The Nine Step Bottled Wind Pranayama Practice
A more forceful breathing practice, that attempts to ignite the internal wind element through compression, is the (9 step) nine-step bottled wind pranayama practice introduced by the female Buddha Vajrayogini (also known as Vajravarahi or "Diamond Sow" Buddha) into Tibet. This practice, which is also known as the "White Brightness" practice, relies on the respiratory winds (our external breath) to activate the body's pre-natal chi. Once activated, the real chi within the body can transform our mai and ignite the kundalini fire element within. If nothing else, continued proper use of this practice banishes sickness and extends one's life span. It helps open up chi channels and thus pushes out the poisons from the body, and leads to clarity of mind.
Our physical bodies are comprised of the four great elements earth, wind, fire and water, which we must transform during the process of cultivation. The chi channels inside are filled with dirty chi of these types, and this dirty chi that clogs the channels must be extruded before real cultivation progress is achieved.
Of these four elements, it is the earth element (such as our bones) which is the hardest to transform since it is the densest element of the body. When it pours out of chi channels at advanced stages it is like sand. When mixed with the water element, the chi that comes out has the texture of lumpy apple sauce.
The wind element of the body, corresponding to our chi, is the easiest element to transform. So most cultivation paths in the world start with breathing practices since they focus on changing this easiest-to-transform wind element. Since mind and chi (the wind element) are inter-linked, and since chi and wind are connected, these facts play a vital role in the design of many cultivation methods. Four our purposes I recommend you understand the pranayam practices of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the 9 bottled wind, and anapansati practices. You can find more in the Anapana Chi Conversations between Nan Huai Chin and Peter Senge. Also the best anapanasati text I've found is here.
By making our respiration more efficient through the forced retention of the breath, which helps open all the tiny capillaries and obstructed mai in the body (the nadis), it becomes much easier for a practitioner to reach the required point of respiratory cessation in all their other cultivation practices, such as watching thoughts or watching the breath. In other words, this practice will enable you to become more efficient in your breathing because it will clean the mai and extend the amount of time you can spend between the normal inhalations and exhalations of your breath. Thus it'll increase the effectiveness of all your other cultivation techniques.
As stated, the popularity of breathing methods in the world's cultivation schools, such as Hindu yoga pranayama, arises from the fact that the wind element of the body is the easiest element of the body to transform. The water element, corresponding to our mai, nerves, and hormones, is the next easiest element to transform. The fire element of the body, corresponding to the kundalini phenomenon, and finally the earth element of the body (corresponding to the bones), are much harder to cultivate. When some masters die, they can transform their physical bodies into realms of light, but they often leave behind bits of hair and nail corresponding to the earth element, as mementos for their students.
This entire process of changing the physical nature, for a practitioner who takes no detours and makes no mistakes, takes a minimum of 13 years of devoted practice. The first 100 days of practice, wherein one must never lose their jing (seminal essence) while relaxing the body and cultivating emptiness of mind, is called "laying the foundation" of "transforming jing into chi". This is followed by "pregnancy for 10 months" wherein "chi is transmuted into shen". The next 3 years of practice is called "suckling the baby" wherein" shen is transmuted into emptiness", and the following 9 years is termed "facing the wall" because it is a stage of mastering no-thought by cultivating higher stages of emptiness. In the Tao school, these various sequences of cultivating the jing, chi, and shen corresponding to attaining the fruit of Hinayana cultivation. One must cultivate past this stage of accomplishment in order to reach the higher Mahayana fruit of attainment, and the realm of perfect enlightenment which is called Buddhahood.
Now in the nine-step bottled wind practice, there are four phases performed for each of the nine rounds of practice. These four phases are:
1. Slowly drawing wind (air) into the lungs
One such round is performed three times for the left nostril, three times for the right nostril, and three times for both open nostrils. This makes a total of nine rounds, hence the name of "nine-step" vase breathing practice.
1. Begin by sitting in an upright meditation posture. If the arms can be extended and locked with hands pushing on the legs so as to lift the chest, this is excellent.
