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Our email address is editor @realization.org.

Copyright 2001 Realization.org.



Turning Blue: Natural Pranayama

If you hold your breath involuntarily while meditating, don't worry. It's normal.


Photo by Jacques De Schryver

A FEW YEARS AGO I got worried because I would start holding my breath involuntarily whenever I began to meditate.

For the first minute or two, it didn't matter. Then I'd run short of air and inhale. For some reason this would usually interrupt my meditation and cause a stream of thoughts to rise.

After a deep breath, my breathing would stop again and I'd meditate peacefully until the next gasp came along.

One reason this bothered me was that I could only meditate for as long as I could hold my breath. As soon as I inhaled, the usual mental jabber returned.

Another annoying thing was that I wasn't just holding my breath; I was also contracting the muscles of my chest and abdomen. This didn't feel healthy -- it seemed to raise my blood pressure -- but the only way I could keep the muscles relaxed was by thinking continuously about them, and this interfered with my meditation.

In desperation I wrote to several mailing lists asking for advice. Nobody who replied had ever heard of such a problem before, and all the advice I received was useless.

This led me to believe that my problem was very strange. Since then I've learned that I was wrong. What I experienced was not unusual, and it's not a problem.

I REMEMBERED ALL THIS today when I came across the following passage in a terrific book called Living By The Words of Bhagavan:

One evening, while I was accompanying Bhagavan [Ramana Maharshi] on one of his walks, I asked him, "When I meditate my breath seems to get suspended in my stomach. Is this good?"

Bhagavan replied, "That is very good."

Cheered by this positive comment I asked him a further question: "If I go on meditating after that, what will happen?"

"Samadhi will be attained," replied Bhagavan.

"Does samadhi mean that one is unaware of everything?" I asked.

"No," said Bhagavan. "Meditation will go on without our effort. That is samadhi." (Page 234.)

It's too bad I didn't come across this passage a few years ago; it would have saved me a lot of worry. Ramana's prediction turned out to be accurate in my case. Nowadays, once my meditation starts, it goes on by itself regardless of what I think or how I breathe. I still sometimes hold my breath, but when it comes time to inhale, there's no sense of interruption. After I meditate for more than a few minutes, breathing frequently becomes deep and relaxed and my belly sticks out like a sumo wrestler's. This all happens naturally, by itself.

ONE REASON I'M WRITING this column is to assure people who are experiencing involuntary breath retention that there's no need to worry or do anything about it; you'll outgrow it.

But I also want to talk about why this phenomenon takes place. It's good to understand the neurophysiology involved because you can make use of it to attain deeper states of meditation.

The simple fact of the matter is that when you hold your breath, your thoughts tend to stop. You might want to look away from this article for a few minutes and experiment. Watch your thoughts come and go while you hold your breath, then try the same thing while breathing freely, and see if you notice a difference.

My difficulty probably arose because I noticed this phenomenon subliminally, and then unconsciously developed the habit of holding my breath when I wanted my mind to become quiet. No big deal.

In his massive book Zen and the Brain, neurologist James H. Austin summarizes some scientific papers that have been published on this subject. Researchers have found that:

  • Amplitudes of EEG theta waves (associated with deep relaxation) increase while people hold their breath.

  • Meditators who practice Transcendental Meditation show frequent episodes of breath retention lasting an average of 19 seconds.

  • Brain activity decreases during exhalation and increases during inhalation. This is true in both people and cats.

  • Tension in the abdominal muscles plays a role in inhibiting and exciting parts of the brain. (Pages 93-99.)

THESE OBSERVATIONS suggest that if you want to make your mind quiet, you should hold your breath, exhale more slowly than you inhale, and tense your abdominal muscles in some particular way.

These techniques are nothing new, of course; yogis discovered them several thousand years ago and developed them into the complex system called pranayama which is emphasized today especially in Hatha Yoga.

But you don't need to study pranayama to make use of the main principles underlying it. You only need to hold your breath or slow your breathing a bit. Next time you have trouble making your mind settle down, give these things a try.

Article copyright 2000 Freddie Yam. Photograph copyright 2000 Jacques De Schryver.

Freddie Yam writes frequently for Realization.org.



The Day My Kundalini Woke Up
Turning Blue: Natural Pranayama
Exercise for Reducing Visual Hemispheric Dominance
What I've Learned From Meditation



Living By the Words of Bhagavan
By David Godman
This book was actually written by Sri Annamalai Swami, who was Ramana Maharshi's personal attendant and intimate disciple; David Godman, who is credited as the author, is really the editor. The book fascinates in at least two ways: it paints a matter-of-fact portrait of Ramana's personality without any apparent romanticizing, and it explains the instructions that Ramana gave to Annamalai which eventually allowed him to become self-realized. Rarely if ever have we seen instructions for self-realization explained so clearly or plainly. We recommend this book very highly.




Zen and the Brain:
Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness
By James H. Austin, M.D.

The author is both a neuroscientist and Zen practitioner. This huge book (844 large pages) may be the best one so far about mysticism from a scientific point of view. There is a review online here.



This page was published on May 15, 2000 and last revised on November 25, 2000.

Copyright 2001 Realization.org. All rights reserved.