Breath and Sound in Meditation
When we meditate we do not sit in silent blankness because that would not return us to our eternal consciousness of Spirit. Instead we have to have the right inner environment for the return to take place. This is provided by two things: Aom and the breath.
Swami Vivekananda, writing on Raja Yoga, points out that according to the philosophers of India the whole universe is composed of two materials: akasha and prana. “Just as Akasha is the infinite, omnipresent material of this universe, so is this Prana the infinite, omnipresent manifesting power of this universe.” Sound rises directly from akasha, and breath rises directly from prana. Since they arise from the spirit-center, when their right joining is done they free and enable us to return and merge our consciousness with that center. Joining the two, we go straight to the heart of ourselves and the universe. That is, we go directly to the Heart of Brahman.
The breath and Aom are like two firesticks. Fire is inherent in both, but only when the two are brought together in friction does the fire come forth. The “fire” we are wanting to bring forth is the spirit-consciousness that is our real Self.
In Indian mythology it is said that the realm of Vishnu is guarded by two doorkeepers who escort the questing soul into the Divine Presence. This is a symbol of the breath and Aom which when united bring the yogi into the world of higher consciousness. In Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist temples it is common to find three images on the altar: the deity in the middle and on either side the two companions of the deity whose favor enables the devotee to communicate directly with the deity. In Christian iconography there is the depiction known as the Deisis in which Jesus is in the middle and the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist are on the sides.
In the realm of meditation, the doorkeepers/companions conduct the seeker into the throne room and then stand at the door to guard against intruders. That is, the breath and Aom lead us into the realm of the Chidakasha, the Space of Consciousness, and keep guard there against the intrusion of distracting thoughts and states of mind, seeing that nothing disturbs our inner quest.
These two companion-friends deserve our careful study.
The Role of Breath in Meditation
Breath, the universal factor
The Sanskrit word prana means both “breath” and “life.” Breath is the single universal factor of life–all that lives, breathes. Therefore meditation practices involving the breath are found in many mystical traditions. The process of breath is identical in all, consisting of inhalation and exhalation–expansion and contraction. It is the most immaterial factor of our existence, the body-mind-spirit link. For this reason, the breath is a natural and logical factor in meditation.
Breath and Yoga
The reason why breath plays such an important part in the technique of classical Yoga lies in the close relation existing between breath and mind. “Breath and mind arise from the same source”–the Self–according to Sri Ramana Maharshi in Day By Day With Bhagavan. Therefore meditation practices involving the breath are found in many mystical traditions. One of the most profound texts on the philosophy behind yoga, the Shiva Sutras, says: “The connection of pure consciousness with breath [prana] is natural” (Shiva Sutras 3:43). Breath is the meeting place of body, mind, and spirit.
The breath and the body are completely interconnected and interrelated, as is seen from the fact that the breath is calm when the body is calm, and agitated or labored when the body is agitated or labored. The heavy exhalation made when feeling exhausted and the enthusiastic inhalation made when feeling energized or exhilarated establish the same fact.
The breath and the emotions are completely interconnected and interrelated, as is seen from the fact that the breath is calm when the emotions are calm, and agitated and labored when the emotions are agitated or out of control. Our drawing of a quick breath, when we are surprised, shocked, or fearful, and the forceful exhalation done when angry or annoyed demonstrate this.
The breath and the mind are completely interconnected and interrelated, as is seen from the fact that the breath is calm when the mind is calm, and agitated, irregular, and labored when the mind is agitated or disturbed in any way. Our holding of the breath when attempting intense concentration also shows this.
Breath, which exists on all planes of manifestation, is the connecting link between matter and energy on the one hand and consciousness and mind on the other. It is necessary for the vitalization and functioning of all vehicles of consciousness, physical or superphysical.
We start with awareness of the ordinary physical breath, but that awareness, when cultivated correctly, leads us into higher awareness which enables us to perceive the subtle movement behind the breath. Ultimately, we come into contact with the Breather of the breath, our own spirit.
In many spiritual traditions the same word is used for both breath and spirit, underscoring the esoteric principle that in essence they are the same, though we naturally think of spirit as being the cause of breath(ing). The word used for both breath and spirit is: In Judaism, Ruach. In Eastern Christianity (and ancient Greek religion), Pneuma. In Western Christianity (and ancient Roman religion), Spiritus (which comes from spiro, “I breathe”). In Hinduism and Buddhism, Atma (from the root word at which means “to breathe”), and Prana.
The books of Arthur Avalon (Sir John Woodruffe) are unparalleled in their value regarding the many aspects of yoga. Here are three quotations from them regarding breath in the context of yoga.
“The ultimate reality is Saccidananda which, as the source of appearances, is called Shakti. The latter in its Sat (Being) aspect is omnipresent-indestructible (eternal) Source and Basis both of the Cosmic Breath or Prana as also of all vital phenomena displayed as the individual Prana in separate and concrete bodies” (The Garland of Letters, p. 140).
“The individual breath is the Cosmic Breath from which it seems to be different by the forms which the latter vitalizes” (The Garland of Letters, p. 157).
