Monthly Message
Secrets of Breathing and Meditation
Brian Afton
YogaBetsy Discourse Number 19

  We tend to think of food as providing our energy but the truth is that half of your energy comes from the air, that is a law of chemistry.    Depending on the circumstances, your body can go without food for perhaps 40 days but most people will lose consciousness after only two or three minutes without air.  This tells us something about the relative importance of these two things and it is why traditional yoga places such emphasis on breathing.

  The reason for the great disparity between the importance of food vs air is explained by a central principle in all the eastern systems of medicine and martial arts.  It occurs because the life force, Prana or Chi, rides into your body with the air.  It is not just the oxygen.  Life force uses air as a vehicle and we are renewed and, in a very real sense, recreated every time we breathe.

  All the eastern healing systems and the martial arts had their origins in the Yogic traditions of India.  In our time and day, adepts of the various martial arts use their breath and concentration to direct and control the flow of energy in their bodies to produce explosive strikes and kicks.  It can also be used for health and healing which is our primary focus in yoga.  

  When you breathe you should be relaxed and the diaphragm should be pulled down until the stomach, not the chest, actually moves out.  This action should be smooth and continuous without holding the breath between inhalations and exhalations. Most people would find that vast amounts of tension simply melted away if they would learn to do only this much.

  People today are worried about their diets and getting exercise but they should be far more concerned about breathing badly.  Most people engage in chest breathing, shallow breaths just sufficient to keep them going.  This is almost always coupled with other bad habits including poor posture, shoulders rammed up towards their ears, and muscles tensed up all over their bodies.

  This is not the minor problem it might appear to be!  Tension of this kind releases stress chemicals which should be burnt off with physical activity but are not.  That sets off a host of other reactions, all of which are bad.  Additionally, keeping muscles tensed up like this also drains away huge amounts of energy, far more than you might think, because the process is continuous.

  The study of yoga counteracts these problems by bringing you into touch with yourself.  The postures stress the body in a way  which trains you to process the associated stress.  Eventually you will begin to recognize stress when it occurs outside the class and deal with it effectively there too.

  Unless you learn to get in touch with your body not only will you fail to recognize that you are being stressed, you will collect it and build it into yourself on a continuous basis.  This can begin a stress cycle that feeds upon itself with each increment of stress giving rise to even more stress.

  This is one reason why traditional yoga includes meditation.  It will open our eyes to situations of that kind.  Meditation is not meant for tuning out the world.  It is a tool used to obtain access to a much deeper understanding of ourselves and everything else.

   People also rarely realize that they need to control their thinking.  Meditation is an important tool in the process of doing that.  The fact is, you cannot allow your mind to just ramble about seizing on anything which presents itself.  The reason this is so dangerous is because of the way we are built.  As it turns out, we have two minds.  We have the conscious awareness which we identify as being “me” but we also have a subconscious mind.

  Exactly what this subconscious mind consists of is a matter of some dispute among academics to this day.  In the context of yogic tradition and for our purposes here, your subconscious is your autonomic and sympathetic nervous system and the controlling intelligence which resides in every system and every single cell in your body.  It is axiomatic in yoga that we have intelligence and consciousness in every single cell in our bodies, not just in our brains.

  It is this “other” intelligence which does most of the actual running of our bodies.  We may, with our conscious mind, decide to lift our arm but it is the subconscious which attends to the actual doing of it.  In fact, all of our so-called voluntary acts are ultimately under the control of the subconscious because that is what it does.  It takes instructions from you and executes them.   It sees what you see, it hears what you hear, it feels what you feel, it never sleeps, it knows everything you know and it remembers everything.  It is not fooled for an instant by wishful thinking or platitudes and it has one other quality which is worthy of special consideration: it is incredibly powerful.

So, we have two minds.  One of them is a hell of a lot stronger than the other one and over 99% of the time we haven’t got the slightest idea of what the stronger one is doing.

  All you may be sure of is that it is following your instructions and, unfortunately, you probably do not even remember what they were or when you gave them, or if they were good instructions or bad instructions. This should be a matter of some concern to you.  You have undoubtedly heard the saying that you are what you eat, but I wonder if you realize that you will also become what you think?  Not what you wish and hope but what you really believe and constantly hold in mind.

  The mechanics of this involves something which is increasingly being called the mind-body connection by Science.  These two things are not as separate as it was once believed.

   Stress and ill health are not always purely physical in origin.  A thought is most definitely not, nothing!  Bad news can affect you physically.   An idea can not only change the way you feel and act, it may alter the very context of your life and the way in it unfolds.  This is far from being nothing and if the thought is a command to the subconscious the importance of it is even more compelling.

  One continuous source of bad news and misinformation is the media.  This can be very upsetting and our nervous system is simply not equipped to deal with it all the time.   However, many of the worst, and most destructive thoughts arise from within ourselves.  These can be the most dangerous to us because they are taken for granted.

