In yoga we practice pranayama breath methods for regulating the breath and bringing it under control. By regulating the breath we can calm breathing and bring about quieting the minds activity. Doing this is what we call Pranayama Meditation.
There are over 300 different breathing practices you can use in breath cultivation, called “pranayama” or “anapana” exercises. However, the basic principle behind all these techniques is that you calm your breath through meditation to the point where it seems as if your external breathing has ceased altogether.
That stage is called “kumbhaka” in yoga, or breath retention. People first practice to attain this using forceful techniques, like doing alternate nostril breathing and retention exercises, so that they can more easily later reach this state naturally without force.
As the Indian yoga master Patanjali said, “The cessation between the in-breath and out-breath is [true] pranayama.” The Hindu Hatha Yoga Pradipika also says, “When the breath is irregular, then the mind will be unsteady, but when the breath is controlled, then the mind will also be controlled, calm and one-pointed.”
This is the basis of meditation methods based on breathing:
“When you watch your breath, you will reach cessation naturally. When your breathing stops, your mind will stop.”
When doing pranayama or other breath retention exercises it can lead to meditation. Also these wonderful methods have the effect of transforming the body and mind for the better. We try to calm the breath.
Ultimately, by practicing these you will develop a stronger resistance to the cold, heat, and humidity. You will also need less to eat at this stage because you’re starting to fill with prana (“you won’t think of eating” — old Tao school saying) and can fast easily. You’ll also start to need less sleep. However, at this stage you need instructions from a wise master about eating and drinking in appropriate ways so as not to lose this stage.
Gradually you’ll develop a new type of samadhi (spiritual absorption). It’s still an initial step into samadhi (a step up, but still not the real thing). It’s an entry point into real samadhi but you’re not yet there. At most the breathing exercises can help open up the left and right ida and pingala prana channels (nadis), but they are not enough to open up the sushumna central prana channel for the prana to enter and for you to reach samadhi. For that you need stillness meditation and merit.
You’ll still need food to maintain the inner force to open up the prana channels of the genital glands and eight extra meridians of the body. As to how to adjust your eating at this stage, it’s like cooking a pot of rice–make the heat too strong and the rice burns, too little and it never boils. It needs the wise guidance of a master at this stage just to help you get through it if you’re not wise enough yourself.
Moderation is the best of all rules and the book, Tao and Longevity, guides you through this stage. If you’re smart and have merit you’ll adjust things accordingly — not too much and not too little without losing sexual energies.
Then you’ll pass onto the next stage of practice.
Shakyamuni Buddha said that breathing practices are one of the quickest ways to enter into samadhi. In his day, some students could achieve to the Tao (The Way) in as little as a week just by using pranayama breathing practices as an entryway into the path, and then cultivating the prana of the body from there.
Once they cultivated their prana, they could then cultivate their stillness and so on. Buddha called it “cultivating the wind element” to harmonize the four elements of the body. Once one was pacified, they would all eventually pacify and the body would transform so that it would no longer act as an obstacle to spiritual cultivation.
Why are breathing practices so effective? How do you practice them? And how should you practice yoga pranayama or holding the breath?
The reason pranayama technique is so effective is because your breath is linked with your prana, or life force, and you can use breathing practices to ignite or stoke this life force, if you do so correctly. Furthermore, prana and consciousness are linked so if you can calm your prana you’ll calm your mind, and if you calm your mind your prana and breathing will calm and slow down. In other words, you can grab the animal by the tail or head – you can use either end of the stick as en entryway into deep meditation cultivation.
For instance, in some yoga pranayama schools they teach people to hold the breath for as long as possible in hopes of opening up the prana channels. You can check into the Hatha Yoga Pradipika for sample practices.
In some schools they teach alternate nostril breathing to calm the breath, and thus calm your prana throughout your body. This calmness of your internal energies in turn calms your mind and makes it easier to forget your body and enter into samadhi.
The Safest Pranayama
In some schools they teach you to simply relax your body and follow your breath without thinking. In time your breath will calm down and stop from this practice. When you reach this state of cessation, then the real prana (kundalini) of the body ignites (rises) and your prana channels start to open.
This is actually the safest and most gentle way to cultivate the Tao. It’s the practice of following your breath until it calms down and seems to stop, and then trying to hold onto that state GENTLY after the exhalation. Simply watch your breath and let it calm down. When it stops every now and then, try to STAY in that period of cessation and the longer you can – without breathing — the more your prana channels will transform.
In other words, to make progress in meditation of any type, at the lowest levels of the path your prana channels have to open. But for most people, no matter what they do they are still not opened. Breathing practices, by staying in that natural state of cessation, will open the prana channels quickly where other methods fail. THEN, whatever other spiritual practices you follow – visualization, prayer, kabbalah, mantra, cessation-contemplation, etc. – will finally start to show fruits.
As to yoga “kumbhaka” or breath retention exercises, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Hatha Yoga Pradipika. It’s funny that in most yoga schools the most unpopular classes are the pranayama classes, and these are the ones most likely to actually help people with spiritual pursuits. That’s just the way it always is. The real stuff people don’t want, the trivial stuff gets adherents out of the windows.
