The safe and successful practice of Tantrism requires a carefully laid yogic foundation. Without such preparation, gurus warn that certain dangers may lurk along the way for the unwary. At best, they say, the sadhana will not bear fruit.
This is especially true as regards the central discipline of Shaktism, the Panchatattva or Secret Ritual. It is, indeed, for this reason that there are constant reminders in the sacred texts of the importance of that prime requirement known as adhikara – the aspirant’s spiritual capacity or competence to practice.
The practice of Tantra Yoga begins with a cleansing of the nadis or mystic ducts through which must flow vital currents from the subtle body or so-called “etheric double,” into the gross physical organism. Purification of these psychic channels, and stimulation of the centers of radiation (chakras) from which they emanate, is accomplished by means of breathing exercises. Yogic breath control, of course, is not aimed solely at increasing the oxygen content of the blood, as in the case of deep-breathing exercises performed in Western gymnasiums.
Its objective is, rather, the absorption and distribution throughout the system, of that cosmic life force known as prana. It is for this reason that breath regulation techniques are called pranayama, meaning control of prana, not of breath per se.
Whatever other differences exist among the methods of the various Tantrik schools, all of them agree as to the importance of pranayama as a necessary means of purification required for diksha or initiation. The Gautamiya Tantra, for example, declares:
“O man of good life! there is no principle, no austerity, knowledge, state, yoga, treasure or other thing superior to pranayama . . . There is no path to liberation without pranayama, so that whatever sadhana is performed without pranayama becomes fruitless.
Prana, the universal elan vital, enters the human entity through the psychic centers. Thereafter it is modified according to function and location within the body.
Five of these modifications or modalities, known as vayus or “vital airs,” are important to the Tantrik practitioner. The first and principal “air” is known by the same designation as the solar breath itself – that is, as prana. It manifests itself on the physical level as hangsah or the continuing act of respiration within the animal body.
According to some texts, its activity is centered in the region of the anahat chakra or cardiac plexus. Clairvoyants perceive it as a golden radiance, like diffused sunlight.
The remaining four airs and their functions are: Apana, called the “downward breath,” is the vital air which circulates through the muladhara or root chakra, situated between the anus and the genitals. It controls nutrition and excretion in the gross body. Some authorities say that the apana air is expelled from the body just as prana is drawn into it from a circumambient supply. It has, therefore the nature of a waste product, like carbon dioxide, expelled from the lungs. To psychic sight, it appears to be various shades of red, depending upon the individual and other circumstances.
Samana, working through the manipura or navel center, stokes the body’s fires, as it were, and governs the process of digestion. It has been described by those having psychic vision as being sometimes cloudy white, sometimes of a greenish hue.
Udana, whose point of focus is the vishuddha or throat chakra, regulates the functioning of the diaphragm, thereby influencing the rhythm and depth of respiration. At the time of death, it also acts to release the subtle body from the hold of the gross one. A familiar manifestation of this separation of the physical from the non-physical is the peculiar sound in the throat sometimes referred to as “the death rattle.” To esoteric perception, the udana current is pale blue.
Vayana is a dynamic, operative current, which pervades the entire body, vitalizing tissues and controlling circulation of blood. It is said to have as its point of emanation the swadisthana chakra at the root of the genitals. Its color varies from lucent rose in a person who enjoys good health, to a pale pink in an enfeebled or diseased organism.
Defining the function of the vital airs in a somewhat broader sense, one Tantrik work says that prana is the power of appropriation; apana that of rejection; samana, of assimilation; udana of articulation; and vayana of distribution. This specialized activity of the vital airs is, of course, involuntary so far as the animal organism is concerned, but its strength and scope can be intensified and expanded by voluntary effort.
Each cycle of respiration in every individual reacts dynamically upon the static coiled power at the base of the cerebrospinal axis – the kundalini. It is a reaction that occurs an average of 21,600 times a day, for that is the number of breaths taken by the ordinary man.
