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Breathing Practices and
Pranayama in Yoga

by Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati 
Homepage 

Preparation for meditation: In Yoga Meditation, breath training is essential preparation for deep meditation and samadhi, on the path to Self-Realization. Breath is the bridge between the body and the mind. Regulate breath, and the body and mind will follow.

Very Important Article: Diaphragmatic breathing 

Diaphragmatic Breathing for Advanced Yoga Meditation
(More from YouTube of Swami J)

Brief descriptions: Below are brief descriptions of a broad range of breathing practices. These outlines give general descriptions, and are not intended to be complete instructions in doing the practices. To do the practices, it is important to have personal training, not merely relying on written words.

Practices are known by different names: To avoid confusion, it is useful to note that the collective practice, of which breathing and pranayama practices are considered a part, may be known by different names when used by different modern teachers. This is particularly true with the practices dealing with the spinal energy and the vigorous practices. The breathing and pranayama practices may be known collectively, or considered to be part of pranayama alone, hatha Yoga, raja Yoga, kundalini Yoga, kriya Yoga, tantra, or simply Yoga. Other systems will use the practices as part of a modern trademarked or brand name Yoga practice, such as those containing either a Sanskrit word or a man's name (See the article on Modern Yoga versus Traditional Yoga).

Online practices: A few online, recorded breathing practices are at this link.

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Basics of breath 

Remember to build the foundation: First, you establish the basics of breathing. If you will quickly scan the topics listed in this section, immediately below, you will see that they are not so much breathing techniques as they are methods of establishing basic breath awareness, and elimination of irregularities. With breath training, one of the biggest mistakes is to skip the foundation, and go directly into the techniques themselves.

The science of breath
begins with awareness, 
and ends with awareness.

It begins and ends with awareness: Breath awareness is so important that, in a sense, you can say that the whole science of breath begins with awareness, and ends with awareness. Everything else, in the middle, is preparation for awareness.

The finest bridge between body and mind: Breath is a bridge between the body and the mind. When trying to meditate it is extremely common to have tension in the muscles and noisy thoughts in the mind. The nervous system is the arbiter between the tense body and the noisy mind. One of the best ways to regulate that nervous system, and in turn the body and mind, is through the breath. This has been known by the Yogis for thousands of years, and has also come to be widely known in recent years by the modern medical and psychological community.

Value of Soham and breath: One of the finest, easiest, and most direct ways to train the breath, and in turn, regulate the nervous system, relax the body, and quiet the mind is through Soham mantra practiced at a steady, slow speed, with exhalation somewhat longer in duration than the inhalation.

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Breath awareness: 

Have an attitude of curiosity: The entire science of breath begins with awareness of what the breath is doing. To do this means to have an attitude of being an explorer, an interior researcher. It means cultivating an attitude of curiosity that allows you to wander around inside of yourself noticing the way in which breath operates.

It's like the way a child might take apart a toy to see how it works, only in this case nothing is being taken apart. You are just being still, closing your eyes and snooping around the entire breathing apparatus, whether the gross body, or subtler aspects.

Cultivate an attitude of curiosity, 
of being an explorer, 
an interior researcher.


Bridge of nostrils

Awareness of the feel of the breath at the bridge of the nostrils is a very simple, straightforward, and highly effective meditation practice. It is the cognitive sense of touch, as the air is literally felt to come and go. To allow the breath to slow on exhalation is a further refinement, whereby exhalation is as much as twice the duration as inhalation. For even finer experience, allow there to be no pause between the breaths, with exhalation gently flowing into inhalation, and inhalation gently flowing into exhalation. This is excellent preparation for the subtler, more advanced practices.

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Diaphragmatic breathing: 

The diaphragm is a huge muscle that rests horizontally across the base of the rib cage. Imagine an oval shaped dinner plate, turned upside down, and inside your lower rib cage. The diaphragm is connected in the front, along the sides of your lower ribs, and also along the back. (see graphic)

Very Important Article: Diaphragmatic breathing 

Diaphragmatic breathing 
is one of the most important 
foundation practices for meditation.

