What is Breath Meditation?
How is it that we so routinely ignore something that accompanies us wherever we go, whatever we do, throughout the entirety of our lives? Isn’t it amazing that we rarely make use of something we do some twenty thousand times a day? How is it that a transformative presence, so simple and easily taken for granted, is not only novel, but rarely respected? How is it that we take for granted, know so little about, and make such cursory use of our most profound, reliable, supportive, instructive and positive companion?
Despite the common knowledge that Gautama Buddha used observation of breath to attain enlightenment, its nature and power is rarely recognized or used. Your breath is your most misunderstood, under-appreciated and misused resource, particularly when we consider its profound benefits, amazing power, proven efficacy, ease of use, lack of negative side effects and transformative capabilities. You can use your breath to expand your consciousness and speed your development. Integral Deep Listening (IDL) pranayama is designed to open new, important and exciting possibilities to you. Your ability to become aware of the stages of each breath you take and the octaves of the evolution of consciousness that it personifies is a revolutionary and profound competency that has always been available to you, lying just under your nose. IDL pranayama is an enjoyable and effective way to turn your breath into your best friend. How is it that we so routinely ignore something that accompanies us wherever we go, whatever we do, throughout the entirety of our lives? Isn’t it amazing that we rarely make use of something we do some twenty thousand times a day? How is it that a transformative presence, so simple and easily taken for granted, is not only novel, but rarely respected? How is it that we take for granted, know so little about, and make such cursory use of our most profound, reliable, supportive, instructive and positive companion?
Despite the common knowledge that Gautama Buddha used observation of breath to attain enlightenment, its nature and power is rarely recognized or used. Your breath is your most misunderstood, under-appreciated and misused resource, particularly when we consider its profound benefits, amazing power, proven efficacy, ease of use, lack of negative side effects and transformative capabilities. You can use your breath to expand your consciousness and speed your development. Integral Deep Listening (IDL) pranayama is designed to open new, important and exciting possibilities to you. Your ability to become aware of the stages of each breath you take and the octaves of the evolution of consciousness that it personifies is a revolutionary and profound competency that has always been available to you, lying just under your nose. IDL pranayama is an enjoyable and effective way to turn your breath into your best friend.
While approaching breathing in terms of a developmental spiral of seven octaves echoes the “spectrum of consciousness,” or the developmental progress of awakening laid out in all or in part by Plotinus, Aurobindo, Maslow, Kohlberg, Piaget and many others, and synthesized by Wilber, that was not the formative intention behind IDL pranayama. Its roots involved a great deal of practice that I did observing my breath during the 1990’s, not only during meditation but while jogging and mountain climbing in the Sonoran Desert Mountain Preserve in Phoenix, Arizona, and realizing that every breath could be easily and reasonably subdivided into six component stages.
The Hindu Foundations of Breath Meditation
It is impossible to compare Integral Deep Listening Pranayama to pranayama, per se, because there is no one yogic tradition regarding pranayama. Experts from different types of hatha yoga, including Integral, Iyengar, Kundalini, Ashtanga, Viniyoga, and Kirpalu, teach different approaches to pranayama. This variety results in part from the brevity of the ancient texts upon which modern practices are based. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, for example, which dates not from before the third century BCE and possibly as late as the fifth century CE, is the core source for most forms of Hindu yoga. Pranayama is the fourth ‘limb’ of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga mentioned in verse 2.29. Patanjali presents pranayama as essentially an exercise that is preliminary to concentration. It says that lengthening the exhalation can help to reduce disturbances of the mind, but doesn’t offer detailed techniques for doing so. Most instructions on pranayama date only from the Yogashastra, written between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. At present, in the absence of scientific studies of competing claims, there is no one “best” approach to pranayama, and appeals to tradition or personal benefits are as easily made by one tradition as another. The approach to pranayama that you learn first is probably going to be the one you favor.
