Yogic Breathing—the Secret Meaning
Have the secrets within the Wisdom Teachings of Asia
been fully and openly offered to the West?
Or are there hidden meanings, processes, and depths
that were deemed too powerful for fragile egos to handle?
During the early part of the 20th century, the Gemini-Pluto generation of the West—ever the curious ones!—developed a deep fascination for the exotic East. There were explorers and philosophers, and ‘procurers of antiquities’. And, as was also their style, they exhibited an unquenchable thirst for a ‘quick path’ that would lead them to some form of spiritual (or at least cultural) Shangri-La. Some may have even sought Wisdom.
But the eyes of the East were vigilant in recognising this Western propensity for the quick-&-easy, and so held back many of the Teachings that were at the core of the East’s extraordinary, and ancient, discoveries concerning ‘mind’.
It is only through studying diligently with authentic Teachers, steeped in a lineage of centuries, that we can see beyond the veils. My efforts have been minor in the broad sense of the devotion of others, but I have been blessed to have picked up a thing or two from especially the Tibetan Teachers I’ve had the privilege to study with, and from the Commentaries on the ancient Teachings that many had written in the past as their extraordinary legacy.
And even though most of us still lean toward the quick-&-easy left-brained approach, in our technological ‘Google-it’ culture, it is possible to find the deeper meaning in practices that on the surface seem to be purely physical or easy.
A CASE IN POINT
Some of the more enlightened Western yogic practices have included the ‘Nine Breaths‘ or ‘alternate nostril-breathing‘ technique. However, this technique has been described to us largely in physical terms, without the accompanying visualisations that are not simply an adjunct to the physical structure of the asanas, but the point of the entire exercise!
This is odd because prana is understood as the life-force itself, in a similar way to ch’i in China and ki in Japan, yet Western people oblige the certified Western yoga teacher through mechanically repeating these nine steps by rote, as if the sheer doing of the thing will bring some miraculous benefit at the end.
Just as an aside, I can’t keep quiet about my personal favourite gripe: the absurd practice in the West of referring to a chakra point as a ‘shaahkra’. The official transliteration from Sanskrit into the Roman alphabet has a very short ‘a’ almost like the ‘u’ in cut; and ‘c’ is always pronounced as ‘ch’ as in ‘church’ (leaving ‘k’ to be pronounced as in kite). Rolling the ‘r’ very slightly on the tongue is more authentic, but not necessary. The original English transliteration is ‘cakra’, which means ‘wheel’.
Little did we know,
Mind is everything!
Hatha Yoga has been viewed in the West—at least since the 1960s—as not much more than a health-restoring maintenance program, like a trip to a gym, to keep us supple and active into our later years. The general public never questioned its routine practices for any further depth. And Hatha Yoga has become such a fad of our times, that it has been distorted and renamed and twisted into more shapes than its own asanas could describe!
But there were a small number of Western yoga teachers who were determined to seek out the true gurus, and the source, of this ‘physical form’ of yoga, even travelling all the way to India on their quest for truth and authenticity.
And some did find it, despite masters of each of the ancient Asian traditions being reluctant to unveil a truth that could burn the minds of their egoistic visitors from the ‘quick-path-seeking’ technological West.
What has been missing in the West, from most of the teachings of hatha yoga (and also other rejuvenative systems, such as tai chi, for that matter—one teacher explaining the original martial arts references to us: “now you are breaking the wrist, dislocating the elbow”… UGH!), is the mental counterpart of the exercise: the actual visualisations.
I started practising alternate nostril breathing in 1968, when I was just thirteen years of age. I watched it being taught on television by Swami Sarasvati, who is still alive in Australia today. And when I was eighteen, I found a book that elaborated a little more on this technique. Swami Sarasvati may have described the process in more detail, as was her style of teaching, but I was probably too young (and still too ‘Westernised’) to understand the nuance of what she was revealing.
I have since explored the Nine Breaths technique further via Tibetan Buddhist Teachings, particularly Buddhist Tantra (even though still watered down for us), to gain more insight into the body-mind phenomenon as well as the energetics of the life-force which are said to stem from ‘mind’.
The following is a description of the metaphysics of the process of this breathing technique (lifted from my own Reiki Level One Course booklet—you will find authentic Buddhist references below), followed by a step-by-step description including the visualisations the mind should be focusing on, simultaneously, to make this practice more deeply effective and meaningful for personal change.
This is a simple & brief process
that can be a great start to your day
or to any other meditative practice
The Nine Breaths Meditation*
This sequence of NINE BREATHS can be done
before any meditation practice, and is a meditation in itself.
It is used to calm the mind, as well as being a practice
to dissolve our most basic poisonous emotions.
Sit in a comfortable meditation posture (cross-legged or in a chair, to suit); spine straight, shoulders level, chin slightly down (not up!), and looking downwards (which keeps your spine and head in a straight line at the back of your neck). Visualise your body as being empty, transparent like a rainbow.
Your central channel, the sushumna, runs parallel to, and slightly in front of, your spine. It is hollow, about an index fingers’ thickness (white on the outside and red on the inside). Its top end curves like an umbrella handle over the top of your crown, ending between your eyebrows. Its lower end is 4 finger-widths below your navel. This channel relates to our awakened mind when clear-flowing; or to our ignorance when blocked. (So, you can see the importance of keeping this clear.)
Your right energy channel (pingala, or rasana) is straight and runs close to your central channel on the right.
It opens at your right nostril, travelling over the back of your head and down to its lower end about 6 finger-widths below your navel where it joins the left channel.
Visualise this as red, as thick as a stalk of wheat.
This channel relates to the ‘sun’ symbolically and our equanimity when flowing freely; or conversely, our anger/hatred when blocked.