  If a man eating tiger brought up an idea you would regard it with great suspicion because we do not trust man eating tigers.  But when a thought originates within our own mind, we do not screen and consider it in the way that we should.  We are not likely to ask ourselves, is this a good thought, or a bad thought?  Will this line of thinking lead to good things, or bad things?  Should this line of thinking continue or not?  We have that choice and it is important because our subconscious mind is systematically building our thoughts into what we are.

  Mind-body processes can be very slow, but they tend to be inexorable.  None of us was born being able to ride a bicycle or drive a car.  We had to learn how.  This took time and was not simply a matter of exercising muscles. Each one of our fumbling efforts was refined and literally built into our nervous system as a habit by the subconscious.  Our muscles and associated body systems literally changed during the process.

   As adults we no longer think about walking, swimming or driving a car.  We consider only the highest level inputs in the process: Where we are going, how fast etc.  The subconscious mind takes care of the all details, millions of them.

  The thing is, the exact same process is going on with everything else you think. Our thoughts can affect and change body systems we do not think of as being voluntary.   It takes time for these things to occur but they tend to manifest inexorably.  Moreover, this  will  also manifest  to some degree in the external world because the way we behave seriously influences what happens there. 

  So, it is very important to learn to control our thinking.  The yoga postures bring us into touch with our bodies, with meditation we start to gain control of our minds.  Just because a thought pops into our consciousness doesn’t mean we should allow that line of thinking to continue.  Just because someone or some special interest group says something does not mean we are obliged to take the bait and allow them to control how we feel or what we think about.

   Most of us have the same thoughts over and over again. This usually involves things which happened in the past or may happen in the future.  Unfortunately, we have no power there and if we are giving up all our energy to do this there will necessarily be less to do anything with today.  Uncontrolled thinking of this kind is a direct cause of continuous failure for many people.

  On the plus side, we can focus on constructive thoughts and develop good habits instead of bad ones.  We can control our thinking and direct it in avenues which are profitable.   The thing is, we do not have the slightest chance of succeeding at that unless we learn to develop concentration. That is a big part of what meditation is about.   It is not easy to give a clear explanation of exactly what meditation is. Its purpose is to get in touch with your inner self.

  Unfortunately, it is not always clear to everyone just exactly what the inner self is.  At its simplest, your inner self is your subconscious mind, not exactly in the sense that contemporary psychology thinks of it but in the traditional yogic sense of the controlling energy and consciousness which resides in every single cell and system in our bodies.  This energy and consciousness is associated with and is a part of a universal consciousness which pervades the entire universe.
   We are all different so no single meditation method works for everyone.  Generally most approaches involve stilling the external senses and turning our focus inward.  This is not easy for most people to do.  Their concentration will be continuously interrupted by external stimuli and a flood of unwanted thoughts.

  It is almost impossible for most people to stop thinking because their objective mind, always on the lookout for saber toothed tigers, problems to solve, judgments to cast is not structured to work that way.   That is what the ego or conscious mind does, it keeps you alive in the external world.  By its very nature the ego does not want to be still and quiet, and it will take practice to change that.

  Nevertheless, these distractions to our meditations are very important.  If we can learn to be honest with ourselves, they will eventually reveal the ego for what it really is.  Everyone else sees our egos, but we usually can’t.  For most of us, meditation is the only process ever likely to accomplish that.

  During meditation, the ego cannot be fought.  Neither meditation or enlightenment can be forced.  What is required is being quiet and getting out of our own way.  This means gently shifting our focus back to the meditation without passing judgment on the intruding thought or distraction.  Typically the student is told to keep their spinal columns straight and to focus their attention on their forehead Chakra, which is located at their pituitary gland.  This lies approximately in the center of the skull just behind and above the nasal passage.

  Students are also sometimes instructed to breathe into the forehead Chakra or Third Eye using their mantra if they have one, or using the mantra so-hum if they do not.  The mantra is not spoken out loud.  If so-hum is used, it is “so” on the inhalation, “hum” on the exhalation.  Some people also count.  One, two.  Generally the less method which is used the better.  

  What will happen is not easy to predict.  Some people achieve enlightened states in this manner.  This may include feelings of love and well being, it may include being enveloped in light and it may include the transfer of knowledge.  Often what happened will not be remembered or realized for some space of time.

  It is true that energy flows through energy channels and the seven charkas in a certain way during enlightened states but you cannot force it to do that, nor should you try.  If your concentration, development and intention are correct all of that will take care of itself.

  In certain traditions the state being sought is called Nirvana which is often translated as being nothing.  However, when we have transcended vanity, envy, inconstancy, insincerity, and false judgment; when we have set aside the personal ego and learned how to shut up and get out of our own way what will be left is not nothing, it is everything.

  At that point the gate is open, the blind can finally see, the deaf can finally hear.  People do not realize it but they tend to see the world not as it really is but as they really are.  Just that much is a great lesson.  When the ego is transcended, our lives will change in many ways.

© Copyright 2010 Brian Afton 109 South 6th St Olean, NY 14760