On inhalation, the diaphragm muscle contracts, and pulls downward, such that the ribs flare out slightly, and pulls the bottom of the lungs downward to bring in air. On exhalation, this releases and the air goes out. With deep diaphragmatic breathing, the space just below the breast bone, at the upper abdomen pushes in slightly so as to exhale more completely.

When the diaphragm is used for breathing, there is little motion in the lower abdomen, and the chest remains still. However, we lead stress-filled lives, and learn bad breathing habits, using the abdomen and the chest. This creates further tension that leaves us in a vicious cycle of mental chatter driving bad breathing and physical tightness, and the bad breathing, in turn, causing trouble to the mind.

It is important to note that modern medicine has finally acknowledged what the yogis have known for thousands of years, that the breath is intimately connected to the autonomic nervous system and the mind. Even some hospitals and medical establishments are now willing to train people in breath regulation.

We need to consciously practice diaphragmatic breathing. This involves a retraining program, and while another person can teach us how to do it, it is actually a self-training program. Nobody can do the actual awareness and training for you.

The benefits of learning and practicing diaphragmatic breathing are immense. Without it, it is unlikely that one will progress in meditation as a spiritual pursuit.

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Irregularities of breath: 

Building on the foundation of a genuine interest in exploring breath from within, we can then begin to work with the irregularities of the breath.

Irregularities caused by the mind: The body, breath, and mind are linked. If there are jerks, pauses, shallowness, and noisiness in the breath, they are being caused by the mind. The breath and body simply cannot operate without receiving instructions from the mind. So, if the breath is irregular, it is because of the irregularities in the mind.

To be aware of and eliminate
jerks, pauses, shallowness, and noise
is a most important practice. 

Removing irregularities: However, you can consciously regulate the breath, so as to remove these irregularities. The major irregularities of breath are:

  • Jerks

  • Pauses 

  • Shallowness 

  • Noisiness

Working with breath helps the mind: The beautiful thing is that, if you eliminate the irregularities from the physical breath, it has an extremely beneficial effect on the mind as well. When the breath becomes smooth, continuous (without pauses), slow, and quiet, the mind comes along, and also becomes calm and peaceful. The body also comes along, and relaxes much more easily.

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Nasal wash: 

Allowing the breath to flow smoothly: There is a simple technique that is called nasal wash (Jala Neti) in which warm, slightly salted water is flowed from a container into one nostril, and then allowed to flow out the other nostril. The salt is mixed into the water so as to have approximately the saltiness of tears. A pinch of non-iodized salt in a half-cup of water is about right. The nasal wash has a cleansing effect that allows the breath to flow much more freely. Thus, this cleansing also has a calming effect.

Commercial neti wash containers are available, or you may find you can use a cup. To find them on internet, search the keywords neti pot, jala neti, or nasal cup. You can also get Neti Pots from Amazon.com.

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Sandbag: 

Awareness and strength: When you are first learning breathing practices, including breath awareness and diaphragmatic, the use of a sandbag can both increase awareness and strengthen the diaphragm muscle. 

The sandbag is about 10-14 pounds, and is placed on your upper abdomen and lower chest area while you lie in the corpse posture. The weight will significantly increase your awareness of breathing in this area, and will also force the muscles to push against the weight of the sandbag, making them stronger.

Sandbags are commercially available, or you can make your own. One alternative is to purchase a 10 pound (or 5kg) bag of rice. Wrap it in a cloth or a towel, or put it in a pillow case, and place that on your upper abdomen / lower chest. After you have practiced with it long enough, you can eat the rice!

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Crocodile posture: 

Automatically breathe from the diaphragm: The crocodile is a particular posture in which you are lying on your front side, with your abdomen and lower chest on the floor, and your legs stretched out behind you. Your forehead rests on folded arms, with your upper chest lifted off the floor. In this posture, you will automatically breath from your diaphragm. Your chest will automatically be still.

By practicing this posture, two things happen. First, you get the relaxation benefits in the moment, from breathing diaphragmatically. Second, you can internally pay attention to the feel of the breath, and notice the stillness of the chest, the immobility in the lower abdomen, and the strong way in which the diaphragm is operating. By observing this internally, it is then easier to take this awareness and method with you when you leave the posture.