It can generate heat.
Your left energy channel (ida, or lalana) is the same thickness as the right channel.
It opens at your left nostril, travelling over the back of your head and down its lower end about 6 finger-widths below your navel where it joins the right channel.
Visualise this channel as white.
This channel relates to the ‘moon’ symbolically and our detachment when flowing freely; or to our desire/attachment when blocked.
It is cooling.
As you breathe in during this practice, visualise all the great wisdom, compassion and blessings from the Highest Beings in your sphere of reality (Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Archangels, God, Great Spirit, the Cosmos, the Tao itself, etc.).
As you breathe out, you can visualise black smoke leaving you and dissolving into light outside of you, or being sent to the stars where it is transmuted into purified consciousness—whatever appeals to you.
First 3 Breaths
- Close your left nostril with your left ring-finger¹, and breath in slowly through your right nostril; without pausing unnaturally, switch hands to close your right nostril with your right ring-finger and breath out through your left nostril.
- Visualise the two side channels as being joined together at their base, creating a smooth movement into one and out via the other.
- While Breathing In: Visualise your breath as white rays of cleansing light flowing down the right channel and accumulating in the left where the defilement of desire/attachment had been blocked-in.
- Breathing out: through left nostril, visualise your desire/attachment flowing out as black rays of smoke or dark light, and being transmuted.
- Repeat this entire process 2 more times, increasing the force on the out-breath each time (the first being natural and gentle).
- It is important to see yourself being cleansed and purified by breathing out all your impure desire/attachment energy.
SECOND 3 BREATHS
- Close your right nostril with your right ring-finger, breath in slowly through your left nostril; switch hands to close your left nostril with your left ring-finger and breath out, without pausing unnaturally.
- Visualise the two side channels as being joined together at their base.
- Breathing in: Visualise your breath as white rays of cleansing light flowing down the left channel and accumulating in the right where the defilement of fearful anger/hatred had been blocked-in.
- Breathing out: through right nostril, visualise your anger/hatred flowing out as black rays of light, so that you are purified of all anger and irritations.
LAST 3 BREATHS
- Rest both hands on top of your knees; breathe in and out of both nostrils with equal time, visualising the ends of the 2 side channels inserted into the bottom of the central channel.
- Breathing in: visualise your breath as white rays of cleansing light flowing down both side channels and accumulating in the central channel where the defilement of ignorance had been blocked-in. (This is our ignorance of True Reality, being the present moment with no expectations or projections.)
- Breathing out: visualise your false concepts, ignorance of true reality, flowing out from your breath and brow as black rays of light, so that you are now filled with Wisdom.
- Rest peacefully in that space for a while, or continue to meditate in your own way.
The Three Poisons
This Nine Breaths Meditation helps to dissolve the Three Poisons of mind which The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, had realised to be the essence of what creates our own suffering in life.
Our grasping and clinging to a self that is impermanent is a futile exercise and leaves us grasping for more things, people, accoutrements, to solidify our sense of self-validation and survival. No matter how much we manage to accumulate, we are never satisfied. We are constantly pulling things toward ourselves. The peace of mature detachment eludes us while we grieve for the things and people we have lost.
Our hatred and aversions in life cause us great suffering as we push away things, people, circumstances, that we fear. Most of our daily fears are personal for us, and based on the conditions of past events. We cannot gain the peace of equanimity while we are still easily angered.
Both of these polarities, the pulling and pushing, are based on our ignorance of true reality. We tend to believe that all conditions are permanent, that everything is as real as our physical senses have been programmed by the brain to tell us they are. But the ‘solid’ world is made of vibrational frequencies that your brain interprets and paints for you.
These are difficult concepts that take a lot of contemplation to realise. But nonetheless, it should seem obvious to you that anger and grasping do not bring you peace. The wisdom of Spiritual reality is much closer to the Truth. And Compassionate Wisdom is the only path to peace and equanimity.
So give this meditation primer a try. The mind is infinitely powerful, and you may find that each day you are becoming more settled and accepting of life, without any trace of the dissatisfied victim or angry warrior.
And then you can go out into the world, fearlessly, to live your Exceptional Purpose for the benefit of us all!
. . . The most important thing is to remember to BREATHE!
Please do leave a comment, below. Tell us what you think, and if you have tried this practice, or are willing to give it a go. I’d love to hear your feedback.
↑ Technique from The Great Seal of Voidness, 1st Panchen Lama (1570-1662); cited in Four Essential Buddhist Texts (Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, revised 1982).
¹ The precise fingers used differ between various Tibetan teachers. In Lama Yeshe‘s account in his book, The Bliss of Inner Fire (Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications, 1998), he states that one should hold the left nostril closed with the back of the right index finger; in the next round, the right nostril is then blocked with the front of the same right index finger (in this way you don’t need to switch hands).
Lama Yeshe had also suggested that if you prefer to associate with the blessings of the Mother Tantra, you may begin by breathing through the left nostril, the female side.
Lama Tsongkhapa (14th century founder of the Gelugpa Tibetan order) had taught to begin this meditation by breathing in through the right nostril.
Accompanying my teenage practice of hatha yoga in 1968, I was later introduced to a style of this process that did not use any finger at all! One was to visualise the prana/breath moving in one nostril and out the other. With some practice, it is actually possible to control this flow of air with the mind alone.
—Obviously, these matters are a point of choice for you, so do what is most comfortable and feels right: remember, intention is everything. ↑
You will find more on my Reiki courses at my dedicated site BodhimindReiki.com.
Note: One of my forthcoming 2020 books elaborates on the various Pluto sub-generations and the transiting effects of Pluto in this regard. Stay connected to get the publishing dates and discounts.