Breathing Lessons

Four teachers compare breath practices in yoga and three schools of Buddhism—Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism.

Larry Rosenberg
13 April 2017
Thai sculpture of Buddha Shakyamuni.
Buddha Shakyamuni. Sculpture, Thailand, 15th century or later. Photo via LACMA.


Exhale and Hold

Richard Rosen on the Breath in Yoga

American yoga students have been fascinated with asana, the physical “postures” taught in American yoga classes for the last fifty years. Yet asana has never, in the long history of yoga in the East, been the primary focus of any school’s practice. Certainly we can’t deny its importance in at least two influential schools—Patanjali’s Classical Yoga and Hatha Yoga—but even in these schools, asana is nothing more than a preliminary to breathing practices called pranayama. Asana is not an end in itself.

If asana is the flashy favorite child that gets all our attention in the States, pranayama is the drab sibling we nearly ignored. The average American student is blissfully unaware of the central role that pranayama plays in the yogic process.

The Sanskrit word prana is often rendered into English as “breath,” and indeed the word literally means “breathing forth.” But actually the breath is only one manifestation of prana, which is the subtle life energy that pervades all of creation. According to the fourteenth-century sage Svatmarama Yogindra, author of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, prana and consciousness—citta—are two sides of the same coin. “When the prana moves,” he writes, “citta moves. When prana is without movement, citta is without movement.” Generally, breath is an indirect though palpable means of contacting and, to a certain extent, influencing prana and consciousness.

Of course the reciprocal relationship between breathing and consciousness is widely accepted, even by people who aren’t spiritually inclined. We’ve all taken a few deep breaths to quiet an agitated mind or stimulate a dull one. But the yogis, being great investigators and experimenters, took this commonplace connection and extended it into the spiritual realm.

The question that Patanjali asks, as do all schools of yoga, is, How can I be truly happy?

Although pranayama is usually thought of as a single practice, there are actually two distinct models. The senior of the two is the fourth stage, or “limb,” of Patanjali’s eight-limbed Classical Yoga, outlined in his Yoga Sutra. To understand the how and why of classical pranayama in the context of the Classical Yoga school requires some background.

In the classical view, everyday human consciousness is a constantly fluctuating material operation. Because of a serious spiritual blind spot, we mistakenly identify ourselves with the contents of this consciousness—our thoughts, memories, dreams and whatnot—and imagine that we are circumscribed individuals, separate from all the other individuals around us and the world at large. Not surprisingly this leads to all sorts of problems, the most painful of which is unremitting existential alienation and sorrow. The question that Patanjali asks, as do all schools of yoga, is, How can I be truly happy?

Obviously there’s a misconception here that needs to be straightened out. We aren’t, as Patanjali informs us, this insulated and sorrowful consciousness, but rather an “eternal, pure, joyful” Self, called purusha. What we need to do is shift our identity away from citta and latch it onto purusha. Once we realize our authentic nature, our everlasting happiness is assured, since all sorrow—as well as our bondage to the wheel of death and rebirth—will end.

This is easier said than done. Classical Yoga is a severely ascetic practice in which we gradually surrender, through a progressively intensifying series of meditations, our attachment to the world, including the world of everyday consciousness.

In order to wean ourselves away from our false identification with citta, all of its fluctuations—both conscious and unconscious—have to be “restricted.” But we can’t start working on citta right off the bat because it’s too elusive; instead we have to approach it slowly, by paring away the more grossly material aspects of the self—the body, breath and senses.

As I’ve noted, American yoga students are well acquainted with the wildly imaginative yoga asanas that mimic dogs and lions and trees, or that honor various saints and sages. These positions, though, are for the most part a product of a much later time; for Patanjali, asana is nothing more than a steady “seat” (the literal meaning of the word asana) that restricts the practitioner’s physical fluctuations, and allows her to sit quietly for meditation.

But no matter how quietly we’re sitting, as long as we’re still breathing we’re still “fluctuating”; after all, when we inhale, our torso expands, when we exhale, it contracts. So once the body is restricted, the next fluctuation that needs our attention is that of breathing. Consequently, classical pranayama is defined as the “cutting-off of the flow of inhalation and exhalation.”

