Breath Control in Tantra Yoga

“What is here is elsewhere. What is not here is nowhere.” – Vishvasara Tantra.

secrets-of-breath-control-tantra-yogaAnyone even slightly familiar with the practice of yoga in any of its numerous forms, knows that the spinal column has a vital place in the yogic scheme of things.

Almost without exception, books on the subject show the reader in detail, either by means of illustrations or textual description, the structure of the spinal cord and its occult centers, called chakras.

But, beyond a brief account of the spiritual physiology involved and an admonition always to keep the spine erect while engaged in breathing exercises, little more is offered.

For the Tantrik sadhaka, on the other hand, the spinal column is of prime importance. This is because it is literally the central axis of his being.

“The  Staff of Meru”

Tantrik doctrine teaches that man’s vertebral column corresponds to a hollow stone core running through the center of our planet, constituting the earth’s axis. Hindu mythology describes a mountain called Meru, situated somewhere in the depressed area of the north polar region. It is traditionally the dwelling place of the Asura giants, and playground of the Vedic gods.

Because man’s cerebro-spinal axis is considered to be analogous to the earth’s pole, in Tantrik literature it is referred to as Mt. Meru, or as Meru-danda (“the staff of Meru”).

According to the Agamas, every man is a universe. Each of our bodies is a microcosm, embodying all the individual forms of life and geographical configurations of creation, from the lowest to the highest.

As earth scientists venture forth to explore other planets and distant worlds, they will find, in essence, only what is upon earth and within man. So teach the Tantrik Shastras. Hence the statement in the Vishva-sara Tantra: “What is here is elsewhere. What is not here is nowhere.”

Such a concept will at once appear absurd to those familiar only with Western physiology and science, which deals only with the physical body and gross matter.

But for the occultist, accustomed to peering into the invisible side of nature, there is nothing new in the idea of these correspondences. Hermetic and Cabbalistic philosophers long since have declared: “As above, so below.”

The Five Regions Of The Vertebral Axis

Coming to the question of most immediate concern, that of the human body, Tantrik literature describes the vertebral axis as being divided into five parts or “regions.”

Starting upward from the lowest, the coccygeal (which consists of the first four incomplete vertebrae), the sections include the sacral region (five vertebrae), the dorsal or back (twelve vertebrae); and the cervical or neck (seven vertebrae).

Each of these regions or zones, upon careful examination will be found to exhibit different characteristics in the overall function of the central nervous system.

It is important for the student to bear these divisions in mind, since they are areas of the physical body whose locations roughly correspond with the vital centers of radiation in the subtle body, with which we shall presently be concerned.

In its physical structure, the spine consists of a series of thirty-three vertebrae, placed one upon the other, to form a bony pediment. In addition to providing a support for the head and torso, the column forms a hollow, protective passage for the spinal cord.

The cord extends downward from the fourth ventricle of the brain to the coccygeal region, where it narrows to a thin, hair-like ending called the filum terminale.

In keeping with the binary nature of created structures, previously mentioned, the cord is formed of two symmetrical halves joined together along a central line. In this instance, the line of juncture is really a minute conduit called the canalis centralis or central canal.

This tiny, central canal is of prime concern to the Tantrik sadhaka, for it is through this passage that he raises the sleeping mystic force called kundalini, from the base of the spine to the head. As it rises, it vitalizes six centers of power along its invisible course to the brain.

In the Hindu lexicon, the channel is called the sushumna. Some Tantrik writings also mention two other and even smaller channels for psychic energy, unknown to Western anatomy. These are called the vajrini and the chitrini.

The vajrini is the larger of the two, and carries inside its walls the chitrini. The latter is described as “fine as a spider’s web.”

Both these occult tubules are perceptible only to psychic vision. Indeed, the entire occult anatomy, as set forth in the Agamas, is invisible to routine procedures of dissection. No doubt it is for this reason, and because the astral structures disappear from the gross physical body at the time of death, that Western science denies their existence.

 “Door of Brahma”

An opening at the lower end of the chitrini channel is often referred to by Tantriks as the Door of Brahma, because through it must pass the psychic current that will bring cosmic consciousness to the yogi.

Outside the sushumna canal, and on the right and left side of it, respectively, are two other important conduits called the pingala and the ida.

They coil upward around the sushumna, forming “knots” at the points where they intersect along the spine.

The pingala passage starts from the left testicle of the male (left ovary of the female), and ends at the right nostril. The ida originates at the right testicle (or ovary), and terminates at the left nostril.

At a point between the eyebrows, the two mystical “arteries” unite with the sushumna, weaving at that site a threefold “knot,” known as the Third Eye.

For the Tantrik, our gross body and its interpenetrating psychic bodies are constantly energized by various currents of life force, which determine the function and state of health of our physical being.

This primal energy, known as prana, operates freely through the ida, pingala, and the sushumna.

Alternating Breath Flow

Let us consider first the act of breathing. Although it is nowhere noted in the literature of Western medicine, the breath does not flow equally through both nostrils, except for very brief intervals during the day.

