Monday, September 14, 2015

Breath Mastery: India's contribution to the world's treasury of knowledge

Paramhansa Yogananda, in his now classic life story, “Autobiography of a Yogi,” wrote that “breath mastery” is “India’s unique and deathless contribution to the world’s treasury of knowledge.”

What “knowledge” perchance was he referring to? Knowledge of the Self.  “Know thyself.” (Gnothi Seauton, inscribed in the forecourt at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece.) Or as Shakespeare said in the words of Polonius:  to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Since ancient times and from the wise in every tradition comes this counsel to turn within, to introspect, to become self aware and know the Self.

Yet, so far as I know, only the yogic tradition gives us the “how” of gnosis, of going within. That, formerly secret, knowledge is the science of breath and mind: the science of yoga that is spreading rapidly throughout the world. For yoga is far more than physical movements or static bodily positions, no matter how beneficial they may be. Far too long has the word “yoga” represented only the physical branch of yoga (called “hatha yoga”).

It is no coincidence that our first breath signals our birth and our last, our death. Only the most unthinking would limit the experience of life to the simple act of breathing. As Jesus put it (John 10:11), “I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.”

This breath, this life is abundant when we have health and happiness. But life is rarely, if ever, a static experience. Joys alternate with sorrows. So if abundance is measured in things, pleasure, human love, material security, fame or name, few will have it if but fleetingly, while those who bask in these are haunted by the shadow of loss ever ready to darken their door.

Breath, taken as the most elemental aspect of being alive, functions like a river. For daily life appears to flow only in one direction: out through the senses into the world around. This direction reverses only during sleep. Following the life-breath inward to its source would seem, therefore, beyond our conscious control.

But just as a boat with a motor can travel upstream towards the river’s headwaters, so too, can we, if we are trained in the science of breath and mind. The legend of the Fountain of Youth has its origins in the all-but-lost knowledge of this science. The Fountain of Youth, like the Garden of Eden, has no earthly location. It is, as Jesus put it, “within you.” Every night in sleep we are refreshed and baptized, at least partially, in the river of life. But sleep returns us to neutral. It is not life changing.

Long ago, the yogis discovered the methods, the means and the science of breath mastery. They discovered how to slow the breath and heart rate so that the river becomes languid and we can “row” upstream. By analyzing the experience and the psychophysiological attributes of the state of sleep, the yogis devised methods by which to enter progressively deeper states of conscious sleep. Conscious, yes: indeed super-conscious; but this state is akin to “sleep” only in mimicking the brain’s methods of turning off the five “sense telephones” (as Yogananda put it) and slowing the heart and breath.

In sleep, we enter the dream state which is as real to us (while dreaming) as the activities of the day. While the reality of the dream state is as easily dismissed as the stars at night are by the sunrise, reflection upon the dream state reveals to us how our reactions, using the brain and nervous system as instruments, create our reality during the day. The introspective mind gradually realizes that all sensory input is interpreted and filtered by the senses and by the attitude, memory, and health of the mind. With poor eyesight we easily mistake one thing, or person, for another. We thus “create our own reality” largely by our expectations, emotional filters, and past memory experiences. I don’t mean to espouse solipsism. Rather, I am saying that our experience of life is largely, as it relates to what is important to us, a matter of our mental and reactive processes.

The yogis discovered the intimate relationship between inhalation and positive reactions and exhalation and negating responses. By slowing the breathing process we gain control over the reactive process, detaching life experiences from our unconscious reaction. We thus gain control over our life. We become more conscious; more alive; clearer; wiser, happier because no longer a helpless reactionary. We grow in detachment while intensifying our inner awareness of a silently flowing river of calmness, contentment and confidence.

The science of breath mastery allows the meditator to enter a state of conscious sleep. By calming and monitoring the breath and heart rate, one can turn off the senses (as we do in sleep) while yet remaining conscious. This is what scientists observe in meditators when the alpha brain waves coincide with the theta waves: conscious awareness paired with sleep-like relaxation.

The meditator can observe the mental processes that otherwise produce the dream state. I am not referring here to lucid dreaming (which can be interesting and useful to a limited degree), because meditation has other goals, such as to transcend the body and sense and memory bound mental processes of the brain. An experienced meditator focuses the mind one-pointedly in order to eventually strip the mind and its mental processes of all self-created images.

Ironically, or so it might seem, most meditation methods use the mind to focus on a single image or object in order to hold at bay, or pacify, the habit-induced onslaught of subconscious images. There’s a saying in India: “Use a thorn to remove a thorn.” When this finally occurs, the image or object of meditation can be released. The meditator then resides in a state of awareness devoid of objects.