Classical pranayama begins with the careful regulation of the breathing cycle, which consists of three phases—inhale, exhale and a natural pause. These phases are regulated by routing the inhales and exhales to certain areas of the body (such as the heart or lower belly), by lengthening and adjusting the time of the breaths and the intervening pauses, and by counting the number of cycles in one session. The natural pauses are purposefully extended by small increments, until the practitioner can sit and restrict the breath for a good while, subsisting on the accumulated store of prana in the body. Ultimately, as the practice of classical pranayama is perfected and the meditation gets more subtle, the practitioner’s breath halts spontaneously.

Such unpremeditated “cutting-off” of the breath happens occasionally to everyone, particularly during those times when we become so concentrated on, or enamored of, an object of attention, that we stop, or almost stop, breathing. When this state arises in Classical Yoga, it’s called the “Fourth” (after the three phases of inhale, exhale and pause). At the culmination of the practice, the “covering of the inner light disappears,” the so-called “higher mind” shines forth and the practitioner acquires the “fitness of mind for concentration” and meditation.

This rather stark classical vision will not win over the hearts and minds of most modern-day yoga students. The classical practitioner in effect transcends the human condition by becoming decidedly un-human-like, sitting stock-still, hardly breathing or not breathing at all, with the five senses withdrawn from the world. The perceptible world, a constant source of new fluctuations, is completely screened off, and the practitioner can devote her meditative energies entirely to the contents of her own consciousness. It is in this way that the transformation of the Self from the mundane to the divine takes place.

From Mindfulness to Awareness

Larry Rosenberg on the breath in Theravada

Anapanasati is the meditation system expressly taught by the Buddha in which mindful breathing is used to develop both shamatha, “a serene and concentrated mind,” and vipassana, “insightful seeing.” This practice, said to be the form of meditation used to bring the Buddha to full awakening, is based on the Anapanasati Sutta. In this teaching, the Buddha presents us with a meditation practice that uses conscious breathing to calm and stabilize the mind so that it is fit to see into itself—to let go into freedom.

To summarize very briefly: the Anapanasati Sutra is composed of sixteen contemplations, which divide rather neatly into four sets of four. The first four contemplations concern the awareness of breathing as it manifests in the body. The next four focus on feelings—not what we mean by that word in our culture, but everything that we perceive by means of our sense organs. The third set of four focuses on the mind, the mental formations and emotions that we concoct when we add ideas to our feelings. And the last four move on to pure vipassana, seeing into the lawfulness underlying all phenomena. Basic to all of these contemplations is the breath, which is used as an anchor, a reminder to keep the practitioner in the present moment.

In the Buddha’s words, “Being sensitive to the whole body, the yogi breathes in; being sensitive to the whole body the yogi breathes out.” Little by little the mind learns to settle down, and it feels steady, calm and peaceful.

So the first step is to take up our breathing as an exclusive object of attention. We focus our attention on the sensations produced as the lungs fill up and empty themselves quite naturally and without interruption. We can pick up these sensations by stationing our attention at the nostrils, chest, or abdomen. Of course, when you direct your attention to the breath, you may find that the mind prefers to be anywhere else but there. The practice is to keep returning to the breath each time you are distracted.

As our breath awareness practice matures, this attention can be expanded to the body as a whole. In the Buddha’s words, “Being sensitive to the whole body, the yogi breathes in; being sensitive to the whole body the yogi breathes out.” Little by little the mind learns to settle down, and it feels steady, calm and peaceful.

At this early stage in the training, we are also strongly encouraged to be mindful in all the activities that make up our day. To help us accomplish this, we learn to keep the breath in mind in the midst of these activities. What is vital is to keep awareness alive. Turning to the breathing from time to time can help ground us in the activities we are engaged in. The breath is always with us, helping to cut down on the unnecessary thinking that so often distracts us from the here and now.

Concentrating on breathing in such a one-pointed manner enables the mind to gather together all its scattered energies. The mind is now much more steady and clear, and so we are encouraged to modify the scope of our awareness so that it gradually becomes more comprehensive. With awareness grounded in the breathing, we begin to include the pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral sensations that make up sensory experience, and the wide variety of mind states that compose so much of our consciousness. We become increasingly familiar and at home with bodily life, emotions, and the thought process itself. We are learning the art of self-observation, all along being in touch with the fact that we are breathing in and out. The skill being developed is the ability to widen and deepen the capacity to receive our own experience with intimacy and a lack of bias.

We are now in a position to practice pure vipassana meditation. The mind is even more steady, clear, and able to bring the fullness of mental and physical life into focus. One of the primary meanings of vipassana is ”insight”—insight into the impermanent and empty nature of all mental and physical formations. In the words of the Buddha: “Focusing on the impermanent nature of all formations, the yogi breathes in; focusing on the impermanent nature of all formations, the yogi breathes out.”

