Breath and Sound in Meditation
We do not sit in silent blankness because that would not return us to our eternal Square One. Instead we have to have the right inner environment for the return to take place. This is provided by only two things: Om and the breath. They will not do it separately–they must be joined, and joined in the right way. Since they arise from the spirit-center, when their right joining is done they free and enable us to return and merge our consciousness with that center.
The breath and Om are like two firesticks. Fire is inherent in both, but when the two are brought together in friction the fire comes forth. The “fire” we are wanting to bring forth is the spirit-consciousness that is our real self.
In Indian mythology it is said that the realm of Vishnu is guarded by two doorkeepers who escort the questing soul into the Divine Presence. This is a symbol of the breath and Om which when united bring the yogi into the world of higher consciousness. In Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist temples it is common to find three images on the altar: the deity in the middle and on either side the two companions of the deity whose favor enables the devotee to communicate directly with the deity. In Christian iconography there is the depiction known as the Deisis in which Jesus is in the middle and the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist are on the sides.
In the realm of meditation, the doorkeepers/companions conduct the seeker into the throne room and then stand at the door to guard against intruders. That is, the breath and Om lead us into the realm of the Chidakasha, the Space of Consciousness, and keep guard there against the intrusion of distracting thoughts and states of mind, seeing that nothing disturbs our inner quest.
These two companion-friends deserve our careful study.
The Role of Sound in Meditation
Why do we use sound in meditation? “By sound one becomes liberated,” is the concluding verse of the Brahma Sutras (4.4.22). How is this so?
When relative existence, individual or cosmic, begins, there is a chain of manifestation. First there is an out-turning of Consciousness, an Expansion which is known as the Chidakasha, the Space (Ether) of Consciousness. Immediately there arises within this infinite Expanse a movement that produces a Sound. This is the Cosmic Breath, and Om is the Sound. From that Sound-Movement comes all that exist in the realm of Relativity.
“Listening to our inner intonations of Om during japa and meditation right away centers our awareness in the highest, etheric level of our being.”
This means that consciousness is the root of sound. Sound, then, is the direct means to return our awareness to the inmost level of our being and put us into touch with consciousness itself. For consciousness is innate in sound. At the same time, sound rules all the levels of our being and has the ability to infuse all those levels with the highest spiritual consciousness, to spiritualize every bit of us. And the essence, the root, of all sound is Om, that is both energy and consciousness. Listening to our inner intonations of Om during japa and meditation right away centers our awareness in the highest, etheric level of our being. It returns our awareness to its source, gathers up and centers every other aspect of our being in spiritual consciousness.
Through japa and meditation the Divine Sound, Om, pervades all our bodies, corrects, directs, and empowers them to perfectly and fully manifest all their potentials–which is the root purpose of our relative existence. Through Om Yoga practice all the aspects of our being are brought into perfect fruition and then enabled to merge back into their Source in the state of absolute liberation. Om Yoga, then, embraces all the aspects of our existence–not only the highest part–and is supremely practical. Om, through Its japa and meditation, perfects our entire being.
We use sound in Om Yoga–but it is not just any form of sound. It is sound that is produced (generated) in the mind, not sound that is passively heard either through the ears or through the memory of auditory sound.
The cosmos and the individual are manifested by the same process: ever-expanding sound-vibration, Spanda. As we enter into relative consciousness through the expansion of sound, just so can we enter back into transcendent Consciousness through the intentional contraction of sound that occurs in meditation. Tracing Om back to Its source, the Om yogi discovers It within himself as both Power and Consciousness. Through meditation he experiences the subtle states of consciousness inherent in Om.
This procedure is spoken of in the Katha Upanishad: “The self, though hidden in all beings, does not shine forth but can be seen by those subtle seers, through their sharp and subtle intelligence. The wise man should restrain speech into the mind; the latter he should restrain into the understanding self. The understanding self he should restrain into the great self. That he should restrain into the tranquil self.” (Katha Upanishad 1.3.12,13) By “mind” is meant the manas, the sensory mind; by “understanding self” is meant the buddhi, the intellect; by “the great self” is meant the will; and by “tranquil self” is meant the subtlest level, the Chidakasha (conscious ether or space), the witness-link between our pure consciousness and our perceptions.
