Extending the Breath to Defeat Death

Śivaliṅga (17th century), Rajasthan
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A Freedive into Tantric Prāṇāyāma


While in Pondicherry, we have had the privilege of attending reading sessions at the École Française d'Extrême-Orient, where a team of scholars led by Professor Dominic Goodall are editing medieval tantric Śaiva ritual manuals called Paddhatis.

We were lucky enough to read one of the yoga sections of these Paddhatis, which is based on the Saptāṅgayoga (i.e. Yoga with Seven Auxiliaries) of an earlier Tantra called the Mṛgendratantra (pre-10th century). This Tantra contains a very concise description of prāṇāyāma and it's one of the few sources that defines prāṇāyāma as extending the breath, rather than stopping it:
Breath (prāṇa) is the vital wind (vāyu) already defined. Its extension is the strenuous exercise of that wind by expelling it, drawing it in and holding it. Its effect is to remove any defects in the faculties.
Mṛgendratantra, Yogapāda 4. Trans. Alexis Sanderson 1999:5

Therefore, one prāṇāyāma is a single breath, which consists of an inhalation, a retention and an exhalation.

The Mṛgendratantra states that there are three grades of prāṇāyāma: inferior, intermediate and superior. The grade depends on the length, which is measured in units of Tāla. A Tāla is defined as twelve circumambulations of the knee:
The span of time termed a Tāla is what it takes to move [the palm of] one’s hand round the circumference of one’s knee-cap twelve times.
Mṛgendratantra, Yogapāda 28ab. Trans. Alexis Sanderson 1999:5

The commentary of Nārāyaṇakaṇtha and later Paddhatis make it clear that the three grades of prāṇāyāma have the following lengths:
Inferior          = 12 Tāla    = 144 circumambulations
Intermediate = 24 Tāla    = 288 circumambulations
Superior        = 48 Tāla    = 576 circumambulations
That's quite a lot of handwork in a single breath! Let's assume conservatively that it takes one second to circumambulate the knee-cap with the hand. This means the tantric sādhaka is extending the breath to 2 minutes 24 seconds, 4 minutes 48 seconds and 9 minutes 36 seconds, respectively.
Inferior           = 12 Tāla    = 2 minutes 24 seconds
Intermediate  = 24 Tāla    = 4 minutes 48 seconds
Superior         = 48 Tāla    = 9 minutes 36 seconds
Is it possible to extend one’s breath to 9 minutes 36 seconds?

Well, it seems that some of the best freedivers can do it. In 2001, the world record for holding one's breath (Static Apneawas 8 minutes 6 seconds (by Martin Štěpánek, 3 July 2001) and it has been slowly increasing since then to the current record set in 2014:
The new Guinness World Record for Static Apnea is 11 minutes 54 seconds set by Branko Petrovic on October 7 [2014], under the supervision of the Guinness adjudicators.

Nonetheless, the tantric yogis of the 10th century were ahead of their time. It makes one wonder whether they were able to move their hands extremely quickly, thus reducing the time of a Tāla, or whether the superior grade of prāṇāyāma was an exaggerated claim.

What was the aim of this Tantric Prāṇāyāma?

Kālī (17th century), Rajasthan
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It restores health (puṣṭi) and defeats death (mṛtyujaya). And should one be so inclined, it can enable one to burn things without fire, cause trees to wither, destroy seeds, paralyse creatures, cause insanity and intensify the effects of poison in others. Its soteriological purpose was to accomplish tantric Śaiva visualization practices, worship, repetition of Mantras and yogic suicide (i.e. deliberately leaving the body at the end of one's life). It was also prescribed for initiation rites and the installation of deities (Mṛgendratantra, Yogapāda 25 – 27ab). 

The desired results depend on nasal dominance at the time of practice; that is, whether the breath is moving predominantly in the left nostril, the right nostril or both equally (i.e. the central channel). 

The prāṇāyāma of the Mṛgendratantra is quite distinct from that of the prāṇāyāma in Haṭhayoga texts, which began to emerge several centuries later. Not only is the Mṛgendratantra's definition of prāṇāyāma as extension of the breath different from that of yoga traditions which aim at extinguishing the breath, it doesn't incorporate the internal locks called bandhas nor any of the various techniques for manipulating the breath, such as alternating the nostrils.

We hope to discuss more about these distinctions in a follow up post.


Alexis Sanderson, 1999: 
Yoga in Śaivism: The Yoga Section of the Mṛgendratantra, An Annotated translation with the Commentary of Bhaṭṭa Nārāyāṇakaṇṭha 
(Available on academia.edu)

Franck André Jamme, André Padoux, Lawrence Rinder, 2011:
Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan 
(Available on Amazon)