Sutra 2.49: tasmin sati shvasa prashvsayoh gati vichchhedah pranayamah
Pranayama is the conscious, deliberate regulation of the breath replacing unconscious patterns of breathing. It is possible only after a reasonable mastery of asana practice. Translation and interpretation by TKV Desikachar
I’ve been sitting on this sutra for a few extra days because it strikes me as so straightforward, I couldn’t really think of what to say (other than get to class and experience it for yourself!). Then I realized I have a bit of a beef with the above translation, and I started writing this:
OK, now generally I like Desikachar’s interpretation of sutra 2.49. I like his emphasis on reasonable mastery. I like that he defines pranayama as conscious and deliberate. I like the conscious patterns in place of unconscious patterns.
You know what I don’t love? The replacement of unconscious breathing patterns.
I was preparing to get all contradictory (I tend to do that) and smart, and then I remembered something about the sutras.
See in my defensiveness, I dove into Desikachar’s words assuming by “unconscious” he meant to refer only to harmful patterns. And maybe he does. But the sutras don’t take that stance. In the sutras are written only:
When this (see 2.48) is achieved, breath-control (pranayama) [which is] the cutting off of the flow of inhalation and exhalation [should be practised]. Translation by Georg Feuerstein.
( ) are my notes, [ ] are Feuerstein’s inferences to translate the sutra as a complete sentence.
We are fairly certain that a student is meant to explore the sutras under the guidance of a teacher who has discovered their full meaning through the guidance of her own teacher –i.e. the sutras are kind of like crib notes for the teacher instead of a fully fleshed out guide that the student can use entirely on her own. So this curt and rather cryptic explanation of pranayama should indeed be interpreted and explained further as seen in Desikachar’s translation. And my interpretation of his words is part of how this information comes through experience –I assume he means negative unconscious patterns of the breath, but really pranayama is the opposite of unconscious patterns whether they result in an unobstructed and full breath or a restricted and shallow breath.
Pranayama, as it was originally described, is a process of interference in the breath, not a return to a natural state of ease. Because of this, I suspect, it is necessary to first establish that natural state of ease (which, when truly easy, happens on its own, without conscious control), so that when practicing pranayama, the resulting changes in brain activity and one’s physiological state come about as expected, and not with scary side effects.
In the end, I still like Desikachar’s interpretation. He cautions us gently from diving in too fast, reminding students of yoga that pranayama is a practice through which one should respect the breath –for it is a powerful force that can take you to many, many places.
Hari om tat sat!
Experience your true self and bring it into every moment of your living!
The Yoga Sutras are a classical text on yoga–a guidebook of sorts.
Each week, 216 teacher Esther Palmer dives into one of the sutras and we let it take us where it takes us.