There are three stages of the breath as a vehicle for meditation, witnessing, relaxing the nervous system and stilling the mind.
In the wisdom tradition of Yoga, the breath is used as a vehicle for self-awareness and as a subtle focus that carries us inward. Following the breath is the means to a deeper connection and concentration of the mind-body, which leads to a sweet sense of peace and tranquility.
Meditation begins as we bring our awareness to the breath, following the rhythmic movements and the natural sensations of the many elements of breathing. This witnessing, which is the first stage of breath awareness is the process of bring awareness to all the physical and mental elements, from awareness of the air movement in and out of our lungs to the slowing of thoughts arising in the mind.
As we settle into awareness there is a shift that begins to take place in our nervous system. There is a close relationship between the breath and our nervous system; if we are frightened or apprehensive our breath is shallow and short, stopping and starting erratically, if however, we breathe slowly and deeply our nervous system relaxes.
Finally as the nervous system relaxes the mind begins to quiet and focus. From this deeper state of focused concentration, meditation becomes possible.
Let’s explore the three elements a bit closer.
Witnessing is the process of bringing your attention fully to each of the sensations in the mind-body.
Notice the cool feeling as the air rushes up through your nose on the in breath and how it’s warmed as the air is expelled. As you settle in to your awareness, begin to focus on the inhalation, feeling a sense of renewal with each breath in and then renew your focus on the out breath and the release of tension that takes place with it. Allow this process to become a rhythmic pattern, following each breath, one at a time.
Once you have become comfortable with allow your awareness to move into the body, follow the breath into your chest, feel the movement of all the muscles as each expands and contracts as the breath fills your lungs. You will notice a difference in the way and amount different muscle will contract and expand depending on the position you are in, whether sitting erect or lying down, be aware of those differences.
Remember this is a natural process, so let it occur naturally, there is no need to ‘conform’ to a ‘style’ of breathing. If you sit in an upright and erect position you will become aware that there is less expansion of your chest as you breathe and it becomes more of a widening in your rib cage. But, whatever position you choose, let each breath flow into the next, without pause but without forcing or trying to control it, this is because a pause leaves an opening for the mind to become distracted.
Later during meditation you can maintain awareness even if you return your attention to the breath. You become the witness of your own breathing.
The breath is affected by a number of different factors as you move through your day. Each emotion has its own unique form of breathing, whether crying or laughter, the breath changes. Stress also has a deep and pervasive effect, restricting the normal flow of our breath, because of this our health can be adversely affected. However, as we develop an awareness of our breath through practice and because we can control our breathing voluntarily, we can make adjustments that will have a positive effect.
As your practice evolves it will, naturally and organically, become less about controlling your breath and more about being the witness.
Relaxing the Nervous System
Meditation is a process of letting go, especially in the beginning; there is the release of negative energy in the form of stress, negative emotions, worry or regret. These thoughts are released as we slip into the meditative state, arising from their subconscious moorings.
Because the breath can be voluntary it is possible to maintain equilibrium reducing the natural tension between negative thoughts and conscious relaxed breathing. Through awareness and presence (witnessing) when we notice the negative thoughts arising by focusing on and preserving the relaxed breath, we can maintain self-control.
It is while practicing meditation that breath awareness will interrupt the flow of negative energy, keeping it from taking up residency, which in turn calms the nervous system. It’s breath awareness and the associated relaxed nervous system that allows us to create distance between our witnessing self and the causes of our stress.
Meditation – Stilling the Mind
It is in the deeper stages of breath awareness and as our nervous system relaxes that leads us in to the meditative state. This is accomplished as we combine breath awareness with a mantra; a process of watching the breath move in and out through the nose while repeating a mantra or sound.
When the attention is on the breath, the air moving in and out of the nose, then the focus of our concentration is on a physical sensation. When we add the mantra to the breath, we move our focus from the physical sensation to the mental sound. This practice deepens the anchor of our concentration and focus.
The number one challenge a beginning meditator faces is becoming distracted by thought. Breath awareness works much like a meditation ‘safety net,’ catching us when we inevitably lose our concentration.
As our practice evolves the mental repetition of our mantra will replace breath awareness, allowing it to fade gently into the background. Ultimately, the same process will happen to the mantra, and as it fades the silence that has always been there emerges as we enter the field of unbounded awareness.
Understanding and practicing the three stages of the breath as a vehicle for meditation, will allow you to move from meditation as a practice to meditation as an experience.
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