“Breathing is a manifestation of the Cosmic Rhythm to which the whole universe moves and according to which it appears and disappears” (Shakti and Shakta).
Breath, then, is an essential ingredient of liberating yoga.
The identity of the breath with the individual spirit, the atman (Self)
The breath is the spirit in extension.
“The Self is the breath of the breath” (Kena Upanishad 1:2).
“The subtle Self within the living and breathing body is realized in that pure consciousness wherein is no duality” (Mundaka Upanishad 3:1:9).
“The breaths are the Real, and their Reality is the Self” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.1.20).
“The Self is The Truth of Truth, and verily the Breath is Truth, and the Self is the Truth of the Breath” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.3.6).
“He who breathes in with your breathing in is your Self. He who breathes out with your breathing out is your Self” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3.4.1).
Through the breath we can become established in the consciousness that is the Self.
The identity of the breath with the Supreme Spirit, Brahman
But breath is much more than an individual matter, it is also a bridge to the Infinite Consciousness, being the living presence and action of God (Brahman).
“O Prana, lord of creation, thou as breath dwellest in the body” (Prashna Upanishad 2.7).
“When one breathes, one knows him as breath” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.7).
“Self-luminous is that Being, and formless. He dwells within all and without all. He is unborn, pure, greater than the greatest. From him is born the breath” (Mundaka Upanishad 2.1.2, 3). Since the breath rises from God, it can be resolved back into God.
“Breath is a part of Brahman” (Chandogya Upanishad 4.9.3). Breath is itself divine.
“The being who is the breath within–him I meditate upon as Brahman” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.1.6).
“Breath is the Immortal One” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.6.3).
“The shining, immortal person who is breath is the Self, is Brahman” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.5.4).
“Which is the one God? The breath. He is Brahman” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3.9.9).
“They who know the breath of the breath…have realized the ancient, primordial Brahman” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.18).
“The breath is the Supreme Brahman. The breath never deserts him who, knowing thus, meditates upon it. Having become a god, he goes to the gods” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.1.3).
Ramana Maharshi on the breath
In Maha Yoga, Sri Ramana says: “Pranayama is of two kinds: one of controlling and regulating the breath and the other of simply watching the breath.”
In the book Day By Day with Bhagavan, we find the following related to the just-cited passage from Maha Yoga: “[Seekers] are advised to watch their breathing, since such watching will naturally and as a matter of course lead to cessation of thought and bring the mind under control.”
When asked in the same conversation about actually controlling the breath, he commented: “Watching the breath is also one form of pranayama. Retaining breath, etc., is more violent and may be harmful in some cases…. But merely watching the breath is easy and involves no risk.”
In Talks With Sri Ramana Maharshi: “To watch the breath is one way of doing pranayama. The mind abstracted from other activities is engaged in watching the breath. That controls the breath; and in its turn the mind is controlled.” And further: “Breath and mind arise from the same source. The source can be reached by regulating the breath…. Regulation of the breath is accomplished by watching its movements.” And: “It is the Atman that activates the mind and the breaths” (The Power of the Presence, vol. III, p. 230).
The Role of Sound in Meditation
Why do we use sound in meditation? “By sound one becomes liberated [Anavrittih shabdai],” is the concluding verse of the Brahma Sutras (4.4.22). How is this so?
Why do we use sound in meditation? Why not use one of the other senses or faculties, since touch, sight, taste, and smell must also possess increasingly subtler forms until they reach the point of their emerging? It is true that these four faculties do have subtle forms, but only sound reaches to the ultimate point of emergence.
The five senses correspond to the five elements of which all things consist. Those elements are ether [akasha], air [vayu], fire [agni], water [apah], and earth [prithvi]. That is, their grossest forms are those of sound [shabda], sight [drishti], touch [sparsha], taste [rasa], and smell [gandha] as perceived by the bodily senses. Because of this we use these terms to refer to them. But the water element is not just the liquid we call “water.” It is much more, having roots in the astral and causal planes. The same is true of the other elements.
When relative existence, individual or cosmic, begins, there is a chain of manifestation. First there is the out-turning of the consciousness itself. This modification on the cosmic level is the emerging of the Mahat Tattwa, the Great Element, that is the Personal or Saguna Brahman, spoken of in Christianity as “the Only-begotten of the Father” or “Son” of God. In the individual this is the sense of asmita: I-am-ness. Then the Pradhana [Prakriti] modifies itself into the five elements, beginning with ether, and each succeeding element contains within itself some of the preceding elements. That is, air is mixed with some ether. Fire possesses some of the ether and air element. Water has some fire, air, and ether. Earth has some water, fire, air, and ether. So only ether is unmixed, and only ether is “touching” the principle of Consciousness–only ether is in direct contact with the spirit. Yet ether (akasha) pervades all the other elements as their prime constituent–actually as their source and core element. Sound is the quality (or faculty) of ether; touch is the quality of air; sight is the quality of fire; taste is the quality of water; and smell is the quality of earth. Sound, then, is the only thing that reaches back to the principle of consciousness. The other elements stop somewhere along the way. Sound, then, can affect all the elements.
