Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Path to Meditation

Pranayama during meditation with kundalini caduceus rising (

Meditation can be difficult enough. How do we get there, to the doorstep of meditation? How then do we enter deeply and sink, expand, or float (depending on the metaphor being utilized) once we arrive at the threshold?

Control or restraint of energy (prana) through the breath is one certain route to success.

Typically, at this time, breath is only talked about in terms of Anapanasati, "mindfulness of in-and-out breathing." There is no attempt made to control, calm, or restrain the breath. It is just observed. This is the principle practice of Goenka Ten Day Retreats, which are free, worldwide, and open to all serious applicants.

Yoga, however, talks about preparing the mind (citta), body (rupa), and spirit (prana) for successful meditation. Diet (fresh, alkalizing vegetarian), flexibility (strength and stretching through poses), skillful restraints on conduct (yama) and observances (niyama) are all part of the Eightfold method of Ashtanga or Integral Yoga. This philosophy, rooted in the Vedas and the writings of seers (rishis) was much influenced by the Noble Eightfold Path, which is the direct route to enlightenment. The latter is generally only explained in very general terms. Yoga's Eightfold method, if explained at all, is much more specific. And it relates to preparing the mind for samadhi (deep states of purified concentration).

The present focus is breath taken out of the context of the other limbs or arms of the method. Breath immediately links mind and body and brings the mind under control for meditation, prepares it, soothes it, and seals it. Mindfulness of breathing then becomes easy, joyful (piti), and extraordinarily powerful.

Energetic body centers visible during meditation (

The Science of Pranayama
Swami Sivananda

The practice of breath-control (pranayama) has been viewed with fear in certain quarters on account of certain limitation, namely the absolute necessity of the nearness to a perfected guru, the dietary restrictions, and the like. Swami Sivananda has explained herein in clear terms the vagaries of such fears and has prescribed very simple and safe methods. The book contains suitable lessons for all types of practitioners. Those who follow the special instructions given towards the end of the book can be sure of their guaranteed success and safety. Breath-control is an important limb of Eightfold Yoga. It is equally necessary for all in their daily life. The science of relaxation is also a very valuable gift to readers -- Divine Life Society (publishers).

This is an exact science. Tasmin sati svasaprasvasayorgativicchedah pranayamah -- "Regulation of breath or the control of prana is the stoppage of inhalation and exhalation, which follows after securing that steadiness of asana (posture, base, seat)" -- Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (Ch. II-49).

Svasa mean inspiration, pravasa expiration. Breath is the external manifestation of prana, the "vital force." Breath, like electricity, is gross. Prana, like energy, is subtle. By exercising control over the external, one gets a handle on the inner, more subtle movement of energy. Control of prana means control of mind. Mind cannot operate without the help of prana. The vibrations of prana produce thoughts in the mind. It is this subtle or psychic energy (prana) that is intimately connected with the mind.

If one can control the breath, one can easily control the inner vital force and thereby build up one's meditation to astounding success.

"One who knows prana knows Vedas is the important declaration of the Srutis. The Vedanta Sutras state that, "For the same reason, breath is Brahman." Prana is the sum total of all energy that is manifest in the universe, the forces in nature, the latent powers (physical and mental) dormant in human beings. Heat, light, electricity, magnetism are all manifestations of prana. People manipulate the same influence as the yogi but, of course, do it unconsciously. Breath control makes this influence conscious, brought under the command of the will.

The seat of prana is the heart (in exactly the same way that Buddhist Abhidharma or Buddhist Psychology states that the stream of conscious moments (citta) originates in the heart not the brain). Though prana is one, it assumes five forms according to the function it performs. These five reside in various regions of the body (heart, anus, navel, throat, or all-pervading). There are, moreover, sub-pranas.

The five are responsible for respiration, excretion, digestion, deglutition (swallowing food), and blood circulation, respectively, and so on with the sub-pranas. In this way we can begin to understand that inscrutable "consciousness" is not a thing (not synonymous with prana). It is a function of energy.

If Western science is ever to understand it, a paradigm shift will be necessary. The Abhidharma speaks of consciousness as a process, not a "thing." The Five Aggregates (khandhas, skandhas) interact. The first is the aggregate called form or body (rupa). The remaining four are taken together as "mind" or "name" (nama). Consciousness is sometimes spoken of as the stream of countless cittas (moments of consciousness), but it is technically incorrect to think that a citta is a particle or thing that could stand alone and be "conscious." Even a citta is not a citta, as it were, not an "atom" or singular building block of reality, not a "consciousness particle." For it can be broken down and analyzed into parts -- sub-moments -- known as arising, passing away, and between the two a phase called "the turning of that which stands." More than Abhidharma theory, this is a directly observable fact visible to meditators who turn their attention to the physical heart. (To learn about the Abhidharma or to confirm these statements by direct experience, see a living Buddhist meditation master at, e.g.,

Today, for quick travel, the material world presents us the railway, steamers, aeroplanes, and so forth. But Yogins claim that by yogic culture the weight of the body can be so reduced that it can fly over space to any distance in an instant. They can prepare a magic ointment, which when applied to the soles of the feet gives them power to traverse any distance on earth within a very short time [the Buddhist metaphor is "in the time it would take a strong man to flex his arm or to extend it again"]. By the practice of Khechari Mudra [hand yoga], by applying the elongated tongue to the posterior nasal openings, they can fly in the air. By keeping a magic pill in their mouth they can also move in space any any place in the twinkling of an eye.

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