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Corpse posture: 

Variety of practice in corpse posture: The corpse posture is lying on your back, allowing your body to act like a corpse. In this posture, you can do a variety of awareness and mental regulation exercises. You can:

  • Observe the rise and fall of the abdomen at the navel center.

  • Observe and eliminate jerkiness.

  • Be aware of, and eliminate pauses.

  • Gently allow the breath to slow down naturally.

  • Allow breath to be so smooth that it is quiet.

  • Imagine energy of breath is flowing up and down the spine.

Before meditation: To spend a few minutes in the corpse posture, being aware, and removing irregularities is a very useful practice to do before meditation.

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Soham mantra: 

Universal mantra: The soham mantra has been called the universal mantra because of the fact that its vibration is already a part of the breath, and everybody breathes. Sooooo... is the sound of inhalation, and Hummmm... is the sound of exhalation. There is a separate article on Soham Mantra, an Online Practice, and a Soham CD.

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Balancing breathing  

People often speak of getting balanced or centered. The mental and subtle energies in the body get out of alignment and cause disturbances in the body and mind. Being centered has to do with balancing the energy on the left or right sides of the body. Many of that practices deal directly or indirectly with this process.

Essential for meditation: For advanced meditation, it is essential that one balance the breath and these energies, along with the mind.

See also the descriptions of Balancing Ida and Pingala in the Kundalini Awakening article.

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Alternate Nostril breathing: 

When the energy is not balanced, one of the most visible ways in which this is seen, is in the nostrils. Most of the time, one or the other nostril is more dominant, allowing air to move more freely. This is quite a natural process. However, when they are flowing evenly, the mind really likes to be quiet and meditate.

Alternate Nostril breathing is a method where you consciously work with that energy by regulating the physical breath in one or the other nostril. This in turn effects the energy and mind. It brings balance, and allows the energy to flow in the center, rather than on the left or right side.

To control the flow of breath, one usually begins by using their fingers to block off one nostril so as to allow the other to flow. Then, the fingers are moved so as to block the opposite nostril, and allow the previously blocked nostril to flow. This cycle will be repeated several times.

One method of alternate nostril breathing that is easy to understand (when written down like this) is to exhale and inhale from one nostril five times. Then, do five times with the other nostril. That is called a "round." Doing three rounds is a complete practice. There are a variety of different patterns of doing alternate nostril breathing (such as the five on each side method).

This physical act really does have an effect on the autonomic nervous system, and allows one to become "centered" in such a way that both nostrils are flowing smoothly. In this state, the mind is also quite relaxed.

Gradually, one learns to do this with attention, not the fingers, allowing attention to move from one to the other nostril. One sits quietly, with eyes closed, and simply places attention on the nostril.

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Balancing breath by using the mind: 

Going along with the Alternate Nostril breathing exercise, is the gradually acquired skill of opening a blocked nostril with the mind. Attention is directed to the nostril which is more closed, and in a short time it will open and flow freely. Then, one can shift to the other nostril and open it a bit more as well.

In this way, the mind is used directly to regulate the breath and the energy flow that is more subtle than the physical breath. This is a real key to learning how to self-regulate your own energy system, whether used for meditation (which is what it is intended for), or for improving one's physical health. It is an important part of self-healing.

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Two-to-One breathing: 

In practicing basic breathing, you first learn to make the exhalation and inhalation of equal length, and then eliminate the irregularities mentioned above.

Then, you practice making exhalation twice as long as the inhalation. For example, you may time your breath so that you exhale for a count of 6 seconds, and inhale for a count of 3 seconds, or about 6-7 breaths per minute.

You work with the rates of breathing to find the most comfortable speed for you. For example, 4:2, 6:3, 8:4, 10:5, 12:6, where the first number is the number of seconds of exhalation, and the second (smaller) number is the number of seconds of inhalation. You can simply count internally for a minute or so, and then let go of the counting so as to just practice and observe the breathing.

Two-to-One breathing has a very relaxing effect on the autonomic nervous system and is great preparation for meditation.

