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Meditation: The Science of Breath Control
In the practice of meditation, the student of this subject will hear much concerning the science of breath-control. In India, the ancient Sanskrit language terms this 'Science of Breath' pranayama.
The word pranayama is actually a component of two Sanskrit meanings; the first, prana, literally means 'vital force' or the 'life force.' This life-force refers to the energetic component of the air we breathe, not merely the oxygen molecules but that vital living force that is sometimes known as an energy globule. That energy is said to come from the Sun, and is regarded as those vital particles which maintain all living things. It is more than simply air and may be likened to photons or light particles.
The other part of the word, yama, literally means 'restraint' or 'self-control.' So, prana-yama broken into two parts, means the control of the life-force.
The Wandering Mind
One of the most important aspects of gaining control over the mind and its tendency to wander onto a myriad of thoughts, is the use of pranayama breathing techniques. Not only does this special kind of breathing bring great vitality to the physical body, it also enlivens and cleanses the mind of all the mental chatter that preoccupies most people throughout their daily lives.
One of the greatest difficulties in first beginning to meditate is to direct the fickle mind from wandering around onto everyday thoughts involving work, relationships, health, or other worries or concerns. You name them, people will have thoughts about them!
What pranayama can do for you is bring the mind to bear upon the act of breathing. Pranayama really is a concentration practice, and without proper concentration meditation is impossible.
The breath flowing into the nostrils has a calming effect upon the central nervous system and is one of the best things that you can do for well-being and general health. Once you have focussed upon your breath for a few minutes, you will find that your thoughts will calm down and relax, rather like going to sleep; except that in this case, you are not going to sleep, you are focussing on being present in the moment.
Breathing, the Brain and Mind
There are of course, a great many healthy reasons for bringing attention to correct breathing, (which is what pranayama emphasizes) and any athlete will recognise this fact, especially swimmers and runners.
But there are also, some lesser-known reasons to encourage pranayama style breathing techniques, due to some special effects upon consciousness and the brain.
There is a very important region in the brain known as the hypothalamus. This portion of the brain has a direct connection to our emotional self. It's involved with a large number of raw human emotions such as love, anger and sexual desire, for example. A whole gamut of emotions are activated in this region and very often not well governed by most people. It is very much an emotional centre.
One of the most important aspects of breathing is breathing through the nostrils, so that the air passing over the nostrils can come into contact with the nerves contained in the olfactory bulb, that part of the brain which is responsible for our sense of smell. The olfactory bulb is connected to a part of the brain known as the limbic system, and this then passes electrical nerve currents to the hypothalamus, the emotional centre. Whenever we breathe in via the nostrils, the olfactory bulb is stimulated. This stimulus will transfer all the way to the emotional hypothalamus.
Another part of the brain, called the amygdala, is also affected by this breathing process. The amygdala is that part of your brain which exhibits the fright, flight or fight response; another very basic emotional response area of the brain.
An Altered State
These areas of the brain, outlined above in basic form, all have their 'roots' if you like, in the emotional responses that we exhibit, and they also have direct effects upon how we breathe.
Have you ever noticed, that when you are highly stressed, perhaps through anger or shock or fear, you find that your breathing rapidly increases; so does your pulse, and perhaps you'll be so upset that you find it difficult to speak. All of these reactions and responses are affecting your limbic system, the hypothalamus and the amygdala. The brain is screaming out for help!
But when we are trained to breathe consciously, we can affect how our brain responds to circumstances, including the very thoughts that we think. Deep, calm breathing, through the nostrils and out through the nostrils again, has a profoundly calming effect upon the central nervous system, and hence upon the brain.
Essentially, you are changing the current state of your consciousness by engaging in conscious, pranayama breathing practices. This can lead directly to an 'altered state' of consciousness, often spoken of by mystics and yogis.
Technique No 1: The Full Yogic Breath
When you sit for meditation, try to begin your practice with a simple breathing technique known as the Full Yogic Breath. It basically consists of breathing in via the nostrils and breathing out via the nostrils, keeping the lips closed at all times.
