The Four Stages of Yoga and Pranayama
The ideas mentioned in this post are derived from Vedantic texts and the seminal works of Kashmiri Shaivism. Some aspects also allude to the teachings of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita.
By Noah Brown
Many of us start yoga with a conjecture that it can be learned in a few weeks or months. Three months later, we reach a point where we’ve just about managed to open up our hips or improve the flexibility of our hamstrings.
Strength, flexibility, and good health are the byproduct of yoga, not the end game.
If you venture into a spiritual practice without recognizing its true spirit, you are indubitably headed towards a cul-de-sac. Be it weeks, months, or years, you will reach and stay at a plateau - a point of no-progress that is defined by your physical limitations and their end range of motion.
For many, this is the point to stop, surrender, or linger. However, others use this stagnation to finally contemplate the spiritual traditions beyond the bio-mechanical perspectives of yoga. It is, after all, a lot more than just stretching and holding poses.
In this article, I will outline the insights of yogis on how to avoid this pitfall and make gradual and meaningful progress or approach yoga as a holistic practice rather than an alternative form of exercise for physical fitness.
Yoga and Pranayama: The Four Stages of Learning
Stage One: Arambha Aavastha
Armbha means 'to commence or begin', and avastha mean 'status'. Thus, arambh avastha refers to the initial stages that each novice or beginner must go through.
It's a stage of first contact - when you get your first impressions of a spiritual practice. This is the time to focus on jnana – "knowledge or insight". In this stage one must truly understand the form, function, and anatomy involved in the practice.
Use talks, articles, speeches, and other forms of instruction or knowledge
dissemination by experts to fuel your understanding and interest. It's also the only time when you would actually benefit from a predominantly intellectual approach.
However, this intellectual approach should be mindful. The intellect will help you absorb a yogi's or experienced practitioner's description of "prana". The mindfulness will ensure that you are present in the moment to experience it.
For example, you will learn about yogic breathing though instruction. This can be via an article, video, book, or under a teacher. Then practice it and go through the motions slowly and mindfully. Observe each movement.
Is you back taut or erect? Does it feel right? How strong is your breathing? How many counts do you inhale and exhale in your natural state? Is you inhalation longer than your exhalation, or is it the other way around?
If you try to rush through this stage, you might make it past a few hurdles or obstacles. Nevertheless, you’ll hit a roadblock that will prevent further progress. In many cases, you’ll end up with poor habits that do more harm than good.
Moreover, It's frustrating to go back and correct bad habits. That's the most common reason why most people give up altogether. In terms of pranayama, this stage should be scaled in four steps:
Breath Observation & Awareness
Pranava – Aum Chanting with prolonged intonation
Preparatory Practices likes Yogic Breathing & Anulom Vilom (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
This is not the time to make a strict routine or set lofty goals. That will either burden you with expectations and/or lead to disappointment. When you experience it, you will enjoy it. When you enjoy it, it will bring you back for the next session.
Listen, learn, read, and explore. Get it in the habit of sitting down and doing it. Speak to an experienced practitioner or join a like-minded community that can help you when you are uncertain or struggling to grasp a concept and/or execute it.
By the end of this stage, your breathing should reach a point where it is effortless i.e. as per the 5 qualities attributed to good breathing in yogic sciences. When you achieve that state of effortlessness, you will move into Ghata Avastha.
Stage Two: Ghata Avastha
Ghata Avastha is the second stage that denotes a mastery of the form and a deep understanding of the essence of the practice. In this stage, the practitioner begins to feel and experience prana.
It is no longer subtle as it was in the previous stage. It becomes apparent and you can tell that it affects your emotions, thoughts, and mind. At this point, your practice is not bound to sessions or learning.
You've attained a state where you've permanently learnt to breathe to your benefit. Thus, your experience of life is a continual state of meditativeness.
Yogis describe Ghata Avastha as a stage when material desires erode. It doesn’t imply that you’ll turn into an ascetic or completely withdraw from the material world.
