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Breath Meditation in the World's Great Religions

Updated on December 7, 2012

Why You Should Learn About Breath Meditation

Do you breath? Then you can meditate! It is easy as that. But that does not mean that breath meditation is trivial. No, indeed, breath meditation holds the key not only to improved health and well-being, but to Enlightenment itself!

And you may be surprised to learn that Breath Meditation is practiced in one form or other in Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Christianity and Judaism. On this lens you will discover:

1. What is the rationale of breath meditation,

2. How to do breath meditation,

3. And what is said about it in the world's great religious traditions.

This lens is based on the researches of Abbot George Burke (Swami Nirmalananda Giri) of Light of the Spirit Monastery in Cedar Crest, New Mexico. He writes on meditation and practical spiritual life at OCOY.org.

Read on and profit thereby.

What Is Breath Meditation?

Learn Its Rationale and Benefits

Meditation on the breath is found in the spiritual practices of many religions (see The Breath of Life: The Practice of Breath Meditation According to Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Jewish and Christian Traditions at OCOY.org), and particularly in Buddhism, where it is known as Anapanasati, awareness of the inhaling and exhaling breaths, and is the meditation technique practiced and taught by the Buddha.

Meditation is the process of re-centering our awareness in the principle of pure consciousness which is our essential being. We have lost awareness of our true Self through awareness of external objects, and become habituated-even addicted-to objective consciousness. Rather than disperse our consciousness through objects that draw us outward, away from the center of our being, we can take an object that will have the opposite effect, present it to the mind, and reverse our consciousness. That object is the breath, which is the meeting place of body, mind, and spirit.

The Breath and Body, Emotions, and Mind

The breath and the body are interconnected, as is seen from the fact that the breath is calm when the body is calm, and agitated or labored when the body is agitated or labored. The heavy exhalation made when feeling exhausted and the enthusiastic inhalation made when feeling energized or exhilarated establish the same fact.

The breath and the emotions are interconnected, as is seen from the fact that the breath is calm when the emotions are calm, and agitated and labored when the emotions are agitated or out of control. Our drawing of a quick breath, when we are surprised, shocked, or fearful, and the forceful exhalation done when angry or annoyed demonstrate this.

The breath and the mind are interconnected, as is seen from the fact that the breath is calm when the mind is calm, and agitated, irregular, and labored when the mind is agitated or disturbed in any way. Our holding of the breath when attempting intense concentration also shows this.

Breath, which exists on all planes of manifestation, is the connecting link between matter and energy on the one hand and consciousness and mind on the other. By sitting with closed eyes and letting the mind become easefully absorbed in observing and experiencing the movements of the breath we enter into the consciousness from which it arises-the eternal Witness Consciousness.

First, awareness of the process of breathing, then...

We start with awareness of the ordinary physical breath, but that awareness, when cultivated correctly, leads us into higher awareness which enables us to perceive the subtle movement behind the breath. Ultimately, we come into contact with the Breather of the breath, our own spirit-Self.

Ruach, Pneuma, Spiritus, Atma, Prana

In many spiritual traditions the same word is used for both breath and spirit, underscoring the esoteric principle that in essence they are the same, though we naturally think of spirit as being the cause of breath(ing). The word used for both breath and spirit is: In Judaism: Ruach. In Eastern Christianity (and ancient Greek religion): Pneuma. In Western Christianity (and ancient Roman religion): Spiritus, which comes from spiro: "I breathe." In Hinduism and Buddhism: Atma, from the root word at which means "to breathe," and Prana, which means "breath." Meditation on the breath is meditation on spirit, on consciousness itself. This is why the contemporary Thai Buddhist Master Ajaan Fuang Jotiko said: "The breath can take you all the way to Nirvana."

The Process of Breath Meditation

Simple Yet Effective

1. Sit upright, comfortable and relaxed, with your hands on your knees or thighs, palms up or palms down or resting, one on the other, in your lap.

2. Turn your eyes slightly downward and close them gently. This removes visual distractions and reduces your brain-wave activity by about seventy-five percent, thus helping to calm the mind.

3. Your mouth should be closed so all breathing is done through the nose. This, too, aids in quieting the mind. Though your mouth is closed, the jaw muscles should be relaxed so the upper and lower teeth are not clenched or touching one another, but parted.

4. Inhale and exhale slowly and deeply three or four times, feeling the inhaling and exhaling breath moving in and out through your nostrils.

