Breath awareness is vital for a student who wants to learn the higher techniques of meditation. It leads to the awakening of sushumna, the state of mind that is undisturbed and joyous.
Sushumna occurs when the breath starts flowing freely and smoothly through both nostrils. Such a mental condition is necessary in order for the mind to travel into deeper levels of consciousness, for if the mind is not brought to a state of joy, it cannot remain steady, and an unsteady mind is not at all fit for meditation. Another school of yoga, which teaches the awakening of kundalini (latent pranic energy), says that without awakening sushumna, deep meditation and the awakening of kundalini are impossible. There are only three techniques for applying sushumna: breath awareness concentrating on the bridge between the two nostrils (best done after nadi shodhana); doing pranayama breathing exercises while applying jalandhara bandha; and meditating on the chakra system.
The process of awakening sushumna is possible only when a student starts enjoying being still.
The process of awakening sushumna is possible only when a student starts enjoying being still. When he sits in a calm, quiet place in a comfortable, steady posture, and when body tremors are not a source of disturbance, he can start meditating on the flow of breath. The moment he does, he becomes aware of four irregularities in the breath: shallowness, jerks, noise, and that which disturbs him the most—the pause between inhalation and exhalation.
Much has been spoken about this pause in the scriptures, but practice makes one increasingly aware of its importance. When a student starts meditating on the flow of breath, the pause distracts his mind. Some of the scriptures say that the pause can be expanded; some say it can be omitted. In the beginning, however, one has to go through the exercises of pranayama and later the exercises of breath retention under the guidance of a competent teacher. Those who do not want to do pranayama exercises can still do meditation, but without breath awareness, a deep state of meditation is impossible.
In breath awareness, the duration of inhalation and exhalation is carefully judged mentally, and the mind closely and intimately follows the movement of the breath. Here lies the difference between breathing exercises (pranayama) and breath awareness. In breathing exercises, one is taught to keep a count of the amount of air inhaled and exhaled, but in breath awareness it is done mentally only. No fingers are used to close the nostrils. Through breath awareness, the power of attention is strengthened, and attention is the very key to meditation. In breath awareness, there is no external distraction, and attention is not dissipated. We are not discussing breathing exercises here—breath awareness is an advanced technique; it truly comes after one has practiced the various exercises of breathing described earlier.
The breath is a bridge between body and mind. Advanced yogis observe that the breath is like a thermometer that registers the conditions of the mind and the influence of the external environment on the body. Those who have studied their breath behavior also know their mental and physical behavior. Their lives are guided by their control of svaras (life ripples).
Advanced yogis use their breath behavior to watch the capacity of their mind and body.
The behavior of the breath can also warn of illness. For example, when the body suffers from fever, the nostrils start behaving in an unusual way. One of them, for instance, may either start flowing excessively or become blocked for an extended period. In such a condition, the respiratory system does not function normally; the lungs, heart, and related systems are disturbed, and the mind loses its equilibrium. Advanced yogis use their breath behavior to watch the capacity of their mind and body, and they control the behavior of their breath with various exercises.
The breath and the mind are interdependent. If one retains the breath, his mind starts becoming one-pointed; if the breath is irregular and jerky, the mind is dissipated. After attaining a steady posture, meditation on the breath, or breath awareness, is natural.
Breath awareness strengthens the mind and makes it easier for it to become inward. When the mind starts following the flow of the breath, one becomes aware of the reality that all the creatures of the world are breathing the same breath. There is a direct communication between the student and that center of the cosmos that supplies breath to all living creatures. This is a living philosophy. As long as the inner unit in life receives prana (vital force) through the breath, the body-mind relationship is sustained. When this communication is disrupted, the conscious mind fails and the body is separated from the inner unit of life. This separation is called death.
Various schools recommend different objects for making the mind one-pointed. These are both concrete and abstract; for example, they can be sound syllables, mantras, or images, but none of these objects is helpful in the long run without breath awareness. It is advisable for beginners to develop the habit of breath awareness and not to worry about any other kind of object for the mind to rest upon, for breath awareness is a most natural and essential step for attaining the higher state of meditation.
Meditation is the sustained state of one-pointedness of mind. In deep meditation, the one-pointed mind is able to pierce through the layers of the conscious and unconscious minds to the superconscious state. This breakthrough is called samadhi. On achieving it, one is freed from all bondage and transcends the limitations of time, space, and causation. The microcosm expands to become the macrocosm, just as a drop of water merges with the ocean and becomes the ocean. The individual atman (soul) is united with, and achieves total identity with, the cosmic Brahman (higher reality). Such a one has found the kingdom of God within himself and has won the ultimate freedom—freedom from the endless chain of birth and death. The evolution of man to God is now complete.
Source: Science of Breath by Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine, MD, and Alan Hymes, MD