Yoga Pranayama Breathing Practices
Quite often I get asked about breathing practices, called pranayama techniques in yoga, anapana in Buddhism, and qi-gong techniques in Chinese culture.
Basically, breathing practices (including qi-gong or chi-kung) are one of the two quickest ways to achieve high spiritual states (samadhi) and thus enter into the Tao. The first technique is the skeleton meditation, found at:
The second technique is breathing practices, found in:
Martial artists find that their external practice usually improves by leaps and bounds after they add breathing practices to their routines. First they practice wai-gong (external martial arts, and next qi-gong. Sick people find their health improves and they can often banish illness when they start daily breathing practices. Poets and artists find that breathing practices sharpen their mind. Quite a few people develop superpowers (note the qi-gong crowd) from pranayama breathing practices because it's the quickest way to do so.... if you can get your chi channels to open. On and on it goes.
Shakyamuni Buddha said that breathing practices are one of the quickest ways to enter into samadhi. In his day, some students could achieve the Tao in as little as a week just by using anapana breathing practices as an entryway into the path, and then cultivating the chi of the body from this accomplishment. Once they cultivated their chi, they could then cultivate their shen, emptiness and so on. Buddha called it "cultivating the wind element" to harmonize the four elements of the body. Once one element was pacified, they would all eventually pacify and the body would transform so that it would no longer act as an obstacle to spiritual cultivation. That's the beginning of spiritual kung-fu.
Why are breathing practices so effective? How do you practice them? Should you practice yoga pranayama, qi-gong, kumbhaka holding the breath practices or what? ANd what about meditation techniques?
The reason pranayama and qi-gong techniques are effective is because your breath is linked with your chi, or life force, and you can use breathing practices to ignite or stoke this life force, if you do so correctly. Furthermore, chi and consciousness are linked so if you can calm your chi you'll calm your mind, and if you calm your mind your chi and breathing will calm and slow down. In other words, you can grab the animal by the tail or head - you can use either end of the stick as en entryway into deep meditation cultivation.
This leads to the wide variety of methods for cultivating the breath we find in many religions. Once again, breathing practices, such as special qi-gong and pranayama techniques, are just nondenominational cultivation practices linked to some common principles of cultivation science.
For instance, in some yoga pranayama schools they teach people to hold the breath for as long as possible in hopes of opening up the chi channels. You can check into the Hatha Yoga Pradipika for sample practices.
In some schools they teach alternate nostril breathing to calm the breath, and thus calm your chi throughout your body. This calmness of your internal energies in turn calms your mind and makes it easier to forget your body and enter into samadhi.
In some schools they teach you to simply relax your body and follow your breath without thinking. In time your breath will calm down and stop from this practice. When you reach this state of cessation, then the real chi (kundalini) of the body ignites (rises) and your chi channels start to open.
This is actually the safest and most gentle way to cultivate the Tao. It's the practice of following your breath until it calms down and seems to stop, and then trying to hold onto that state GENTLY after the exhalation. Simply watch your breath and let it calm down. When it stops every now and then, try to STAY in that period of cessation and the longer you can - without breathing -- the more your chi channels will transform.
In other words, to make progress in meditation of any type, at the lowest levels of the path your chi channels have to open. But for most people, no matter what they do they are still not opened. Breathing practices, by staying in that natural state of cessation, will open the chi channels quickly where other methods fail. THEN, whatever other spiritual practices you follow - visualization, prayer, kabbalah, mantra, cessation-contemplation, etc. - will finally start to show fruits.
Here's why people never make progress in spiritual cultivation. It's not that the methods don't work, they just don't practice long enough or hard enough or using the correct principles and get to the point where their chi channels start to open. IF YOUR CHI (QI) CHANNELS HAVE FINALLY OPENED, then you can make great progress. You can do all the strange spiritual practices you want but if your chi channels haven't opened it's worthless. Breathing practices will help them open, and that's why they're commonly effective.
Alternatively, the forceful schools, such as Indian pranayama and Tibetan tantric yoga schools, teach forceful breath retention practices under the watchful eye of a master. These methods work for some people, too. The 9-bottled wind practice, found in "Meditation for Beautiful Skin," is one such technique. It's a safe technique for more forcefully encouraging your chi channels to open so that you make progress quicker.
The reason the qi-gong masters made other people (who had cultivated correctly and gently opened their chi channels) feel uncomfortable is because despite having minor superpowers, these superstars of China all practiced incorrectly. Their root chakras were unbalanced, they had cultivated yin chi galore and everyone could feel they were "wrong." To fix them, Master Nan would always teach the 9-bottled wind pranayama technique and in a few short weeks they'd really start to make progress.
Now the 9-bottled wind practice is one technique I recommend. But for many people, just following the breath is good enough. If you do want to follow the 9-bottled wind, I guarantee two things: (1) it will help LOTS and (2) you'll HATE it. The best way to practice it is to watch a clock and record how long you can hold your breath for each time you do it.
As to yoga "kumbhaka" or breath retention exercises, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Hatha Yoga Pradipika. It's funny that in most yoga schools the most unpopular classes are the pranayama classes, and these are the ones most likely to actually help people with spiritual pursuits. That's just the way it always is. The real stuff people don't want, the trivial stuff gets adherents out of the windows.
As to qi-gong breathing practices, sure lots of them will help as well. Do indeed check them out because they are designed for HEALTH. The Chinese have linked the acupuncture meridians (chi channels) to health states, and special qi-gong practices to specific chi channels, just as is done in yoga. In China, however, the emphasis is on health; in India the emphasis is on a supra-mundane result.
Now don't fall into the big philosophical wish-wash that tries to make qi-gong bigger than it is. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, all the high spiritual schools of China were destroyed and only the most materialistic schools were left. That's why qi-gong breathing practices survived....because breathing practices DO produce material results, and QUICKLY; they represent the LOWEST stages of the spiritual path. Worthy, but the lowest. And the funny thing is, most all the practices have yoga pranayama equivalents but the Chinese won't dare admit it. They'd rather say it's something they have an exclusive on ... the "not invented here" syndrome so we won't mention it.
Qi-gong techniques are basically pranayama techniques combined or taught with the basics of chi channels (acupuncture meridians) and moving martial arts rather than static yoga. You use them for health purposes as they are actually more geared (promotionwise) to that than pranayama yoga methods.
I could go into this more, but all I want to say is that lots of what passes for "qi-gong" today is a big marketing thing, so don't fall for the strange claims that people use to make money. Yes check out qi-gong, but use your head and common sense, as I always ask you to do, and don't fall for strange claims a lot of people make in order to empty your wallet. Pick up a book on yoga kung-fu, such as the pranayama methods of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and you're just fine.
Anyway, that's a short synopsis on pranayama breathing practices for you.
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