The five elements also correspond to the five levels or bodies known as koshas: the anandamaya, jnanamaya, manomaya, pranamaya, and annamaya bodies. These are the intelligence, intellectual, mental (sensory), biomagnetic, and physical bodies. The highest (most subtle) body is the etheric body (anandamaya kosha) which is the seat of sound or speech.
There is more. The other four elements have only one faculty or power, but akasha has two faculties or powers: Vak and Shabda–Speaking and Hearing. The faculties of the four other elements are all passive. The faculty of smell cannot generate smells, the faculty of taste cannot generate tastes, etc., though the memory or imagination of them is possible. Ether, on the other hand, has the capacity to both generate and hear sound on the mental levels. The etheric faculty both speaks and hears what it speaks, is both active and passive. This is unique among the elements. Akasha alone possesses the creative power, the power of sound.
Consciousness is the root of sound–is innate in sound. Sound, then, is the direct means to return our awareness to the inmost level of our being and put us into touch with consciousness itself. At the same time, sound rules all the levels of our being and has the ability to infuse all those levels with the highest spiritual consciousness, to spiritualize every bit of us. Aom, then, is both energy and consciousness. Listening to our inner intonations of Aom during japa and meditation right away centers our awareness in the highest, etheric level of our being. It returns our awareness to its source and gathers up and centers every other aspect of our being in spiritual consciousness.
Through japa and meditation the Divine Sound, Aom, pervades all our bodies, corrects, directs, and empowers them to perfectly and fully manifest all their potentials–which is the root purpose of our relative existence. Through Pranava Yoga practice all the aspects of our being are brought into perfect fruition and then enabled to merge back into their Source in the state of absolute liberation. Pranava Yoga, then, embraces all the aspects of our existence–not only the highest part–and is supremely practical. Aom, through Its japa and meditation, perfects our entire being.
When we inwardly intone Aom and become absorbed in that sound, by centering our awareness in the act of intoning Aom and listening to It, we become centered in the Chidakasha, the Consciousness that is our Self.
We use sound in Pranava Yoga–but it is not just any form of sound. It is sound that is produced (generated) in the mind–not sound that is passively heard either through the ears or through the memory of auditory sound. This generation of sound is the process known as thinking. So yoga is accomplished by the generation and observation of a thought in the mind. This is why Shankara, commenting on Yoga Sutra 2:20, says that the activity of pure consciousness in the individual is “observation of thoughts in the mind.…Purusha, looking on at thought in the mind alone, sees only that, and never fails to see thought which is his object.…To witness is natural to him, in the sense that his essence is awareness of the mind’s ideas.” (“Mind is by definition the object of purusha.” Vyasa) Now this is extremely profound. The only thing we ever do in our real nature as pure consciousness is to observe thoughts in the intellect (buddhi). That is why when Sri Ramakrishna was asked: “What is the Self?” he simply replied: “The witness of the mind.” Sense impressions are perceived a step away from that in the lower mind (manas). Perceiving thought is the sole activity of the spirit-consciousness. Perception of thought is also a perpetual–truly an inescapable–activity of the purusha. It is only reasonable then to conclude that to discover the true Self or to cause the Self to become established in its real nature we must employ the faculty of thought. Yet it is thought that is tangling us up all the time in false identities. So it is not just thought in general that we need, but a special kind of thought–one that turns the awareness back upon itself and eventually merges itself into the pure consciousness that is spirit. That unique thought is Aom. “Its japa and meditation is the way.” Our eternal nature ensures our success.
The “genealogy” of sound
The cosmos and the individual are manifested by the same process: ever-expanding sound-vibration, Spanda. First there comes the most subtle expansion-movement or vibration on the causal level where rather than an objective sound it is a bhava, the slightest differentiation of primal consciousness. This is known as dhvani. Dhvani then expands and mutates into nada, which is sound, but in such a subtle form that it is more an idea of sound rather than actual sound. Nada develops into nirodhika, a kind of focussing of the energy so it becomes potential sound. This expands and becomes ardha-indu (ardhendu), the “half-moon” which is the crescent shape seen on the Aom symbol and on the head of Shiva. This is both thought and sound, but sound that can only be heard as the faintest of inner mental sounds. Ardhendu then expands and becomes bindu, the vibratory source-point. This bindu is fully sound, but on the interior level only. It cannot be spoken aloud. It cannot be spoken at all, but only perceived and entered into as the first step back to the source consciousness that is Spirit. Yet, from bindu comes all the permutations that are the various sounds which are combined to form words–including mantras.
According to the yoga scriptures there are three basic forms of sound or speech:
- pashyanti, that which can only be intuited or felt rather than heard–even within;
- madhyama, that which can be heard in the mind as thought; and
- vaikhari, that which is physically spoken and heard outwardly by the ear through the vibration of the air.
But beyond even these is the transcendental sound, para-vak or “supreme speech” which is soundless sound, consciousness itself. Aom encompasses all three.