Breathing practices DO produce material results, and QUICKLY; but they represent the LOWEST stages of the spiritual path. Worthy, but the lowest.
Practicing breath control and managing the breathing in a harmonious way can lead to cessation of thoughts and a beautiful calm state. If you can reach this state, your true inner breath will ignite, thus initiating the state of calm or peace which signals the beginning of real prana, shakti or kundalini cultivation. That’s when your body will really start to transform for the spiritual path.
Why is it possible to use breathing as a means of cultivating samadhi?
Because the thoughts and breath are related; consciousness (mind) and prana (the body’s wind element) are linked. Since prana and thoughts are linked, you can calm/purify one to calm/purify the other. That’s why you can attack meditation through the angle of breathing!
So if the breath ceases moving, then extraneous thoughts will die down. Just as salt dissolves in water and becomes one with it, so also there occurs the union of mind with the breath when the breath subsides and the mind becomes still.
This then, using the calming of the breath as a form of approach, is the basis behind many cultivation methods. They use the approach of cultivating the breathing, which cultivates your prana, to cultivate your mind because prana and consciousness are linked. Why start with breath, the wind element of the body? Because it’s the easiest element to transform, that’s all!
In normal activities, most people never realize they are breathing. If their breath is managed, however, not only will individuals become clear about their breath, but they will also become extremely mindful of their other body sensations as well. The thoughts can be regulated when breathing (prana) is managed and can continue then without force. That’s what we’re doing here.
Since mindfulness is a cultivation method in itself, the principle of keeping the mind in tune with the breath while remaining relaxed, detached and aware, is found in many cultivation schools and techniques. But in this technique, you must not fall into sleepiness or torpor, and your thoughts mustn’t remain scattered as in everyday activities. Remember, wandering thoughts are discriminative thinking, and you don’t push them away or suppress them but manage the breath and they’ll die down.
Normally we’re always in either of these two states–torpor or drowsiness, or the excitedness and restlessness of mental involvement. You try to abandon these two states when you’re practicing the process of observing the breath.
Remember, always cultivate clear AWARENESS. Torpor is not a state of clear awareness!
At the beginning of genuine pranayama breathing exercises, one just watches their breath. After a very short while, the breath will calm down to become long and soft. As this external breathing dies down to a point of near cessation, the prana of your inner body will start to become activated.
However, this internal prana is not the same as the external wind used in respiration. Rather, it’s the real prana of the body which has tremendous transformative power. This is the prana that will open up your prana channels.
When the expiration ceases and the mind quiets down, we arrive at a state of ‘quietude’. This is the state of “stopping” or “halting” but we got there by following the breath rather than thoughts. Same end target, different method to get there! We get there and then the real prana of the body, when the external respiration ceases, gets kick-started and ignited to start arising and circulating through the body’s channels.
If you continue relaxing the body and mind, and don’t become frightened or tense up during this period of cessation, this inner breath will really come to life. Taoists call this the “internal embryo breathing”, and it has a tremendous power to transform the physical body. So if you can stay in this state of internal breathing without worrying about the fact that external respiration has ceased, then you can transform the body quickly and enter into deep samadhi.
That’s what you want. It is good to remember that the goal of this meditation is heightened awareness and the meditator should be vigilant and observant of the mind, even during cessation. Such cessation is the correct cessation.
The Zen school describes this state as, “Everything is crystal clear, there are no wandering thoughts, no scattered thoughts; it’s like 10,000 miles of clear sky empty of clouds.” This is samadhi.
What is samadhi? It is that state which is not sunk in drowsiness, sleepiness, forgetfulness, lethargy or torpor such as when we’re sleeping or “blanked out”. It is also not restless or scattered, which is the state of excitedness or movement. The state of observation is very clear, crisp and aware and if you can maintain this state of open observation, then prajna wisdom will arise
In the Mahayana school of Bhuddism we know that things are illusory but they also exist, and yet their existence is subtle and illusory. Thus we say the world is a case of “false existence” because you know conventional reality isn’t true, and at the same time we call it “miraculous existence” because its interlinked nature that is absent of reality somehow has some reality to it.
So during cessation you observe emptiness and existence–a set of dialectic opposites we call the real and non-real, reality and non-reality, truth and falsity, existence and non-existence, emptiness and phenomena.
That’s what you observe. Before we said your thoughts, or breath, but later you observe anything and everything since all experiential realms are interdependent origination. The observations sometimes seem like ‘stuff from last nights dream.’
This is what the Bhudda called the Middle Way, where you can say that emptiness and phenomena co-exist but you don’t abide in either: you perceive both realms, but fall into neither.
This is the true path of observation–observing emptiness and phenomena– the middle way of prajna wisdom. And this is also philosophy, science, psychology, and the study of essence. But in our explanation, it’s just the step of observation.
After you understand this, you proceed to another step called “returning”, which means returning to one’s original nature, or “original face”. What are you returning to?
That return is the whole purpose of meditation. Sure you’ll become prettier, get healthier, live longer, change your fortune for the better and so forth from meditation, but this is what we are ultimately after.
So there’s still more lessons to come. For now, practice meditating by watching your breath as instructed. “When you watch your breath, you will reach cessation naturally. When your breathing stops, your mind will stop.”
This is the basis of meditation methods based on breathing.
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