What Role Does Breath Play In Meditation?
You may have heard of wise people practicing "yogic breathing" techniques. What does that even mean? Why is it helpful? Can it be used by anyone? How can this help us this May during National Meditaiton Month? We've got many questions to answer in the blog post this week!
There are very few differences between a stressed body and an excited body, but one of the main differences is the breath. Namely, in stress we stop breathing very much and in excitement we continue to breathe. As we learn to control the breath, we can see physiological changes occuring in the body to keep us centered and focused on this moment rather than on the fears or depression of the past or the anxieties of the future. It is what makes humans different than animals who are chased by a predator and can continue on with the rest of their day at ease. We, humans, often choose to stay anywhere but in the present. The breath can be used to help bring us back over and over again.
When we look back at yoga history, we can't miss Patanjali, the ancient sage who taught the 8-fold path we take with yoga. The first 3 steps are the yamas (ethics), niyamas (observations), and asanas (the phyiscal postures of yoga). After this, the 4th step is pranayama, or breathing. The rest of the steps include concentration, withdrawl of the senses, and ultimately this brings us to a state where meditation is possible. This is what we practice all together to begin to find union or yoga within. Since breathing is a whole step out of the eight, it must be important! But don't we breathe all day every day?
There are several advanced yogic breathing techniques, but everyone who is alive breathes constantly. Therefore, using the breath as a tool for meditation can be started by anyone anywhere. To begin working with the breath, simply start by focusing on the sensations that arise with the breath. For instance, feel how the temperature of the breath exiting the nostrils is much different than the temperature entering. See if you can feel the air traveling through the back of the throat. Notice the expansion of the torso and perhaps even the belly. Really pay attention to all that is going on when you breathe for a full two minutes. You'll begin to see that paying attention to the breath is extremely calming to the mind.
While it is impossible to make the mind 100% free from thoughts, we can begin to see greater distances in between the thoughts that arise. I recently experienced this phenomenon in a breathwork session I was doing with someone named Sol Phoenix, who recently moved to Albuquerque (and will begin teaching meditation series at Yoga Art Space in the near future). Before we started our session that day, I had been contemplating many crazy things going on in my life such as at home, in the business, and with neighbors and friends. My thoughts were constantly jumping from conversations I've been having to my to-do-list to facebook notifications on my phone and my time was not being used very productively.
During the session, however, when I was simply paying attention to the breath for 30-45 minutes I was eventually able to get to the point where my mind was supremely calm. I became the observer of thoughts that arose rather than associating myself as the thinker of the thoughts. I believe that it was in passing through that sense of great calm (which became available because of the breath) that I was able to get into a state of bliss where just existing was simple pleasure. My ego was dropped and I just was.
This is the power of the breath. Literally the word we use for breath in Sanskrit is "pranayama" or the very movement of our life force, our qi, the electricity of our nervous system. So can we meditate and never once think about the breath? Yes, you can. That is kind of like meditating without taking a few moments to stretch out the body (doing asanas). While meditation can be done without asanas, this lack can lead to a state where the body becomes uncomfortable in the sitting. In a similar manner, meditation can be done without any focus on the breath, but the mind may remain stuck on the agitations passing through at any moment. Breath brings us to a state of concentration, focus, and calm where meditation can be a productive and healing practice.