Manipulation, Control, and Awareness of Breathing
IDL notes that you cannot observe what you are not aware of. Therefore, a thorough investigation of breath and breathing will increase your awareness of it and the quality of your observation of your breath during meditation. In this context, IDL pranayama provides tools for developing your discrimination and awareness of your breath which in turn increases your powers of observation. You will hear some people say, “Shouldn’t I just follow my breath? Isn’t a mistake to control it?” The majority of Hindu approaches to pranayama emphasize breath control. There are other schools of thought and practice, like most Buddhist and Buddhist-derived approaches, that teach vipassana, or mindfulness or Zen meditation, that emphasize simple observation of breath, without control. This is why there is no strong Buddhist tradition of pranayama as a yoga._ There are good arguments for both approaches. If you learn to observe your breath in specific ways and enhance the way you breathe you will have powerful tools of self-observation and self-transcendence that you did not have before. From then on you have a freedom to use them or not to use them, as you desire. You do not have this option, this freedom, if you do not learn both discrimination and control. It could even be argued that the Buddha only had the ability to observe his breath in a way that allowed him to attain enlightenment because he had a background of yogic meditative practices that probably included pranayama.
Variable and Cyclic Breath Order
In Yogashastra, the early and principle Hindu text on pranayama, breathing chiefly involves two activities, inhaling and exhaling. Of these the former is called Puraka or purak, “taking the breath inside,” and the latter Rechak or recaka, “discharging” breath. Integral Yoga and some other forms add a third, kumbhak, or retaining the breath. Integral Yoga views three-part deep breathing as the foundation of all yogic breathing techniques. It notes that “Studies have shown that you can take in and give out seven times as much air—that means seven times as much oxygen, seven times as much prana—in a three-part deep breath than in a shallow breath.” Various schools of pranayama further divide the breath. For example, in what is called Deergha Swasam, Integral yoga students are instructed to breathe slowly and deeply while envisioning that they are filling their lungs from bottom to top—first by expanding the abdomen, then the middle rib cage, and finally the upper chest. When exhaling, students envision the breath emptying in reverse, from top to bottom, pulling in the abdomen slightly at the end to empty the lungs completely. This is a different order of exhalation from some other forms of pranayama. For example, Kundalini teaches to first exhale from the diaphragm, then the middle rib cage, and then the upper chest. This follows the adaptive response of those life forms with autonomic nervous systems and diaphragms. The belief is that consciously imitating the unconscious and “natural” form of breathing used by animals and humans while asleep or unaware of their breathing creates a deeper, healthier, more controlled, and more powerful breath for those who wish to go into trance and stop breathing.
Chakras in Hindu Pranayama
We have seen in previous videos in this series on pranayama, how Hinduism uses breathing methods to raise prana, or energy, or the subtle breath of life, through various nadis, or subtle energy channels associated with the spinal column, and chakras, or vibrational and karmic energy vortices that are connected by nadis and also are centered at seven or more points along the spine and into the cranium. Consideration of the chakras is central to the Kundalini yogic tradition of pranayama. Students are encouraged to feel the breath originating from the lowest three chakras at the base of the torso to bring forth prana from its source in the earth. Kundalini is the term for “a spiritual energy of life force located at the base of the spine,” conceptualized as a coiled serpent. The practice of Kundalini yoga is intended to arouse the sleeping Kundalini, Shakti, from its coiled base through the six chakras, to penetrate the seventh chakra, or crown. This energy is said to travel along the ida (left), pingala (right) and central, or sushumna nadi – the main channels of pranic energy in the body. Kundalini energy is technically explained as being sparked during yogic breathing when prana and apana blend at the third or naval chakra, at which point prana initially drops down to the first and second chakras before traveling up to the spine to the higher centers of the brain to activate the golden cord – the connection between the pituitary and pineal glands – and penetrate the seven chakras in a healing, transformative stream of enlightenment. This psychospiritual physiology was first popularized in the West by Blavatsky and her followers and to a lesser extent by Vivikananda and Yogananda. Currently, it is impossible to take a training in Hatha yoga without encountering it.