However, these breaths are shallow and fairly rapid in the case of the majority of men. They fill the lungs to only one sixth their capacity. The result is that the current of energy sent downward to strike at the coiled kundalini asleep at the root chakra does not awaken it.
Yogic breathing exercises, on the other hand, send a potent charge of prana coursing toward the kundalini. When this charge enters the area controlled by the navel center, it begins to glow like a fire fanned by a bellows.
The resulting tumo heat, according to the Yoga-Kundali Upanishad, arouses the dormant kundalini, which “awakens from her sleep as a serpent, struck by a stick, hisses and straightens itself.” It thereupon enters the central channel of the spine (the sushumna) and starts its ascent toward the crown of the head.
Some authorities say that the serpent power thus released is an emanation rather than the mother kundalini herself. The latter, they maintain, remains coiled in the cavity near the base of the spine, merely sending forth an etheric counterpart.
As the kundalini energy proceeds up the central channel, it vitalizes each chakra and purifies the nadis related to it. When it reaches the highest center of the subtle body (the sahasrara), it unites with the maha-kundali of Shiva residing there, and polarizes every cell of the body.
The primary aim of breathing techniques is thus, obviously, to force prana – the upward breath – to flow downward and to strike the latent kundalini; and to cause the apana or downward breath, to rise. By reversing their usual direction and by bringing them together at the navel chakra, great psychic heat is generated.
One of the first indications (aside from heat) that the kundalini has entered the median duct and begun its ascent is that prana ceases to move in the ida and pingala nadis (left and right nostrils). Breathing appears to be suspended altogether.
The technique is not an easy one, and must be mastered gradually. It is only after considerable practice that the serpent fire will enter the sushumna passage.
Moreover, the procedure is not without its dangers. The sadhaka is especially cautioned that if pain occurs in the abdominal region, the practice should be discontinued. When such discomfort occurs, it is because the kundalini current has met with resistance at one of the three points in its upward ascent, known as “granthis” or “knots.” They mark the juncture of the nadis with the root, cardiac and brow chakras, respectively.
The first knot is often referred to as the Knot of Brahma; the second the Knot of Vishnu; and the third, the Knot of Shiva.
The symbolism recalls a quatrain from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, one of almost certain Tantrik import:
“Up from Earth s Center through the Seventh Gate I rose, and on the throne of Saturn sate,
And many a knot unravel’d by the Road But not the Master-Knot of Human Fate.”
It will be recalled that the muladhara or root chakra is commonly called the Earth Center chakra.
Tantrik gurus warn that in the case of persons who are at certain stages of spiritual evolution, a cosmic counter force called Maya-Shakti is especially strong at the three centers mentioned. If the sadhaka persists in trying to force the psychic current through the “knots,” physical disorders will result. It is also possible to do permanent injury to the central nervous system.
If signs of physical distress appear during practice, therefore, the disciple is strongly urged to forego further practice until such a time as he may place himself under the supervision of a competent guru.
As regards the best times of day to practice prana-yama, most texts state that, unless otherwise indicated, the best hours are sunrise, noon, sunset and midnight.
Prana, like a cosmic tide, ebbs and flows in the human body. At sunrise, it enters the sushumna canal. At noon it is equalized in the nadis and in the blood stream. At sunset, it courses through the arteries of the physical body in flood tide. At midnight it rests in the hollow of the heart and in the blood vessels, like motionless slack-water between the ocean tides.
Thus, from noon to midnight, while prana circulates with the blood, physical stamina is naturally at its peak. From midnight until noon, prana is polarized in the nerves. Consequently, during that interval, nervous energy necessary for intellectual tasks is more abundant. This may, to some extent, account for the fact that many writers and creative artists in all ages have been “night-owls,” finding the post-midnight and early morning hours the best for their work.
At whatever hour circumstances may force the sadhaka to practice, regularity is essential. Once the disciplines are made a part of everyday routine, like bathing and taking meals, they will be easier to perform and will show quicker results.