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Ujjai: 

In Ujjai breathing, the glottis is partially closed. The glottis is that part in the throat area that closes when you swallow, but which is open when you breath. When you partially close the glottis while breathing, you can hear a sound resonate from within, as well as feel a flow of air on the palate. A slightly different sound is heard on inhalation and exhalation.

During inhalation, one tightens the abdominal muscles very slightly, and during exhalation the abdominal muscles are used to exhale completely.

One feels the air and listens to the sound during the practice.

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Brahmari: 

Brahmari means the "bee." In this practice the lips are closed, and you gently, smoothly make a sound like a buzzing bee in your throat. This simple practice is quite effective in making the breath smooth and allowing the mind to become quiet. You can feel the vibration of the sound in the areas of your throat, jaws, and mouth.

This practice is so straightforward and useful that it can be taught to anyone, regardless of their background. It is best done for 2-3 minutes.

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Spinal breath: 

There are a variety of practices with awareness moving up and down the spine with the breath. One may do this practice between particular energy centers (chakras) or form different shapes of the visualized flow, including elliptical or a figure-eight. (Spinal breath is part of the Yoga Nidra CD)

The most straight forward, and yet completely effective method is to:

  • Imagine the breath flowing from the top of the head, down to the base of the spine on exhalation, and to

  • Imagine the flow coming from the base of the spine to the top of the head on inhalation.

  • This may be done lying down, or in a seated meditation posture.

One may simply experience the breath, or may be aware of a thin, milky white stream flowing in a straight line, up and down. This practice is very subtle when experienced at its depth, and can turn into a profoundly deep part of meditation practice.

Sometimes the breath practices along the spine are considered to be part of, one and the same with Kriya Yoga or Kundalini Yoga, as well as Raja Yoga or Hatha Yoga.

See also the articles on sushumna awakening, kriya and kundalini Yoga in the:
Sushumna page of Kundalini Awakening

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Walking breath: 

Walking breath meditation is a wonderful Yoga practice that can be done right in the middle of daily life, and integrates body, breath, and mind.

You count internally with exhalation and inhalation, and align this with the steps you are taking while walking. So, for example, you may count 4:4. This means as you walk, you exhale while you internally count off 4 paces. At the end of this, you start to inhale, and count off 4 paces. You count 4 paces with exhalation, and 4 paces with inhalation. You literally speak the numbers as you count them, but only internally, silently in the mind.

Automatically, your breath becomes even. Automatically, your body and breath synchronize. Automatically, your mind synchronizes with the body and breath, by virtue of the internal counting. As you walk, you need to find the right pace that is comfortable, and in alignment with the speed you are walking. You might find that 2:2, 3:3, 4:4, 5:5 6:6, etc. is the optimum speed for you.

As you get proficient with even breathing, you can shift to two-to-one breathing with walking, such as 6 paces with exhalation, and 3 paces with inhalation. Again, you need to find the pace that is comfortable for you. This practice can easily be done when you are walking even one or two minutes from one place to another. It brings great benefits, right in the middle of daily life, including a calm, peaceful mind and relaxation to the autonomic nervous system.

Exhale Inhale Ratio
4 4 1:1
3 3 1:1
5 4 1.25:1
4 3 1.33:1
6 4 1.5:1
3 2 1.5:1
8 4 2:1
6 3 2:1
2 1 2:1

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Agnisara: 

This is an energizing practice done in a standing posture, slightly squatting, with palms of the hands on the knees. The emphasis is on a strong exhalation from the lowest part of the abdomen, pushing in, and rolling upward. Then, the inhalation is allowed to be a natural, effortless releasing.

This practice is profound in re-balancing energy, and also helping the physical body. It is said that, if in a given day you do no other physical exercise, do this one practice. It needs to be demonstrated to be understood.

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Vigorous breathing practices 

Built on foundation of breath awareness: Vigorous breathing practices are built on the foundation of breath awareness and the ability to balance the breath and energies.

Often, students are taught to do vigorous breathing practices (and retention of breath, in the next section) without building a foundation of sound physical, mental, and emotional health, and of breath awareness and balancing.