In Viveka Chudamani (verse 369) Shankara expresses it this way: “Restrain speech in the manas, and restrain manas in the buddhi; this again restrain in the witness of the buddhi [the Chidakasha], and merging that also in the Infinite Absolute Self, attain to Supreme Peace.” This is accomplished through the practice of Om Yoga.
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad tells us: “The faculty of speech is the place of merging.” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.4.11) In the subtle sound of Om the consciousness of the yogi is resolved into its pure, divine state. The Mandukya Upanishad says: “The Syllable Om is the atman. One who knows this has his jivatman [individual spirit] merged in the Paramatman [Supreme Spirit]. Meditating, be absorbed in Om. Know Om as Brahman, Who is enthroned in the heart of all. Who knows Om as such, he alone is a sage, none else.” (Mandukya Upanishad)
The Role of Breath in Meditation
Breath, the universal factor
The Sanskrit word prana means both “breath” and “life.” Breath is the single universal factor of life. Its inception gives us life, and its cessation brings us death. All that lives, breathes–the commonality of breath transcends all difference. The process of breath is identical in all, consisting of inhalation and exhalation–expansion and contraction. It is the most immaterial factor of our existence, a manifestation of the body-mind-spirit link. For this reason, the breath is a natural and logical factor in meditation.
The hub of life
“The breath and the mind are completely interconnected and interrelated.”
The breath and the body are completely interconnected and interrelated, as is seen from the fact that the breath is calm when the body is calm, and agitated or labored when the body is agitated or labored. The heavy exhalation made when feeling exhausted and the enthusiastic inhalation made when feeling energized or exhilarated establish the same fact.
The breath and the emotions are completely interconnected and interrelated, as is seen from the fact that the breath is calm when the emotions are calm, and agitated and labored when the emotions are agitated or out of control. Our drawing of a quick breath, when we are surprised, shocked, or fearful, and the forceful exhalation done when angry or annoyed demonstrate this.
The breath and the mind are completely interconnected and interrelated, as is seen from the fact that the breath is calm when the mind is calm, and agitated, irregular, and labored when the mind is agitated or disturbed in any way. Our holding of the breath when attempting intense concentration also shows this.
Life causes us to breathe, and breath causes us to live. Breath leads us into the outer life, and it will lead us into the inner life–to the principle of Life itself. Therefore meditation practices involving the breath are found in all the major religions.
In many spiritual traditions the same word is used for both breath and spirit, underscoring the esoteric principle that in essence they are the same, though we naturally think of spirit as being the cause of breath(ing). The word used for both breath and spirit is: In Judaism, Ruach. In Eastern Christianity (and ancient Greek religion), Pneuma. In Western Christianity (and ancient Roman religion), Spiritus (which comes from spiro, “I breathe”). In Hinduism and Buddhism, Atma (from the root word at which means “to breathe”), and Prana.
The identity of the breath with the individual spirit, the atman (self)
The breath is the spirit in extension. “The Self is the breath of the breath.” (Kena Upanishad 1:2) “The breaths are the Real, and their Reality is the Self.” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.1.20)
The breath is a key to experience of the Self. When we relax and make ourselves aware of the breath, the mind naturally turns within and begins tracing the breath-thread back to the consciousness of which it is the dualistic manifestation. This is accomplished by breathing naturally and letting the breath do as it will rather than by forcing it into artificial modes.
The breath can lead us inward into the center–to the spirit. When we observe the breath, we actually observe our spirit acting. “He who breathes in with your breathing in is your Self. He who breathes out with your breathing out is your Self.” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3.4.1) Through the breath we can become established in the consciousness that is the Self.
The identity of the breath with the Supreme Spirit, Brahman
The breath is not simply the immediate manifestation of the individual spirit–it is rooted in the Supreme Spirit. The breath is the living presence and action of God.
“O Prana, lord of creation, thou as breath dwellest in the body.” (Prashna Upanishad 2.7) The breath is the incarnation of God within the body of man.
