तस्मिन् सति श्वासप्रश्वासयोर्गतिविच्छेदः प्राणायामः
tasmin sati śvāsapraśvāsayorgativicchedaḥ prāṇāyāmaḥ 2:49
Observing the natural incoming and outgoing breath will calm the mind and in turn develop awareness
-Patanjali Yoga Sutras 2:49
Why meditate on the natural breath?
The ‘natural breath’, means the ordinary, uncontrolled breath that is with us all the time.
The natural breath is connected to the body , the conscious mind and the citta (feeling) level of the subconscious mind.
For this reason it keeps us grounded in the reality of the body, it strengthens our conscious mind leading to greater cognitive control and emotional resilience and it cultivates awareness of the subconscious mind where our thoughts, feelings, reactions and behavioural tendencies originate.
Observation of the natural breath develops not only concentration (samadhi), but also awareness (sati).
The natural breath always reflects the fluctuations of our thoughts and feelings. When we are agitated, so is the breath. When we are at peace, so is the breath. Through meditating on the natural breath we strengthen the conscious mind and cultivate its ability to be aware of the parts of the mind that we usually have no access to. Without awareness we cannot bring about change.
The power of observation is cultivated through this meditation.
Usually we only observe external realities. Here we are training the mind to observe inwardly in order to bring transformation. Observation of the natural breath bring calmness and tranquility to the mind while simultaneosuly sharpening its ability to observe and discern subtler realities.
The natural breath has particular interrelated qualities that are summed up as Choiceless Awareness of the Present Changing Reality.
There is no conditioning, i.e. no liking or disliking, for the breath. It is neutral and 100% objective and therefore develops non-attachment. We cannot choose how we would like the breath to be, we have no preference towards it. It is devoid of any sound, form or intellectual contemplation.
The breath is always with us, but does not belong to us. We do not have a feeling of ownership over our own breath and so we do not try to hold on to it. We have to let it go at each exhalation therefore the practice counteracts the clinging tendency of the mind. The breath comes and the breath goes out and we simply observe it as a natural phenomenon happening by itself.
Most meditations develop concentration, but the natural breath allows us to simultaneously develop awareness of the unconscious mind. It sharpens the mind and prepares it to use that awareness to achieve insight within the body in order to work at a much deeper level. This technique develops greater levels of self-awareness as well as awareness of the world around us. Awareness in turn leads to empathy and greater understanding.
We cannot observe a past breath or a future breath. Our breath is always in the present and so the practice develops present-centredness. Mindfulness in the present brings full appreciation of every moment. Usually our mind is running into the past or the future, but the breath trains the mind to be in the here and now. This mitigates stress and makes the mind more efficient, balanced and happy.
The only way to transform the habit patterns of the mind is to work with the reality of the unconscious. The breath is connected to the citta, the mind of chemicals that give rise to feelings, and it reflects the status of this mind. It is like a bridge connecting the conscious mind with the citta level of the mind or like a mirror reflecting the quality of the citta. If the unconscious mind is agitated, this is mirrored in the breath. For example, if you feel angry you may notice that your breath has become hot, fast and coarse. Similarly, when the mind is calm and quiet, the breath is light and subtle. The mind is usually avoiding reality, but observing the breath trains the mind to work with reality rather than escaping into imagination or distraction. The process of observing the natural breath sharpens our awareness or mindfulness of the subtler levels of reality. The breath is constantly changing as one breath flows out and another flows in. This is significant as it reflects the changing nature of everything in existence. Each breath is new and different. Everything we experience in life is undergoing continuous change and therefore working with the breath trains us to respond with equanimity to the phenomenon of change.