5. Now breathe naturally and easefully, keeping your awareness on the tip of your nose, watching and feeling the breath as it flows in and out of your nostrils. (Some people become more aware of the actual nosetip, even the very end of the nose, and others remain more aware of the nostrils. Whichever happens naturally is the best for you. So whenever this book says “nosetip” it applies equally to the nostrils.) Do not follow the breath in and out of your body, but just be aware of the breath movement sensation at the tip of your nose.

6. Do this for the rest of the meditation, letting your awareness rest gently on the breath at the nosetip and feeling the sensations of the breath moving there. After a while it may feel as though the breath is flowing in and out the tip of your nose more than the actual nostrils, or you may not feel the nose at all, but just the breath moving at the point in front of your face where the nose is located. That is perfectly all right, but the focus of your attention should be only at that point–not somewhere else either outside or inside the body.

7. Let the breath be as it will. If the breath is naturally long, let it be so. If it is short, let it be so. If the inhalations and exhalations are of unequal length, that is just fine. Let the breath be natural and unforced, and just observe and experience it.

In time your breath will become more subtle and refined, and slow down. Sometimes your breath can become so light that it almost seems as though you are not breathing at all. At such times you may perceive that your inhaling and exhaling are more like a magnetic pull or flow in and out instead of actual breath movements. This occurs as the subtle life force (prana) that produces the breath switches back and forth in polarity from positive to negative. It is also normal for your breath awareness to move back and forth from more objective to more subtle and back to more objective.

Sometimes the subtle breath is silent, but at other times you will inwardly “hear” the breath making sounds as it moves in and out. These will not be actually physical sounds, but very subtle mental sounds. They may be like the sounds made by forceful or heavy inhalation and exhalation–except softer–or they may be quite different. Whatever they may be, just be calmly aware of them while staying centered on the nosetip and breath.

The breath is a kind of barometer of the subtle energies of body and mind. Sometimes it is very smooth, light and easeful, and at other times it feels heavy, even constricted, or clogged, sticky, ragged, uneven, and generally uncomfortable and somehow feels “not right.” When this is so, do not try to interfere with it or “make it better.” Rather, just relax and be calmly aware and let it be as it is. If you do this, the problem in the subtle energy levels which the breath is reflecting will correct itself and the breath will become easy and pleasant.

8. In Breath Meditation we only focus our awareness on the breath at the nosetip/nostrils, and not on any other point of the body such as the “third eye.” However, as you meditate you may become aware of one or more areas of your body at different times. This is all right when it comes and goes spontaneously, but keep centered on your nosetip and your breath.

9. Thoughts, impressions, memories, inner sensations, and suchlike may also arise during meditation. Be calmly aware of all these things in a detached and objective manner. Let them come and go as they will, but keep your attention centered on the tip of the nose and your breath moving there. Be indifferent to any inner or outer phenomena. Breath Meditation produces peace, awareness and quiet joy in your mind as well as soothing radiations of energy in the physical and subtle bodies. Be calmly aware of all these things in a detached and objective manner–they are part of the transforming effect of meditation, and are perfectly all right–but keep your attention centered in your breath. Even though something feels very right or good when it occurs, it should not be forced or hung on to. The sum and substance of it all is this: It is not the experience we are after, but the effect.

10. If you find yourself getting restless, distracted, fuzzy, anxious or tense in any degree, just inhale and exhale slowly and deeply a few times, feeling the inhaling and exhaling breath moving in and out through your nostrils, at the same time feeling that you are releasing and breathing out all tensions. Then resume meditating as before. Relaxation is the key to successful meditation practice.

11. Keep in mind that Breath Meditation basically consists of being aware in a relaxed and easeful manner of your breath as it moves in and out at the tip of your nose. That is all!

At the end of your meditation time, keep on being calmly aware of your breath moving in and out of your nosetip as you go about your various activities. In this way you can maintain the calm and clear state of meditation.

The Benefit of Breath Meditation

By sitting with closed eyes and letting the mind become easefully absorbed in observing and experiencing the movements of the breath we enter into the consciousness from which it arises–the eternal Witness Consciousness.

What is Your Experience with Breath Meditation - Vote or Give Your Thoughts

Have you tried Breath Meditation?

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The Importance of the Breath in the Upanishads

These are among the most ancient and respected of Indian scriptures

just a small sampling from the Upanishads

"Man does not live by breath alone, but by him in whom is the power of breath" (Katha Upanishad 2.2.5).

"O Prana, lord of creation, thou as breath dwellest in the body" (Prashna Upanishad 2.7).

"Breath is a part of Brahman" (Chandogya Upanishad 4.9.3).

"When one breathes, one knows him as breath" (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.7). This implies that through breathing-specifically through observing the breath-God can be known.