“When men sent out Vak’s [Speech’s] first and earliest utterances, all that was excellent and spotless, treasured within them, was disclosed.…the trace of Vak they followed, and found her harboring within” (Rig Veda 10.71.1, 2). This hymn of the Rig Veda speaks of Vak, the creative Sound from which all things came. This Sound both manifested all things and revealed them–that is, produced the consciousness capable of perceiving them. The sages, the hymn tells us, traced Vak (Aom) back to the source and discovered It was within themselves as both Power and Consciousness.
Meditation is the process of tracing discovered by the sages, the procedure by which the yogi enters into the inner levels of Aom, tracing it to its very source which is consciousness. As he does so, he experiences within the depths of his awareness the subtle states of consciousness, or bhava, inherent in Aom. For this reason the word frequently translated “meditation” in texts relating to yoga is bhavanam–the experiencing of the inner states of consciousness called “bhavas.” Meditation leads us right into the heart of Aom as we trace the “thread” of Its sound back through Its many permutations to Its original bhava or impulse of consciousness that expanded outward to manifest as Its outermost form of the spoken Aom.
Inner psychic sounds
It may be that sometimes you will hear various inner sounds such as a gong, bell, harp, flute, bee, waterfall, vina, bagpipes, and suchlike. These are often mistaken for genuinely spiritual phenomena when in reality they are only the astral sounds of the bodily functions. For example, the bee sound is the astral sound of cellular division, the flute sound is the astral sound of the lymphatic circulation, the bell sound is the astral sound of the cardio-pulmonary functions, and so forth. They are–in the astral sense–purely physical and have no yogic value whatsoever.
The so-called “Cosmic Aom” or “Cosmic Motor” sound heard by some yogis who plug their ears and listen for it is only the astral sound of the cosmic fire element from which the body and the material plane emerge and into which they are dissolved. That this is so is shown by the following upanishadic statement: “This fire which is within a man and digests food that is eaten is Vaisvanara. Its sound is that which one hears by stopping the ears” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 5.9.1). It is psychic not spiritual. Buddha described how during his intense practice of various yogas he became adept at hearing this astral sound, assuming that it was a spiritual experience, until after examining its effects he realized it was just a psychic distraction that led nowhere, and abandoned it.
In short, all such astral sounds should be ignored. Stay with your intonations of Aom.
Out of the labyrinth
Theseus, an ancient epic hero, was condemned to die in a labyrinth. He survived because he had a thread which was anchored at the entrance of the maze. By following the thread he escaped. Sound is the thread, the following of which in meditation will lead us out of the deadly labyrinth of samsara. Specifically, Aom is the sound-thread that leads us out since It is the first Sound that arises in Eternity. Thus It leads back to the Origin of all things: Divine Consciousness.
Or we could put is this way: The subtle thread of Aom is extending from the Center of Reality outward into/as all things. Through Pranava Yoga meditation we ascend back to the center with every breath. This ascent also evolves us. So we sit, ascend, and evolve.
This being so, it is crucial for us to continually remember throughout our meditation that the sound of Aom should be the object of our attention. Throughout meditation keep hold of the thread of the Pranava and you will be led to freedom from all bonds.
“[Anahata] is a spontaneous sound constantly going on by Itself. It is the sound of the Pranava, Aom. It originates in the Supreme Brahman…. A yogi alone knows that this sound originates from the Supreme Brahman.” (Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, p. 416.)
As we enter into relative consciousness through the expansion of sound, just so can we enter back into transcendent consciousness through the intentional contraction of sound that occurs in meditation. Tracing Aom back to Its source, the Aom yogi discovers It within himself as both Power and Consciousness, experiencing the subtle states of consciousness inherent in Aom.
This procedure is spoken of in the Katha Upanishad: “The Self, though hidden in all beings, does not shine forth but can be seen by those subtle seers, through their sharp and subtle intelligence. The wise man should restrain speech into the mind; the latter he should restrain into the understanding self. The understanding self he should restrain into the great self. That he should restrain into the tranquil self” (Katha Upanishad 1.3.12,13). By “mind” is meant the manas, the sensory mind; by “understanding self” is meant the buddhi, the intellect; by “the great self” is meant the will; and by “tranquil self” is meant the subtlest level, the Chidakasha, the witness-link between our pure consciousness and our perceptions.
In Viveka Chudamani (verse 369) Shankara expresses it this way: “Restrain speech in the manas, and restrain manas in the buddhi; this again restrain in the witness of the buddhi [the chidakasha], and merging that also in the Infinite Absolute Self, attain to Supreme Peace.”
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad tells us: “The faculty of speech is the place of merging” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.4.11). In the subtle sound of Aom the consciousness of the yogi is resolved into its pure, divine state.
I. K. Taimni on japa and meditation
In The Science of Yoga I. K. Taimni says this regarding japa and meditation:
“Japa begins in a mechanical repetition but it should pass by stages into a form of meditation and unfoldment of the deeper layers of consciousness.