As we sit and breathe, we observe the arising and passing away of all mental and physical events. The mind empties itself of all its content; the body discloses its transparent and constantly changing nature. Deep penetration into the law of impermanence can profoundly facilitate our ability to let go of the attachments that produce so much unnecessary anguish. A new dimension of living opens up for us, as we learn to let go into freedom.


Be Kind to Your Breath

Edward Espe Brown on the breath in Zen

“Zen,” my teachers used to say, “is to settle the self on the self.” Katagiri Roshi, when he said this, would point first to his head and then to his abdomen. What he was illustrating, simply speaking, was how we must bring the awareness—which tends to reside in the head—to the sensations of breath in the abdomen. Nothing to it: in Zen you come down to earth—down from the citadel of thinking into the body of breath.

You sit upright, taking, as it were, your “best” posture. With your hands palm-up on your knees, taking a few moments to carefully lean from side to side, then slightly forward, then slightly back, you find the place where you can sit right in the center, not slouching or slumping, not leaning forward or backward, to the left or to the right.

Then you are encouraged to “settle into immobile sitting.” You allow your body to settle onto the cushion or chair, and your mind to settle into your breath. The suggestion is to take two or three deeper breaths through the mouth, drawing in a full inhalation and releasing the breath in a complete exhalation (silently, by all means!), a way to let go of accumulated tensions at the start of sitting.

After that you place your hands in your lap with the palms facing upward, the left hand on top of the right, fingers on top of fingers, the tips of your thumbs touching, your hands forming an oval opening. Perhaps your right wrist rests lightly on your right thigh. Behind your hands is where you focus on the breath in the abdomen. In Japanese it’s called the hara, a spot said to be about two inches below the navel.

Who knows better how to breathe, you or your breath?

When I was first studying Zen, we were taught to “follow” the breath and also to “count” the breath. The sense of following the breath is that the thinking mind—the self in the head—is not directing or leading the breath, not telling it what to do or how to be: it’s not telling it to be longer, deeper, or calmer, but allowing the breath to fulfill itself, allowing the breath in the abdomen to “in-form” the body/mind.

After all, who knows better how to breathe, you or your breath? It’s perhaps like giving the horse the reins, and letting it take you home. Some trust is involved. Still, “following” may not be quite right, as you cannot actually let the breath go “ahead” of your awareness. So you breathe, perhaps, in the spirit of giving your awareness over to the breath, or as my teachers used to say, “taking the best care of your breath.”

For years Suzuki Roshi emphasized counting the breath: the first exhalation, “one,” the next exhalation, “two,” and so forth up to ten. If you got to ten—or you lost count—you were to start again at one. Again and again Roshi reminded us that this was not about counting, but a way to help us bring the thinking mind onto the breath in the abdomen, and to encourage us to tend or take care of our breath. In one lecture, for instance, he mentioned having a feeling of kindness for your breath: “If we do not have some warm, big satisfaction in our practice, that is not true practice. Even though you sit, trying to have the right posture and counting your breath, it may still be lifeless zazen, because you are just following instructions. You are not kind enough with yourself. Be very kind with your breathing, one breath after another.”

Another suggestion was to be “one with the breath,” following the breath so closely that it “disappears.” Have your awareness move exactly with the breath. Let your whole body breathe.

Implicit in this breath-awareness practice in Zen is the importance of posture. Because of the emphasis on impeccable uprightness, which is not your accustomed posture, you are implicitly inviting your breath to be different than it usually is—that is, to expand and open into the full extension of the body. Sometimes you may hear your breath saying, “Thank goodness, at last someone is giving me space to breathe.”

Occasionally someone would ask about instructions mentioned in books they had read to “put strength into the exhalation,” or “push down on the exhalation,” and Suzuki Roshi would say that while it might be a good idea, most people tended to overdo it, so he did not teach it. What he did say was that “if you exhale smoothly, without even trying to exhale, you are entering into the complete perfect calmness of your mind. The important point is your exhalation. Instead of trying to feel yourself as you inhale, fade into emptiness as you exhale. You become one with everything after you completely exhale with this feeling. If you are still alive, naturally you will inhale again, ‘Oh, I’m still alive! Fortunately or unfortunately!’”


