Breathing Techniques Can Deepen Your Meditation Practice
It is true that sitting in meditation after some time would automatically produce slow, smooth and rhythmical breathing. But you can also speed up the process of deepening your meditation practice by cultivating the habit of slower, deeper and smoother breathing. Improved breathing patterns would also create a psycho-emotional state conducive to more peaceful and joyful meditation.
This article discusses the breathing techniques and psycho-emotional states that can be cultivated over a period of time. This may be of interest for practitioners who want to commit for a longer and deeper meditation practice than the 15-20 minute meditation usually practiced in the west.
Patanjali has set a very high goal for us, "To still the mind so we can find our true identity (Y.S. 1:2), which seems at times almost unattainable. How can we possibly still our mind" Some people, referring to the classic ancient Ashtanga yoga, the 8-limb yoga (Y.S. 2:29) assert that if we really want to still our mind, we have to really learn to meditate. They say we have to successfully cross the lower limbs and progress up to the stage of dhyana. But is that the only prescribed route to access the still mind? Does one have to wait sooo looong to taste the joy of deep meditation? Do we have to master the stages of yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara and dharna in order to enter the sacred gates of the dhyana and samadhi state?
Not necessarily true! The 8-limb yoga is not to be rigidly viewed as a LADDER in which the only way to climb up is from a lower rung to the next higher rung. Instead of a ladder 8-limb yoga should be viewed as a TREE. It is much more organic process in which all limbs of yoga are simultaneously communicating, drawing energy from, and mutually supporting one another.
Let us take the 4th limb, Pranayama, (manipulation and control of breathing), exactly at the middle half of the 8-limb Tree, and examine how we can utilize the subtle breathing techniques to accelerate and deepen your meditation and still our mind to a certain degree. However, it may weeks and months or even a year in order cultivate and deepen the subtle breathing to accomplish a relatively undisturbed and quiet state of the mind.
How is that possible and how does that process work? Here is an over simplified answer:
When breath is agitated, body is agitated and when body is agitated, breath is agitated. Likewise thoughts, feelings and emotions are intricately linked with the breath. When breathing is agitated, thoughts, emotions and feelings are highly charged and somewhat out of control. By slowing the breath and eliminating the irregularities of the breath (jerks, pauses, over-breathing, under-breathing, excessive sighing, etc.) the body, thoughts, feelings and emotions can become calmer and more positive to allow us access tranquility of mind.
In this context, let us reflect over the following instructions for meditation as offered by Srimad Bhagwad Gita:
"Having expelled the outside thoughts and objects to the outside, fix attention in the center of the eyebrows, equalize the flow of prana and apana (inhalation and exhalation) by concentrating on the flow of breath in the nostrils." (Gita 5:27)
Here are the author's operative guidelines for Gita's breath-based meditation:
Sit on the chair or the floor with head, neck, and trunk in a straight line. Seated posture (asana) should be steady and comfortable in order to prevent you from shifting and adjusting the seated position. Perform Anuloma-Viloma (alternate nostril breathing). In the beginning breathing may be noisy but gradually as the nostrils open, the breathing should become soft and silent. Establish effortless quiet, slow, smooth and rhythmical breathing.
At this point you may begin mental nostril breathing, that is, without using your thumb and fingers to close and open the nostrils, you are shifting the flow of the breath from left to right nostril and vice-versa.
Now, bring your attention to the center of the eyebrows. Imagine and feel that your in-breath from the nostrils is going up to the center of the eyebrows and out-breath is starting from the center of the eyebrows and down and out from the nostrils.
Mentally observe and intend that your both nostrils are fully open and the breath is flowing equally from both nostrils. If one nostril feels blocked, less active or smaller than the other, mentally with a gentle will equalize them and direct the flow of breath equally from both nostrils.
Observe the entire flow of in-breath and out-breath in the nose. Be aware of the tips of the nostrils and the outer walls of the nose and the inside walls of the nostrils as you breathe. Bring your attention to where the nostrils join the upper lip. Feel the in-coming and outgoing breath touching the upper lip and the edges of the nostril. This is the 'breathing triangle', that is, in- coming breath is going up from the triangle base (the upper lip and nostrils juncture) and the outgoing breath initiated from the top of the triangle is going down and out touching the triangle base.
Now attend to the septum of the nose. Imagine as you inhale, the breath touches the inner walls of the septum and as you exhale, the breath touches the inner walls of the nostrils (another triangular breathing).
At this point, narrow your mental focus even more and become aware of the center of the tips of the septum where it joins the upper lip. Imagine there is a tiny hole at the tip of the nasal septum from where the in-breath and out-breath are entering and exiting.
You have now equalized your breath to the capacity you have at the present time. You are standing at the entrance of the Sushumna Nadi and breathing through it. According the Himalayan tradition, it is called, 'Sushumana application'.
My Guru Swami Rama of the Himalayan tradition taught us that 'sushumna' is another name of 'sukhmana' (sukha+mana) which literally means 'happy and joyous mind'. Swami Rama said that with the application of Sushumna, you enter the state of a worry-free, happy and joyous mind.
Steady and comfortable seated posture, deep and silent breathing and the equalized flow of breath accompanied by joyous and peaceful state of mind (chitta prasadanam and mudita) you are set for a deep and prolonged meditation.
"Some offer prana (inhalation) into apana (exhalation)
Some offer apana (exhalation) into prana (inhalation).
By controlling the speed and course of prana and apana They absorb themselves in pranayama." (Gita 4:29)
Prananyama can be the instrument for accessing pratyahara ('sensory withdrawal' the 5th stage), dharna (concentration, the 6th stage) meditation (dhyana, the 7th stage) or even absorption (Samadhi, the 8th stage). Such is the organic process of the 8-limb Yoga Tree.