Tibetan and Buddhist Pranayam

  • By K.R.K. Murthy
  • April 20, 2023
  • An introduction to Tibetan Pranayam.

Breath is life, the most fundamental expression of our life, and quite literally sustaining life. Buddhism calls Prana the ‘vehicle of the mind’ since Prana is what makes the mind move. Buddhists practise meditation as part of the path towards liberation from defilements and cravings. Different schools of Buddhism have different techniques of meditation. These techniques aim to develop equanimity and mindfulness (sati), unification of mind (samadhi), tranquility (samatha), and insight (vipassana).


Read What is Prana


Anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing) is a form of Buddhist meditation taught by the Buddha. This is the core meditation practice followed by many branches of Buddhism. Meditation is bhavana (mental development) and dhyana (mental training resulting in a calm and luminous mind).


In the Buddhist method of pranayama, you have to rest your attention lightly and mindfully on the breath and you can train the mind to remain calm. Even deep breathing during stress can create relaxation. When you meditate, breathe naturally and focus awareness lightly on the outer breath; between breathing in and out, there is a gap; rest your mind on this gap.


Do not make a running commentary of your actions like—“Now I am breathing in, now I am breathing out, etc.” What is important is pure presence or consciousness. Give 25% attention to breathing, 75% to remaining quietly relaxed. Later, rather than you identifying with the breath, let yourself be gradually identified with it. Finally the breath, breathing and the breather becomes one. You will find this state of mindfulness filters your thoughts and emotions and gives you bliss. 


Read Indian roots of Tibetan Buddhism

First published in Journal of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.


Watch Your Breath

Your breath is like a barometer that shows both your mental and physical well-being. Breath is the bridge between the body and the mind. The body without breath is useless and has no value. Breath means inhalation and exhalation and the existence of life in the body. The reciprocal relationship between body and consciousness is widely accepted even by those who are not spiritually inclined. We all take a few breaths to calm an agitated mind or stimulate a dull one.


Death means a permanent pause between inhalation and exhalation and a separation of the body from the thinking process. With death, the body and the conscious mind are separated from the unconscious mind and the soul.


You must avoid four types of breathing: noisy breathing, shallow breathing, jerky breathing, and with long pauses between inhalation and exhalation. You must breathe deeply and rhythmically. As you breathe, watch the stream of air. As you watch the flow of breath, the mind will find it easy to attain peace.


Mental peace is the gap between two thoughts in the mind. Rarely will you find air flowing equally free through the two nostrils. By learning to concentrate on the space between the two nostrils and between the eyebrows, you will be able to make the air flow freely through both nostrils. You can control your wandering mind through Pranayama. But it needs concentration and practice.


There is a close connection between blood and breath. You can even control involuntary organs like the kidney and the stomach by certain breathing techniques. It is believed that a person can even awaken his soul through pranayama, because prana (vital air) is the force that sustains life and when it leaves the body, breathing stops and death follows. A person has 21,600 breath rhythms in a day of 24 hours. Shallow, noisy, tumultuous breathing exceeds this measure (norm) and shortens one’s life. Slow, deep, relaxed, quiet and rhythmic breathing economises this allowance and lengthens the lifespan. Every breath saved, it is said, builds up a reserve from which we can draw youth, health and longevity. Yogis have proved this point. People living in cities under stressful conditions have sickly and short life spans due to quick and shallow breathing.


Those who live calm stress-free lives, especially in villages, have a long healthy life due to slow relaxed breathing. The dog breathes fast; its lifespan is 15-20 years. The tortoise breathes slowly; its lifespan can exceed even 500 years.


Tibetan Pranayama

In Tibetan Buddhism, the elements of air and the breath are together called ‘lung’ (Tibetan rlung), which describes not only the breath but the movement of air which we call ‘wind’ or ‘wind energy’. 


Wind energy not only supports the body systems, but also drives our emotions. It is also the physical energy that accompanies all our feelings and sensations. It is more than just inhalation an exhalation. There is a connection between the breath and how we feel. When the wind energy is calm, the body is also calm and relaxed, especially in the areas of the lungs, abdomen and chest. Working with balancing the breath, the mind can be pacified and made calm. But the change may take a long period of practice under instruction from a master.


Awareness of breath is practised in a number of ways. Some people focus on the rise and fall of the abdomen during the inhalation and exhalation process. In yet another method, one focuses on the sensations of breath passing through the nostrils and above the upper lip. These methods are good to soothe and calm the agitated mind; the third method of stabilising the mind involves directing one’s awareness on the mind itself. For meditation one has to develop a relaxed, wholesome and cheerful mind. 


The practice involves nine cycles of inhalation and exhalation. Each of these involves alternate nasal breathing as in the practice of Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (Anulom-Vilom). We repeat this exercise until we have inhaled and exhaled a total of six times, three through each nostril. This exercise/cycle is repeated three times. The exhalation should be long and relaxed compared to inhalation.


Even if we cannot achieve the ultimate purpose of Pranayama, it helps to improve appetite, digestion, prevents and cures many common ailments like cold, sinusitis, and asthma. It can prevent rheumatic disorders, control cholesterol, increase blood circulation. It can make the body healthy, lustrous and strong. It increases enthusiasm, vigour and vitality, longevity and concentration power and gives a feeling of general well-being.


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Health Benefits of Pranayama by Yogacharya Dr Balayogi


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, 15 April 2023 issue. This article is courtesy and copyright Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from Bhavan’s Journal to share. Do subscribe to the Bhavan’s Journal – it is very good.

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