"The being who is the breath within-him I meditate upon as Brahman" (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.1.6).

"Breath is the Immortal One" (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.6.3).

Anandamayi Ma
Anandamayi Ma

Anandamayi Ma on the Breath

Plus a Health Tip

"The ever-moving breath changes its rhythm according to what we do, feel and think, with the precision of a clock's pendulum, which works without a break although it may at times go fast or slow. With a similar constancy endeavor to concentrate on the breath; this will exercise a check on the mind and prevent it from wandering away to outer objects....With the help of your intelligence and individual capacity try to unite the mind with the breath" (Extracted from Matri Vani, pp. 145-148).

Sri Ma Anandamayi also advised her ill devotees to practice Breath Meditation while lying down for their healing, just as Buddha did in the Girimananda Sutra.

Ramana Maharshi, the Sage of Arunachala
Ramana Maharshi, the Sage of Arunachala

Ramana Maharshi on the Breath

In the book Day By Day With Bhagavan, we find the following quote from Ramana Maharshi: "[Seekers] are advised to watch their breathing, since such watching will naturally and as a matter of course lead to cessation of thought and bring the mind under control.

"Breath and mind arise from the same place and when one of them is controlled, the other is also controlled....The method [of Self-Inquiry recommended by Sri Ramana] contains within it...the watching of the breath. When we watch wherefrom the 'I' thought, the root of all thoughts, springs, we are necessarily watching the source of breath also, as the 'I' thought and the breath arise from the same source."

Gotama Buddha
Gotama Buddha

Buddha on Breath Meditation

(More Buddhists do breath meditation than anyone)

To his son Rahula, who had become a monk and was wanting to practice meditation, Gotama Buddha said: "Practice being mindful of the breath, Rahula. Practicing continuous mindfulness of breathing in and breathing out is of great fruit, of great benefit (or riches). And how, Rahula, is mindfulness of breath practiced, and how does its sincere practice lead to a great harvest of richness?" Then he proceeded to give the instructions found in the Maha Rahulovada Sutra, concluding: "This is the practice of mindfulness of breath, Rahula. This is how the sincere practice of mindfulness of breath is of great fruit, of great benefit. If mindfulness of breath is practiced continuously, then your last breath will be in knowing, not in unknowing."

Buddha's Instructions on Breath Meditation:

"Here a bhikkhu, gone to the forest or to the root of a tree or to an empty hut, sits down; having folded his legs crosswise, set his body erect, and established mindfulness in front of him [parimukha: "in front of the face"-at the tip of the nose], ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out.

"Breathing in long, he understands: 'I breathe in long;' or breathing out long, he understands: 'I breathe out long.'

"Breathing in short, he understands: 'I breathe in short;' or breathing out short, he understands: 'I breathe out short,' He trains thus: 'Experiencing the whole body, I will breathe in;' he trains thus: 'Experiencing the whole body, I will breathe out.' He trains thus: 'Tranquillizing the bodily formation, I will breathe in;' he trains thus: 'Tranquillizing the bodily formation, I will breathe out.'

"He trains thus: "Experiencing rapture [piti], I will breathe in;' he trains thus: "Experiencing rapture, I will breathe out.' He trains thus: "Experiencing happiness, I will breathe in;' he trains thus: 'Experiencing happiness, I will breathe out.' He trains thus: 'Experiencing the mental formation, I will breathe in;' he trains thus: "Experiencing the mental formation, I will breathe out.' He trains thus: 'Tranquillizing the mental formation, I will breathe in;' he trains thus: 'Tranquillizing the mental formation, I will breathe out.'

"He trains thus: 'Experiencing the mind, I will breathe in;' he trains thus: 'Experiencing the mind, I will breathe out.' He trains thus: 'Gladdening the mind, I will breathe in;' he trains thus: 'Gladdening the mind, I will breathe out.' He trains thus: 'Concentrating the mind, I will breathe in;' he trains thus: 'Concentrating the mind, I will breathe out.' He trains thus: 'Liberating the mind, I will breathe in;' he trains thus: 'Liberating the mind, I will breathe out.' [The Patisambhida-magga says: "Intellect, intellection, heart, lucidity, mind, mind-base, mind-faculty, consciousness, consciousness aggregate, appropriate mind-consciousness element-that is mind."]

