Welcome to Study Session V.
My name is Swami Akhandananda. I am a Siddha Yoga monk, and I serve as the Managing Director for these study sessions focused on svādhyāya, the study of the Self.
In the Indian spiritual tradition, today is the first day of a nine-day festival dedicated to honoring the goddess, the Devi. This festival, called Navaratri, which means “nine nights,” honors the Goddess in her three forms of Mahadurga, Mahalakshmi, and Mahasarasvati.
In India, Navaratri is celebrated with traditional rituals of worship, recitations of the sacred names of the Goddess, and songs and dance that honor her wisdom, beauty, and abundance. The spirit of this holy festival is one of joy, devotion, and gratitude for the myriad ways the divine Shakti nurtures our life and spiritual journey. On the Siddha Yoga path, these three manifestations of the Goddess are revered as different forms of the one divine power, Kundalinī Shakti, which is awakened within a seeker through the Guru’s grace.
One of the Siddha Yoga practices that nurtures the awakened shakti and promotes spiritual progress is svādhyāya, the recitation of scriptural texts. In each of the study sessions we have been examining specific aspects of svādhyāya. The focus for today’s study session is the breath—the force that sustains life and which is an essential part of reciting sacred texts.
Baba Muktananda and Gurumayi Chidvilasananda teach the importance of proper breathing in svādhyāya in order to experience the full power and benefits of this practice. Later in this session you will be learning specific methods for breathing when reciting Shrī Guru Gītā. First I will be teaching about the scriptural and philosophical basis regarding the nature of the breath and its importance in sādhanā.
In the philosophies of India, prāna is a word often used to refer to the breath—i.e., the physical process of inhalation and exhalation that sustains life in a human being. However, the term prāna also has a broader meaning and significance in the Indian scriptural tradition: it refers to the cosmic creative force. The sage Kallata taught:
At first, samvit—universal Consciousness—
is transformed into prāna.1
Here, Kallata describes the first step by which supreme Consciousness creates the universe. Consciousness becomes prāna, the universal life force, which then creates and pervades the cosmos. Therefore, the cosmos is permeated by prāna.
In each of us, prāna is the life force that enlivens our entire being, performing many vital functions. One of its key manifestations is that of the breath, which keeps us alive. Prāna, then, is both the force that animates our individual self and also the force that creates and permeates the cosmos.
I’m stating the philosophical teachings about prāna so that you can engage in svādhyāya with full awareness of the power and divinity of the breath. When you recite Shrī Guru Gītā, it is the power of your own breath that gives audible form to the mantras and manifests their full power. In this way, the scriptures teach that prāna is a vehicle through which the individual self can reunite with the supreme Self. This is the goal of svādhyāya—study of the Self. Now, let’s look further at how prāna functions in our being.
In the Chāndogya Upanishad, the sage Sanatkumāra teaches:
…all this is fixed to prāna,
as spokes of a wheel are fixed to its hub.2
The hub of a wheel is an apt analogy to describe how all the different parts of our being are linked to prāna, including our mind. This statement helps us understand the close connection between the breath and the mind. Both are fixed to and enlivened by prāna, the life force. The state of one affects the state of the other. When you regulate and calm the breath, this in turn balances and calms the mind. Therefore, one of the easiest and most effective ways to still the mind is to regulate the breathing. This is a main principle behind prānāyāma.
Prānāyāma is one of the eight limbs, or stages, of yoga described by the sage Patanjali in his text, the Yogasūtra. In this text, the etymology of prānāyāma is as follows: prāna refers to the breath, and āyāma means “to expand, stretch, regulate, lengthen in space or time.” So, prānāyāma is the regulation or control of the breath. Sage Patanjali states that through control of the breath, the mind becomes still so that the light of the Self can shine forth.3
There are many methods of prānāyāma taught in yogic texts such as the Yogasūtra and the Hatha Yoga Pradīpika. All prānāyāma techniques share these benefits: increasing lung capacity and elasticity, calming and focusing the mind, and enhancing the flow of prāna in the subtle body—the body of energy that permeates and enlivens the physical body.