The neophyte often asks, when is the best time to embark upon a course of exercises?
Some Tantrik authorities advise starting in the Spring or Autumn; during the moon’s first quarter; and when the breath flow is through the ida or left nostril.
Additional general rules governing the practice of pranayama usually include these:
The sadhaka ought to seat himself upon a red woolen pad during practice. An ordinary blanket is satisfactory for the purpose. Many Hindu teachers hold the view that use of an uncovered wooden seat brings ill health and material loss.
Mental attitude is also important. Practice should be initiated with the positive thought that it will produce the desired results. It helps tremendously to “get into the mood,” as it does in the case of most undertakings which require concentration and skill. Reading of yogic texts is one way of inducing such a state of mind. The role of will power (called yoga-bala) is emphasized by almost all Tantrik schools. Many of them employ images and mystic diagrams to help create the proper frame of mind.
Breathing exercises should never be undertaken on a full stomach; when the sadhaka is tired or ill; nor immediately following violent physical exertion.
A little butter dissolved in the mouth just prior to starting pranayama will lubricate the throat for passage of air during measured respiration.
When practice is indoors, the room must be well-ventilated, cheerful, dry, and free of dust and noise.
With the foregoing rationale and rules of practice clearly in mind, the student is ready to proceed with the graded series of exercises which follow in the proper sequence.
First Discipline: Eight Weeks
Place: Well-ventilated room.
Duration: Twelve times.
Technique: Assume the posture you have found most suitable for practice, spine straight, chin in a straight line with the chest. For a moment, try to relax completely, emptying the mind of all cares and trivial thoughts. Expel all air from the lungs by sharply drawing in the abdomen as you exhale.
Slowly refill the lungs to the count of seven. Pause for one count, then exhale to the count of seven again. This cycle should be repeated twelve times to establish smooth, rhythmic, deep respiration.
Now exhale through both nostrils to fill the lungs as full as possible without discomfort. Hold the breath in the mouth, forcing it against the cheeks until they bulge. Retain the breath this way as long as it is comfortable to do so. Then expel it quickly and explosively through the mouth, once more using the abdominal muscles to force out all the air.
Repeat the procedure, mentally reciting the mantram OM as you inhale. In your imagination, picture a pul-sating current of life force flowing into your lungs with the breath. Then envision this vital stream flowing like divine ichor through the spreading web of nadis or psychic channels of the subtle body and thence into the physical organism, energizing every cell.
The foregoing cycle should be repeated twelve times at each sitting.
Time: Sunrise or at sunset.
Place: Open country, park, seashore, mountain trail, desert or woods.
Duration: Twelve times, twice daily. Technique: If possible, go for a walk before breakfast and again before dinner in the evening, preferably in the country or through a park. Your pace should be leisurely and your mind free of insistent cares that ordinarily make you tense or apprehensive of the future. As you stroll along, slowly inhale through both nostrils to the count of seven. Retain the breath for two counts. Then exhale through the mouth to the count of seven. Hold the breath outside for two counts. Repeat the cycle twelve times.
After practicing three days, increase the ratio from 7:2:7:2 to 10:5:10:5.
If you do not find it convenient to practice morning and evening, you may perform the sadhana at any time during the day or night. A solitary walk is, however, necessary.
Time: Morning and evening.
Place: Well-ventilated room or secluded place outdoors.
Duration: Twenty-four times, twice daily. Technique: Seated in the comfortable posture customarily assumed for sadhana, purse the lips as when pronouncing the syllable “00.” Inhale through the mouth with the lips in this position, seven small draughts. Then swallow. Exhale through both nostrils, again to the count of seven. Repeat the cycle twenty-four times morning and evening.
Time: Optional; but practice should be at the same hour every day.
Place: Well-ventilated room or secluded place outdoors.
Duration: Twelve times.
Technique: Seated in the meditative posture, facing the direction of the sun, equalize the respiratory rhythm by breathing slowly in and out to the measure 7:1:7:1, as described in previous disciplines.
