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. Try this practice if you are comfortable holding the breath for at least six to eight seconds after inhalation without experiencing any adverse effects. If you experience any health concerns, please seek a teacher. Take a few deep breaths with long inhalation and exhalation, always ensuring your exhalation is equal to or longer than your inhalation. You may use a nostril control technique such as Nadi Sodhana (also called Nadi Suddhi/Anulom-Vilom pranayama). Inhale through half closed left nostril with right nostril fully blocked (using your fingers in mrgi mudra – explained in one of the previous articles); exhale through half closed right nostril, blocking the left one fully. Then inhale through half closed right nostril and exhale through half closed left nostril. The inhalation and exhalation through half blocked nostrils provide the necessary length and subtlety to the breath, increasing the velocity of the flow, penetrative power and, thus reaching far deeper into the lungs, facilitating better exchange of gases. The mind also assumes a quiet disposition, achieves greater clarity and develops vitality. Once you are comfortable with this technique, introduce a meditative aspect by mentally chanting a short mantra like Om for three to four seconds or any mantra/affirmation/prayer in your mind. Visualise and invoke the meaning and energy of the mantra. Keep the inhalation and exhalation long and subtle. Slowly, the mind becomes still during the retention period, creating a meditative quality and disposition. This becomes an important step towards Antaranga Yoga Sadhana. From an externalised practice, yoga becomes a profound inward journey. Saraswathi Vasudevan is a yoga therapisttrainer in the tradition of Sri T Krishnamacharya. She specialises in adapting yoga to the individual. (www.yogavahini.com).
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