Breathing Lessons


By Larry Rosenberg  |  

When yogis begin a meditation practice, they tend to approach it as separate from their physical practice. But many aspects of yoga, in particular the use of the breath, are central to meditation. Case in point: For the past two years, I have participated in the Buddhism and Yoga conference held at the Kripalu Center in Lenox, Massachusetts. My contribution was to teach anapanasati, a form of vipassana or insight meditation that emphasizes breath awareness much like the practices of asana and Pranayama.

There is a distinction between concentration (dharana) and insight (vipassana) in the Buddha’s teaching. A classical Buddhist meditation manual, Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification) provides 40 preliminary themes to choose from in order to develop concentration. The breath is one of these themes and has proven to be both popular and effective throughout the centuries. Anapanasati, in addition to using the breath to help concentrate the mind, employs the breath to help develop vipassana.

I discovered at Kripalu, not surprisingly, that many of the approximately 300 yogis at each year’s conference connected rather gracefully with this form of vipassana meditation because they were already at home with their breathing. Years of hatha yoga, including pranayama, were excellent preparation. Perhaps this is why many yogis find this style of meditation so attractive when they begin a sitting practice.

Let Go Into Freedom

Anapanasati is the meditation system expressly taught by the Buddha in which mindful breathing is used to develop both samadhi (a serene and concentrated mind) and vipassana. This practice—said to be the form of meditation used to bring the Buddha to full awakening—is based on the Anapanasati Sutta. In this clear and detailed teaching, the Buddha presents a meditation practice that uses conscious breathing to calm the mind so that it is fit to see into itself, to let go into freedom.

The first step is to take up your breathing as an exclusive object of attention; focus your attention on the sensations produced as the lungs, naturally and without interruption, fill up and empty themselves. You can pick up these sensations by bringing your attention to the nostrils, chest, or abdomen. As your breath awareness practice matures, this attention can be expanded to the body as a whole. In the Buddha’s words: “Being sensitive to the whole body, the yogi breathes in; being sensitive to the whole body, the yogi breathes out.”

It is important to note that you are learning to be mindful of the raw sensations that come through breathing, free of conceptualization or imagery of any kind. For those who have done hatha yoga and pranayama, can you see that your training has been an excellent preparation for this? Of course, when you direct your attention to the breath, you may find that the mind prefers to be anywhere else but there. The practice is to keep returning to the breath each time you are distracted. Little by little the mind learns to settle down; it feels steady, calm, and peaceful. At this early stage, you are also encouraged to be mindful during the activities of your day. Turning to the breathing from time to time can ground you in these activities. The breath is always with you, helping to cut down on the unnecessary thinking that distracts from the here and now.

Concentrating on breathing in such a manner enables the mind to gather together all its scattered energies. The mind is now much more steady, clear, and ready to practice vipassana. You are encouraged to enlarge the scope of your awareness so that it gradually becomes more comprehensive. With awareness anchored in the breathing, begin to include all bodily movements—the pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral sensations that make up sensory experience and the wide variety of mind states that compose so much of your consciousness. You become increasingly familiar and at home with bodily life, emotions, and the thought process itself. You are learning the art of self-observation, while being in touch with the fact that you are breathing in and out. The skill being developed is the ability to widen and deepen the capacity to receive your own experience with intimacy and a lack of bias. The breath is like a good friend accompanying you along the way.

You are now in a position to practice pure vipassana meditation. The mind is able to bring the fullness of mental and physical life into focus. The primary meaning of vipassana is insight—insight into the impermanent nature of all mental and physical formations. In the words of the Buddha: “Focusing on the impermanent nature of all formations, the yogi breathes in; focusing on the impermanent nature of all formations, the yogi breathes out.”

As you sit and breathe, observe the arising and passing of all mental and physical events. The mind empties itself of all its content; the body discloses its transparent and constantly changing nature. Deep penetration into the law of impermanence can profoundly facilitate your ability to let go of the attachments that produce so much unnecessary anguish.

Of course, this brief treatment of one of the Buddha’s most important meditation teachings is inadequate. I hope that the potential of breath awareness as a possible meditation practice seems like a reasonable one with which to experiment. If such a practice proves to be of value, I believe you will also find your preferred form of hatha yoga to be a natural and magnificent partner, one that facilitates and intensifies the liberating power of meditation. The asanas help you sit in a comfortable and stable posture, while pranayama improves the quality of breathing so it is much more attractive as an object of mindfulness.

The Art of Allowing

The following breath awareness exercise can help you unlearn the widespread tendency to control breathing, which is often due to an emotional blockage. First, allow the breath to flow. During the course of receiving instructions on the practice of anapanasati, let the breath happen, rather than make the breath happen. This art of “allowing” is vital in the correct practice of meditation. The free flow of breath brings with it great peace and calm. It prepares the mind to flow freely, which, when joined with full and clear attention, brings with it freedom. This exercise—which enables you to see more clearly how you interfere with the natural movement of the inhalation, exhalation, and the pause between them—may help you move in the direction of nondirection.

After sitting quietly for a few minutes, bring attention to your exhalations. Becoming aware of your exhalations in the beginning is often necessary to get you going. Think of it as properly warming up. Feel the breath sensations associated with exhaling again and again—without interfering. Accept whatever sensations turn up. Let them be.

As you become more familiar with the details of exhalation, do you find that you are interfering with the process of breathing out? If so, in what way? Instead of letting the out-breaths happen on their own, do you tamper with them? You may discover, as some yogis do, that you don’t trust your own breathing to do the job of exhaling on its own.

There are many ways to disturb the breath—as your awareness becomes more precise, see the specific ways in which you direct the natural process of breathing. Do you give exhalations the full time that they need? If you are cutting the breaths short, notice this. Gradually, as your breathing becomes less willful, your exhalations will begin to terminate naturally, by themselves. As you begin to interfere less with your breathing, can you see any change in the quality of the breath—or your mind?

Now begin to work with your inhalation in much the same way. Do you disturb your inhalations as soon as you begin to observe them? Any help at all by you is interference. In short, become aware of the unique ways in which you disturb your inhalations.

Finally, become more familiar with the breathing pause—the gap between breaths. What happens during the pause, especially as it lengthens itself? Anxiety? Boredom? A tendency to get distracted? You can begin with exhalations, and as you feel them, become more aware of how your exhalations change into inhalations. Do you, for example, rush and cut short the end of your exhalations, pushing inhalations through before they are due? Are the inhalations willful and early, curtailing the pause between exhaling and inhaling?

As you observe how you tamper with this natural process, you interfere with the transitions between breaths less and less. Re-establishing the full strength of the pause, even if it is only brief, brings with it calm and satisfaction. The breath recovers on its own if you let it. You develop trust in the “recuperative” power of your own breathing process.

In allowing the breath to flow naturally, you develop a crucial skill for when your practice expands beyond just breathing in vipassana. Can you also allow the entire mind-body process to unfold just as naturally and see it clearly as it does? To do so is to invite the liberating power of insight to manifest itself and enrich your life.

Larry Rosenberg is founder of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Massachusetts.