“The efficacy of japa is based upon the fact that every jivatma is a microcosm thus having within himself the potentialities of developing all states of consciousness and all powers which are present in the active form in the macrocosm. All the forces which can help this Divine spark within each human heart to become a roaring fire are to be applied. And the unfoldment of consciousness takes place as a result of the combined action of all these forces.…A mantra is a sound combination and thus represents a physical vibration which is perceptible to the physical ear. But this physical vibration is its outermost expression, and hidden behind the physical vibration and connected with it are subtler vibrations much in the same way as the dense physical body of man is his outermost expression and is connected with his subtler vehicles. These different aspects of Vak or ‘speech’ are called Vaikhari, Madhyama, Pashyanti and Para. Vaikhari is the audible sound which can lead through the intermediate stages to the subtlest form of Para Vak. It is really through the agency of these subtler forms of ‘sound’ that the unfoldment of consciousness takes place and the hidden potentialities become active powers. This release of powers takes a definite course according to the specific nature of the mantra just as a seed grows into a tree, but into a particular kind of tree according to the nature of the seed.”
And Aom being the seed of the Totality of Consciousness, of Brahman Itself, the Aom Yogi grows into Perfect Divinity by means of Its japa and meditation.
Ramana Maharshi on Aom
“The Ekakshara [“One Syllable”–Aom] shines for ever in the heart as the Selfs” (The Collected Works Of Sri Ramana Maharshi, sixth edition, p. 145).
“Pratyahara [interiorization of the mind] is regulating the mind by preventing it from flowing towards the external names and forms. The mind, which had been till then distracted, now becomes controlled. The aids in this respect are meditation on the Pranava and reflection on the Nada [the subtle sound of Aom experienced in meditation]” (The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi, sixth edition, p. 24).
“The purport of prescribing meditation on the Pranava is this. The Pranava is Omkara…the advaita-mantra which is the essence of all mantras…. In order to get at this true significance, one should meditate on the Pranava. …The fruition of this process is samadhi which yields release [moksha], which is the state of unsurpassable bliss” (The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi, sixth edition, p. 25, 26).
“The subtle body of the Creator is the mystic sound Pranava, which is sound and light. The universe resolves into sound and light and then into transcendence–Param” (Section 215 of Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi).
“Aom is the eternal truth. That which remains over after the disappearance of objects is Aom. It does not merge in anything. It is the State of which it is said: “Where one sees none other, hears none other, knows none other, that is Perfection” (Yatra nanyat pasyati, nanyat srunoti, nanyat vijanati sa bhuma) (Section 634 of Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi).
“Maunam [silence] is the state of Shakti [power] that emerges from within as Ekakshara [Aom]” (Sri Ramana Reminiscences, G. V. Subbaramayya, p. 149).
“Yesterday a Hindu asked Bhagavan, ‘Is Omkara a name of Ishwara?’ Bhagavan said, ‘Omkara is Ishwara, Ishwara is Omkara. That means Omkara Itself is the swarupam (the real form of the Self)” (Letters from Sri Ramanasramam, Suri Nagamma, p. 60).
“Omkara itself is Brahman. That Brahman is the nameless and formless pure SAT [Reality]. It is That that is called Omkara. …Omkara which is beyond the speech or the mind and which can only be experienced, cannot be described by word of mouth” (Letters from Sri Ramanasramam, Suri Nagamma, p. 119).
“Aom is everything” (Day by Day with Bhagavan, Devaraja Mudaliar, p. 214).
“Earnest seekers who, incessantly and with a steady mind, repeat ‘Aom’ will attain success. By repetition of the pure ‘Aom’ the mind is withdrawn from sense objects and becomes one with the Self” (Sri Ramana Gita 3:10,11, Ganapati Muni).
“Japa reaching to the source of sound is the best course for those who are not firm in consciousness which is the source of the ‘I’” (The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi, sixth edition, p. 145). And only Aom leads us to the source of sound.
Sri Ramana recommended study of the Ribhu Gita, a traditional text of Advaita. It simply says: “The syllable ‘Aom’ is the self” (Ribhu Gita 10:22).
The Unity of the Breath and Aom
Commenting on Yoga Sutra 1:34, Vivekananda says: “The whole universe is a combination of prana and akasha.” Practically speaking we, too, are formed of prana and akasha–of breath and sound which are the manifestation of prana and akasha. Yoga is a combining of breath and sound.
Aom is the essential sound-energy form that manifests in living beings as the breath itself. Aom is the sound-form of the subtle power of life which originates in the pure consciousness, the spirit, of each one of us and extends outward to manifest as the inhaling and exhaling breaths. “The breath is continually sounding ‘Aom’” (Chandogya Upanishad 1.5.3) Hence, through the intoning of Aom in meditation we can become attuned to the essential Breath of Life and aware of its subtle movements within. Joined to our breath, the mantric formula Aom will lead us to the awareness of Breath and Life in their pure state. For Aom is both the breath and the Source of the breath. When joined to Aom, the breath becomes a flowing stream of consciousness.
