The Power of Breath
Charles Shahar takes us through some basic pranayama techniques that can serve as a prelude to meditation
One way of centring the mind in meditation is through breath control. The yogis of ancient India noted an intimate connection between breath and thought. They observed that when the breath became erratic, the mind did as well; when the breath settled, the mind relaxed. This did not require an amazing leap of inference. Any stress management counsellor will tell you that deep and rhythmic breathing induces a relaxation response in the mind and body.
The yogis further remarked that when the breath stopped, the mind reached a certain level of focus. One can relate this fact to everyday experiences as well. When you concentrate intensely on a task, the breath seems to stop or becomes shallow. When you stop concentrating, the breath continues normally. The yogis understood the implications of this for the process of meditation. They called their specialised science of breath control ‘pranayama.’ As the name implies, ‘pranayama’ relates to ‘prana,’ which is the life force. Prana is present in the air we breathe, but it is a much finer medium than air. Depending on the efficiency of our breathing, a maximum amount of prana can be drawn from the atmosphere. The best way to absorb prana is through the nostrils, which are specialised for this purpose. Mouth breathing is a much less efficient way to absorb vital energy.
There are many types of pranic breathing exercises. Some are designed to open the subtle energy channels and also as preliminary exercises for the more advanced types of breath control. Some exercises affect the temperature of the body, suppress hunger and thirst, improve digestion, or stimulate the internal organs. Others have a directly curative effect on a range of illnesses. The more advanced techniques are designed to suspend the breath. This is not the same breath-holding we played with as children. The aim is to perfectly balance the breath between inhalation and exhalation. When the prana is neither flowing upward or downward in the body, it is then channelled to the base chakra (subtle energy centre). There it fans the embers of the Kundalini (latent energy), ignites it, and sends this energy shooting up the Sushumna, or etheric spinal cord.
If one puts their hand to their nostrils when the breath is perfectly balanced, no air will seem to be drawn inward or forced outward. Yet there will be no discomfort experienced. One can continue like this for an amazingly long period. Prana is still being absorbed but is not drawn by physical means. One is existing solely on subtle energy at this point. In fact, you can sometimes feel a slight tingling around the nostrils where the prana gathers.
I have had many experiences while performing pranayama. In one instance, my breath was stilled, but I experienced the prana as entering exclusively through my abdomen, through the solar plexus chakra. This is one point where we absorb prana from the atmosphere. In this instance, my abdomen heaved reflexively, as I could feel the energy enter my body. On another occasion, my body felt like a sac of air. It seemed to expand, then it dissolved, and I was left floating in space. When pranayama is effective, one will feel light-headed or giddy. The mind will start to soar as the Kundalini shoots up. The breath is still, the mind is alert. One may desire to replicate this experience, but given the powerful nature of the pranayama exercises, it is best to take it easy. Sometimes, the purifications mean that the system experiences more energy than it can handle. If intense body heat or dizziness results, a more tempered approach should be taken. This may mean fewer exercises or spacing the sessions further apart.
Preparing for meditation
Pranayama is an exceptional prelude to meditation. It is a way of focussing the mind as well as of blowing it to another state. If possible, a routine of pranayama should be done for a few minutes before each meditation, especially if one is out in the workplace the entire day and needs some method for settling their thoughts. Some basic pranayama exercises are described below. The reader can use these descriptions as techniques for taking their meditation to deeper levels.
Practical Breathing Exercises
It is best not to perform these pranayama exercises on a full stomach. Loose clothing is recommended, particularly around the waist, to allow maximum freedom for breathing. One should never force the pace of their practice. If a little dizziness results, continue at some other time.
Pranayama can be practised once a day for a few minutes; practising more than three times a day is not recommended. To practise pranayama, it is best to sit in the cross-legged position with the back as erect as possible. Practising pranayama while lying down or standing up is not recommended.
Here are three techniques of pranayama. The first is a recommended way to start any pranayama session. The second is powerful and may represent a good prelude to meditation. The third can be done during meditation.
1. Alternate Nostril Breathing
The alternate breathing technique clears the vital nerve passages and allows for the free flow of prana in the body. It is a splendid way to settle the mind. It is helpful to practise this technique before attempting the other two pranayama exercises described below.
Place the thumb and ring finger of the right hand on either side of the nostrils, with the index and middle fingers resting on the nose. Begin by exhaling completely through both nostrils.
Pinch the left nostril lightly with the thumb and inhale slowly through the right nostril. Once you finish inhaling, pinch both nostrils and hold. Then open the left nostril, exhale slowly, and inhale. Close both nostrils with the fingers. Pause. Then open the right nostril, exhale slowly, and inhale. Repeat the process on the left side. Initially, you can repeat this sequence five times, and then work your way up to as much as ten.
At first, the periods of inhalation, holding, and exhalation can be equal. You can count to yourself to make sure. Gradually, the exhalation should be twice as long as the inhalation. Thus, if you inhale for two seconds, the exhalation can be around four seconds. Work your way up to whatever is comfortable.
Once your exhalation is twice as long as your inhalation, with a ratio of about 5:10 seconds, it’s time to vary the amount of time of your holding. Ultimately, it is most desirable to retain the breath twice as long as the exhalation. But this will likely not be possible at first. Try ratios of about 5:5:10, then 5:10:10, and finally, 5:20:10. It is not necessary to make these times any longer.
2. The ‘Unmoving Breath’
This is a very powerful technique but takes practice to do properly. This exercise can easily blow the mind to some pretty lofty states, so it should be done only before meditation, not as a prelude to physical activity. Apply it seriously and never force the pace of your progress. Alternate nostril breathing should be done in preparation.
Watch your breath. Proceed with a long inhalation through both nostrils and then a drawn-out exhalation. Then slowly reduce the lengths of the inhalations and exhalations. More specifically, start with 10 seconds of exhalation and inhalation, then 9 seconds, 8 seconds, and so on, until the breath is very short. Continue until the breath becomes so short that it stops. At this point, your breathing will cease. You are absorbing only prana, or vital energy now. Do not be alarmed or excited at this prospect. Keep the concentration firmly between your closed eyes. With practice, the breath will become suspended for longer periods with no discomfort.
As the breath is suspended, the prana will be channelled to arouse the Kundalini. You may feel somewhat light-headed. At some point, you may feel bodiless or like you are soaring through space. Again, maintain your concentration on the point between your closed eyes.
It is important that you hold the breath only for as long as it is comfortable to do so. Practise this technique only once per session. Do not attempt any activity or get up quickly after completing this exercise.
3. Holding the Exhalation
This pranayama exercise can be practised during meditation.
Breathe deeply through both nostrils. When you breathe out, try to expel the air completely from your body. Then, for a few seconds, see if you can remain at this point without inhaling. As you suspend the breath completely, focus on the space in front of your closed eyes. You will notice that as you suspend the breath, the thoughts will likewise be suspended. There will be fewer thoughts, and they will not seem as distinct as before.
During that moment of suspension, after the exhalation, a remarkable stillness can be achieved. At some point, the mind will completely dissolve, and you will merge with the blue-black space in front of your eyes, known as ‘Shyam’ in Sanskrit. This is the state of perfect peace, or Shanti, when there are no longer any ripples in the mind.
It is important to start the inhalation as soon as the body is ready to do so. It may take five seconds or 30 seconds or more. Just follow the natural rhythm of the breath.
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