Meditative breathing



August 2017

By Saraswathi Vasudevan

Breath retention through pranayama and mantra chanting have the power to slip you into meditation with ease, says Saraswathi Vasudevan

A lot of people want to learn meditation. We even have doctors ‘prescribing’ meditation as  therapy. But since there is little or no preparation for getting into a meditative practice, it makes the whole practice peripheral, mundane and another ritual to follow, with little progression. The reason being, the body and mind are not ready for meditation. While the body is struggling to hold the posture, the mind is all over the place or quickly going into sleep mode.

An important preparation for meditation is pranayama (regulating the breath) and pratyahara (regulating the senses). Without these steps, attempting meditation is difficult. Sri T Krishnamacharya called Pranayama, 'prana samyama', the process of disciplining the prana and becoming one with it.

Traditionally, pranayama is taught in such a way that one develops greater mastery over every component of the breath – exhalation, inhalation and retention. The mastery over breath retention (Kumbhaka) was considered the highest step in progression. When one masters breath in a way, where one can hold it at any point,  for any length of time at will, one masters prana, and is ready for meditation. It is a far cry from what we do today. It is misinterpreted as mastering breath-holding at the cost of inhalation and exhalation. With long breath retention after inhalation, the pulse rate and blood pressure can rise, causing palpitations and anxiety. So, utmost caution needs to be exercised in using breath retention. We need a teacher who can lead us progressively in practice.

When we practise pranayama as a preparation for meditation, we learn to hold the breath after inhalation for a length of time – can be anything from four seconds to start with, to 64 seconds for an adept practitioner. How do we measure the length of the retention? Today we use counting but traditionally, it was done by mentally chanting a mantra while holding breath after inhalation. The length of the mantra would define the length of the retention. One is also taught to visualise and meditate on the meaning of the mantra and what it invokes wihin. With just 20-40 breaths of pranayama with breath retention and mental chanting, one is doing a powerful meditative practice. Transitioning to meditation from this is easier and natural.


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