Prana and the Path

Gaylon Ferguson on the breath in Tibetan Buddhism

Shortly after attaining full realization, the Buddha taught a complete path to liberation by means of the sitting practice of meditation, the study of the teachings of dharma, and skillfully appropriate action in the world. The physical dimension of body, the psychological realm of emotions, the mental activities of thinking and perceiving—all were included on the “noble eightfold path” to complete awakening or enlightenment. Rather than standing alone as a mere collection of techniques and exercises, the various Buddhist practices using breath are an essential part of this larger path of leading a life of awakened compassion.

The buddhadharma as practiced in the Tibetan tradition emphasizes three main stages in the journey of a meditator: an initial stage of walking the “narrow path” of simplicity, the path of individual liberation, followed by a later stage focusing on uncovering great openness and wise compassion—the Mahayana—and then a final stage based on the direct and vivid experience of the sacredness of the world—the Vajrayana. All three of these stages of training use the breath as the basis for particular meditative practices.

In tantra, breath is an expression of the intimate connection we all have with the vastness of sacred world. Many of us experience a glimpse of this larger, non-dual world in ordinary, everyday activities—while taking a walk near the ocean, or gazing at the vastness of the night sky.

For example, on the narrow path, mindfulness meditation is often practiced using the breath as a restful and soothing object of meditation. In his book, Turning the Mind into an Ally, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche discusses shamatha, or “peaceful abiding”: “In peaceful abiding, the object is the simple act of breathing. The breath represents being alive in the present moment. Placing the mind on the breath and returning to it again and again is the essence of shamatha. Through resting the mind on the breath we stay present, awake and mindful.”

The simplicity of attending to the breath in the present moment is part of being mindful of the body—of synchronizing our mind and body altogether. After all, it is the body’s breathing we mindfully attend to moment by moment. As the late Tibetan meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche explains: “One has to become aware of the present moment through such means. This is based on developing the knowledge of nowness, for each respiration is unique, it is an expression of now.”

In the next stage—the “open way,” or Mahayana teachings of the Buddha—the breath is used as a medium for developing loving-kindness and compassion, for awakening a caring heart. According to the classical instructions for training in this “sending and taking” meditation practice called tonglen, “sending and taking should be practiced alternately. These two should ride on the breath.” Sending out wisdom with the out-breath and taking in confusion with the in-breath are the essence of this brave practice. This meditation involves contemplating the suffering of others and breathing it in, while exhaling peaceful well-being to limitless beings.

This is a powerful practice that fully embraces the challenges of living the non-aggressive life of a bodhisattva. Breathing—and synchronizing the breath with this deliberate contemplative practice of radiating limitless goodness—becomes a means for opening the heart, widening the sphere of our care and concern, and strengthening the resolve to help others. In this way, breathing serves as a vital link to discovering and embodying a compassionate heart.

Pema Chödrön has taught this meditation practice widely. She says, “The practice of sending and taking reverses the process of hardening and shutting down—by cultivating love and compassion. Instead of running from pain and discomfort, we acknowledge them and own them fully. Instead of dwelling on our own problems, we put ourselves in other people’s shoes and appreciate our shared humanity. When the barriers start to dissolve, our hearts and minds start to open.”

In the third stage of this path—that is, according to the tantric teachings handed down from the Buddha—breath is experienced as a wind of living energy, part of the most fundamental and subtle dimensions of our being. This is breath as prana—an essential aspect of the “inner yoga” meditations of the tantric path, such as the famed Six Yogas of Naropa. Reginald Ray says in his book, Secret of the Vajra World, that through tantra “we begin to discover that ‘breath’ involves far more than simply physical air entering our lungs. On a more subtle level, it is inseparable from our basic ‘psychic’ energy. Various yogic postures, considered highly secret, are used to enable the breathing process to be extended until it permeates the entire body and to open areas of blockage.”

These Buddhist tantric practices, which are taught only to practitioners who have trained thoroughly in the two previous stages and who have received specific authorization from a tantric master, engage an aspect of our being that is fundamentally in union with the energies of the larger phenomenal world around us. In tantra, the breath is an expression of the intimate connection we all have with the vastness of sacred world. Many of us experience a glimpse of this larger, non-dual world in ordinary, everyday activities—while taking a walk near the ocean, or gazing at the vastness of the night sky.

Finally, the step-by-step journey the Buddhist practitioner makes through this gradually unfolding attunement to breathing leads to the startling discovery of an unshakeable, brilliant basic sanity.


Larry Rosenberg

Larry Rosenberg

Larry Rosenberg is the founder of Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the author of several books including Breath by Breath and Three Steps to Awakening.