Sunday, January 17, 2010

Prana, Chi and Life Energy

In both Eastern and Western traditions, the breath is associated not only with life itself, but also with the spiritual world and the indwelling spirit in man.  The word inspire is a good illustration of this: it means both the "in-breath" and an "influx of spiritual or divine influence".  (The words suspire, respire and expire all come from the same root, and relate to giving up the breath or spirit.)  In the East, the breath has also been linked to prana, the Sanskrit word for the non-material life force or energy that is said to be drawn in with the breath.  In China this is known as chi or qi; and in Japan as ki.

Chi  (which is pronounced "chee") is thought to pass through twelve main channels or meridians in the body.  Each channel is associated with a different organ, and along each are points that may be accessed or stimulated to treat physical and mental disorders caused by blockages to chi.  When chi flows easily through our bodies, we feel relaxed.  But when chi becomes blocked by negative thoughts, its flow is hampered, and this may cause stress and ill-health.  Current research on the medical efficacy of acupuncture, which uses these channels, tends to support this idea.  It is also thought that through the mind power and awareness of the breath developed by the practice of meditation, this life energy can be brought under conscious control, to the benefit both of spiritual development and of physical health.

An important first step along the path of meditation is to use the awareness of your breathing to gain insight into the quality of the breaths themselves.  The Buddha was very specific about this.  In the Anapana-sati Sutra (Mindfulness of Breathing) he teaches that:"When breathing in a long breath [the meditator] knows that he breathes in a long breath, when breathing in a short breath he knows that he breathes in a short breath."  The meditator thus comes to know whether the breathing is long or shallow; whether it is from  the upper chest or from the diaphragm; whether it flows evenly or is jerky; whether it is fast or slow; whether it is noisy or quiet.  The breath reveals a great deal about the meditator's state of mind and his or her state of physical relaxation.

An ancient yoga teaching holds that each person's life span is represented by the number of breaths allocated to them before birth.  Quick, shallow breathing uses up the allocation faster than slow, deep breathing, thus shortening life.  Like many such teachings, there is an underlying truth to this in that slow, deep breathing is associated with the relaxation of body and mind, which is clearly beneficial both to meditation and to health.

It is important to remember that deep breathing refers not to the length of the breath, but to the fact that breathing takes place from the diaphragm, as low down as possible, rather than from the restricted area of the upper chest.  Upper chest breathing is useful after exercise, when the body has an urgent need for oxygen, but during sedentary periods requires unneccessary effort.

The complete breath, which some texts advise you to employ two or three times at the start of meditation as an aid to relaxation and concentration, refers to a slow measured breath that commences at the diaphragm, then fills the middle and finally the upper chest until the whole of the lung area is fully expanded.  But take care not to hyperventilate (take in too many complete breaths in quick succession), as this can lead to dizziness and even fainting.

The breath can also be used in connection with the power of visualization.  One simple practice is to imagine the breath flowing into your body in the form of white light and exiting in the form of grey or black smoke that contains all your tensions and tiredness.  To do this, allow your awareness to move from its usual place at the base of the nostrils and to extend from the nose down to the abdomen.  On the in-breath, the white light is seen as flooding this whole area, absorbing impurities, and then the smoke flows out leaving the body purified.  This practice can be combined with The Alternate Nostril Breathing, and used at the start of each meditation.

Source from Learn to Meditate by David Fontana