Traditional Hatha Yoga, as it's described in the school's oldest surviving instruction manuals, is an odd-looking duck, at least to our modern Western eyes. Take the granddaddy of these books, Svatmarama Yogendra's Hatha Yoga Pradipika (literally "Light on the Forceful Union-Method"), which is a venerable 600 years old, possibly older. It consists of 389 verses divided into four chapters on asana, pranayama, mudra ("seals") and bandha ("bonds"), and samadhi or enstasis. We moderns might expect the longest chapter would be on asana. And why not? In the HYP's 20th century descendent, BKS Iyengar's now-classic 40-year-old Light on Yoga, we find relatively detailed instructions for 200 asanas. Somewhat surprisingly then, we discover that Svatamarama outlines only 15 asanas, most rather common sitting positions, in about 50 verses, while more than half the book is dedicated to pranayama (78 verses) and mudra (130 verses).
What's happened here? It seems that modern Hatha Yoga has a different emphasis than its traditional predecessor. In Svatmarama's time Hatha Yoga was essentially pranayama. All the other practices were ancillary, asana for the most part retaining its original role as a "seat" (asana derives from the Sanskrit as, "to sit") or steady physical "platform" for the practitioner's breathing exercises, the seals and related bonds generally serving as regulatory "valves" designed to "seal" and/or channel the body's subtle energy (prana). The intended goal was to first purify, then intensify (in the "pressure cooker" of the sealed torso) this energy as a means of "waking" and then consummating the practitioner's unrealized spiritual identity.
But nowadays asana is the name of the game, while to a greater or lesser degree (depending on the teacher and school) pranayama and the seals have taken a back seat. I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, but I do believe we somehow need lessen the disparity between asana and pranayama.
I think of the practice as progressing in three stages, which I call conscious breathing, formal breathing, and spontaneous breathing. The goal of stage 1 is to recover what I call our "authentic breath," the breath we're born with untrammeled by the slings and arrows-the stresses and strains-of outrageous daily life. This is a critical step that's often skipped or ignored in beginning pranayama, but which I feel is absolutely necessary as a foundation for the entire breathing edifice. Stage 2 is what most students think of as pranayama proper. This practice is considerably more powerful, both as a transformative vehicle and as an agent of psychic and physical disequilibrium, than it may appear at first glance, and that it's best to proceed with a measure of caution when practicing without the guidance of a flesh-and-blood teacher.
By its very nature spontaneous breathing can't be taught, it's more like a gift the breath itself bestows on the deserving, or at least the very lucky. I imagine it as akin to the elevated breath Patanjali calls the "fourth" (chaturtha), by which he means the breath that transcends the three everyday phases of inhale, exhale, and pause, when the "veil lifts from the mind's luminosity." It's that moment often illustrated by the story of crossing a river in a boat: when the other shore, the ultimate completion of the practice, is reached, the boat of all our techniques is left behind and off we go, totally free and unburdened.