A quick search on Google will tell you that pranayama is a yogic term that relates to breathing exercises designed to help control our vital energies. We generally don’t pay much attention to the breath in western cultures but breathing becomes a fine art in the eastern religious philosophies and practices.
A fundamental part of my meditation practices includes a specific visualisation technique involving the breath. It is the foundation of several pranayama practices which I’ll describe in future posts.
As we slowly inhale, we can imagine energy or light in the lower part of our body move from the base of our spine and up the spinal column. When we reach a full breath, we can hold the breath for a moment, imagining that energy is filling our head, then with the exhale, we can imagine the energy descending and filling our heart. We repeat this over and over with each breath, moving our attention up the spine, to the head and then to the heart – fully concentrating on each area of the body as our attention moves.
This exercise serves to do several things.
- As with counting the breath it helps to keep us in the moment. However, in this case we are using our intention and concentration to move the energy within us in an inward and upward direction, and then depositing it in the heart.
- Through this activity we are counteracting the rather constant tendency to move our energy away from ourselves. We are constantly bombarded with impressions during our day, and many of those cause us to react. We may be emotionally excited, angry, or cranky; we may be intellectually preoccupied with our problems, stimulated with TV or the computer, or constantly comparing ourselves to others; or we may be physically busy, busy, busy. Much of our energy goes wasted on negative emotions or simply to inefficiency, because we are reacting instead of acting consciously. Moving our energy in a positive, uplifting and conscious way helps empower us to regain control of our own energy. How nice to imagine filling our mind and heart with positive and healing energy!
- The inhalation of oxygen and the upward movement of energy uplifts us physically and emotionally, which can help remove heaviness or overwhelming sleepiness if it creeps into our meditation.
- This visualisation is good preparation for the practice of transmutation of this same energy.
This practice could be combined with the counting practice discussed in a previous post, counting to four with the inhale, holding for a count of four, and then exhaling with a count of four.
We often compare the shape we are imagining to a shepherd’s staff or crook – the one with the hook at the top. There are many interesting correlations with this symbol (or similar symbols) and the attainment of wisdom or enlightenment:
- The shepherd’s staff (Christianity and also the Egyptian God Osiriis),
- Aaron’s rod (Judaism),
- the cobra (as on the head of egyptian Pharaohs, or venerated in the Hindu or Buddhist traditions – when in strike position the cobra has a curved top), and
- the Caduceus of Mercury or Hermes (Rome and Greece – also the symbol for modern medicine because early doctors such as Paracelsus knew the value of the breath and our energies).
Throughout history those who have become masters of inner peace have used various symbols to express their experience related to breath and energy.
We can take a few steps towards inner mastery by starting with this simple visualisation practice. Watch the breath and visualise the movement of our energy in the form of a shepherd’s staff. Its not about theory. Its about practice. Give it a try and see how it feels. My experience is its been nothing but useful.