FEW YEARS AGO I got worried because I would start holding
my breath involuntarily whenever I began to meditate.
the first minute or two, it didn't matter. Then I'd
run short of air and inhale. For some reason this would
usually interrupt my meditation and cause a stream of
thoughts to rise.
a deep breath, my breathing would stop again and I'd
meditate peacefully until the next gasp came along.
reason this bothered me was that I could only meditate
for as long as I could hold my breath. As soon as I
inhaled, the usual mental jabber returned.
annoying thing was that I wasn't just holding my breath;
I was also contracting the muscles of my chest and abdomen.
This didn't feel healthy -- it seemed to raise my blood
pressure -- but the only way I could keep the muscles
relaxed was by thinking continuously about them, and
this interfered with my meditation.
desperation I wrote to several mailing lists asking
for advice. Nobody who replied had ever heard of such
a problem before, and all the advice I received was
led me to believe that my problem was very strange.
Since then I've learned that I was wrong. What I experienced
was not unusual, and it's not a problem.
I REMEMBERED ALL THIS today when I came across the following
passage in a terrific book called Living
By The Words of Bhagavan:
evening, while I was accompanying Bhagavan [Ramana
Maharshi] on one of his walks, I asked him, "When
I meditate my breath seems to get suspended in my
stomach. Is this good?"
replied, "That is very good."
by this positive comment I asked him a further question:
"If I go on meditating after that, what will
will be attained," replied Bhagavan.
samadhi mean that one is unaware of everything?"
said Bhagavan. "Meditation will go on without
our effort. That is samadhi." (Page 234.)
too bad I didn't come across this passage a few years
ago; it would have saved me a lot of worry. Ramana's
prediction turned out to be accurate in my case. Nowadays,
once my meditation starts, it goes on by itself regardless
of what I think or how I breathe. I still sometimes
hold my breath, but when it comes time to inhale, there's
no sense of interruption. After I meditate for more
than a few minutes, breathing frequently becomes deep
and relaxed and my belly sticks out like a sumo wrestler's.
This all happens naturally, by itself.
ONE REASON I'M WRITING this column is to assure people
who are experiencing involuntary breath retention that
there's no need to worry or do anything about it; you'll
I also want to talk about why this phenomenon takes
place. It's good to understand the neurophysiology involved
because you can make use of it to attain deeper states
simple fact of the matter is that when you hold your
breath, your thoughts tend to stop. You might want to
look away from this article for a few minutes and experiment.
Watch your thoughts come and go while you hold your
breath, then try the same thing while breathing freely,
and see if you notice a difference.
difficulty probably arose because I noticed this phenomenon
subliminally, and then unconsciously developed the habit
of holding my breath when I wanted my mind to become
quiet. No big deal.
his massive book Zen
and the Brain, neurologist James H. Austin summarizes
some scientific papers that have been published on this
subject. Researchers have found that:
of EEG theta waves (associated with deep relaxation)
increase while people hold their breath.
who practice Transcendental Meditation show frequent
episodes of breath retention lasting an average of
activity decreases during exhalation and increases
during inhalation. This is true in both people and
in the abdominal muscles plays a role in inhibiting
and exciting parts of the brain. (Pages 93-99.)
THESE OBSERVATIONS suggest that if you want to make
your mind quiet, you should hold your breath, exhale
more slowly than you inhale, and tense your abdominal
muscles in some particular way.
techniques are nothing new, of course; yogis discovered
them several thousand years ago and developed them into
the complex system called pranayama which is
emphasized today especially in Hatha Yoga.
you don't need to study pranayama to make use of the
main principles underlying it. You only need to hold
your breath or slow your breathing a bit. Next time
you have trouble making your mind settle down, give
these things a try.
copyright 2000 Freddie Yam. Photograph copyright 2000
Jacques De Schryver.
Yam writes frequently for Realization.org.