“Of all ebriosity, who does not prefer to be intoxicated by the air he breathes?”—Henry David Thoreau, Walden
The practice of pranayama burns the veil of ignorance covering the true self, or so the scriptures say. But walk into a class where pranayama is taught and you’re likely to see people vigorously pumping their diaphragms in practices like bhastrika and kapalabhati. These practices have far-reaching therapeutic and physical benefits, but working to breathe faster, harder, and longer is not likely to lead to enlightenment.
What appears to be a much simpler practice—resting the attention on the gentle flow of the breath—is a central element in many meditative traditions. Consciously allowing the breath to become smooth, relaxed, and rhythmic refines the nervous system and leads the mind to a place of tremendous clarity and power—right into a state of effortless meditation. It may not seem like an advanced practice, but resting the attention on the gentle wave of the breath for ten or fifteen minutes grants you a glimpse of the flow of energy in your being and in the world around you.
What appears to be a much simpler practice—resting the attention on the gentle flow of the breath—is a central element in many meditative traditions.
It sounds simple, but when you try it you’ll find that attending to the breath with unwavering attention for ten minutes is a challenge. The mind wanders to plans for dinner, the sound of traffic outside the window, or your latest emotional entanglement. Before you know it, several minutes have passed since you even remember taking a breath—you’ve been mentally assembling the grocery list.
Fortunately, practice makes perfect and the technique can be mastered in stages. Here’s a way to begin.
Touch the tip of your thumb to the tip of your little finger while you exhale and inhale. Move your thumb to the tip of your ring finger, then exhale and inhale again. Continue on to the middle finger and the index finger. Let the breath find a steady rhythm without pause or strain while you keep cycling your thumb along your fingertips: back to the middle finger, ring finger, little finger, ring finger, and so on. If you have to stop to use your hand, just pick up again where you left off. When your attention wanders, the flow of your thumb along the fingertips will bring your attention back to the flow of the breath.
The mechanics of this exercise are not as important as practicing with relaxed attention long enough to allow the nervous system and mind to become entrained by the steady, wavelike flow of the breath. You can keep track of your breath by using beads on a string, your footsteps when you are walking, or the tick of a metronome. Whatever you use, the rhythm will eventually quiet your mental chatter and your focus will begin to shift to the more subtle energetic flows that permeate your body and the world around you. With practice, observation will lead to intuitive understanding, opening the door to the true practice of pranayama, the purpose of which is the expansion of the body’s vital force.