The Sequence of Teaching Pranayama in Yogic Traditions
For Kripalu Yoga, breathing exercises are as likely to be offered before asana, or Hatha yoga practice, as after. The Ashtanga school of yoga is very breath-oriented, introducing a kind of pranayama, Pattabhi Jois from the moment one begins the practice. In Kundalini Yoga, breathing practices are integrated into all classes along with asana, chanting, meditation, and other cleansing practices designed to liberate healing flows of energy from the base of the spine. In Iyengar yoga, pranayama is taught after grounding in asanas. In Viniyoga, breathing is the foundation upon which all other practices are built. In the Integral yoga tradition propounded by Swami Satchidananda, pranayama is incorporated into every yoga class. A typical session of yoga instruction starts with asana, moves on to pranayama, and ends with seated meditation. Pranayama follows asanas and precedes seated meditation. Integral yoga, which has no connection to Integral Deep Listening and its understanding of both pranayama and dream yoga, considers Asana (hatha yoga) as meditation on the body and pranayama as meditation on the breath and subtle energy currents within us. It then works with the mind directly, with the ultimate aim of transcending body and mind and experiencing the higher self.
How You Breathe is Fundamental to Your Health
Let’s take a look at how important breathing is to your health and your body’s healing processes.
You breathe about 20,000 times a day. You can live for days without food or water but unless you are an adept that enters a sophisticated trance state, you will be dead in minutes if you cannot breathe. It follows then that partial or insufficient breathing must have detrimental effects on health. Children breathe deeply, from their diaphragm. As we age our breathing shifts to the chest and becomes more shallow and more rapid. The average person reaches peak respiratory function in their mid twenties. They then begin to lose 10-27% breathing capacity for every decade of life. Children may hold their breath when they are afraid. If a child goes to bed angry, sad or tense they may hold their breath without realizing it. This leads to the loss of abdominal inhalation and exhalation and a constriction of breathing and asthma can develop as a result of such constriction. Adults can also lose the capacity for deep core breathing from a traumatic emotional experience, or physical pain, which tends to cause us to want to move as little as possible. This restricts breathing and later, when we are well, our breath may remain shallow. Difficulties in breathing, due to asthma or some other pulmonary dysfunction, can create chronic anxiety and even existential angst, because survival is so centrally tied to our ability to breathe.
Breathing and the Lymphatic System
Most of your body is made up of water. Your cells are located in a sea of pale liquid, called lymph. Some of this water resides in the bloodstream, but far more is in your lymphatic system. Your lymphatic system is twice the size of your cardio-vascular circulatory system. Twice as much lymph as blood is present in your body and you have twice as many lymph vessels as blood vessels. The function of your lymphatic system is to remove dead cells, blood proteins and other toxic materials from your cells and tissues. One of the keys to health is to keep your lymphatic system open and flowing freely. If your lymph system were to totally shut down for twenty-four hours you would die as the result of trapped blood proteins and excess fluid around your cells. That’s how important this largely unnoticed bodily system is.
Blood is pumped from your heart through your arteries into thin, porous capillaries. Your blood carries nutrients and oxygen to these capillaries, where they are diffused into the lymph. Your cells, having an intelligence or affinity for what they need, take nutrients and oxygen for their health and then excrete toxins, some of which go back into the capillaries. Because toxic materials and excess fluid restrict the amount of oxygen that your cells are able to absorb, your body’s cells depend on a healthy lymphatic system to drain off these toxic byproducts. Fluid passes through your lymph nodes, where dead cells and all other poisons except blood proteins are destroyed and neutralized. The lymph collected throughout your body drains into the blood through two ducts located at the base of the neck. It ultimately ends up in the ‘thoracic duct.’ This duct empties lymph into your veins, where it becomes part of the blood plasma. From there, the lymph returns to the liver for metabolization, and finally to the kidneys for filtering.