By Swami Rama
We are all breathing the same air. There is only one proprietor of all who is supplying life breath to us. Who is giving you this life breath? The Lord of life, who gives it to all. Breath is a direct link with the Lord that you have every day. It’s a perfect philosophy. Besides the philosophical aspect, it is also a practical science that is known to only a fortunate few. Your breath is like a barometer that registers both your mental conditions and physical conditions. Breath is the bridge between the body and your thinking process called mind. In our modern world, we either talk only about the body or about the mind but we have not done much research on the breath. The science of breath is a science unto itself. From the age of three, I have been doing experiments on breath. I have done experiments not only in the traditional monasteries of the Himalayas but also in modern laboratories all over the world. I am talking to you based on this experience and not merely because I have read something somewhere. In ancient scriptures, yogis who do research on the breath are called prana vedins. They can suspend their breath for a long time, even for months and months. You don’t have to go so deep.
What is your body? That something which you can touch, grab, understand is called your body. Your body is composed of five gross elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. It’s like a jar. You break the jar, earth goes to earth, water goes to water, fire goes to fire, all the elements go to their respective elements. It’s a very interesting subject. Look at Figure 1. You are not body alone. Now this body is related to your thinking being. Who connects you with your thinking being? This is not discussed in books. No book explains why your thinking and physical being function together. I have not seen any book like that. So this is your thinking self and this is your physical self. How do the thinking self and physical self function together? There is a link between the two and that is called prana in Sanskrit. In English we call it breath. Life is breath and breath is life. This breath of ours creates a bridge between our thinking process and body. Please pay attention to this diagram, it will help you. Our thinking process is divided into two compartments, the conscious mind and the unconscious mind. There are two guards constantly guarding the city of life and they are called inhalation and exhalation. This is such an important link, but see what the scientists are doing. They talk of body, food, vitamins, exercises; they talk of mind and its analysis; but then nobody talks about the breath, because no one knows. Very few experiments are being done. For pregnant women, they have some breathing exercises. Otherwise no one knows much about breath. “We are all breathing,” they say, “what is there to be learnt?” I say you are breathing, but you are not breathing properly, you are not breathing accurately. There are five main pranas and five secondary pranas in your body. Some of them supply energy to your body and there are others that cleanse your body.
Let us explain this diagram and understand life with it’s currents and cross-currents, with all it’s values. What does the body mean to us? Is the human being a body alone? No. He breathes too. Body without breath has no value, and if we have a body and breath but if there is no thinking, then that human being is also of no use. And if there is a human being who thinks, who breathes and whose body functions, that is also meaningless if he does not direct all his energies, mind, action and speech according to the purpose of life. Inhalation and exhalation are constantly guarding the city of life. Inhalation will become impossible if you do not exhale. Exhalation will become impossible if you do not inhale. If you take proper care of the cleansing systems of your body, your pores, lungs, kidneys and bowels, then the nourishing systems of the body will also remain active. That is why yoga manuals talk about certain kriyas, cleansing methods for your body. These are simple techniques, please do not make things complicated. If somebody says catch hold of your nose, do it directly, don’t go around your head.
Once we have understanding about the body, diet and nutrition, then we have to know how to breathe. We all are breathing but we are not breathing correctly, that’s why we suffer. Diaphragmatic breathing—how healthy it is. If you do not do diaphragmatic breathing, no pranayama can be learned by you. The teachers cannot teach you properly. Many teachers do not understand the importance of deep diaphragmatic breathing and they teach many methods of pranayama and these won’t help. Deep diaphragmatic breathing is primary, something basic, that will help you prepare for pranayama, for higher methods of breathing exercises. Now watch the movement of your abdomen as you breathe. When you push in your abdomen it will help your diaphragm, the healthiest muscle in your body, to push in your lungs which will help you to exhale completely, expelling carbon dioxide. When the abdomen moves outward, it will expand the lungs and create more space for the oxygen. Deep diaphragmatic breathing is very good for your health.
Having learnt to breathe diaphragmatically, you should become aware of four bad habits of breathing. Four no’s. One is, no noise in the breath; two, no shallowness; three, no jerkiness; and fourth, no pause between inhalation and exhalation. Now most of the heart attacks in the world are because of bad breathing. There are other reasons too, but this is one of the primary reasons. I tell you, no cardiologist can challenge me on this. Animals who breathe shallowly do not live for a long time. A yogi does not live the way others live. He lives according to the breath he takes. You can expand your life if you understand this science. Your breath should be deep without any sound. It should not be heavy breathing. Sometimes people snore and you can hear them even in the next building. Jerky breath is also not good for you. Between inhalation and exhalation and also between exhalation and the next inhalation, you create a momentary pause. Pause means death. If I inhale and never exhale, what will happen? I am dead. And if I exhale and then I never inhale, then what will happen? I am dead. Death means pause between inhalation and exhalation. Unconsciously you are creating a pause. Have you seen what children do sometimes? They don’t exhale for some time and they faint. In murcha pranayama, we teach our students to have control over the pause. Don’t allow that pause to be increased. Pause is a killer. A human being is constantly killing many, many tissues of his brain all the time. There are more than 10 billion cells in your brain. And many of these cells are dying all the time. Why? Because of the pause. If that pause expands, we die. Through proper breathing, you can remain healthy. You can maintain your health with simple things. You can protect yourself from many diseases by these preventive methods. You can live for a long time, which you want to, and enjoy the world. But you should have the capacity, you should have strength. And that strength should be inner strength, strength from within.