In the beginning
In the beginning, there arose in the ocean of Divine Consciousness, a point (bindu) from which began flowing the stream of creative energy that manifested as all things, and back into which all things return. That Primal Point became dual upon the very moment of its arising. That duality manifested as Prana/Breath and Sound–specifically, Aom. The same thing happened with us. We came into manifestation on the twin streams of subtle breath and Aom.
Originally we were unmanifest, as transcendental as our Source. But just as the Source expanded into relative manifestation, so did we. In our undifferentiated being, the state of perfect unity, there manifested a single stress point (bindu or sphota). This did not upset or disrupt the original unity but it did just what I said: it stressed it. Then, so imperceptibly and subtly as to hardly have even occurred, that stress point became dual and began to move internally, producing a magnetic duality so subtle it was really more an idea than an actual condition. Then the halves or poles of that duality began alternating in dominance and a cycling or circling began. This cycling expanded ever outward, manifesting in increasingly more objective manners until at last the full state of relativity was reached complete with a set of complex bodies of infinitely varying levels of energy–everything we call “us.” The same thing had already happened to our Source on a cosmic level so we found a virtually infinite environment for our manifestation. This is the process known as samsara.
The two original poles of the primal unity are prana (life force) which manifests in us most objectively as breath, and shabda (sound) which manifests in us most objectively as the mantra Aom–and secondarily that of hearing. These seemingly two creative streams of manifestation are in reality one, inseparable from one another, and together are capable of leading us back to their–and our–source. One or the other can do a great deal toward returning us to Unity, but the ultimate, full return can occur most easily when they are joined in the practice of Pranava Yoga. Like the cosmos, we came into manifestation on the twin streams of subtle breath and Aom. Together these two “wings” have carried us upward into the heights of evolution.
“Speech and breath are joined together in the Syllable Aom” (Chandogya Upanishad 1.1.6). Aom is the essence of the breath and the breath is the essence of Aom–particularly in their most subtle forms. Speech and breath are manifested and reunited in Aom by mentally intoning It in time with the breath. “This is the bridge to immortality” (Mundaka Upanishad 2.2.6).
To turn back from samsara and return to our original unity we must grasp hold of that primal impulse to duality which manifested in the stress point from which all has occurred. Right now that original impulse is manifesting most objectively in the process of our physical inhaling and exhaling and in our inner power of speech as we intone Aom. The breath and Aom together comprise the evolutionary force which causes us to enter samsara and manifest therein until–also through the breath and sound–we evolve to the point where we are ready to discard the evolutionary school of samsara and return to our original status with a now-perfected consciousness. By joining Aom and the breath in japa and meditation we begin moving back to the state where they are one.
“One should meditate on the breath…for it is continually sounding ‘Aom.’” (Chandogya Upanishad 1.5.3) In japa and meditation we join intonations of Aom to the breath because on the subtle levels the breath is always producing the sound of Aom. We can even say that the soul breathes Aom. When our intonations of Aom become subtle and whisper-like they are the actual “breath sounds,” the real sounds of the etheric breath. So by consciously joining Aom to our breathing we can link up with our soul-consciousness and enter into it. That is the point of Unity where the breath and Aom are not two extensions, but a single unit. Here, too, the breath is one, moving in a circular manner or expanding and contracting rather than extending and moving in and out or back and forth. Joining our intonations of Aom to the breath in a fully easeful manner attunes us to that level of breath and sound.
The evolving breath
Life and evolution are synonymous. Just as Brahman has “wrapped” Itself in creative, evolutionary energy–Prakriti–and is actively engaged in cosmic progression toward perfection, in the same way the individual spirit (atman) is encased in its own energy-prakriti and is evolving it toward perfection. This is life within Life. Both the cosmic and the individual life-force are known as prana–vital energy–which manifests as breath. All that exists is formed of prana-breath, which acts as a mirror for the individual and cosmic spirits, changing and modifying itself as they change and modify–as they evolve. The original Impulse which begins, sustains, and completes all evolution is Aom. The dance of creation is the moving of prana-breath to the directing sound-vibration of Aom.
Relativity evolves through the alternating cycles of creation and dissolution–outward movement and inward movement–and in the same way the simple act of breathing evolves all sentient beings–whose fundamental common trait is that of breathing. This is because the breath is always sounding Aom in the process the yogis call ajapa japa–involuntary/automatic repetition. (This is also true on the cosmic level. The cosmos is breathing Aom.) Thus merely living and breathing is a process of ascent in consciousness if the individual does nothing to counteract that process–which we all do, retarding our progress and causing ourselves to become bound to the wheel of continual birth and death. So it is necessary to live in the manner that allows this automatic development to go forward and manifest.
In time, however, a profound point of evolution is reached in which the individual becomes capable of consciously evolving himself and thereby speeding up the process of unfolding his consciousness. He does this by consciously doing what he has heretofore done only unconsciously: linking the repetition of Aom to his breath, merging It with the breath movements.