Remember, that the purpose of these breathing exercises is to engage the olfactory nerves in the brain (via nostril breathing) which are directly rigged into the hypothalamus and amygdala which govern emotions. The goal is to regulate or control the emotions, via the breath. Remember too, that pranayama means 'control of the life force.' It also means restraint. We are restraining or controlling the turbulent emotions. We can say that we are in fact, re-training the emotions, via the breath!
Once you have got yourself seated calmly for meditation, either in a chair, or if you are more advanced, in the Yogic Half-Lotus or Full Lotus posture, with eyes now closed and the body nice and still, bring your attention to the breath. The mouth is closed, and you are simply breathing in and out slowly via the nostrils.
1) Just being aware of the flow of the breath in and out of the lungs, you are simply breathing in and out through the nostrils. Do this for several complete breaths, that is, an in-breath and an out-breath completing each breath. You will already feel calmer.
2) Really feel that the breath is having a calming, centering effect upon you. The breathing is long, deep, and slow. You feel the chest rising slowly on the in-breath, and slowing collapsing, like a concertina, on the out-breath.
3) Now, count your breaths. You do this mentally. As you breathe in via the nose, mentally say, "One" and on the second in-breath, mentally count "Two" on the next inhalation. The mental count is only needed on the in-breath. Carry on like this up to ten breaths.
4) Allow the air to roll up the body on the in-breath, from the diaphragm. Push the abdomen out slightly, as if the air is entering the abdominal cavity. Expand the ribcage as the breath ascends and feel the ribs expanding on all sides. On the out-breath, allow the ribs to gently close down like a bellows collapsing, and then as you descend on the outgoing breath, allow the abdomen to pull in slightly, as if to expel the last portion of air from the body.
5) Once you have completed your ten breaths, you will find that this has already had a positive effect on the flow of your thoughts. In fact, if you concentrated properly, it would have been difficult to hold any other thought except for the count on each in-breath. After your ten breaths, just allow the breathing to find its own normal level once more.
Already then, you have learned a little something about concentration as a vital element in proper meditation. In meditation, it is rightly said that Concentration leads to Meditation. Techniques such as the Full Yogic Breath are a gentle guide in helping your mind to focus on just one thing; in this case, the breath. No other thought is permissible or even possible, when this practice is done well.
Not only that, all the physical benefits of using your lungs in this way will be of enormous help in a great many ways. You will have released a lot of tension from the diaphragm, a large, sheet-like muscle which separates the abdominal contents from the organs above them in the ribcage, and it is a vital muscle in correct breathing. You will also have released tension from the intercostal muscles between the ribs. Your heart will have received a gentle massage and your blood will have been oxygenated. All good physical benefits.
The psychological benefits of this breathing technique are a calmer mind and a sense of well-being. When breathing is controlled, so is thought, as observed above.
Concentration leads to Meditation.
The practice of pranayama involves a large array of breathing techniques, and some excellent books have been produced outlining many of these pranayama practices. A lot of these breathing techniques are complicated, often difficult, and can only really be mastered under the guidance of an advanced spiritual guru or some few Yoga teachers of high quality. We simply cannot cover them all in this article, so I am only including two here in total.
The main thrust of this article is to help the reader to understand the dynamic connection between the breath and the mind. The breathing techniques described herein will be more than enough for most students of meditation, and likely to be all that you will ever need. There are a couple of more advanced pranayamas that I have in the back of my mind as I write, but these can wait for a later article.
My next pranayama technique is a very simple one, which I have termed the Energy Breath. This practice involves the use of the mind as well as engaging the breath. We are going to combine the two and really feel how dynamic that can be and how it trains the mind to fix itself on just one concept.
Technique No 2: The Energy Breath
This technique involves using some imaginative and visualization ability. Once you have reached a fairly calm state in your meditation, and are allowing the breathing to slowly find its own calm state, we then turn the attention to the in-breath once more.