One way we practice prānāyāma on the Siddha Yoga path is by controlling and synchronizing our breathing during the recitation of sacred texts. You can understand it this way: in order to recite the verses of a text such as Shrī Guru Gītā in a clear, full voice, you need to regulate your breathing.
The verses of Shrī Guru Gītā have a specific rhythm and timing to which you synchronize your in-breath and out-breath. This becomes a natural and easeful form of regulating and balancing the breath—a form of prānāyāma.
Furthermore, the other aspects of recitation you’ve been studying—your posture, pronunciation, gaze—all reinforce the rhythmic and balanced flow of the breath and the mind’s ability to hold a calm, steady focus. This allows the mind to become absorbed in the sacred syllables of Shrī Guru Gītā and in the wisdom these sacred mantras convey.
In each study session you have had time to reflect on and write your insights in your sādhanā journal. Recently a number of people have shared with me that five minutes is too long for them to journal. Thank you for letting me know. Based on your comments, I’ve shortened the journaling to three minutes.
You might have wondered why writing has been such a prominent part of these study sessions. Let me tell you more about this. Writing by hand is an effective way to comprehend and retain what you are learning. Several scientific studies have found that the act of putting pen to paper activates areas of the brain that help students to better comprehend the material they’re taking notes on. In three studies, researchers found that students who took notes longhand performed better on conceptual questions than students who took notes on laptops.4
The research suggests that the delicate and precisely controlled movements involved in handwriting contribute to the brain’s activation patterns related to learning.5 Researchers found no evidence of such activation patterns when students used keyboards to take notes.
As you can appreciate from this research, the role handwriting plays in your learning and study is significant. Therefore I encourage you to incorporate journaling by hand as part of your learning and study and see what benefits you observe.
In these study sessions you have been learning and studying how svādhyāya purifies and expands the energies contained in the chakras, the subtle energy centers in your being. The chakras—which you may recall are referred to by a Sanskrit word that denotes a wheel or circular shape—are situated along the spine in the subtle body. These energy centers are formed by the way the subtle energy channels, or nādīs, are configured and intersect in the subtle body. All the chakras lie along and are connected to the central channel, called the sushumna nādī. This is the subtle channel through which the awakened Kundalinī Shakti flows as it rises from the chakra at the base of the spine up to the crown of the head.
So far we have examined features and qualities of the chakras in ascending order:
- The mūlādhāra chakra at the base of the spine
- The svādhisthāna chakra, which is at the level of the sacrum
- And the manipūra chakra at the level of the navel
Today I will be speaking about the anāhata chakra, which is situated at the level of the heart. The word anāhata consists of the negative prefix an- and the word āhata, which means “struck.” Therefore, the word anāhata means “unstruck.”
This chakra is so named because it is here that the “unstruck” sound, the Absolute in the form of sound, or Shabda Brahman, arises. This unstruck sound is the eternal vibration of the supreme Self out of which the entire universe arises.
Here is a symbolic representation of the anāhata chakra:
According to two sacred texts, the Shiva Samhita and the Shat Chakra Nirūpana, the anāhata chakra “is bright red like the bandhūka flower.” The twelve petals that encircle it are also red, and on each of them are written, in vermilion, each of the twelve Sanskrit syllables.
The anāhata chakra is said to be the seat of the soul or the vital principle referred to as hamsa and also as the jīvātmā, the individual self. You can see how this luminous individual self is represented by a small, steady flame blazing at the center of the hexagonal mandala.
As this chakra is even subtler than the ones below it, so too is the element associated with it, which is air. The bīja or seed mantra of the chakra is yam, which corresponds to the element of air. This seed mantra is depicted as dark gray in color and located in the middle within the hexagonal mandala. The vehicle of the seed mantra yam is the black antelope, an animal known for its swiftness and lightness, qualities associated with the air element.