“When one breathes, one knows him as breath.” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.7) Through breathing–through observing the breath–God can be known.
“Self-luminous is that Being, and formless. He dwells within all and without all. He is unborn, pure, greater than the greatest. From him is born the breath.” (Mundaka Upanishad 2.1.2,3) Since the breath rises from God, it can be resolved back into God.
“Breath is a part of Brahman.” (Chandogya Upanishad 4.9.3) Breath is itself divine.
“The being who is the breath within–him I meditate upon as Brahman.” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.1.6)
“Breath is the Immortal One.” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.6.3)
“The breath is real, and He (Brahman) is the reality of the breath.” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.3.6)
“The shining, immortal person who is breath is the Self, is Brahman.” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.5.4)
“Which is the one God? The breath. He is Brahman.” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3.9.9)
“They who know the breath of the breath…have realized the ancient, primordial Brahman.” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.18)
“The breath is the Supreme Brahman. The breath never deserts him who, knowing thus, meditates upon it. Having become a god, he goes to the gods.” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.1.3)
Breath and Yoga
Breath plays such an important part in the technique of Om Yoga because the breath is the meeting place of body, mind, and spirit. Breath, which exists on all planes of manifestation, is the connecting link between matter and energy on the one hand and consciousness and mind on the other. It is necessary for the vitalization and functioning of all vehicles of consciousness, physical or superphysical.
“Ultimately, we come into contact with the Breather of the breath, our own spirit.”
We start with awareness of the ordinary physical breath, but that awareness, when cultivated correctly, leads us into higher awareness which enables us to perceive the subtle movement behind the breath. Ultimately, we come into contact with the Breather of the breath, our own spirit.
But breath is much more than an individual matter, and therefore is more than a means to uncover the individual consciousness. It is also a bridge to the Infinite Consciousness.
The Unity of the Breath and Om
“When Om unites with the breath and moves in the body, this is Pranava.” (Avadhuta Nityananda Paramhansa, Nitya Sutra 95) Om is called the Pranava, which means Enlivener and Breather, the idea of the latter expression being that Om is the essential sound-energy form that manifests in living beings as the breath itself. Om is the sound-form of the subtle power of life which originates in the pure consciousness, the spirit, of each one of us and extends upward and outward to manifest as the inhaling and exhaling breaths. (“The breath is continually sounding ‘Om’” (Chandogya Upanishad 1.5.3) Hence, through the intoning of Om in meditation we can become attuned to the essential Breath of Life and aware of its subtle movements within. Joined to our breath, the mantric syllable Om will lead us to the awareness of Breath and Life in their pure state. For Om is both the breath and the Source of the breath.
When joined to Om, the breath becomes a flowing stream of consciousness.
In the “beginning”
In the beginning, there arose in the ocean of Divine Consciousness, a point (bindu) from which began flowing the stream of creative energy that manifested as all things, and back into which all things return. That Primal Point became dual upon the very moment of its arising. That duality manifested as Prana/Breath and Sound–specifically, Om. The same thing happened with us. We came into manifestation on the twin streams of subtle breath and Om.
Originally we were unmanifest, as transcendental as our Source. But just as the Source expanded into relative manifestation–so did we. In our undifferentiated being, the state of perfect unity, there manifested a single stress point (bindu or sphota). This did not upset or disrupt the original unity but it did just what I said: it stressed it. Then, so imperceptibly and subtly as to hardly have even occurred, that stress point became dual and began to move internally, producing a magnetic duality so subtle it was really more an idea than an actual condition. Then the halves or poles of that duality began alternating in dominance and a cycling or circling began. This cycling expanded ever outward, manifesting in increasingly more objective manners until at last the full state of relativity was reached complete with a set of complex bodies of infinitely varying levels of energy. Like the bit of grit in an oyster, the original point (bindu) began manifesting as everything we call “us.” The same thing had already happened to our Source on a cosmic level so we found a virtually infinite environment for our manifestation. This is the process known as samsara.
“Like the cosmos, we came into manifestation on the twin streams of subtle breath and Om.”