1) Imagine that on every in-breath an invisible energy is arising within you. As you breath in you can sense this 'energy' just at the top of the head. As you feel the air entering the lungs, just bring the focus of your mind upon the top of the head. Go mentally, right to the very crown of the head. Just breathe in and out slowly, as in the full Yogic Breath for several breaths, allowing this sense of 'energy' to feel like it is growing and glowing right at the top of the head. I imagine that this energy arises from the base of my spine, on the in-breath, and then travels all the way up the spine to the top of the head.
2) As you focus on this nebulous 'energy' see if you can mentally colour it with a golden-white halo of light. I find that I prefer to visualise a golden sun shining and radiating from the top of my head. You may even begin to feel that there is a slight pressure or tingling sensation at the top of the head as you do this.
3) On every out-breath, allow the mind and senses to feel that all negative thoughts and states of being are dissolving on the out-breath. You are deeply breathing out all negativity.
4) On the next in-breath, you engage the mind and the sense of feeling again, and perhaps the halo above your head feels brighter and stronger. Every time you breathe in again the halo of light radiates out that little bit farther, like a golden and brilliant sun shining on all beings.
5) We do not count the breaths on the Energy Breath. You are doing as many of these as you wish, but I suggest that a time of around five minutes spent on this practice is probably enough to get to the point of feeling that both the breath and the mind are engaged together in a true point of focus.
The Energy Breath can produce a very profound sense of well-being, even one of benevolence. It is very much a 'spiritual' practice, and tends to work as well as your own consciousness will allow it to.
A Silent Mind
The practice of pranayama exercises such as the two outlined in this article can lead you into that state of mental silence which is so much sought after by students of meditation.
Everyone is looking for peace these days; probably, human beings have always been pursuing peace in one form or another. We often look for it in the wrong places, perhaps through success of some kind or material goods. But even if we do attain success in the outer world and even if that does bring wealth with it, that is no guarantee of a quiet, peaceful and tranquil mind.
In fact, I find that the more things people have, the busier their minds are ~ generally in worrying about keeping their success at a certain level and hanging onto those precious possessions of theirs!
But what price can we place on a silent mind, that no longer assails us with a myriad of worries, troubles and concerns? There is no price on such an attainment. It is beyond any price that could be placed upon it, and few ever really find it.
Pranayama can, when regularly practiced, as these two exercises demonstrate, train the mind to cease unnecessary thinking. You will eventually learn how to 'switch off' whenever you want to. Pranayama can teach you how to dissipate thought.
Take it from me, that your real thinking, when it's necessary, will be clearer, as it will no longer be cluttered by needless thoughts and concerns. You will find that you perform better in many respects, whether mentally, emotionally or physically. Excessive thinking can be extremely wasteful and exhausting. When we still the mind, energy returns naturally.
One of the greatest benefits from the still, quiet, mind, is that a natural 'bliss state' arises from deep within you. This is really our natural level of consciousness, once we strip away the troubles of everyday life. When this state does ensue, you will even have moments of experiencing it outside of the time spent in meditation; it will just come over you like a golden mantle of peace, love and deep well-being.
Your problems won't necessarily disappear, but they will tend to become reduced in importance. What will change, is your own attitude towards these problems; you will approach these problems differently, and not allow them to occupy the sacred space in your mind, and instead be able to deal with them one by one. Outside of that time, your mind will be free.
To be free of needless thought is highly liberating. Such a mind is a tower of strength. Such a mind is bliss itself. This mental peace is something that everyone needs. Remember, that when the mind is still, bliss supervenes. Surely, that is worth striving for.
* Stephen Austen has written a print-version book on the subject of meditation entitled Meditation for Everyday Living and an e-book entitled Meditation: Key to the Soul. (Please go to his Profile Page here on HubPages and click on the website link which will take you to Stephen Austen's Amazon Author Page where you may find these books.)