Q: I am having wonderful blissful feelings in my first pranayama sessions, and they are flowing over into my meditation period. I found myself swaying with pleasurable feelings coming up my spine, covering me with goosebumps. I found my attention drifting back into spinal breathing during my meditation. Is this okay? What is the relationship between pranayama and meditation? Is pranayama a kind of meditation? Can pranayama stand alone as spiritual practice without the meditation we have learned?
A: Your early experiences are beautiful, a wonderful taste of things to come. Let them inspire you to carry on along the path toward enlightenment. With regular practice of pranayama and meditation your experiences will go much deeper.
If there are movements during pranayama or meditation, don't mind them too much. This applies to either pleasurable movements, or unpleasurable ones. Just easily go back to the procedure of the practice you are doing, whether it be pranayama or meditation. If the movements persist to the point where you are unable to easily go back to your practice, then let your attention rest with the movements for a while, not favoring or resisting them. Once they settle down a bit you should be able to effortlessly go back to your practice.
Pleasurable movements, and pleasurable feelings without movements, can be tricky when they arise in pranayama and meditation. We tend to be attracted to these. It is natural. The tricky part is in not confusing the rise of pleasure with practice, and becoming unduly focused on the pleasure. Keep in mind that these experiences are rising due to correct practice of pranayama and meditation. In order to advance, we must continue our practices and not fall off them into excessive attention on the ecstatic experiences that will be coming up. This is not to say these experiences are not welcome. Certainly they are – we are doing advanced yoga practices so we can rise to a life in ecstasy! As we continue our daily practices, ecstatic experiences will overflow and become a regular part of our daily life. This is what we want. So, if they are coming up during our pranayama and meditation, we welcome them with joy and go back to our practice. This is how we promote the rise of ecstatic experience in life. We will be discussing the topic of maintaining the integrity of our practices during ongoing experiences of ecstasy in more detail later on. In time, ecstasy will become the predominant experience during our practices, and this presents a unique challenge on the road to enlightenment. It is a most enjoyable challenge.
It will happen sometimes that we will find ourselves doing pranayama during meditation, or vise versa. When this happens, we just easily go back to the practice we are supposed to be doing at that time. We should not attempt to do both at once. Both rely on the simplicity of attention, i.e., easily favoring the mantra in meditation, or easily favoring spinal breathing in pranayama. If we try and favor both procedures at once, we divide the attention and this detracts from both practices. So, first we do pranayama, and then we do meditation. This is the formula for maximum effect.
Meditation and pranayama are distinctly different practices with distinctly different purposes. Meditation instills in us the silence of pure bliss consciousness. Pranayama loosens the subtle nerves and stimulates the flow of prana in particular ways. This provides pure bliss consciousness the opportunity to flow dynamically in the nervous system. This is experienced first as the ever-increasing expansion of ecstasy, and later as the rise of universal, blissful self-awareness. Pranayama is on the edge of meditation, but it is not meditation. Meditation is on the edge of pranayama, but it is not pranayama. You might say that they both come from opposite sides to the edge of the subtle boundary that exists between pure bliss consciousness and prana everywhere in us. By doing pranayama and meditation in succession we are dissolving the boundary from both sides. It is a double whammy. This is the great benefit of doing both practices.
Pranayama in its various forms has tremendous value, and we will make extensive use of it. It is one of the master keys to opening the human nervous system to divine experience. But, pranayama is not a replacement for meditation. Only through meditation can the nervous system be permeated with pure bliss consciousness. Pranayama and other techniques we will discuss aid greatly in providing the ground for pure bliss consciousness to come up, and they are means for its expansion outward, but they are not the primary cause of its coming up. Meditation is. For this reason, pranayama is not recommended as a stand-alone practice without meditation.
Meditation can be practiced as a stand-alone. It is a complete practice that will lead to a full flowering of pure bliss consciousness in a person over an extended period of time. This is why meditation was said to be enough for those who are not inclined to pursue other advanced yoga practices to speed up the journey. Meditation is the best single practice one can do.
On the other hand, practicing pranayama alone without meditation can leave the practitioner vulnerable in some ways. Imagine you plow a field, turning the rich soil over and over. It is exposed, fertile, and ready for the seed to be planted. What will you plant there? If you meditate deeply with an effective method, you will plant the field full with the seed of pure bliss consciousness, and it will germinate and grow strong, filling the field with joy. But what if you don't meditate, and you don't plant anything in particular in your fertile pranayama field? What will grow there? Something will. But what? Whatever happens to be around. Some desires, some thoughts, some emotions, whatever happens to be blowing over the field. To tell you the truth, a lot of weeds can grow there, because there is no crop of pure bliss consciousness filling up that field. This is why pranayama, practiced as a stand-alone over months and years, can lead to less instead of more. In some people this type of imbalanced practice can lead to increasing rigidness, egotism, anxiety, anger, and just plain bad luck. Meditate every day after you do pranayama and you will experience the opposite of these things in great profusion – flexibility, compassion, peace, joy, and lots of good luck. That's how it works.
The guru is in you.
Note: For detailed instructions on spinal breathing, see the AYP Spinal Breathing Pranayama book.