After a few moments, when deep, rhythmic breathing has been established, inhale through both nostrils to the count of four or until the lungs are about half filled. Then, holding the breath, curl the tongue backward as far as possible against the roof of the mouth. Holding it thus, emit a loud growl: “Grrrr!” as you exhale.
Time: Morning and noon.
Place: Outdoors or near an open window.
Duration: Six times.
Technique: Standing with the feet apart to form a V, softly whistle a few bars of some familiar song. Keeping the lips puckered, inhale slowly through the mouth to the count of seven. Pause for a single count. Then exhale through both nostrils to the count of seven. Repeat this cycle six times in the morning and six times at noon.
Sixth And Seventh Weeks
Time: Morning, noon and evening. Place: Well-ventilated room or secluded place outdoors.
Duration: Five times.
Technique: Standing with the feet apart, as in the preceding exercise; or seated in the customary posture for sadhana, face the sun. After equalizing the breath by breathing slowly in and out to the 7:1:7:1 rhythm, place the tongue between the lips and protrude it slightly. Draw air into the lungs through the mouth with a hissing sound. When the lungs are filled, retain the breath as long as possible without discomfort. Then exhale gently through both nostrils. Repeat the cycle five times. Practice it morning, noon, and evening for two weeks.
Students who are being treated for an overactive thyroid should omit this exercise altogether. Conversely, those suffering from hypothyroidism should perform it twice the prescribed number of times.
Eighth Week Time: Sunrise
Place: Near an open window or in a secluded place out of doors.
Duration: Five to twelve times.
Technique: Seated in the customary posture of sadhana, force all the air from the lungs by vigorously exhaling while drawing in the abdominal wall.
Now close the right nostril with the right thumb, and slowly exhale through the left nostril to the count of four. Close both nostrils and retain the breath for a count of sixteen. Then, keeping the left nostril closed, exhale through the right to the count of eight. Still keeping the left nostril closed, inhale through the right for four counts; again retain sixteen; and, closing the right nostril, exhale through the left for eight counts.
For the first three days of practice, repeat the cycle five times. On the succeeding four days, increase the number of cycles to twelve.
Second Discipline: Ninth Week
Time: Between 9:30 a.m. and noon.
Place: Before an open window, in full sunlight.
Duration: Three times for each color.
Technique: Assume the posture for sadhana, facing East. Close the eyes, and for a brief time visualize the radiant energy of the sun entering your subtle and gross bodies to permeate and vitalize every cell. Sit upright and empty the lungs, forcing out residual air in the manner previously described. Then slowly inhale to the count of seven. Retain the breath for seven counts, meanwhile strongly visualizing the color red. Direct the consciousness to the lower portion of the stomach and genitals, and imagine a flood of red light covering that area of your body.
Exhale to the count of seven. Pause one count, then repeat the red cycle. Perform it three times.
Follow the same procedure and measurement of time intervals for yellow. Mentally picture a deluge of effulgent yellow light bathing the region of the upper chest and forehead.
Repeat the exercise with blue. Visualize that color spreading over the throat area, solar plexus, and crown of the head in a cool, healing, spiritual radiance.
After three cycles of this color, pause one second. Then perform the same pranayama, suffusing the feet, legs, arms and face with awareness of pure white light.
During the last four days that this discipline is practiced, perform the sadhana at midnight, as well as in the hours before noon.
Third Discipline: Tenth Week
Time: Hours between midnight and dawn.
Place: A secluded place where there is a minimum of sound and where you will not be interrupted.
Duration: Fifteen minutes daily.
Technique: Seated in sadhana posture, face either East or North. Perform japa mantra by breathing in and out rhythmically, joining to the respiration the mental repetition of the mystic syllable OM. Inhalation is to the count of seven; one count between breaths; and exhalation to the count of seven. If you find it difficult to count and to repeat the syllable at the same time, repetition of the syllable is more important.