Don't hurt yourself: Failure to prepare can lead to physical, mental, and emotional problems, as well as social and family problems. These practices stir up energy, and one must be prepared to deal with that energy. Otherwise, it just turns into anxiety in the autonomic nervous system, and the negative consequences that come from that.

With proper preparation, the vigorous breathing practices can be quite safe and useful for advancing in meditation. With proper preparation, there is no need for fear of negative consequences. However, without preparation, one is better off to simply not do these practices.

Stay within your comfortable limit: At the same time, it is important to note the question of how much one does the practices. If one does only a few of these, such as about 10-20 at a time, or only a couple rounds of such a number, then there can be excellent benefit, with no negative consequences. The trouble can come when one starts to do these practices for longer periods of time, without having prepared.

No single vigorous practice is essential: Like many practices in Yoga, these can be useful, but no one practice is absolutely essential. One can progress quite nicely without the vigorous practices. In particular, note the comments in the Advanced section about Elongating the breath. That is a gentle method that can be allowed to come slowly over time, and that also leads one to advanced meditation.

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Deergha swasam (Complete Breath): 

Though not performed in a vigorous way, the Complete Breath is quite invigorating. The Complete Breath involves the abdomen, diaphragm and chest muscles. You breathe sequentially in three ways, and then reverse the process.

  • First, inhale completely at the abdomen.

  • Second, continue to inhale by filling in the mid-section, the area of the diaphragm.

  • Third, continue to inhale by filling the chest, allowing the upper chest and the shoulders to rise.

  • Then systematically release and empty from the upper portion, then the mid-section, and finally empty completely at the abdomen.

The Complete Breath is good to do whenever you meditate. Even 2-3 breaths will have a useful effect.

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Kapalabhati (Shining skull): 

Also called the "Shining Skull" this practice emphasizes the exhalation in a very quick, thrusting motion at the base of the abdomen. The inhalation is then allow to release naturally. Unless there are health problems, most people can do this practice. To do a few before meditation, such as 10-20 or so can have a centering effect.

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Bhastrika (Bellows): 

Also called the Bellows, Bhastrika is a middle section breath, from the diaphragm. If one does a few of them, say about 10-20, it can have a calming, balancing effect. If more are done, such as in the 100's or more, it is best that one have a solid foundation of good health and stabilized mind.

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Agniprasana (Breath of fire): 

Also called the Breath of Fire, this is a practice done in the middle section with the diaphragm used in a fast, strong motion. During the practice there is an arching forward of the spine, and may involve bandhas (locks, described below). It is quite vigorous, and is best done only with a solid foundation of good health and well stabilized mind.

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Advanced breathing practices  

After a solid foundation: When one has built a solid foundation of breath awareness and regulation, it is time to begin the process of going beyond the breath in awareness. Some of the methods are very strenuous, and others more gentle.

Use your wisdom: In doing vigorous and advanced breathing practices or pranayama, using wisdom is the best guidance. It is important to know one's level of training and capacity. (See the notes in the section above.)

Simpler can be better: Ironically, for those who are willing to work with the mind directly, the simpler practices of awareness and gentle slowing of breathing can be the most profound and advanced. Breath and pranayama begin with awareness, and they end with awareness, as one then goes beyond breath and it's underlying energy or prana, to the levels of mind beyond.

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Retention: 

Causing energy to arise: There are a variety of forms of breath retention. These are very stimulating, and cause energy to awaken and arise. However, that energy needs to be trained to be used in positive ways. Otherwise the energy just becomes nervous tension.

If you examine the effects of breath retention on the autonomic nervous system, you will see that it creates sympathetic arousal, or stress, unless one has advanced in their physical, emotion, and mental health to a certain point.

Preparation is essential: The key to doing breath retention is that there must be preparation. As with the vigorous breathing practices, retention is not essential. Attaining a natural slowing to a 90-second breath, with no pauses is the preparation for retention (as described in the Elongating practice below).

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Bandhas: 

Locking the energy: Bandhas are "locks" in which the physical body, along with the energy is "locked" into place.

