Thursday, August 2, 2012

Are You Breathing?

In the chapter on Kriya Yoga in the classic story, Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramhansa Yogananda declared “The ancient yogis discovered that the secret of cosmic consciousness is intimately linked with breath mastery. This is India’s unique and deathless contribution to the world’s treasury of knowledge.”

The meditation technique of focusing upon the breath is found throughout the world. Concentration is the fundamental and universal constant of all meditation techniques. Meditation is a form of concentration upon any object:  outward, inward, gross or subtle. Paramhansa Yogananda defined meditation as “concentration upon God or one of His aspects.” But in this statement, he was holding up the goal of meditation (at least as meditation) whereas the techniques of meditation begin with concentration upon a single object. To experience a free 10 minute online guided meditation visit 

Besides focusing on the breath, one can concentrate upon mental images such as a deity, one’s guru, a lotus (or any object of nature), a white (or blue) light, a mantra or word formula, sounds and on and on. Deeper in meditation, one may be counseled to focus on inner experiences such as the spontaneous appearance of subtle sounds, light, color or movements of energy or feeling  (“prana”) in the physical or astral body.

The appeal of focusing on the breath has several advantages. One, it’s obvious (everyone can feel his own breath), and two, it’s ubiquitous (everyone breathes). But there is a more important reason and it is much deeper than these two. (Compared to the most common alternative objects of meditative concentration, watching the breath is much easier. Few people can hold a mental image of any kind for very long and only more experienced meditators can hold steady to their inner sight the subtler aspects of the inner astral world.)

For us, living in a physical body, breath is life itself. We breathe, we live; if we don’t breathe, we die. The breath connects and holds our consciousness (self-awareness) to our physical body. The yogis demonstrated long ago that it is possible to suspend the breath cycle and live, indeed, perhaps forever (although in suspended animation). (Why live forever in such a state, however.) Such demonstrations have been repeated, even in modern times, to the observation of skeptics and scientists alike (oh, there’s no difference, you say?). Saints — even in the twentieth century — both east and west, have similarly proved that one can live without food or water. The point isn’t that anyone should live either in suspended animation (which is pointless) or without food and water, which would deprive much of humanity of the means of supporting themselves. The point is that the real Self is not limited by the body or by dependence upon material sustenance of any kind, including the breath.

You see, the breath is the link between the mind (consciousness; soul, spirit) and the body. The ebb and flow of breath sets up the out and in, push and pull, back and forth motion by which we are kept in constant flux and reaction to the input of the senses and to our mental reactions (emotional and cognitive). This in and out motion of the breath sets up and makes possible our interaction through the senses with the world of objects around us. This world of objects is also in constant flux: the sun, moon, stars, the wind, the tide, night and day all have their motions which never cease. The breath sends Life Force to and from the senses; it sends energy out into activity based on necessity or interest, and away from activity in search of rest or in rejection. As all atoms, molecules and light are in flux, it is only by becoming part of the flux can we experience this dream world as being apparently real. 

More important than this, however, are the oscillations of our reactions — like and dislike, fight or flight. It is our reactions that bind us and cause our identification with change to seem so real. We inhale as we embrace (mentally or otherwise) a positive response and we exhale as we reject or withdraw in reaction to outer stimuli (or thoughts and mental images). 

By going to the very foundation of this oscillation — the breath cycle itself — we nip the reactive process before it can even encounter an object (sensory or mental). Thus by meditation upon the breath we gain control over its fluctuations. By the act of concentration upon the breath, we slow the breath. Because the breath, as such, forms the basis for but does not contain within itself any character, color, or reactive quality in and of itself, our focus upon it is devoid of any further reactive tendencies (which are then calmed as a result). As the mind empties itself of reactive feelings and images and as the body is relaxed into stillness (shutting down or off the senses), the breath automatically slows and subsides towards perfect stillness. 

A steady focus upon any object will gradually cause that object to vanish from sight. Try concentrating upon a candle, or the smell of incense, or the touch of an object: in all cases motion is necessary to perpetuate the awareness of the sight, smell or touch as belonging to a distinct and separate object. Everyone has had some experience with staring off into the distance, or daydreaming to the point where objects of sight or hearing no longer intrude upon the mind.   Sleep itself is the most obvious daily experience whereby the sense “telephones” are turned off and we lose contact with the senses and their objects. We are yogis every night. Unfortunately, we are only dimly aware of our state of sleep, though we always know how well we slept and when we sleep well we know that we enjoyed it.
God, in the Bible, in the Old Testament, declares: “Be still, and know, that I AM GOD.”

While any act of deep concentration will slow down the breath and heart rate, the breath is, itself, the primordial cause or vehicle for our involvement with the senses and the world around us. It is fitting, therefore, that our concentration be upon the breath itself. To perceive the subtle substratum of energy (and then later, the even finer substratum of consciousness) which forms the building blocks for the seeming separateness of material objects, the motions of breath must cease. “When motion ceases, God begins” Paramhansa Yogananda taught. Fortunately for meditators, even slowing the breath brings intuition and re-vitalization of tissues, cleansing of negativity, and clarity of mind.

Focusing on the breath requires no complex belief system, which is another reason for its popularity and universality. It requires no religious affiliation as breathing is as universal as the human body!

That having been said, it is a mistake to think that ethical behavior, compassion, wisdom, or devotion are unnecessary. The simple fact is we need a reason, a motivation to engage in the practice of meditation. Except for peak moments (a crises, public speaking, extreme sports, artistic inspiration, or brain surgery), deep meditation requires more concentration and will power than anything else most people do during a typical day. Wisdom and devotion provide the rocket fuel needed to boost our energy to withdraw from outward and restless activities in order to go within and rise upward to the brain through the subtle spinal centers known as the chakras.

Both the relatively passive techniques of “watching” the breath and the more concentrated techniques of breath control (including advanced subtle techniques such as kriya yoga) are powerfully effective and well suited to the technology and results-driven values of this culture and this age.
Blessings to you,

Nayaswami Hriman