The syllable is repeated one hundred and eight times with the incoming and outgoing breaths. To keep count of the breath cycles, a rosary of one hundred and eight beads should be used. The rosary should be of pearls, crystals, gold, silver, coral, or of rudraksha seeds.
After recitation of the syllable OM, sit quietly, gazing steadily and without blinking, at some fixed point (e.g., a candle flame) on level with the eyes and at a distance of about five feet. While focusing the attention on this point, listen intently with the right ear for the inner sound. It may be perceived in one of a variety of ways -as tiny silver chains, humming bees, bells, a flute, ocean roar, etc.
If the sound is not heard by the third day of practice, perform the following exercise:
Seated in sadhana posture, facing East, rest the elbows on a pillow placed in front of you upon a desk or table. Place the thumbs lightly upon the small flaps of the ears and press them to close the ears to outside sounds. Close the eyes and place the index fingers on the lids; the middle fingers and ring fingers should press the lids between them.
Breathe rhythmically but slowly in and out through both nostrils. Meanwhile, direct the consciousness to the closed ears, listening in an attentive but detached way, for the sounds to be heard within.
Fourth Discipline: Eleventh Week
Time: Preferably between 7 p.m. and midnight.
Place: Clean, well-ventilated room, affording complete privacy and freedom from interruption.
Duration: Pranayama – twelve times; maithuna – a minimum of thirty-two minutes.
Technique: Following a bath, enter the practice room and light the ritual candles. Assume the posture of sadhana. Empty the lungs of residual air, as in preceding disciplines. Equalize the breath by breathing rhythmically in and out to the 7:1:7:1 ratio. Complete twelve cycles of this rhythm. Then, upon drawing in the thirteenth breath, retain it for a count of seven before exhaling – again, to seven counts. During the retention (kumbhak) concentrate intently upon the root chakra, situated between the anus and genitals. Mentally picture a current of prana flowing to the center. Stimulate it physically by contracting the sphincter muscles of the anus. As this is being done, envision a psychic current rising upward through the central channel of the spine to the crown of the head. The retention cycle is also repeated twelve times.
Thereafter the sadhaka proceeds with the secret ritual.
Fifth Discipline: Twelfth Week
Place: Secluded, but well-ventilated room.
Duration: Preparatory phase – twelve cycles. Second phase – two minutes. Final phase – three to seven times.
Technique: Seated upon a woolen pad in sadhana posture, face the East. Equalize the breath by breathing slowly and deeply in and out to the 7:1:7:1 count used in previous disciplines. Repeat the cycle twelve times. Then relax, allowing the breath to flow on of its own accord.
After a moment or two of complete tranquility, grasp the left wrist and upper portion of the left hand (back side) with the right hand. With hands thus joined, place them palms downward over the transformation center at the solar plexus.
Close the eyes and mentally picture within this center a small, brilliant tongue of flame, hair-thin and twisted at the top like a corkscrew.
Once this image has been clearly formed in the mind’s eye, again equalize the breath with the 7:1:7:1 rhythm. As the breath flows in and out, imagine that it fans the glowing tongue of flame within the solar center, heating it to white-hot incandescence.
As you begin to feel a kindling warmth in the area of the solar plexus, substitute for the flame image a mental picture of the thing or condition you wish to materialize on the physical plane.
When you have clearly pictured the object or condition you desire, draw the abdominal wall back and forth spasmodically, so that the breath will come and go in staccato spurts. Continue this phase of the sadhana for two minutes, all the while visualizing your objective and strongly willing it to materialize.
Then lower the head until the chin rests firmly against the chest. Expel all air from the lungs. Hold the breath outside the lungs for a count of seven. With hands still clasped in the mudra described above, press against the solar plexus, meanwhile trying to agitate that area with a quick, vibrating motion. Again bring into sharp mental focus a visualization of the thing you desire.