  • Mula bandha: the Root lock, is done with muscles near the anus.

  • Uddiyana bandha: the Abdominal lock, draws the upper abdomen upwards, towards the chest cavity.

  • Jalandara bandha: the Throat lock, is done, as the name implies, with the throat.

  • Maha bandha: the combination of the above three locks, done in unison, along with breath retention

The Bandhas go along with the retention practices, and also regulate energy. Kechari mudra is done with the tongue, and is often done in conjunction with locks. Please note that the reason for putting the Bandhas in this Advanced section is due to the relationship with breath Retention. The Bandhas can be easily be practiced by most people when the periods of Retention are brief. Mula bandha, the root lock, can be done without retention, and is an aid to meditation.

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Elongating breath: 

In basic breathing, one eliminates the pause between the breaths. For one doing retention practices, which are different practices, a pause is intentionally created so as to arouse energy.

Eliminate the pause completely: However, there is another way to deal with the pause and retention. That is, eliminate the pause completely, and then gently, over time allow the breath to elongate. Reflect on this for a moment, and you will come to see that elongating the breath gradually leads to a virtual retention of breath, though without actively restraining it. When the breath naturally becomes very slow, it is as if, it is not moving at all.

Allowing breath to slow: Lie on your back in the corpse posture, and put your attention on the navel center, or going up and down the spine. You can gradually allow the speed of breath to slow, though still having no pause.

  • 10 second breath: When you notice it naturally slow to about a 10-second breath (exhalation and inhalation), there will be relaxation.

  • 15-20 second breath: When it slows naturally to about 15-20 seconds (3-4 breaths per minute) you will be quite relaxed (presuming it feels natural, not forced).

  • 30-60 second breath: When it naturally slows to about 30-60 seconds for one breath (1-2 breaths per minute), you will be at the doorway of deep meditation, provided you are not straining, and do not sleep.

  • 90 second breath: A rate of 90 seconds for one breath can be used as a target to aim for, allowing six months or more to reach this level. To do this naturally, without straining will probably require having a well balanced life, regular physical exercise, a healthy diet, and regular sleep.

  • Towards samadhi: These slower breathing rates gradually move one towards deep meditation and samadhi.

  • The masters: A Yoga master might have only one breath in 10 minutes (though we need not pursue this, or feel that this is necessary to have deep meditation or samadhi; actually it comes as a result of samadhi)

The practice of eliminating the pause 
and elongating the breath is a 
most direct route, or short cut.

A short cut: This process of Elongating the breath is thus a short-cut (direct route) for most people. It is very gentle, and very loving to your body, nervous system and your mind. It allows you to progress at your own, natural rate.  (During the breath practices on the Yoga Nidra CD the breathing naturally slows.)

The simple is advanced: Oddly, this practice seems too simple, too basic, but this simple practice is profound and is quite advanced. This is one of the reasons that people are usually told to not meditate lying down. Usually you will go to sleep. For meditation, the corpse posture is an advanced practice. However, if you can lie down in the corpse posture, and yet remain wide awake while the breath slows, it will take you very deep. The key is to be gentle, patient, and to stay awake. Remember that it is best to have a healthy lifestyle, good food, exercise, and regular sleep.

 

 

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This site is devoted to presenting the ancient Self-Realization path of the Tradition of the Himalayan masters in simple, understandable and beneficial ways, while not compromising quality or depth. The goal of our sadhana or practices is the highest Joy that comes from the Realization in direct experience of the center of consciousness, the Self, the Atman or Purusha, which is one and the same with the Absolute Reality. This Self-Realization comes through Yoga meditation of the Yoga Sutras, the contemplative insight of Advaita Vedanta, and the intense devotion of Samaya Sri Vidya Tantra, the three of which complement one another like fingers on a hand. We employ the classical approaches of Raja, Jnana, Karma, and Bhakti Yoga, as well as Hatha, Kriya, Kundalini, Laya, Mantra, Nada, Siddha, and Tantra Yoga. Meditation, contemplation, mantra and prayer finally converge into a unified force directed towards the final stage, piercing the pearl of wisdom called bindu, leading to the Absolute.