Instead, it signifies an ability to be maintain a health distance from material and sensual pleasures. In other words, you do things in moderation and out of choice rather than compulsion. This detachment is similar to the concept of anasakti.
It leads the practitioner on an inward journey and brings him/her closer to the culmination of the Kundalini shakti within them.
In stage one, you can only experience prana within you. In the second stage, you begin to sense it in everything within and beyond you. Over time, the practice of pranayama in Ghata Avastha will improve your ability to sense Prana Shakti in the entire material universe.
Stage Three: Parichaya Avastha
Parichaya means to “be acquainted with someone or something”. In this stage, you are acquainted with the Self. It is an intimately spiritual stage where your understanding expands to distinguish the real from the unreal.
Through advanced and arduous practice, the Kundalini Shakti moves up the 7 chakras to reach the spiritual center of the Crown Center – Sahasrara Chakra. At this point, the practitioner is considered to have achieved the status of Siddha.
Prana is said to be the carrier of Agni (fire) and Chitta (consciousness). When it enters and illuminates the sushumna nadi, it will elevate a yogi or yogini to the state of Parichaya.
Think of a "Siddha" as 'a person has accomplished it' - the one who has attained that which is to be attained. In our context, it implies that through the proper practice of pranayama, one has attained self-realization by awakening his Kundalini Shakti.
The mind and body become one and the boundaries of the physical body begin to expand and experience the expansiveness of the mind. This union makes it possible to understand the true nature of karma and its threefold effects on us.
In Siddha Yoga, there are descriptions of practices like Kaya-Vyuha and Pranava that dissipate karma. This stage also involves the practice of Bhuta Shuddi - balancing the five elements – to overcome the fear of death.
With Parichaya Avastha, the yogi’s experience of the universe is a direct consequence of attaining harmony. He/she understands the interconnections of everything gross and subtle. At this stage, each practitioner will decide whether to continue living in this world or move away from it.
Stage Four: Nishpattya Avastha
“The body expands and integrates with the soul as is goes from the finite to the infinite. Then the body, mind, and Self attain union”
Nishpattya Avastha refers to the state of culmination wherein the yogi or yogini achieve “divine awareness”. It is a consummation, crowning, or resolution of the practice.
This concept is similar to the idea of "moksha" (liberation) described in the Bhagavad Gita by Lord Krishna. At this stage, the experience of prana is beyond the physical, psychological, and emotional constraints we are generally subservient to.
This is because you have an expanded and longstanding practice that has enabled your consciousness and sidestepped the temptations of the material world.
Thirst, hunger, activities, and sleep are no longer driven by greed, lust or desire. It is a state of culmination or samadhi (enlightenment) wherein the consciousness is permanently cradled by Prana (life energy).
Those in Nishpattya Avastha no longer need to practice yoga because they understand the laws of Prana and Apana. The classical texts say that they can obtain/invoke prana by placing their tongue at the root of the mouth palate.
New-age spiritualism has unofficially patented the concepts of chakras and kundalini yoga. However, Kashmiri Shaivism and Siddha Yoga have extraordinary literature on the metaphysical and dynamic nature of consciousness.
In today's context, a lot of this information sounds incredulous or hard to digest. However, as someone who has arduously followed the path of Jnana Yoga, it brings me great joy to make a humble attempt at sharing it with you.
These ideas my seem highly intellectual and dense, especially when translated. Ironically, these concepts are based on a practice to help you achieve a tangible experience of universal consciousness - a direct modality for spiritual practice.
Many great scholars and practitioners have shared their personal reflections and ideas on how to approach spiritual practice using kriyas, mantras, and breathing . If these forms tickle your fancy, check our the recommended books to explore these concepts in more detail.
Recommended Books for Further Reading:
The Yoga of Discipline - Gurumayi Chidvilasananda
Rivulets of the Absolute: Healing Ground in Ancient Tamil Siddha Tradition by Stephen R. Grissom
Consciousness is Everything: The Yoga of Kashmiri Shaivism by Shankarananda Swami