Yesterday I wrote about how difficult I find it, at times, to pay attention. I’m finding the practice of mindfulness meditation gradually helping me improve my concentration.
Another aid for focussing the mind is the practice of pranayama – attention to the breath. Today I wanted to link back to Patanjali and his Sutra regarding pranayama. The Old Sage’s teachings connect the practice of the yoga postures, attention to breath and the development of concentration.
How do they all work together?
When we are skilfully practising yoga, we perform the asanas with a balance of sthira and sukha (strength and ease). With this approach, we find ourselves breathing in a natural, unforced way.
The meditation posture that we adopt for doing pranayama follows from what we have learned in asana practice. We sit comfortably, yet erect, stable and relaxed.
Sutra II:50 suggests ways of observing your breath:
It involves regulation of the exhalation, the inhalation and the suspension of the breath.*
- You direct your awareness to your breathing without changing it. You just observe it.
- You notice how you breathe: how air enters your nostrils and makes its way to your lungs. You may note a feeling of fullness there, then there’s the release of air, the exhalation.
- You observe any bodily changes: the chest lifts on the inward breath, settles back on the outward; the ribcage expands, then releases.
- If you are a deep breather, you might feel like the breath is going right down into your stomach. Of course it’s not doing that, but the diaphragm pressing down on the waist muscles and the abdominal organs gives that impression.
- Notice if your outward breath is more prolonged than the inward, or the other way around.
- Note if, after you breathe out, you immediately breathe in, or is there a time of suspension? After the inward breath do you hold your breath for a bit before breathing out?
- Don’t attempt to change your breathing or try to breathe any better. You simply observe any changes that take place, and go along with them. Finally, you may notice that your breathing has gradually become smoother and more prolonged, lighter and more delicate.
All this breath awareness leads to Sutra II:51 and the fourth element of the breath – where breathing becomes prolonged and delicate – where we may no longer notice whether we are breathing in or breathing out.*
- Now, the mind is moving into stillness, and as the stillness deepens, the mind notices less and less.
- There’s a letting go of the business of breathing in and out
- There may even be suspension in the very breath-stream itself, usually unnoticed, the quality of serenity in the midst of tranquillity.
- You observe and go with the breath, including any changes that occur.
- You could say, at this point, that it is not I that is breathing; the lungs are doing the breathing. You are the observer. You are one step closer to realisation of the self as observer, as the one who sees.
- This reminds us of Sutra I:3 – The Seer abiding in his own very nature…. You are the seer, watching the lungs at work.
In the progression towards concentration – dharana – we come to Sutra II:52, which translates as:
By that, the veil over the light is diminished.*
- With right practice of breath awareness the seer will begin to see ‘praksa’ – the light.
- ‘Avarana’ – the veil – will gradually be removed. (The screen that hides the light is our distorted vision of our true selves.)
- The identification with the body, mind and personality distract us from sensing the real self.
Sutra II:53 brings us to the emergence of concentration:
And there is fitness of mind for concentration.*
- In our ordinary lifestyle we show up as distracted – doing two or more things at once. Reading the paper and sipping coffee. Walking along and looking in shop windows. Studying hard and listening to our favourite music. Having a meal and talking all through it. Driving our car and talking on our hands-free phones.
- No wonder it’s had to practice mindful meditation. Our minds say, “Who me? I’ve never done that before. You’re going to have to show me how!”
- We usually try to fix the mind on one point and keep it there, but it takes a lot of effort. This is unskilful practice! II:46 Sthira-sukham asanam says to do practice with relaxation of effort.
- The idea is to move into stillness, smoothly, gradually. If you dive in, you’ll just make a big, noisy splash.
- Let distractions come and go without fixating on them. Let them pass on by like cars driving by your house.
- With practice there will be more and more minutes of stillness within your meditation practice, and they will happen sooner.
- We’re not forcing the mind. We’re giving it something to attend to.
- By focusing on posture awareness in our asana practice, even when our minds are active – checking that we are firm and relaxed in our poses – we are lead to stillness and tranquillity.
- Breath awareness accomplishes this for the mind (manas). We use that energy that surges in the mind to examine and observe the breathing process.
- The result is that a fully occupied mind has no room for distractions. There’s plenty to attend to.Examining gives way to attending, which drifts into detachment, and develops fitness for concentration.
*Patanjali’s Meditation Yoga, translation and commentary by Vyn Bailey