Breath awareness is an essential part of meditation. Authentic schools of meditation teach breath awareness before leading a student toward advanced techniques of meditation, but some of the modern schools have failed to grasp its significance. This is why their teachers are unable to lead their students to deeper states of meditation.
The mind is in the habit of identifying itself with the objects of the world, and it does not become aware of internal states as long as it remains in this dissipated condition. With systematic discipline, however, the mind starts traveling inward toward the more subtle levels of consciousness, and when one attains a state of perfect stillness and tranquility, that which is beyond the mind reveals itself.
Through meditation, the mind can be trained to remain aware of the present moment, the door to eternity.
Steps of Meditation
In learning to meditate, tranquility of mind is an important factor, but even more important is breath awareness. The primary step is to find a steady, comfortable, and easy posture. The second step is to develop calm, serene, and even breathing. The third is to calm and steady the mind, which is the only means for experiencing the deeper levels of being. The fourth step is to gain control of the conscious mind, for this control can make one dynamic and creative. In the fifth step, the involuntary system and a vast part of the unconscious mind, including the memory, are brought under conscious control, and in the sixth step, the mind becomes aware that it is conditioned by time, space, and causation. Through meditation, the mind can be trained to remain aware of the present moment, the door to eternity. In the seventh step, constant awareness is developed through the regular practice of meditation, and the highest state, turiya, is attained. This state is full of bliss, peace, happiness, and wisdom.
After serious observation and analysis of its functionings, yogis have found that the mind forms the habit of being conditioned, either by remembering past experiences or by imagining the future. There is no technique that helps it to become aware of the present except that of meditation and contemplation. But meditation is not a method of allowing the mind to roam aimlessly. It is a conscious effort of coordinating the body, the breath, and the mind. In the monastic tradition, teachers do not teach the advanced techniques of meditation unless they see the signs and symptoms of stillness of the body and serenity of the breath developing in the student.
When a student learns to still his body, he becomes aware of many tremors, twitchings, and movements that he was not conscious of before. Since childhood he has learned to move, but no one has taught him how to be still, and sitting still is very important, for the less movement there is in the body, the steadier the mind will be. All of the tremors of the body are caused by an undisciplined and untrained mind. When a student examines his behavior, he finds that not a single act or gesture is independent. The mind moves first, and then the body moves—and the more the body moves, the more the mind dissipates. When the student has learned to be still, however, and begins practicing the techniques of breath awareness and meditation, he discovers that he can have conscious control over his body, breath, and mind.
So the first thing one must learn is to sit still. The right posture is one that makes one steady and comfortable, and it is one in which all or most of the body parts are free from the pressure of other body parts.
Sukhasana (Easy Pose)
Sitting with the head, neck, and trunk straight, place the left foot beneath the right knee and the right foot beneath the left knee. Each knee rests on the opposite foot. Place the hands on the corresponding knees and apply jnana mudra (the finger lock). This is a posture for beginners.
Svastikasana (Auspicious Pose)
In ancient times, the svastika was a symbol of divine blessings. In this posture, the heels and ankle bones are not aligned. Bend the left leg at the knee and place the sole of the left foot against the right thigh. Place the right foot on top of the left calf, and put the outer edge of the foot and the toes between the thigh and calf muscles. The big toe should be visible. Pull the toes of the left foot between the right thigh and calf so that the big toe is visible. Place the hands on the corresponding knees, joining the fingers in jnana mudra.
Siddhasana (Accomplished Pose)
A favorite of yogis, siddhasana is called the accomplished posture, or the posture of adepts. In it advanced yogis meditate for hours and hours at a time or practice advanced pranayama techniques. Place the left heel at the perineum and the right heel at the pubic bone, above the organ of generation. Arrange the feet and legs so that the ankles are in one line or touch one another. Place the toes of the right foot between the left thigh and calf so that only the big toe is visible. Pull the toes of the left foot up between the right thigh and calf so the big toe is visible. This is the finest of all postures, but it could be uncomfortable for those who are not advanced.
Padmasana (Lotus Pose)
Padma means “lotus.” It is a symbol of yoga because just as the lotus grows in the water but keeps its petals untouched by the water, so does the yogi live in the world and yet remain above. Immense benefits are derived from this posture. To do it you should take your place firmly on a cushion (or a fourfolded blanket or a pillow). Bend the left leg at the knee joint; turn up the sole and place the foot firmly at the right groin. Similarly, fold the right leg, turning up the sole and placing it firmly at the left groin. Both heels should press firmly against the abdominal wall. Place the hands on the corresponding knees and assume jnana mudra. Applying bandhas, or locks, in this posture is complicated, and without expert guidance they should not be applied. Applying bandhas in padmasana for a long time definitely disturbs the intestinal movement and creates gastric problems. As an exercise, however, padmasana is one of the finest for the abdominal muscles.
Maitri Asana (Friendship Pose)
For a modern man it is sometimes more convenient to sit on a straight-backed wooden chair, keeping the head, neck, and trunk straight and placing the hands on the knees. The legs should not be crossed but firmly placed on the ground. Buddhist scriptures describe this posture.
Vajrasana (Kneeling Pose)
Sit in a kneeling position with the buttocks resting on the heels and the head, neck, and trunk straight. Rest the hands, palms downward, above the knees. This posture is mostly practiced in non-yogic traditions such as Zen and the Islamic tradition. It can also be used for meditation, but if a practitioner assumes this position without adequate flexibility in the feet and ankles or holds this position for an extended period of time, injury to muscles, tendons and/or ligaments of the feet and ankles may occur.
Breath awareness is a reliable guide for experiencing the higher levels of consciousness.
Having attained a comfortable, stable, and easy posture, the student will then be able to become aware of his breath. Breath awareness is a reliable guide for experiencing the higher levels of consciousness and for making the mind one-pointed. It prepares the meditator for applying sushumna, the state of mind that is undisturbed and joyous.
Editor’s note: In the next and final post in this series, Swami Rama explains how breath awareness, leading to sushumna, is the key to a deep and joyful meditation.
Source: Science of Breath by Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine, MD, and Alan Hymes, MD