Inhale once more, raising the head upward until you are gazing at the ceiling of the room. Then, locking the breath within, force the air downward until it is felt pressing against the diaphragm.
Retain the breath thus for seven counts. As you do so, picture the tumo fire again entering the central canal of the spine and passing upward toward the Brahma-randhra or crown of the head. Mentally affirm that as the serpent fire rises, it carries with it the substance of your desire.
Exhale, visualizing the desire as now being outside yourself – an objective, free-moving, vitalized thought form.
Sixth Discipline: Thirteenth Week
Time: When retiring for the night. Place: A quiet, pleasantly appointed bedroom. Duration: The time necessary to pass from the waking state (jagrat) to that of sleep (svapna). Technique: After retiring for the night, and with the lights extinguished, lie upon your back in bed, hands clasped in the mudra of the preceding discipline. Rest the hands over the solar plexus. Lie quietly for a few moments, relaxing in mind and body. Equalize the breath with the 7:1:7:1 rhythm for twelve cycles. Then turn and lie upon the right side; pull the legs slightly upward until the knees are bent to relieve tension in the legs. Rest the left arm outstretched along the left leg. Cup the palm of the right hand and rest the right cheek in it.
Join the syllable OM to the breath flow, strongly resolving to retain memory and awareness through the dream state.
Seventh Discipline: Fourteenth Week
Time: Sunset to midnight.
Place: Secluded room, affording complete privacy.
Duration: First phase – twelve cycles. Second phase – twenty-one times.
Technique: Sit erect in a straight chair, before a mirror sufficiently large to reflect your head and shoulders. Place a lighted candle to the right of the mirror in a position that illuminates the glass, without reflecting an image of the candle. Extinguish all other lights in the room. For a few moments sit quietly, allowing the thoughts to flow as they will, without taking any of them up consciously. Then equalize the breath by means of the 7:1:7:1 rhythm. Repeat the cycle twelve times, then inhale gently through both nostrils only enough air to fill the lungs to about one-eighth their capacity.
Close the small and ring fingers of the right hand into the palm, and fold the thumb down across them, leaving the middle and index fingers outstretched.
Place the hand palm downward over the cardiac region of the chest, the two outstretched fingers pointing toward the left side of the body.
As the heart throb is felt beneath the hand, mentally repeat the syllables OM and HUM alternately with the heartbeats. Repeat the syllables twenty-one times (forty-two counts in all), then form the left hand into a mudra similar to that just executed with the right. Cover the right hand with the left, then slowly withdraw the right, leaving the left in its place over the heart, fingers now pointing toward the right side of the body.
With eyes closed, try to penetrate the interior of the heart. Visualize an arched, dimly lighted cavern, filled with clouds of red mist. Gradually the swirling vapor clouds part and a figure clothed in bright golden light emerges.
Still breathing lightly but rhythmically, focus your deepest thought and aspirations upon this luminous figure. Mentally address to it your wordless longing for contact with your soul’s lost identities. Say to it:
“Reveal, reveal thyself to me.”
Wait in profound silence until the golden figure is enveloped once more by the billowing red mist, and the cavern of the heart echoes a single note of pure sound, which softly dies away into silence.
Then replace the left hand with the right one. Open your eyes and earnestly regard your reflection in the mirror. After a brief moment, it will disappear, leaving an empty mirror. Continue to stare at the glass with calm detachment.
If your sadhana is successful, another face or series of faces will appear in the glass. Study them objectively and, if possible, without emotion, seeking to learn what they have to reveal. Avoid blinking the eyes during this phase of the discipline, if you can do so. When tears appear, conclude the sadhana by intoning the syllable OM, attenuating the sound until it merges into silence.
The exercise should not be practiced more than once in a twenty-four-hour period. However, it may and should be repeated nightly until some measure of success is achieved.
After performing the foregoing principal disciplines of purification and merging, the sadhaka may take up other practices for control of the vital breaths.
But complete mastery of Tantrik techniques should take precedence over all others.