The two original poles of the primal unity are prana (life force) which manifests in us most objectively as breath, and shabda (sound) which manifests in us most objectively as the mantra Om–and secondarily that of hearing. These seemingly two creative streams of manifestation are in reality one, inseparable from one another, and together are capable of leading us back to their–and our–source. One or the other can do a great deal toward returning us to Unity, but the ultimate, full return can occur most easily when they are joined in the practice of Om Yoga. Like the cosmos, we came into manifestation on the twin streams of subtle breath and Om. Together these two “wings” have carried us upward into the heights of evolution.
“Speech and breath are joined together in the Syllable Om.” (Chandogya Upanishad 1.1.6) Om is the essence of the breath and the breath is the essence of Om–particularly in their most subtle forms. Speech and breath are manifested and reunited in Om by mentally intoning It in time with the breath. “This is the bridge to immortality.” (Mundaka Upanishad 2.2.3-6)
To turn back from samsara and return to our original unity we must grasp hold of that primal impulse to duality which manifested in the stress point from which all has occurred. Right now that original impulse is manifesting most objectively in the process of our physical inhaling and exhaling and in our inner power of speech as we intone Om. The breath and Om together comprise the evolutionary force which causes us to enter samsara and manifest therein until–also through the breath and sound–we evolve to the point where we are ready to discard the evolutionary school of samsara and return to our original status with a now-perfected consciousness. By joining Om and the breath in japa and meditation we begin moving back to the state where they are one.
“One should meditate on the breath…for it is continually sounding ‘Om.’” (Chandogya Upanishad 1.5.3) In japa and meditation we join intonations of Om to the breath because on the subtle levels the breath is always producing the sound of Om. We can even say that the soul breathes Om. When our intonations of Om become subtle and whisper-like they are the actual “breath sounds,” the real sounds of the etheric breath. So by consciously joining Om to our breathing we can link up with our soul-consciousness and enter into it. That is the point of Unity where the breath and Om are not two extensions, but a single unit. Here, too, the breath is one, moving in a circular manner or expanding and contracting rather than extending and moving in and out or back and forth. Joining our intonations of Om to the breath in a fully easeful manner attunes us to that level of breath and sound.
The evolving breath
Life and evolution are synonymous. Just as Brahman has “wrapped” Itself in creative, evolutionary energy–Prakriti–and is actively engaged in cosmic progression toward perfection, in the same way the individual spirit (atman) is encased in its own energy-prakriti and is evolving it toward perfection. This is life within Life. Both the cosmic and the individual life-force are known as prana–vital energy–which manifests as breath. All that exists is formed of prana-breath, which acts as a mirror for the individual and cosmic spirits, changing and modifying itself as they change and modify–as they evolve.
The original Impulse which begins, sustains, and completes all evolution is the Pranava, the Prana-Breath Word: Om. The dance of creation is the moving of prana-breath to the directing sound-vibration of Om.
Relativity evolves through the alternating cycles of creation and dissolution–outward movement and inward movement–and in the same way the simple act of breathing evolves all sentient beings (whose fundamental common trait is that of breathing), albeit very slowly. This is because the breath is always sounding Om in the process the yogis call ajapa japa–involuntary/automatic repetition. (This is also true on the cosmic level. The cosmos is breathing Om.) Thus merely living and breathing is a process of ascent in consciousness if the individual does nothing to counteract that process–which we all do, causing ourselves to become bound to the wheel of continual birth and death. So it is necessary to live in the manner that allows this automatic development to go forward and manifest.
“A profound point of evolution is reached in which the individual becomes capable of consciously evolving himself.”
In time, however, a profound point of evolution is reached in which the individual becomes capable of consciously evolving himself and thereby speeding up the process of unfolding consciousness. He does this by consciously doing what he has heretofore done only unconsciously: linking the repetition of Om to his breath, merging It with the breath movements.
Though spoiled for many of us who associate it with the evil of Nazism, the Swastika is one of the most ancient symbols of India and has a profound yogic significance. There are two swastikas. One has the “arms” bent toward the right and the other toward the left. They represent two vortices of energy, one moving clockwise and the other moving counterclockwise. They are usually confused by people. The so-called “righthand swastika” with arms bent toward the right is actually a symbol of leftward moving energy, the movement of contraction and involution. The “lefthand swastika” with arms bent toward the left, is really a depiction of rightward moving energy, the movement of expansion and evolution.