Instead, it will normally issue from the left nostril for an interval of perhaps twenty-four minutes, then shift to the right nostril for a like period of time.

The two astral ducts – pingala and ida – convey cosmic energy to the nostrils.

The current which flows from the right nostril is masculine, electrical, hot, of a fiery red color to psychic vision. Being a polarization of the solar principle of creation, it is commonly called by yogis the “sun breath.”

The vital air which flows through the ida and left nostril is feminine, magnetic, cool and pale white to astral vision. Being of the lunar principle of creation, it is known as the “moon breath.” It is the nourisher of the physical body.

When the breath flow is through both nostrils simultaneously, it is said that the combined energies of sun, moon and fire enter the sushumna canal. It is then that the yogi achieves psychic powers, makes time stand still, and possesses knowledge of the future.

But for those not versed in yoga, the brief interval in which the breath flows equally from both nostrils is extremely perilous. It is during this interim that accidents and death occur, losses take place, and failures are likely.

Among the Tantriks in both India and Tibet, it is considered dangerous to leave a place where both sun and moon breaths are flowing. It is not uncommon to see those who cannot change the breath flow at will, resort to one or another of the physical means of changing the flow, usually to the left nostril.

A Kaul once told me that any curse uttered during the time that prana was moving in the sushumna canal, would almost certainly come to pass. He believed it was this terrible power that witches of the Middle Ages used to bring sickness and grief to their victims.

En passant, it is interesting to note that several Theosophical and Western texts state that the Caduceus or winged staff of Mercury is a diagrammatic representation of the invisible cerebro-spinal axis. The rod itself, of course, represents the spine. The two serpents that entwine the staff are identified with the right and left channels, pingala and ida. The small sphere at the top of the rod represents the pineal gland; and the “wings of Mercury” are the flames emitted when the fiery kundalini or psychic current rises inside the spinal canal to contact the final center of power (the sahasrara).

Sun And Moon Breath

But let us return to further consideration of the alternating breath flow. The doctors of Hindu Tantrism have set forth in great detail the significance of both the position taken by the breath flow through the nostrils, and the distance the exhalation extends from the nostrils.

It may be taken as a general rule that the moon breath (through the left nostril) affects the sympathetic nervous system. It represents the influx of Shakti or mother principle and as such, both nourishes and regulates body functions. It is also the source of desire, dreams, wisdom, fantasies, and all the “dark moon powers” of woman.

The sun breath (through the right nostril) nurtures and sustains the vasomotor system. It is the source of action, violence, body heat, lust, and all the virile pursuits of the warrior.

The sushumna breath (through both nostrils simultaneously) controls man’s destiny, death, and time. Many yogis claim to have prolonged their lifespan by taking prana (the cosmic, primordial energy behind breath) through the sushumna canal to the vital center in the brain and holding it there.

The kind of breath flow of the parents during intercourse will even determine the sex of the child, if conception occurs.

Thus, if the man’s breath is through the pingala or right side, and the woman’s through the ida or left nostril, the resulting child will be male, according to Tantrik doctrine.

Conversely, if the man’s breath flow is through the ida and the woman’s through the pingala, the child will be a girl.

If, on the other hand, both parents are in the same breath (whether pingala or ida), the child will have a predisposition to homosexuality.

In addition to determining simply whether his breath flow is through the right or left nostril, the Tantrik sadhaka also seeks to ascertain which of the five elements – water, air, fire, earth and ether – rules the breath at a given moment.

This is done by learning to judge the exact way in which the breath is passing from the nostril.

When the flow is precisely through the center of the nostril, for example, it is an “earth breath.”

When it passes across the lower peripheral portion of the nostril as it flows in and out, it is a “water breath.”

If the breath, when vigorously inhaled or exhaled, touches the upper wall inside the nostril, it is moving with the element fire.

It is an “air breath” when the flow passes down the left side of the nasal wall.

If the flow touches the right wall of the nostril, it is an “ether breath.”

Actions, thoughts, decision, and so on, which occur during the time the breath is in an earth cycle will have positive or fortunate results.

During the ether and the airy cycles, on the other hand, actions or ideas end in loss, destruction, death.

The fire element in the breath also brings grief, fear, changes, fevers, defeats.

Yogis versed in Tantrism say that if you ask a seer regarding the future success of some undertaking when the breath flow is in the earth element, you will realize a positive or fortunate outcome. Per contra, if a “fire breath” or an “air breath” should prevail at the time of such a query, a negative answer is in order, and failure can almost certainly be predicted.

Tantrik opinion also holds that each elemental breath has its own characteristic vibratory rate or color; its own shape, and its own distance of projection from the nostrils.

Earth breath is yellow and square; it extends from the nares three inches.

Water breath is white and circular; it projects from the nostril twelve inches.

Fire breath is red and triangular; its trajectory is four inches in length.

Air breath is green and in the form of an oblique line; it flows outward a distance of eight inches.

Of the akasha or ether breath nothing definite is known. It is believed by some Tantrik authorities to be without special color or form. It is the vital cosmic air that is the all-pervading rhythm of the universe.