The original purpose of the original duality–breath and Aom–was to enable us to descend into the plane of relativity and begin evolving therein until we could develop the capacity for infinite consciousness. They not only moved us downward into material embodiment, they also began to impel us upward on the evolutionary scale so we might finally develop or evolve to the point where we can finally share–actually participate–in the infinity of God. If unhindered, they would accomplish this evolutionary movement. But in our present state we are always thwarting their purpose, especially by keeping their action bound and buried in the subconscious rather than resurrecting them into our conscious life, applying them and cooperating with them and thereby accelerating our growth. When awareness of the breath is consciously cultivated, and the sacred mantra Aom is joined to every breath, the two currents become united and oriented toward their original purpose, which they then accomplish. In this way every single breath and intonation of Aom become a step forward and upward on the path of spiritual evolution.
Though spoiled for many of us who associate it with the evil of Nazism, the swastika is one of the most ancient symbols of India and has a profound yogic significance. There are two swastikas. One has the “arms” bent toward the right and the other toward the left. They represent two vortices of energy, one moving clockwise and the other moving counterclockwise. They are usually confused by people. The so-called “righthand swastika” with arms bent toward the right is actually a symbol of leftward moving energy, the movement of contraction and involution. The “lefthand swastika” with arms bent toward the left, is really a depiction of rightward moving energy, the movement of expansion and evolution.
Through our attention focussed on the process of intoning Aom in time with our inhalation and exhalation, we can become immersed in the subtler levels of that alternating cycle, sinking into deeper and deeper levels until we at last come to the originating point and then transcend that dual movement, regaining our lost unity. By continual practice of that transcendence in meditation we will become established in that unity and freed forever from all forms of bondage, having attained nirvana–permanent unbinding. This is why both sound and breath must be the focus of our internal cultivation.
The two swastikas do not just depict directions of movement, but are yogic symbols of the inhaling and exhaling breaths joined to the intonation of Aom. As already indicated there are two Oms–or two sides of the single Aom–one of positive polarity and one of negative polarity. Aom intoned while inhaling is of negative polarity–yin, and Aom intoned while exhaling is of positive polarity–yang. By intoning Aom once while inhaling and once while exhaling we produce a complete Aom–of both polarities.
The inner and the outer
There are two breaths, the outer breath and the subtle inner breath which produces it. And there is the outer speech and the subtle inner speech from which it arises. By centering our awareness on the outer breath and sound and merging them we make ourselves aware of the inner Breath and Sound of Life. They occur at the same time and are of the same duration. By attuning ourselves to them we attune ourselves to the spirit from which they take their origin. The more attention we give to the breath and Aom, the subtler they become until they reveal themselves as acts of the mind, and finally as consisting of mind-stuff (chitta) itself.
When we examine their nature, we see that the breath and the sound of Aom are not “things,” but processes which have the power to draw us into the “core point” from which they arise–the individual spirit itself whose nature is consciousness. In this way the pure Self manifests and works its will, changing all the levels of our being.
Like an onion, breath and sound have many layers. In the practice of meditation we experience these layers, beginning with the most objective layers and progressing to increasingly subtle layers, until, as with an onion at its core, there are no more layers, but only pure being. The breath and our intonations of Aom become increasingly refined as we observe them, and as a result our awareness also becomes refined.
The Self and the Supreme Self
There are many scriptural statements that Aom is our own Self, or atman, such as: “The Self is of the nature of the Syllable Aom. Thus the Syllable Aom is the very Self” (Mandukya Upanishad 1, 8). “Meditate on Aom as the Self” (Mundaka Upanishad 2.2.3-6). But in the Kena Upanishad we also find: “The Self is the breath of the breath” (Kena Upanishad 1:2). And in the Mundaka Upanishad (3:1:9): “The subtle self within the living and breathing body is realized in that pure consciousness wherein is no duality.”
Beyond the Self is the Supreme Self–Brahman–and the scriptures tell us that Aom is Brahman as well. “Aom is Brahman, the Primeval Beings” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 5.1.1). “Aom is the Supreme Brahman” (Svetasvatara Upanishad 1:7). “Aom is Brahman” (Taittiriya Upanishad 1.8.1). And they tell us the same of the breath. The Chandogya Upanishad (4.9.3): “Breath is a part of Brahman.” The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.1.6) has this to say: “The being who is the breath within–him I meditate upon as Brahman.…That which breathes in is thy Self, which is within all.…That which breathes out is thy Self, which is within all.…Breath is the abode of Brahman.”
Within the yogic system the breath is considered an actual body within the material body. It is called the pranamaya kosha–the body formed of breath or prana. And working with it is known as pranayama. Pranayama can mean restraint of prana, and it can also mean control [yama] of the breath, but ayama also means length, expansion, and extension. Thus pranayama can also mean the lengthening, expansion, and extension of the breath as occurs spontaneously in Aom meditation. For Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2:50 says that pranayama is “external, internal or suppressed modification [of breath], and it becomes measured or regulated [paridrishto], prolonged [dirgha] and subtle or attenuated [sukshmah].” Sutra 51 says: “That pranayama which goes beyond the sphere of internal and external is the fourth”–that which directly relates to turiya or pure consciousness, beyond the three states of waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep. Also, internal and external can refer either to: 1) inhaling and exhaling, 2) the outer breath accompanied by movement of the lungs, or 3) the internal movement of the subtle prana or breath that has no outer manifestation. It is our steady attention to the breath that is the practice of pranayama. For Shankara says: “Pranayama is caused by a mental activity deriving from a restraining effort inherent in the Self.”