Let me explain the relationship between the bīja or seed mantra and the Sanskrit letters on the petals of the chakra. The bīja mantra represents the subtle sound produced by the vibration of the forces of this particular chakra. In other words, the bīja mantra expresses the essential nature of the chakra. The Sanskrit letters on the petals represent the vibrations of the nādīs that intersect to form the chakra. Each nādī has its own rate of vibration, which creates a specific sound. The sound of each nādī is represented by the Sanskrit letter that appears on each petal.
Each chakra is also associated with a particular sense, and the anāhata chakra is related to the sense of touch. Touch is connected to the air element as well, as it is through touch that you sense the existence and movement of air.
There are both negative and positive qualities associated with the anāhata chakra. On the negative side are the traits of anxiety, the sense of mine-ness, arrogance, languor, conceit, covetousness, duplicity, indecision, and regret. On the other hand, positive qualities such as endeavor, discernment, compassion, charity, and hope also exist here.
When the anāhata chakra is purified, the negative qualities are transformed into positive ones—in other words, into qualities that help us to recognize our oneness with the supreme Self.
The scriptures explain that all the impressions of one’s past karmas—actions, thoughts, and feelings—are stored in the sushumna nādī and in the chakras. These impressions obscure our true nature, thus preventing us from fully experiencing our divinity.
As we do sādhanā, Kundalinī Shakti begins to move through the sushumna and the chakras, purifying them. As a result of purifying the anāhata chakra through sādhanā, the Shat Chakra Nirūpana says that the yogi attains “wisdom and glory, he conquers his sense organs, becomes completely absorbed in meditation, and pours [forth] streams of beautiful poetry both in verse and prose.”6
When we recite Shrī Guru Gītā, the vibration of these enlivened mantras contributes to the purification of the chakras. This purification is also aided by the knowledge this text conveys that God, the Guru, and our own Self are one.
Soon, I’ll be leading you in some movements that prepare the mind, body, energy, and, of course, the breath for the recitation of Shrī Guru Gītā. These movements will support you in breathing steadily and naturally. First, I’ll speak more about the importance of the breath in the context of svādhyāya.
In the practice of svādhyāya, breathing steadily and naturally supports us in producing a clear and full sound and helps us to pronounce the Sanskrit syllables with accuracy.
Easeful breathing also helps in maintaining a relaxed and balanced upright posture. This is because the diaphragm, the major muscle of respiration in the body, is also one of the stabilizers of the spine. The diaphragm is a large dome-shaped muscle located beneath the lungs, and attached to the ribcage, the sternum, and the top of the lumbar spine.
When you breathe in, the diaphragm contracts, flattens, and descends, creating space in the chest. When you exhale, or breathe out, the diaphragm relaxes again, ascends, and moves back to its original position.
Swami ji led participants in exercises to help them become aware of the diaphragm and the other muscles that support its work. Participants were invited to stand. Gauri Maurer, a Siddha Yoga musician, demonstrated as Swami ji described the movements.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and parallel.
Feel the weight of your body evenly balanced on both feet.
In a moment, you will be sweeping your arms out to the side and up overhead. Raise your arms only as high as is comfortable for you. If you can raise your arms only to shoulder level, that is fine.
Now, inhale while sweeping your arms out to the side and overhead, feeling the ribs expanding to the sides, front, and back.
Exhale and lower your arms down to the sides.
Again, sweep the arms up on the inhalation.
Breathe out and lower your arms down to the sides.
One more time, breathe in as you sweep the arms overhead, and exhale and sweep them back down to your sides.
Breathe naturally for a few breaths.
Regulating the Breath
Now, place one hand slightly above your navel, at the level of the bottom of the rib cage.
With your mouth open, take a natural easy breath through your mouth, and let it out again.
