastery of the body, and that Supreme Bliss which is eternal and everlasting (Excerpts from the Teachings of Swami Abhedananda on How to be a Yogi)