A Guide to the Unbroken Breath
When I was an elementary school cello student I had a teacher who regularly said that I should buy a circular cello bow. With an authoritative air, he claimed that a bow made in the shape of a circle would make it possible to play long notes without interruption. It was a fanciful idea, and it didn’t take long to realize that he was pulling my leg. There are no round cello bows. But his suggestion pointed out a fundamental challenge facing string players—that when notes are long, the bow direction must often be changed in the middle of them. This can cause roughness or even a pause in the sound that disturbs the listener’s ear and the continuity of the music.
Every string player works to eliminate such annoyances. Listen carefully to a good cellist playing a smooth and velvety passage, and you’ll hear that changes in bow direction are virtually seamless. This masterful achievement is the result of years of practice, and it is an essential element of artful playing.
Creating almost undetectable bow changes on a string instrument is similar to a practice that lies at the heart of yoga meditation—the creation of smooth, unbroken transitions from one breath to another. Like the limitations placed on string players by the length of the bow, the flow of breathing must adjust to physical limitations. In the case of breathing, the primary limitation is the size of the lungs. The volume of air exchanged with each breath (the tidal volume) is a finite amount (about one-tenth the total volume of the lungs), and at the end of each inhalation and exhalation, the breath must change direction.
When the flow of breathing is interrupted, concentration is broken and the flow of awareness progresses in jumps and starts. Smoothing out the transitions brings a sense of effortless breathing and relaxes the nervous system and mind. And when the flow of breathing is made seamless, concentration deepens and the mind rests. This continuous breathing calms mental agitation, awakens a process of inner self-observation, and reduces distractions that may otherwise disturb a meditative focus. This is the foundation for another sort of music—the lyricism of a collected, relaxed, and concentrated mind. Such unbroken concentration is developed in stages. Let’s look at four of them:
- Seamless breathing in a reclining pose;
- Seamless breathing, sitting up;
- Breathing while feeling the breath at the nostrils;
- Weaving together the sounds of the mantra soham.
To experience the simplest movements in breathing, begin by lying on your back in shavasana (the relaxation posture often called the corpse pose). Position your legs comfortably apart, lengthen your spine, draw your shoulder blades slightly underneath you so that you can relax your shoulders and arms, and support your head and neck with a thin cushion. Then close your eyes.
Soon you will find that you can rest your body and shift your attention to the flow of your breathing. Soften the abdominal muscles and let the abdomen rise with each inhalation and fall with each exhalation. Soften the muscles of the rib cage and let it become still. Your breath will begin to flow effortlessly, without resistance.
Sense each breath as a wave that cleanses and then nourishes you.
Each exhalation empties you, carrying away fatigue and tension. Each inhalation fills you, drawing in fresh energy. When the breath is flowing out, feel it flowing out. And when the breath is flowing in, feel it flowing in. Sense each breath as a wave that cleanses and then nourishes you.
The brain cells that prompt the primary rhythm of breathing are found in the brain stem (in the medulla and pons). They send an impulse down the phrenic nerve to the diaphragm, causing that muscle to contract and initiating an inhalation. Moments later, the nerve impulse to the diaphragm ceases and the muscle relaxes, resulting in an exhalation. Then the process begins again. If you rest very quietly, you will feel the urge to inhale and exhale as an impulse arising without conscious effort. Your body, literally, breathes of its own accord.
As you observe your breathing, shift your attention to the moments of transition from one breath to the next. You can smooth out these transitions with a relatively simple adjustment: At the end of the inhalation, when the abdomen has expanded, simply relax—and let the exhalation begin. At the end of the exhalation, when the abdomen has contracted, simply relax—and let the inhalation begin. By consciously relaxing at the moment when each breath ends, you can weave one breath into the next.
As you even out the connections from one breath to the next, your breath will begin to flow effortlessly. Breathe as if your entire body is breathing—as if every cell and tissue breathes. Quietly witness the feeling of your breathing. Observe each exhalation, each inhalation, and each transition between breaths.
Thoughts will continue to pass through your mind, but they will gradually lose their power to distract you from your focus on the breath. Continue to sense the unbroken stream of your breathing and relax your mental effort even more deeply. Your breath is not hurried, nor pressured—it simply flows in a smooth, unbroken stream. Continue this for a total of 3 to 5 minutes. As you follow each breath, let your mind rest.
Breathing in Sitting Poses
Breathing in reclining poses prepares the mind for even more refined breath awareness practices. The next step in the process is to observe the breath in a sitting posture. To begin, sit erect in a pose that is both comfortable and steady. There are many options—common ones include the cross-legged poses (using cushions for support) or sitting on a flat-seated chair. If you have had little experience with meditation, you can use a wall or the back of a chair for support. Whichever sitting posture you choose, it is important that you elevate your lower back, slightly lift the front of your rib cage and chest, and balance your head and neck. The shoulders release naturally to the sides, and the hands rest on your thighs or in your lap. The reason for all this careful attention is to free your breathing and allow it to flow just as easily in your sitting posture as it did when you were lying down.
Once you have achieved a relatively comfortable posture, be aware of your spinal column, balancing and elongating it from bottom to top. With practice, the energy of the spine will itself seem to lift you. Check on your posture from time to time to see that it remains erect.