Vyasa says that during meditation the breath becomes, “prolonged and light [fine].” In time a meditator becomes aware that there is an internal breath that is the support and stimulus of the bodily breathing. Behind that breath is an even subtler force, and so on back to utter stillness at the core of his being. It is the experiencing of all such subtle forms of breath that is pranayama. Through meditation we effect the inner pranayama and achieve the inner “breathlessness” that is a state of pure awareness.
There is more to this pranayama: “From that [pranayama] is dissolved the covering of light” (Yoga Sutras 2:52). The inner pranayama dissolves the veil which covers the light of the knowledge of the Self. Yet this veil is itself light–the light of subtle matter or energy, the substance of which the most subtle bodies are formed. They are the light that veils the ultimate Light. “The covering of light referred to in this sutra is obviously not used in reference to the light of the soul, but to the light or luminosity associated with the subtler vehicles associated with and interpenetrating the physical vehicle,” according to Taimni in The Science of Yoga.
Vyasa expands on this, saying: “It [pranayama] destroys the karma which covers up the light of knowledge in the yogi. As it is declared: ‘When the ever-shining [Self] is covered over by the net of great illusion, one is impelled to what is not to be done.’ By the power of pranayama, the light-veiling karma binding him to the world becomes powerless, and moment by moment is destroyed. So it has been said [in The Laws of Manu 6:70, 72]: ‘There is no tapas higher than pranayama; from it come purification from taints and the light of knowledge [of the Self].’” Subtle pranayama, then, is the direct way to dissolve karma and be free, for “it is karma by which the light is covered,” says Shankara. And both he and Vyasa explain to us that karma not only binds us to material experience, it also impels us to create even more karma–and more bondage–in a self-perpetuating circle. But by yoga the karma “becomes powerless, and moment by moment is destroyed.” That is, the karmic seeds are “roasted” and rendered incapable of creating future experience or births and are ultimately completely annihilated. The more we do meditation, the more karma is dissolved.
In a conversation regarding his instructions on breath observation given in the book Maha Yoga, Sri Ramana Maharshi remarked: “Pranayama is of two kinds: one of controlling and regulating the breath and the other of simply watching the breath.” The purpose of working with the breath is simple: “From that comes the dissolving of the covering of light and the fitting of the mind for meditation” (Yoga Sutras 52 and 53). When by this process the breath is refined, so also is the mind; and eventually so is the nervous system and the entire body. Since the body is a vehicle of the mind this is a very important effect.
But the breath does not accomplish this on its own. It must be joined to intonations of Aom. “Speech and breath are joined together in the Syllable Aom” (Chandogya Upanishad 1.1.6). “Pranayama is accomplished by effortlessly breathing and joining to it the repetition of the sacred Aom with the experience of Its meaning, when the consciousness reaches the deep sleep state” (Yoga Vashishtha 5:78). In the light of this quotation from the Yoga Vashishtha, we see that by joining the repetition of Aom to the breath the Aom Yogi causes pranayama to go on perpetually throughout the day as well as in meditation.
Their divine work
It cannot be overemphasized that the breath and Aom are the only objects that transfer our awareness into the subject: consciousness itself. All other objects draw our attention outward, into the experience of them, and perpetuate the loss of Self-awareness which is our root problem. This is true of any objects other than the breath and Aom that are brought into meditation. All other mantras, modes of breathing other than totally natural breathing, visualizations, and deliberate rousings of energies and centers of energies, not only are incapable of producing the awareness of pure consciousness, they make it impossible. This should not be forgotten.
Natural (sahaja) practice
If our spiritual practice (sadhana) is to bring us to our eternal, natural state of spirit-consciousness, it, too, must be totally natural. Therefore the term sahaja is often found in yoga treatises. Sahaja means that which is natural, innate, spontaneous, and inborn. Pranava Yoga alone fits this criterion, for the prana/breath movement occurs in every evolving sentient being–even in every atom of the cosmos. And that movement is inseparable from the vibration of the subtle sound of Aom. Though seemingly two, the movement of the breath and the vibrating of Aom are the same thing, like fire and heat. Not only that, this is the only characteristic common to all forms of existence, from the atom to the perfectly liberated individual. Nothing, then, is more natural than the intoning of Aom in time with the breath. It is the key, then, to our inmost, true Self and its revelation.
Read the next chapter in Pranava Yoga: Aom in the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and Yoga Sutras
Pranava Yoga links:
Preface to Pranava Yoga: Yoga and Freedom
- The Word That Is God
- Pranava Yoga Meditation
- The Yogi’s Subtle Anatomy
- Breath and Sound in Meditation
- Points For Successful Meditation
- AOM in the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and Yoga Sutras
- The Glories and Powers of AOM
- Afterword: It Is All Up To You
Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary
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