Breath Practice

I want to share a teaching with you from the yoga sutras.  This past weekend was the beginning of our teacher training program at 3 Oms with 14 delightful trainees.  In my section, we started looking at the first few sutras.

The yoga sutras are the backbone of yoga practice, consisting of 196 brief lessons about the path of liberation.  Sutra has the same root as suture, or stitch, so each lesson is one piece of support for the whole body of practice.  I have studied the sutras in translation because I don’t read sanskrit, so remember that all of this is coming through my filter as well as those filters of the translations I have read.

So! The first sutra (I.1) says

Atha yogānuśāsana:  Now begin the teachings of yoga.  We begin now, in this moment, just as we are.  We won’t wait until we lose 5 pounds or get our finances in order or until it is comfortable.  Let’s just start.  We are going to make mistakes and forget things and our minds will stray.  We just start again, in the next “now”.  This is just like mindfulness meditation practice: you notice that your mind has drifted to the past or future or elsewhere.  This noticing is an awakening, an enlightenment!  Now you can use your free will to return to the present again if you choose to do so.

The next few sutras tell us what yoga is, and why we might want to practice:

(I.2) Yogaḥ cittavṛtti nirodhaḥ – Yoga is the process of dissolving the fluctuating states of consciousness.

(I.3) Tadā draśtuḥ svarūpe avasthānam – Then the seer dwells in his own true splendor.

Surprise!  Yoga is not all about stretching your hamstrings or honing your abdominal muscles.  Āsana is the name for the physical practice you have likely experienced and it may have developed to support all of the seated practices, such as meditation.  This physical practice (āsana) is one part of the 8-limbed path.

Yoga means to yoke or bind.  Because the mind has the habit of wandering or fluctuating in and out of the present, the sutras suggest we yoke the mind so it can be directed to a higher purpose, rather than just wandering.  My wandering mind can get into some yucky places, like blaming, judging, criticizing.

Sutra 1.3 suggests that there is a “true splendor” about each of us to which we could return, if we could gain some skill with the mind.  Tibetan Buddhist philosophy includes a similar approach, noting that the mind is the only thing in the way of our recognizing our innate perfection.

Yoga practice, particularly meditation, has helped me move my mind away from its tendency toward the negative and toward self-love and respect.  I would call these qualities part of my “true splendor”.  When this kind of thinking spills into my relationships I feel that I am benefiting the whole world.

 Now, how shall we begin?  Decide where you want to yoke your mind.  You could focus on your breath.  You could focus on world peace or self-love.  Maybe you prefer to focus on gazing at a candle flame.  The object is not necessarily so important as learning to choose where you want your mind to be.

Here is a simple, but not easy, breath practice.

Sit comfortably.  This might mean in a chair or on the floor with your hips elevated on a pillow or cushion.  Close your eyes.  Feel your breath – where do you really feel it touching?  Pay attention to the sensations of breath.  Observe the inhalation and exhalation.  Maybe you notice a space between the two.  Don’t worry about how long or deep the breath may be, just keep drawing your mind back to your breath.  At some point you’ll recognize that your mind is no longer following your breathing.  This is your enlightenment moment!  Now you get to decide about returning to the breath focus.  Each time you come back from wherever you went you are strengthening your “concentration muscles”.  These muscles will serve you long after your legs or arms tire out and they can be used in every area of your life.

I hope this is helpful.