Through our attention focussed on the process of intoning Om in time with our inhalation and exhalation, we can become immersed in the subtler levels of that alternating cycle, sinking into deeper and deeper levels until we at last come to the originating point and then transcend that dual movement, regaining our lost unity. By continual practice of that transcendence in meditation we will become established in that unity and freed forever from all forms of bondage, having attained nirvana–permanent unbinding. This is why both sound and breath must be the focus of our internal cultivation.
The two swastikas do not just depict directions of movement, but are yogic symbols of the inhaling and exhaling breaths joined to the intonation of Om. As already indicated there are two Oms–or two sides of the single Om–one of positive polarity and one of negative polarity. Om intoned while inhaling is of negative polarity, and Om intoned while exhaling is of positive polarity. By intoning Om once while inhaling and once while exhaling we produce a complete Om–of both polarities.
Down and up
The original purpose of the original duality–breath and Om–was to enable us to descend into the plane of relativity and begin evolving therein until we could develop the capacity for infinite consciousness. They not only moved us downward into material embodiment, they also began to impel us upward on the evolutionary scale so we might finally develop or evolve to the point where we can finally share–actually participate–in the infinity of God. If unhindered, they would accomplish this evolutionary movement. But in our present state we are always thwarting their purpose, especially by keeping their action bound and buried in the subconscious rather than resurrecting them into our conscious life, applying them and cooperating with them and thereby accelerating our growth. When awareness of the breath is consciously cultivated, and the sacred mantra Om is joined to every breath, the two currents become united and oriented toward their original purpose, which they then accomplish. In this way every single breath and intonation of Om become a step forward and upward on the path of spiritual evolution.
The inner and the outer
There are two breaths, the outer breath and the subtle inner breath which produces it. And there is the outer speech and the subtle inner speech from which it arises. By centering our awareness on the outer breath and sound and merging them we make ourselves aware of the inner Breath and Sound of Life. They occur at the same time and are of the same duration. By attuning ourselves to them we attune ourselves to the spirit from which they take their origin. The more attention we give to the breath and Om, the subtler they become until they reveal themselves as acts of the mind, and finally as consisting of mind-stuff (chitta) itself.
When we examine their nature, we see that the breath and the sound of Om are not “things,” but processes which have the power to draw us into the “core point” from which they arise–the individual spirit itself whose nature is consciousness. In this way the pure self manifests and works its will, changing all the levels of our being.
Like an onion, breath and sound have many layers. In the practice of meditation we experience these layers, beginning with the most objective layers and progressing to increasingly subtle layers, until, as with an onion at its core, there are no more layers, but only pure being. The breath and our intonations of Om become increasingly refined as we observe them, and as a result our awareness also becomes refined.
The self and the Supreme Self
There are many scriptural statements that Om is our own self, or atman, such as: “The Self is of the nature of the Syllable Om. Thus the Syllable Om is the very Self.” (Mandukya Upanishad 1,8) “Meditate on Om as the Self.” (Mundaka Upanishad 2.2.3-6) But in the Kena Upanishad we also find: “The Self is the breath of the breath.” And in the Mundaka Upanishad: “The subtle self within the living and breathing body is realized in that pure consciousness wherein is no duality.”
Beyond the self is the Supreme Self–Brahman–and the scriptures tell us that Om is Brahman as well. “Om is Brahman, the Primeval Being.” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 5.1.1) “Om is the Supreme Brahman.” (Svetasvatara Upanishad 1:7) “Om is Brahman.” (Taittiriya Upanishad 1.8.1) And they tell us the same of the breath. The Chandogya Upanishad: “Breath is a part of Brahman.” The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad has this to say: “The being who is the breath within–him I meditate upon as Brahman.…That which breathes in is thy Self, which is within all.…That which breathes out is thy Self, which is within all.…Breath is the abode of Brahman.”
“There is an internal breath that is the support and stimulus of the bodily breathing.”