So when you understand something about these two guards of inhalation and exhalation, you understand a lot about life. In yoga manuals there are three phases of breath mentioned, inhalation, puraka, exhalation, rechaka, and controlled retention or kumbhaka. Pause means kumbhaka. It should be controlled, it should be under your control. Anyone who has controlled the pause is victorious and he is free from the call of death. He has controlled death. That’s how yogis do it. That is pranayama.
Breath is related to your thinking process and to your body, it’s a link. Who’s responsible for maintaining the link? Why do they not fall apart? When you are thinking of going to your office, why do you not go to somebody else’s office? When you are thinking of going home why do you not go to somebody else’s home? What is that coordination between the thinking portion of your self and body? Tell me. Your breath is the bridge between the two, and as long as this breath is intact, you are living. The moment they fall apart it is called death. Separation of this thinking process and body is called death. So as long as we are breathing, these units function together. The moment these two guards cease functioning, separation occurs. What is separation? Death. What is unity? Life. Death is a habit of the body, a deep-rooted habit of the body. You are afraid of it, you don’t want to think about it. “Oh, don’t talk about it, don’t think about it.” You threaten a child that if he cries, the ghost will come and take him away. So it’s the ghost of ignorance that haunts your minds all the time. Once you know what death is, it will not scare you. So now you understand, death means separation, unity means life.
Death does not mean complete annihilation. You live even after death. Yes, your body and conscious mind are separated from your unconscious mind and soul. Your body, breath and conscious mind that function during the waking state constitute your mortal self. The combination of unconscious mind and individual soul is semi-immortal. The individual soul by itself is immortal. When individual soul and unconscious mind separate from the conscious mind, breath, and body, that separation is called death. Here we find a clear definition of death. After one dies, he or she still exists. Many people think that death will free them from all their anxieties, all their problems. Forget it. It’s not possible. It’s just like falling asleep. If you sleep eight hours, how is this going to solve your financial problems? A long night’s sleep is called death. It is never going to solve anyone’s problems. Don’t wait for death. Life’s problems are never solved by death. They should be solved in the living state by us and that can be done here and now.
Wives will often say that their husbands are breathing horribly. How are they breathing? A long inhalation with a short exhalation or a long exhalation with a short inhalation. What is happening to you? This disturbs the motion of the lungs. The lungs are like a fly wheel in the machine called body. All night long, because the lungs of this great machine are disturbed, the right vagus nerve is disturbed, so the pumping station or heart is disturbed and therefore, brain is disturbed. How can you sleep? You can never have a good memory if you breathe like this. Simple thing is, not to allow a long pause. Prana apana gatirudhva pranayama parayana. Prana and apana, inhalation and exhalation, can be controlled very easily. So your sleep is not a good quality sleep, you cannot get rest. What type of rest have you been taking? That’s why in the morning you are not rested. Even eight hours’, ten hours’ sleep, you look as though somebody has beaten you up very badly. Rest should give you freshness of face.
When sleep cannot give total rest, conscious rest is important. Five to ten minutes in the morning and five to ten minutes in the evening you should learn to give rest to yourself through meditation, a simple method. Learn to sit still. If you are not accustomed to sitting cross-legged on the floor, you can sit in this posture called maitreyi asana in the Buddhist scriptures. Place your hands on your knees, close your eyes gently and breathe.
Breathe deeply and diaphragmatically without noise, jerks or pause. Then watch the stream of your breath. You don’t have to search for any other object to concentrate upon. As you watch the flow of your breath, your mind will find it easy to attain, to taste peace. You know what peace is? Peace is a gap between two wars. This peace that you taste is a gap between two thoughts. A thought comes and you get rid of that thought. There is a moment when another thought has not yet come. That period is called peace. If you can expand that moment which is between two thoughts, that is called meditation.
What to do next? I am giving this lesson now for the advanced students. After you have learned how to sit still, after you have learned how to have serene breath, after you have learned how to concentrate on the breath, you’ll find that one of the nostrils remains blocked, that is, less open than the other. Rarely will you find that both nostrils are flowing freely. The activation of the left nostril is called ida and that of the right is called pingala in the yoga manuals. Ida is the moon and pingala the sun, night and day. When the day weds the night, at dawn, there is sandhya or joining of night and day. Similarly, at dusk is the sandhya of day and night. These are the best times for meditation because at these times both nostrils will flow freely, with sandhya between ida and pingala. This sandhya is called application of sushumna (see Appendix D). For sushumna application, learn to concentrate on the space between the two nostrils. Slowly you’ll find both nostrils are flowing freely. When both nostrils start flowing freely, during that time you can never think of anything bad. During this sandhya of the two nostrils you should learn to meditate and you will experience joy, which the rishis, the ancient sages say is the joy of sushumna. This means you should learn to create a situation for your mind to be joyous if you want to meditate.
You can learn how to breathe before you go to bed, before you eat, and in the morning. Three times a day, five minutes at a time it will help you. Deep, easy breathing which does not need much effort. You want to eat the best food but you do not want to breathe properly? That’s not healthy. The moment you wake up, just sit down and make your body still. Now, if a fool eats, he comes out of the dining hall still a fool. If a fool engages in sex, he comes out from his bedroom still a fool. If he sleeps, he wakes up as a fool. But if he goes to meditation he’ll come out as a sage. How to meditate? First step is to be still, then next step is to breathe harmoniously and the third step is to let go.
Now let me tell you something. Your mind and your breath are two great friends, inseparable friends, they work together. Therefore when you train your breath, your mind is being trained, for they live together, they are very close friends. To bring the mind under your conscious control means to train your breath which you can easily do. You can easily control that mind which is called roving mind, and once you are able to do that, you’ll have faith in your practices, you’ll have confidence and then you’ll go beyond. For that, a little bit more effort is required, but nothing is impossible.
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of Swami Rama of the Himalayas