The great teachers of the yoga tradition tell us that the practices of yoga all lead toward an inner center—the core of our being—and that by fixing our attention it is possible to know that center directly. Concentration, they say, will lead us there. But in order to practice concentration we need an object on which to rest our attention. We also need to understand the basic methods of practice.
Learning to Concentrate
The object we choose for concentration may be external—a candle flame or a star, for example. We might also concentrate on a concept that inspires us—the terms peace and love come to mind. But experienced meditators rarely choose such objects. They look for something intrinsic to themselves, an object whose constancy is assured by the fact that it is embodied in our very life. Most begin by focusing on the breath.
If you spend even a little time watching your breath, you’ll find that it temporarily changes the way you use your mind. But this is not a verbal process. Concentration is never about words, it is about awareness, and during breath awareness the language of the mind is the language of respiratory movements and sensations. Concentration flows easily when the tendency to verbalize experience is temporarily quieted. During periods of relaxed concentration we learn to rest in awareness, not far from, but apart from, all the mental chatter that normally occupies and distracts us.
If you spend even a little time watching your breath, you’ll find that it temporarily changes the way you use your mind.
Once an object of concentration is established and the conscious mind is focused, it is inevitable that dormant parts of the mind will awaken, bringing forward distracting objects and energies. Thoughts, dreamlike images, sensory experiences, or the urge to sleep may all arise—even carrying awareness entirely away from its focus. Experienced teachers instruct their students to be mindful of these mental experiences—but to let them come and go. They add that when the mind begins to identify itself with distracting thoughts, it needs to be brought back to its focus. Eventually it is possible to maintain the focus while giving little or no energy to the distractions. But progress is a matter of practicing with these instructions with the right timing and effort. If we recoil too quickly from our distractions, or try too rigidly to preserve our focus, the results are often discouraging, and then self-criticism further undermines the concentration we are trying to maintain.
Start with Breathing
The simple practice of breath awareness is one of the best ways to develop yogic concentration. By resting your attention on various aspects of the breath, increasingly subtle experiences will unfold and transport you toward your center. The following exercise uses the breath for centering the entire personality, and even though it may appear elementary, it is actually quite powerful. To begin, rest on your back in the relaxation posture known as savasana (the corpse pose). Then practice each of the following steps carefully. You will be surprised at how centering yogic concentration can be.
1. Movements of the Breath
Air moves into the body when respiratory muscles contract, and air leaves the body when those same muscles relax. Muscles in the chest wall or side of the rib cage are not engaged in savasana and virtually the entire movement of breathing is experienced in the abdomen. When it is relaxed, the abdomen will rise and fall easily with each breath. These movements are the first focus of breath awareness. They are relatively easy to perceive and with practice this focus can be maintained effortlessly. But in order to breathe comfortably in savasana you will need to relax your abdomen.
Concentration on the movements of breathing usually involves a preliminary period of shaping and deepening the breath, but these efforts must eventually give way to a different kind of work. Concentration is increasingly a process of observing the movements of breathing, not changing them, and it is through sustained awareness of the movements of the abdomen that your attention will begin to rest.
Concentration is increasingly a process of observing the movements of breathing, not changing them.
2. The Feel of the Breath
After following the movements of the body for some time, shift your awareness to the more subtle sensations that accompany those movements. You can feel the air passing through the various passageways leading to the lungs. In through the nose, down the throat, into the lungs, then back out—the lungs empty and fill with each breath.
But an even more profound sensation is the sense of cleansing and nourishing that accompanies the breathing process. Continue watching the breath, and then rest your attention on the feeling of cleansing that occurs with each exhalation and the feeling of nourishing that takes place with each inhalation. Let the process take you deeper. You are no longer simply sensing that the air carries away wastes and draws in fresh nutrients. You are actually feeling that each cell of your body breathes.
As your attention remains resting on the sensations you may find that they give way to the impression that you are a field of energy that is breathing. Your breath has brought you to an even deeper core of steadiness and tranquility.
3. The Touch of the Breath
If you are familiar with any of the seated meditation poses, you may want to sit up now. This position keeps the mind more alert and helps overcome inertia. But the next refinement in concentration can also be done for brief periods lying down.
Begin by returning to the powerful momentum of your breathing—the movements of the body, the emptying and filling of the lungs, the cleansing and nourishing sensations of breathing, and the deep cycles of energy moving within you. Now, with each of these levels of awareness serving as the background for the next, bring your awareness to the touch of the breath flowing in the nostrils. Gradually refine your awareness until you are able to sustain it on the touch of the air as it brushes across the mucus membrane in the nose.
Don’t be in a hurry to establish this focus. At first you’ll find that you can link only a few breaths together before your mind wanders off. (You might try counting the breaths for a time to help join one breath to the next.) But over a number of minutes of practice, you will be able to center your awareness for longer periods of time. Then your concentration will flow smoothly, and competing energies will be far less disturbing.
Don’t be in a hurry to establish this focus.
The touch of breath in the nostrils is a sensation that arises out of the contact between air and nasal tissue. But it is more than that. It is one of the few remaining sensations perceived by a mind whose external senses have been nearly quieted. As a result, the orbiting of the senses around a center of awareness is revealed clearly in this moment of concentration. Normally we are caught up in the sense experience of the moment, but now we can remain alert and relaxed while the senses do their work peacefully.
4. The Sound of the Breath
The final stage of this practice is to shift your awareness to the natural sound of breathing, the sound so-ham (pronounced “so-hum”). Recite the sound haminternally with each exhalation, and the sound so with each inhalation. Yogis say that this mantra provides an even deeper link with the center of consciousness.
At first, continue feeling the touch of the breath as you introduce the sound so-ham to your mind. Then let your attention gradually shift away from the touch of the breath until its presence is the merest prompt for the transition from one syllable to the other. Now your focus of concentration is almost exclusively the sound itself.
The Center Deep Within
The mantra so-ham has many levels of significance. In this exercise we can point out one in particular. It creates a center from which we can observe our own thought patterns: both the mind resting in one thought, and the distracting alternatives that contrast with that focus. If we have allowed our concentration to develop patiently, we will not identify with our thoughts: we will be able to observe them from very nearby—from a center deep within.
In the Bhagavad Gita (13:15) the divine figure Krishna speaks of this center, linking it to the indwelling self. He says, “He is invisible: he cannot be seen. He is far and he is near, he moves and he moves not, he is within all and he is outside all.” These words mean much more to us once we have developed a regular practice of concentration. The experience of concentration does seem to reveal that the center into which we are drawn as we practice yoga is both far and near. It is far when we are over-identified with the various activities of our lives; it is near at the moment of concentration.
Using the breath we can draw ourselves toward that center systematically. Concentration on the breath leads from body to mind, and within. And with even a little practice it awakens the intriguing possibility of moving in our lives from a place of inner stillness.
The Practice in Brief
• Lie in savasana.
• Feel the movement of the body as you breathe.
• Sense the air as it empties and fills the lungs.
• Feel how the breath cleanses, then nourishes.
• Feel as if every cell breathes.
• Watch yourself as a field of energy, breathing.
• Focus on the touch of breath in the nostrils. (You may choose to sit up for this and subsequent steps.)
• Let distracting thoughts come and go without giving them fresh energy.
• Let the sound of breathing (so-ham) flow along with the breath.
• Continue resting in this inner focus as long as you feel comfortable, deepening the stability of your concentration and relaxing.