Within the yogic system the breath is considered an actual body within the material body. It is called the pranamaya kosha–the body formed of breath or prana. And working with it is known as pranayama. This is commonly thought to be breathing exercises and breath control. But Patanjali speaks of “pranayama which goes beyond the sphere of inhalation and exhalation.” (Yoga Sutra 2:51) Through profound observation of the breath an Om yogi becomes aware that there is an internal breath that is the support and stimulus of the bodily breathing. Behind that breath is an even subtler force, and so on back to utter stillness at the core of his being. It is this process that is pranayama. During meditation the physical breath becomes, as Vyasa says, “prolonged and light [refined, subtle].”
But the breath does not accomplish this on its own. It must be joined to intonations of Om. “With Om alone he should breathe.” (Amritabindu Upanishad 20) “Speech and breath are joined together in the Syllable Om.” (Chandogya Upanishad 1.1.6) “Because in this manner he joins the breath, the Syllable Om, and all this in its manifoldness therefore this is called Yoga [joining]. The oneness of the breath, the mind, and likewise of the senses [through japa of Om with the breath] and the abandonment of all conditions of existence, this is designated as Yoga. One draws in the pranas by means of the Syllable Om.” (Maitri Upanishad 6:22-26)
Many scriptures declare that Om Itself is pranayama, for it is the Pranava–the Breath Word. I am giving quite a number of quotations on this matter because the opposite opinion is commonly held by even those who claim to be qualified teachers of yoga, and I want it to be clear that I am not presenting my own idea or stretching a point.
“Pranayama is composed of the Pranava, Om. [Therefore] he should repeat the Pranava mentally. This only will be pranayama.” (Darshan Upanishad 6:2,5,6)
“Pranayama is accomplished through concentrating the mind on Om.” (Saubhagyalakshmi Upanishad)
“The Pranava alone becomes the pranayama.” (Shandilya Upanishad 6:2. The Shandilya Upanishad is also known as The Shandilya Yoga Sutras.)
“Pranayama is accomplished through the right realization of the true nature of the sound which is at the extreme end of the pronunciation of the syllable Om, when sushupti [the dreamless sleep state] is rightly cognized [experienced] while conscious.” (Shandilya Upanishad)
“The Pranava is the vital breath of all living beings from Brahma [the Creator] to the immobile beings [such as plants and minerals]. Being the Prana thus, It is called Pranava.” (Shiva Purana, Kailashasamhita 3:14)
“Pranayama is accomplished by effortlessly breathing and joining to it the repetition of the sacred Om with the experience of Its meaning, when the consciousness reaches the deep sleep state.” (Yoga Vashishtha 5:78) In the light of this quotation from the Yoga Vashishtha, we see that by joining the repetition of Om to the breath the Om Yogi causes pranayama to go on perpetually throughout the day as well as in meditation.
Their divine work
It cannot be overemphasized that the breath and Om are the only objects that transfer our awareness into the subject: consciousness itself. All other objects draw our attention outward, into the experience of them, and perpetuate the loss of self-awareness which is our root problem. This is true of any objects other than the breath and Om that are brought into meditation. All other mantras, modes of breathing other than totally natural breathing, visualizations, and rousings of energies and centers of energies, not only are incapable of producing the awareness of pure consciousness, they make it impossible. This should not be forgotten.
Natural (sahaja) practice
If our spiritual practice (sadhana) is to bring us to our eternal, natural state of spirit-consciousness, it, too, must be totally natural. Therefore the term sahaja is often found in yoga treatises. Sahaja means that which is natural, innate, spontaneous, and inborn. Om Yoga alone fits this criterion, for the prana/breath movement occurs in every evolving sentient being–even in every atom of the cosmos. And that movement is inseparable from the vibration of the subtle sound of Om. Though seemingly two, the movement of the breath and the vibrating of Om are the same thing, like fire and heat. Not only that, this is the only characteristic common to all forms of existence, from the atom to the perfectly liberated individual. Nothing, then, is more natural than the intoning of Om in time with the breath. It is the key, then, to our inmost, true Self and its revelation.