One can supplement, or expand upon this practice by visualizing the central, left and right channels becoming filled with light during this bottled breathing technique. During the retention or "compressing" phase of this practice, the air in the left and right channels is envisioned as flowing into and ascending the empty central channel, which shines with a dazzling brilliance. When the breath is expelled, you can also imagine that all sorts of dark and dirty humors are expelled along with it, while clean chi is simultaneously drawn up into the central channel. However, these visualizations are just elaborations of the basic technique. As a further alternative, you might visualize that the incoming air fills out the left and right channels as it comes in, like thin empty balloons which inflate with air, which are then discharged into the central channel-- envisioned as flowing into the central channel during the state of compressed retention.
The important point is to hold the breath for as long as possible, during which time the body is not restrained tightly. One should never employ too much force in restraining the body. Neither should you try to force any internal circulations of chi. If the body is held tightly, the chi cannot pass through obstructed regions to open the mai. If one uses force to "guide the chi", what should happen naturally may not happen at all!
After some period of practice, people are generally surprised how little muscle effort is needed to retain the full breath. If people are straining many muscles to hold the breath, they are definitely practicing incorrectly. Nine-step breathing exercises are actually a practice of using as few muscles as possible (maximum relaxation), to hold in as much breath as possible, as deeply as possible, for as long as possible, and then to exhale as quickly as possible. People who do not obtain quick results from this practice are violating one or more of these rules.
Now another Tibetan breathing exercise related to this one is the vase breathing practice belonging to the "Six Yogas of Naropa" tradition. In this method, which is very similar to the nine step bottled wind, a practitioner sits on the flat ground, with legs crossed in a comfortable position, looking straight ahead. The back is held erect, and the two hands are loosely placed on the knees rather than locked in an extension pose meant to spread the intercostal spaces between the ribs.
As before, one then begins the practice by looking straight ahead, drawing in air through the right nostril, gazing to the left, and then releasing the air through the left nostril by exhaling slowly and gently until no more air is left in the lungs. Then you look ahead, draw air in through the left nostril, turn the head to gaze to the right, and slowly and gently release the air via the right nostril until the lungs are empty. Lastly, you look straight ahead and draw in the air through both nostrils, and then release it through both. You repeat this preliminary cycle of inhalation-exhalation sequences two more times for a total of nine breaths, and you never allow the air to pass through the mouth during any part of this practice. If one wishes to add to this practice a bit further to smoothen the chi at the beginning, they can add a prefix by performing the famous Taoist five organ sounds before the start of this routine to help their internal chi reach a state of equilibrium, and to help calm the internal organs and mai.
Now the heart of the practice begins after the set of nine inhalations and exhalations have been performed, whose purpose was to help calm the breath and open the mai. So you continue in your sitting position with the body straight and erect, and the hands formed into fists with the thumbs inside. Different mudras (hand positions) will produce different effects, but this is how you start the practice. You then start breathing slowly and deeply, gently pulling the air down to below the navel, which is the region of the tan-tien. You swallow a bit of saliva without opening the mouth, and without making a sound, and when the saliva has traveled all the way down, you press on the abdomen to a point just below where your navel chakra would be. In addition, you tighten the muscles of the perineum and pelvis and pull up from below so that the air seems gently trapped between these two locations; don't use too much force otherwise you'll hurt yourself.
Next you focus your awareness on the region of the navel chakra, which is where the kundalini typically ignites, and you hold your breath for as long as possible in this state, maintaining your awareness all the while on a single point within the tan-tien. This practice is like holding an air ball between two hands, only here you use your mental concentration and a tiny bit of initial muscular pressure to bring about this feeling of compression. Hence we can say the body is filled with air like a vase, or bottle, and when you can no longer hold it inside any longer, you release it slowly through the nostrils without allowing any to escape through the mouth. So swallowing saliva, you retain your breath while pressing down a bit with the abdomen, while from below, you gently draw in air from the anus and sexual passage to the same site, holding the air for as long as possible.
With repeated practice of either of these techniques, one will be able to retain their breath for several minutes, which will clear the mai and help prepare the body for attaining the stage when it needs little external breathing; the external respiration will cease and all the pores of the body will open. It's even possible to ignite the kundalini shakti in this way. The duration of the retention phase in this technique can and should be gradually lengthened over time, and the number of repetitions gradually increased. Over time, this method will cause the mind to have more clarity, the body to become hardier and healthier, the tiny mai to open up, the muscles to soften, the blood circulation to improve, and it will become easier--when using other methods--for the external respiration to reach and maintain the stage of prolonged cessation. In this stage your thoughts will be lessened, and one can enter samadhi.
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