A few words about breathing

In the last two posts I spoke about meditation and sitting. I added a link at the end of the sitting post to another older one that had the same subject but gave a little more detail about the different meditation sitting postures, which you can check out.

Now I must continue this little discourse with a few words about breathing. As I may already have said, the elaboration of prāṇāyāma in haṭha-yoga is not directly connected to the aṣṭāṅga-yoga system. Any attempts to introduce this elaboration of breathing exercises into the aṣṭāṅga- or rāja-yoga process of meditation is not of great interest to us, though a knowledge thereof may have some beneficial aspects in the service of meditation and general physical health.

Physical health as taught by haṭha-yoga is entirely intended to serve the purpose of mental control and single-pointedness on the object of concentration. Breath actually serves as an intermediate point of concentration and a vehicle for channeling the mind towards other points, especially and firstly, the mantra.

The Yoga-sūtra says, pracchardana-vidhāraṇābhyāṁ vā prāṇasya: "Or, [the mind’s stability is established] by exhalation and restraint of breath and prāṇa." (I.34). This here does not mean the elaborate exercises of prāṇāyāma and those commentators who have read the rechaka, pūraka and kumbhaka,  nāḍi-śodhana (or varieties of anuloma-vilomaprāṇāyāma, or other measured breathing patterns into these terms are misleading the would-be meditator. Whatever else is known as prāṇāyāma is meant to serve this simple relaxed and natural  diaphragmatic breathing that is the most effective technique for calming the mind (citta-prasādana) and entering into deeper states of concentration on the object of meditation.

It is but natural that prāṇāyāma firms up the stability and stillness of mind, by way of one-pointedness because
  • the operations of all senses are dependent on and preceded by the operations of prāṇa.
  • Also, the wellness and comfort of mind and prāṇa in the field of their operation is mutually united.
  • Thus, prāṇa being brought to refinement, thereby brings the vṛttis of all senses to nirodha, and
  • is thereby empowered to bring about the one-pointedness of the mind-field (BR). [From Swami Veda Bharati's Yoga-sutra commentary.]
Swami Veda Bharati summarizes the essence of the breath awareness that this sutra speaks of:

  • Feel the touch and flow of breath in the nostrils,
  • Breathe slowly, gently and smoothly.
  • Train the breath to slow down, without jerks and without sound.
  • Do not allow any break between breaths.

When one has achieved stability in this breath awareness, then one can add the mantra so that it flows in the mind along with it. From this point, one can go into more complex meditation exercises of the lila  and yoga-pitha, etc. In other words, smaraṇa.

That being said, there is no question that the simple training in breathing can be mastered without a little help from the other kinds of prāṇāyāma, especially nāḍi-śodhana. The reason for this is that stability of the mind is highly dependent on balance, indeed that may be considered a goal of yoga itself, and the balancing of the breath through the central channel or sushumna is a desideratum in this process. There are so many kinds of nāḍi-śodhana that I am not going to go into detail here, but advise anyone interested in going deeper into the meditation process to look into them and start doing a little and observe the effects.

Another thing that really helps even if one does not do it regularly is neti, which means cleaning the nasal passages, usually with water. If you live in a dusty climate or in a city with a lot of pollution, you really should do this cleaning to clear up the nostrils and sinus cavities. Cleaning the nostrils clears the head better than any artificial method.

Some devotees may wonder why I am speaking of yoga when the Bhagavatam and other devotional scriptures seem to marginalize all practices other than bhakti. Indeed, some Vaishnava acharyas like Vishwanath Chakravarti are of the opinion that any activity other than svarūpa-siddha bhakti is a distraction and a disturbance to the prosecution of prema-bhakti.

My response to this misguided criticism is manifold. First of all, the goal of all yoga systems is to conquer the mind. Although one may think that bhakti is a yoga of the emotions, one still wants to quiet the emotions by mastering the mind through the diminishing of rajas and tamas and the increase of sattva. My impression is that many devotees both consciously and unconsciously identify rajasika characteristics with bhakti, thinking that there is no difference. If one is extremely rajasika or tamasika, then it is certainly better to get busy with some seva or whatever in order to achieve a level of discipline that will lead to the sattvika mentality. But that is just a step on the way. On one level sattva means the ability to sit and meditate.

āhāra-śuddhau sattva-śuddhi
sattva-śuddhau dhruvānusmṛtiḥ. 
smṛti-lambhe sarva-granthīnāṁ vipramokṣaḥ

Chandogya 7.26.2.

Of course, there is a lack of true seriousness about spiritual life almost everywhere. The bhakti promise of an easy way to salvation is very tempting, but I see more and more individuals who have been hanging around temples for most of their lives and have yet become complacent or even indifferent in many cases, or just simply conventional in their religiosity, content with a kind of conservative adherence to a set of dogmas that are in fact quite divorced from any true spiritual progress or maturity.

A half-century ago, American sociologists believed in a certain common ground of American religion that seemed to create a "mainstream" of conventional religion that stood above any individual sectarian view. Consumerism, the work ethic, a general ethical viewpoint, and above all, nationalism and patriotism were the main elements in this non-partisan "acceptable to all" religion, but it put a lie to most of the revolutionary characteristics these religions had in their purest and original forms.

Although it seems that there is a left-right split in American religion today, with most on the left associating any kind of religious belief with antediluvian obscurantism, there is still a certain amount of truth to this insight. There is currently a propaganda exercise underway in which Muslims are also trying to prove that they are Americans first and Muslims second. Another such attempt is the mainstreaming of Mormonism with Mitt Romney.

Another proof is in the general loss of direction of those devotees who joined the Krishna consciousness movement during Prabhupada's lifetime and their offspring, as well as the NRI Hindus who now dominate in ISKCON. They have tumbled into a kind of "Americanism" that is conventional in almost every sense. Perhaps vegetarianism being the only hard core point of resistance that remains. It is hard, of course, to withstand the pull of the larger society and its values; the psychological pressure on devotees is great, but the end result is echoed in the cry, "What are we supposed to do with this religion?"



Anonymous said…
When the mind is stilled, one reaches a state of no-mind; it is this state of nothingness which is the vehicle to perceive the light.

The regular practice of fixing the external gaze on one spot during meditation helps to cultivate ones mind upon a more vivid light, the focused mind can reach a further equipoise in which both mind and light become stable for longer periods of Samadhi.

Eventually, one is able to leave the physical body going out before the brow in original form to becomes as one with the light.

Anonymous said…
Try getting hold of a copy of "Calming the Mind and Discerning the Real: Buddhist Meditation and the Middle View" - From the Lam rim chen mo of Tson-Kha-pa. Translated into English by Alex Wayman (Motilal Banarsidass). ISBN-10: 0231044046 or ISBN-13: 978-0231044042.

Tson-Kha-Pa goes beyond "tantra" ("raising a protuberance above the skull"), and explains the necessary techniques of mind control to cultivate the light of Samadhi.

Anonymous said…
One may also wish to add to your reading list "Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines or Seven Books of Wisdom of the Great Path According to the Late Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup's English Rendering". Arranged and Edited with Introductions and Annotations to serve as Commentary by W. Y. Evans-Wentz. ISBN-10: 0195002784 and ISBN-13: 978-0195002782.

One may also wish to obtain a nodding acquaintance of "In This Body and Life:" The Religious and Social Significance of Hermits and Hermitages in Eastern Tibet Today and During Recent History" (especially page 273 onwards).


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