Do this a few times, noticing how your hand moves in and out as you breathe. This movement is due to the action of the diaphragm moving downward, then relaxing back to its original position.
Let your mind connect with this rhythmic action as you breathe in and out through your open mouth three times.
You may conclude now and let your arms rest at your sides.
Breathing is normally an automatic and rhythmic process, like the beating of the heart. You don’t have to think about it for it to happen.
However with the diaphragm, we can also ask the breath to function on cue. Using the muscles of the abdomen and the rib cage, we can regulate the amount of air we take in, and the speed of our inhalations and exhalations. We refer to this as “breath control.”
Now, I’ll guide you in getting in touch with these other muscles that support the function of the diaphragm, and the breathing process.
Place one hand on the lower part of your rib cage.
Place your other hand on your lower abdomen, beneath your navel.
With your mouth open, take an easy inhalation. Allow the air to flow in down to where your hand is on your ribs.
Breathe in again and feel the movement of the ribs expanding.
Exhale and notice the ribs returning to their original position.
Inhale and exhale three times, with your mind focused on these movements.
Now you may release your hands and take your seats again.
I have been asking you to breathe with your mouth open. This is so that it is ready for singing.
It is also important to breathe through an open throat, which allows the air to flow in easefully, silently, deeply, and efficiently without being hurried.
Take a couple of inhalations now while thinking the words open throat.
You can conclude.
Did you notice how there was no sound and no tension in the chest or throat? You may also have found that the air flows more easily into the lower part of the lungs.
Supporting the Breath
Now that I’ve led you in ways to regulate your breathing, I will explain three ways that you can support your breathing during svādhyāya. That is, ways to support your body to maintain a regulated, steady breathing process:
First, maintain a balanced sitting posture as you recite so that there is ample space in your body for air to come in and be released.
Second, after an in-breath, gently keep the rib cage expanded.
And third, keep the abdominal muscles relaxed.
Gurumayi and Baba teach that breathing properly in the rhythmic and regulated manner we use when practicing svādhyāya is a form of prānāyāma. Prānāyāma has many benefits, and in turn supports our practice of svādhyāya in several ways.
So, what is the rhythm of our breathing when reciting Shrī Guru Gītā? Specifically, when should we breathe in? This is what we will examine now. I will explain it, and then you will practice it.
With the exception of those verses we recite in unison, when reciting Shrī Guru Gītā, you sing one half of a verse at a time. Each half verse is recited in one breath. If you are reading from the English transliteration, a half verse will look like two lines, so you will recite those two lines in one breath.
There is a specific moment to inhale that allows enough time to take a full breath. Taking a full breath allows you to recite your part of the verse in one breath, with ease.
You will be practicing this now using verse 109 of Shrī Guru Gītā. The verse is given below, so you do not need to hold your chanting book. You will see the verse in two forms—in devanāgarī and in roman transliteration. Follow along with whichever version you are familiar with.
You can click on the video player below to listen to the instructions and follow along with them.
© 2020 SYDA Foundation®. All rights reserved.
How did that go? Did your breath begin to flow with the rhythm of the recitation? Did you experience how this is a form of prānāyāma—a conscious regulating of the breath?
As you practice, this way of breathing during your recitations of Shrī Guru Gītā will become more natural. And everyone breathes a little differently, so you can experiment with the timing to be sure it is easeful for you. For example, you may find that it’s best for you to breathe a little earlier than the moment I indicated in this exercise, or a little later.
Participants applied what they learned about breathing to the recitation of verses 94 through 122 of Shrī Guru Gītā. They then recorded their observations and experience of practicing the methods for breath control and support while reciting Shrī Guru Gītā.
Let me now recap for you the topics you have learned in this study session:
- the philosophical basis of the breath, prāna, and its relevance to recitation of sacred texts
- the features and qualities of the anāhata chakra
- methods for controlling and supporting the breath
- when during the recitation of Shrī Guru Gītā to take breaths for the best effect
Swami ji then concluded the study session.