"'He trains thus: 'Contemplating impermanence, I will breathe in;' he trains thus: 'Contemplating impermanence, I will breathe out.' He trains thus: 'Contemplating fading away, I will breathe in;' he trains thus: 'Contemplating fading away, I will breathe out.' He trains thus: 'Contemplating cessation, I will breathe in;' he trains thus: 'Contemplating cessation, I will breathe out.' He trains thus: 'Contemplating relinquishment, I will breathe in;' he trains thus: 'Contemplating relinquishment, I will breathe out.

"It is, bhikkhus, when mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated in this way that it is of great fruit and benefit."

Ajaan Chah, Thai Buddhist monk
Ajaan Chah, Thai Buddhist monk

Ajaan Chah on Breath Meditation

Ajaan Chah was a modern Thai Buddhist master

“When sitting in meditation we are told to close the eyes, not to look at anything else, because now we are going to look directly at the mind. When we close our eyes, our attention comes inwards. We establish our attention on the breath, center our feelings there, put our mindfulness there. When the factors of the path are in harmony we will be able to see the breath, the feelings, the mind and its mood for what they are. Here we will see the ‘focus point,’ where samadhi and the other factors of the Path converge in harmony.”

“Let the breath go naturally, do not force it to be short or long or whatever, just sit and watch it going in and out. When the mind lets go of all external impressions, the sounds of cars and such will not disturb you. Nothing, whether sights or sounds, will disturb you, because the mind does not receive them. Your attention will come together on the breath."

Taoism on the Breath

"When one gives undivided attention to the breath, and brings it to the utmost degree of pliancy, he can become as a babe. When he has cleansed away the most mysterious sights, he can become without a flaw" -from the Tao Teh King

"The spirit resides in the breath, and the breath lives in the house of the spirit. When spirit and breath unite, you will attain great clarity" -Tao-hsuan p'ien

(Again, this is just the smallest of samplings of Taoist thought on the breath.)

The Jewish Tradition of the Breath

“All the while my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils” (Job 27:3).

“This is also evident from the etymology of the word Ruach. This word is closely related to the Hebrew word Oreach, meaning a ‘visitor’ or ‘guest,’ as well as the word Orach meaning a path.” The breath, then, is both a visitation of the Divine Guest as well as the path we can tread hand-in-hand with that blessed Guest back to the Kingdom of Blessedness that is the Blessed One Himself. “Thou hast granted me life and favour, and thy visitation hath preserved my spirit” (Job 10:12). —the Kabbalah

The Breath in Christian Tradition

"For as many as are led by the Spirit [Breath] of God, they are the sons of God" (Romans 8:14). "Holy Spirit"-Agia Pneuma-means Holy Breath as well as Holy Spirit, and many verses about the Holy Spirit can be interpreted in this light to reveal their inner esoteric meaning. It is very worthwhile to look up the passages in the Bible that speak of "spirit" and substitute the word "breath." Some interesting insights will be gained.

Through meditation we literally breathe the Holy Spirit, becoming filled with and united to the Life that is the Holy Spirit. Meditation is in truth the "praying in the Holy Ghost" enjoined by Saint Jude (1:20). "I will pray with the spirit [breath], and I will pray with the understanding also" (I Corinthians 14:15). -above quotes from Abbot George Burke.

St. Gregory Palamas

"It is not out of place to teach [seekers] to bring their intellect within themselves by means of their breathing," concludes Saint Gregory. Therefore it is reasonable to "recommend them to pay attention to the exhalation and inhalation of their breath, so that while they are watching it the intellect, too, may be held in check....This control of the breathing may, indeed, be regarded as a spontaneous consequence of paying attention to the intellect; for the breath is always quietly inhaled and exhaled at moments of intense concentration, especially in the case of those who practice stillness [hesychia] both bodily and mentally."

For lack of space we omit much on the tradition of "Hesychia", the Silence, of which the breath plays a large part.

One Thing More

Have we piqued your interest?

Due to lack of space, we have only included teasers, as it were, from the various religious traditions, on the importance of the breath and about breath meditation itself. For those wishing to make a closer study of the tradition of breath meditation, we highly recommend you read Abbot George Burke's remarkable study, The Breath of Life: The Practice of Breath Meditation According to Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Jewish and Christian Traditions (free for reading online or as PDF or ePub downloads).

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    • ocoyorg profile image
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      ocoyorg 4 years ago

      @Oneshotvariety LM: Thanks for your kind comment!

    • Oneshotvariety LM profile image

      Oneshotvariety LM 4 years ago

      Very interesting lens! Well done.

    • Melissa Miotke profile image

      Melissa Miotke 4 years ago from Arizona

      I enjoyed your lens on an interesting topic. I do a bit of breath meditation during yoga and I find that it helps me immensely. Blessed!