Orthodox Shakta doctrine states that the ida or the pingala will flow more powerfully on certain days of the week. Ida is strongest on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday; and it is especially puissant on the days during the light of the moon.

Pingala or right nostril flow is more potent on Monday, Tuesday, and Saturday; this is true especially dur-ing the dark half of the lunar cycle.

The great importance assigned to the course of the breath flow in determining the successful outcome of given activities is based upon a fundamental yogic postulate. It is that the flow of air in the gross body is linked with a corresponding current of prana or psychic energy in the subtle or astral body. The two function more or less in parallel, and can mutually influence each other.

Human Activities To  Be Undertaken

Shakta literature enumerates in some detail the kind of human activities to be undertaken during the sun breath and the moon breath, respectively.

The lists include an almost endless tally of actions and ideas, but the following are a good cross-section:

While the breath is flowing through the pingala (right nostril), one should undertake:

Generally, all actions involving physical exertion, passion, force, crime, or combat.

The enticement of women (if you are a man). Embracing, caressing, sexual intercourse.

All forms of active sport such as swimming, hunting, riding, and so on.

Inflicting punishment upon others, or causing them pain.

Selling anything.

Seizing anything by stealth and/or by theft. Entering into a contest or debate of any kind. Gambling and cheating.

Using weapons correctly, accurately, and safely. Partaking of food and drink. Taking a bath.

Exorcising ghosts or practicing any occult art.

When the breath flow is through the ida or left nostril, it is a propitious time to perform the following:

Generally, all activities of a calm, gentle, steady nature.

Practicing any of the arts – painting, singing, writing, composing, and so on.

Buying anything.

Studying music or dancing.

Beginning a course of study in any subject.

Going to church, or joining in services of worship.

Study of science.

Planting or sowing seeds.

Earning a livelihood.

Engaging in any business transaction.

Preparing food for any purpose.

Taking part in wedding ceremonies.

Travel from one place to another, especially if it is a long journey.

Visiting with friends or relatives.

Speaking with persons in authority on any topic.

Upon entering a house, especially one not your own.

The Tantrik canon also mentions a number of situations deliberately brought about by the yogi’s breath control.

For example, it is said that if a man, being in the sun-breath, draws into his right nostril the breath from a woman’s left nostril, she will give him lasting love and devotion. This is particularly true if the breath exchange occurs during a close embrace or sexual intercourse.

A man should seek to win a woman’s favor at the moment when the breath flow is changing over from the right nostril to the left. For a woman, of course, just the reverse would be true.

Since the manner in which the vital energy (behind the breath) thus determines the course of our lives, it is important to know how to change the breath flow as desired.

How To Control The “Breath Flow”

There are advanced sadhakas who can change the breath simply by an act of will. For the majority who can not, however, several techniques have been developed for accomplishing the same purpose.

Perhaps the easiest method for the Western student is to lie down on the side opposite from that through which he wishes the breath to flow. Thus, if you wish the breath to flow through the right nostril, lie on your

left side, and vice versa. You will soon be able to perceive the exact moment when the change-over from one nostril to the other occurs. Normally, it will not take more than two or three minutes. If you have a cold or nasal congestion from some other cause, a little more time may be required.

One way of hastening the change when using this method, is to prop yourself on your elbow, supporting your head with your hand, your thumb resting firmly under the ear, and the fingers pressed against the forehead.

Pressure in and around the arm-pit of the side opposite the desired flow will also initiate a change-over. To avoid attracting attention when this method is used in the presence of others, it may be effected by dropping your arm over the back of a chair. In India and parts of Tibet, it is a common sight to see yogis equipped with short T-shaped staffs (called hangsa danda) upon which they lean for this purpose.

Another means of correcting or changing the breath flow is to sit upon the floor and draw the right or left knee, as desired, up to the arm-pit and lean heavily upon it.

Yet another procedure, which calls for no extraordinary prowess on the part of the shakti student is to massage the ankle and great toe, again opposite the side through which you wish the breath to flow.

Quite aside from using the great toe as a means for changing the breath flow, Tantrik aspirants are taught to massage this toe (on both feet) regularly. They are told that a nerve terminating in the large toe regulates all cyclic changes and rhythms in the entire body.

A final and quite obvious way to cause the breath to  flow through a given nostril is to plug the opposite one. When this is done, a piece of clean cotton cloth is rolled into a kind of small ball and inserted into the nostril.

If not wilfully changed by the sadakha, the breath flow will continue to alternate back and forth, changing from one nostril to the other.

However, most gurus strongly counsel their students to practice swara sadhana – that is, to make the breath flow solely through the left nostril from sunrise to sunset; and through the right nostril from sunset to sunrise. Faithful performance of this procedure, they insist, will ward off disease, prolong the lifespan of the yogi, and confer wisdom.

After a little experimenting with the techniques described, you will soon be able to control the breath flow, directing it through the right or left nostril as you desire.

It is well to undertake this simple and easy exercise at once. A mastery of breath flow (that is, of the pranic airs) constitutes an operational constant in all the Tantrik practices which follow.

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