The sensations of relaxed breathing in sitting postures differ from those in the corpse pose. As you sit, soften the sides of the lower rib cage so that the ribs and abdomen can expand and contract laterally with each breath. In sitting poses the sensations of breathing are just a little higher in the torso than when you are reclining. In addition, the rate of breathing is noticeably faster (about 8–12 breaths per minute sitting versus 4–8 breaths per minute lying down). Simply observe your breath for a time, letting it settle into a natural pace.
Then, once more, begin to pay special attention to the transitions between breaths. Again, at the end of each breath, initiate the next breath by gently relaxing at the moment of transition. Soon your breathing will become smooth and effortless, and there will be no break in your breathing or in your awareness of the breath.
The Breath in the Nostrils
Each stage of these practices aims at refining your awareness of breathing while improving your ability to sustain concentration and reduce distractions. You may have noticed that it is often at the moments of transition between breaths that attention wanders off. If you can maintain awareness through the change of direction, and if that change can be skillfully negotiated so that it occurs with virtually no pause, then concentration will naturally deepen, even as your mind becomes more relaxed.
The next stage in the process is to feel the touch of the breath as it passes inside the nostrils. This practice is commonly taught in all schools of meditation. Sensations of breath in the nostrils offer a subtle, yet constant focus for attention—constant, that is, if the breath is flowing without pause. But if there are breaks in breathing, then the sensation of the breath will also be interrupted. The goal is to sustain both the flow of the breath and the stream of awareness.
It is not difficult to sense the flow of the breath in the nostrils. Most of us can maintain awareness there for a few breaths with little effort. But the mind is easily satisfied, and after these few breaths, it often wanders away—returning to the breath only infrequently. This is not good enough if you are going to have any success in relaxing and training your mind. You will need to sustain concentration from one breath to the next for longer periods of time.
The engine that drives the breath is the contraction and relaxation of the muscles of respiration. In the first two stages of practice, you established a smooth flow of breathing by relaxing at moments of transition. Continue doing this even as you bring your attention to the sensation of the breath in the nostrils.
As you observe the breath there, weave the sensation of one breath into the next. Feel these transitions without spinning away into other chains of thought. When you feel a distraction coming on, relax and rest your attention on the sensations of the breath until the distracting energies pass through. And if you do wander off, simply bring your awareness back to the breath without further reaction.
Feel these transitions without spinning away into other chains of thought.
In the course of feeling the breath at the nostrils you may sense it as a cushion of air softly moving through the nose. Traveling first in one direction and then the other, each current of air reaches its end, then rounds and turns back the other way. Each breath and each transition between breaths form part of a continuous stream that flows without jerk or pause.
With practice, you’ll find that you can maintain your awareness of the breath for extended periods of time. As you continue you will be able to relax your mental effort more deeply. Then the flow of breath will serve as a deep anchor for your concentration, and awareness itself will be pervaded by a sense of quietness. Once more, you will become the relaxed witness of a mind that is filled by the unbroken sensations of breathing.
The Sound of the Breath
As concentration deepens, the mind is naturally inclined to focus on objects even more subtle than the physical sensation of breathing. A mantra is just such a focus—one that goes beyond sensations by focusing the mind within itself. The principle that we have been working with, the principle of seamless repetition, continues to apply to the use of mantras. In this case, it is the mantra that is recited without interruption.
The mantra used for beginning practice is soham (pronounced so hum). The first syllable of the mantra is recited with the inhalation and the second syllable is recited with the exhalation. The pace of the sound is determined entirely by the natural pace of breathing. Thus, with the breath flowing at its own speed, the syllables so and ham sound in the mind along with the breath. This links the mantra sounds to the unbroken passage of the breath.
Once again, it proves relatively easy to satisfy the mind with a few repetitions of the mantra. Unfortunately, however, this often frees the mind to return to its usual diet of associations and thoughts. But our aim is to gradually focus attention more deeply, so that the mind’s energies are gathered and rest more securely on the mantra sound. The process of linking one mantra repetition to the next reduces the mind’s tendency to ramble and awakens a more inward experience of witnessing than any of the previous practices.
The process of making smooth transitions of sound within the mind involves two separate elements. First, the sound of the mantra must be sustained through the entire length of the breath. If the mantra sound ends before the breath has reached its transition point, the mind will be forced to supply some other thought or impression to fill the time until the breath has ended. Equally important, awareness must be sustained on the sound.
If awareness leaves the sound, then it will search for some other thought with which to occupy itself. But if you weave one sound into the next, retaining awareness of the mantra, you will soon find that your mind relaxes, giving way to a quiet inner presence. Like a musician weaving a melody, you will have woven an experience of being that silently fills your mind. From simple breathing, to breath awareness in the nostrils, to the mind threading its mantric sound from breath to breath, the process of seamless repetition leads inevitably to a quiet mind. That mind is the doorway to spiritual self-discovery.
President and Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute and a clinical psychologist in private practice, Rolf Sovik has studied yoga in the United States, India, and Nepal. He holds degrees in philosophy, music, Eastern studies, and clinical psychology. Former Co-Director of the Himalayan Institute of Buffalo, NY he began his practice of yoga in 1972, and was initiated as a pandit in the Himalayan tradition in 1987. He is the author of Moving Inward, co-author of the award-winning Yoga:... Read more>>