[Images or objects of meditation vary widely but for the sake of clarity can include focusing on a mantra, the flow of breath, energy in the body, especially certain channels and places (chakras, e.g.), the feeling of peace and related states, the image of one’s deity or guru, or various subtle phenomenon experienced in meditation such as sounds or images of light.]

The science of meditation encompasses a large knowledge base of techniques and instructions on how to use the breath to achieve what has been called, somewhat incorrectly, “altered states” of consciousness. “Incorrectly,” I aver, because the actual experience of true meditation is so elemental and so refreshing that anyone who has “been there” with any consistency says that it is our natural state. All else is just details and the busy-ness of daily life. It is like finding the pure headwaters of the river of life that, as it runs to the sea of outward activity, becomes polluted by the debris of involvement, limitation, and identification! It is like bathing in pure water or being “born again.”

So life altering are the higher states of meditation that healing and health consequences are inescapable. In fact, different yoga teachers and traditions are resurrecting the health benefits of breath control techniques (traditionally called “pranayams”). The field of yoga therapy, for example, though still focused primarily on physical postures, is one sign of the application of yoga science to healing. Use of pranayams for various health cures is also being rediscovered and subjected to field tests.

A blog like this is not the place for a long string of health references but they can be easily found. I just typed in this question in my search engine: Can pranayams help the body? I got 394,000 results!

But when our purpose for meditation is towards higher states of being, we find steadily that the importance of technique wanes in relation to motivation and will power. In fact, in any given meditation sitting, we are taught to leave a portion of our sitting time for inner silence after techniques. Real meditation begins only as techniques dissolve into the sought after higher states.

[Don’t be fooled, as some meditation seekers fool themselves, in thinking, “Therefore, forget the techniques.” That might work once in a blue moon but such dilettantes rarely stay in the game very long.]

Techniques function much like the motorboat that takes us upstream; or, the training needed by an astronaut before lift off. Once we are in space, well fine, that’s when the training pays off. Once we bathe in the pure headwaters of the river of life, we don’t need the motorboat (we can float back down the river without it!)

People sometimes ask why kriya initiation requires almost a year of training and, when given, requires a pledge of silence, an agreement not to reveal the technique to anyone without prior permission!  The reasons for this are, in part, because it takes training and development to get used to the rarified oxygen-less atmosphere of inner stillness. The brain and nervous system require refinement. Like climbing Mt Everest without oxygen, we have to get used to the thin atmosphere where thoughts subside, the body is left behind, and the emotions have vanished like clouds beneath the intense summer sun.

You may think you want all this but your entire body, nervous system, and reptile brain and ego want nothing to do with being asked to step aside. So far as they are concerned, they are being dismissed and dissolved into nothingness. Who in their right “mind,” would accede to this without a fight! “The soul loves to meditate; but the ego hates to meditate.” So counseled Paramhansa Yogananda.

One needs not only to get used to meditation but also to demonstrate by will power and motivation the necessary “right stuff” to stick with it long enough to get results. Otherwise it’s “pearls before swine.” Not calling anyone here a pig, but what would diamonds be if they were ten cents each? They wouldn’t be diamonds. It takes will power to learn the science of yoga and to go deep into the Self.

If given too soon and one gives up in frustration, rebellion or restlessness, the seed of rejection and doubt is sown. It can take more than one lifetime before that vasana, impression, or vritti, karma, weakens sufficiently so that one’s interest and desire to try again might be re-awakened. One doesn’t give a child a gun or a hammer.

But that’s kriya yoga: an advanced pranayama given to us by masters of the yoga science for dedicated seekers of Self-realization. Only when by sincere self-effort one seeks the “pearl of great price” and knows the obstacles ahead does one accept the pure and grace-bestowing guidance of an enlightened One.

But for most new meditators, there are many pranayams and meditation techniques well suited to stress reduction, health and healing. You can use breath techniques to warm or cool the nervous system; to help you sleep; to still the mind and, as the internet search suggests, heal, help or cure lots of ailments.

Technique, therefore, is a good starting point. Motivation relative to our needs and wisdom is the fuel of our pranayama rocket. With self-effort we can accomplish much. With grace, we leave the “we” behind lest our victories revert and yield, in time, to the grinding wheel of samsara (duality).

Start where you are. Learn to breathe consciously, deeply. Try to be conscious of your breathing throughout the day as well as in meditation. Detective stories say “Follow the money.” Sages say “follow the breath.”


Swami Hrimananda