We’re studying a wildly practical sutra today. So instead of beginning with teachings, let’s begin with practice.
I invite you to pause and listen inward for the voice of your body, which comes in the form of sensation. What sensations are present in your body—in your arms and your legs and your belly and your neck and your jaw—what sensations are present in your body in this particular moment? … As you scan through the sensations and feelings of your body, do you notice any sense of restlessness or agitation? Do you notice any tension or discomfort? What about ease or inner stillness? What kinds of sensations are present within your body in this moment? …
I invite you now to tune into the fluctuations of the mind. What’s currently moving through the space of your awareness? Does the mind feel calm or agitated? Focused or distracted? Do you detect any sense of apathy, or doubt, or laziness, or confusion? What state of mind are you currently experiencing? Take a moment to simply watch the fluctuations of the mind. Take a moment to watch your ever changing thoughts as they arise and fade, arise and fade. …
Release your attention from the flow of thoughts now and begin to observe the flow of your breath. Be present with the receiving of inhale and the releasing of exhale. As the breath moves, do you notice anything difficult? Does the breath feel short? Or choppy? Do either the inhale or the exhale feel uncomfortable at all? … I invite you to experiment with the breath a bit here. Does it feel possible to let the breath become quiet and smooth? … If so, if you’re able to find a sense of ease in the breath, I invite you to focus on the exhale for a minute. Let the inhale happen naturally, but turn your attention toward the exhale. … Let the exhale become just a bit slower, a bit longer than the inhale. Rather than letting the breath out in one big sigh, let the breath release slowly through the nose. … Start paying close attention to the end of the exhale… Can you feel the exhale fading away into stillness? Can you detect any moment of pause—no matter how brief—after the exhale, any moment of pause before the next inhale begins? … … If so, let your attention rest in this stillness—the stillness between breaths. Inhale whenever you need to, but be fully present with the moment of stillness between breaths. Feel into that moment when your exhale fades into stillness, that moment of pause before the next breath begins. …
The tradition of yoga tells us that there’s magic in this moment of stillness… Which from personal experience I know to be true. But I also know it’s true that many people describe trying to extend the pause after exhale to be anxiety producing. So as you explore this moment of pause after exhale, I invite you to notice what’s real for you. What are you feeling through this exploration? …
Release any effort with the breath now and return to the sensations of the body and to the fluctuations of the mind. Has anything changed? Remember, there’s never a right or wrong answer. There’s only what’s real for you.
OK, with this practice in mind, let’s turn toward our study. Remember, we’re in a section of this ancient text—the Yoga Sutra-s of Patanjali—that’s dedicated to eliminating the obstacles—the mental distractions—that get in the way as we try to move forward on the path of yoga. The Yoga Sutra names nine obstacles: sickness, apathy, doubt, carelessness, laziness, indulgence, confusion, groundlessness, and instability. These obstacles can distract and disperse our attention. They manifest as discouragement, depression, and pain in the mind. They manifest as agitation and restlessness in the body. They manifest as irregular and disturbed breathing.
Think back to just a few minutes ago. What did you notice in your body, mind, and breath when I first asked you to listen inward? Whether or not these obstacles and their symptoms were present for you in this practice, I’m confident you’ve experienced them before. We all deal with them, but we don’t have to be stuck in them. In fact, freedom from this kind of stuckness is why we practice.
We practice in order to move in the direction of inner freedom.
Which brings us to Yoga Sutra 1.34, the focus of this sermon, which says:
Or exhalation and suspension of the breath after exhalation.
There’s very little to this sutra and it’s important to remember that we can’t understand it without the previous sutra-s. It’s connected to Yoga Sutra 1.32, which tells us that if we want to prevent or eliminate the obstacles and their symptoms, the recommended practice is sustained focus on one single reality. And it’s connected to Yoga Sutra 1.33, which tells us that the mind becomes calm and clear when we cultivate attitudes of goodwill, compassion, joy, and equanimity in response to the various people in our lives. With the understanding of these previous sutra-s in mind, my teacher translates Yoga Sutra 1.34 as:
Or (by focusing on) exhalation and suspension of the breath after exhalation (the mind becomes calm and clear).
This is a short, seemingly simple sutra. But the potential of this practice is profound. This sutra introduces the concept of prana—the vital breath that fills us with the power of life. Prana is vitalizing and animating. It is life force energy. Prana is often translated, as it is in this sutra, as breath because prana flows with the breath.
Even though we’ve been conditioned to believe that they’re separate, our breath and mind and body are always linked. We can learn a lot about the state of our mind and the health of our body by paying attention to the quality of our breath. And—and this is huge—we can effect the state of our mind and the health of our body through intentional practice of the breath.
In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika we’re told:
When the breath is disturbed, the mind is unsteady. When the breath becomes focused, the mind becomes focused, and the yogi attains steadiness. Therefore, the breath should be restrained. (HYP 2.2)
Notice that breath restraint is specifically mentioned here. Just like in Yoga Sutra 1.34.
We can create a calm and clear state of mind by focusing on the exhale and the space of stillness after the exhale. As we become more and more comfortable in this space of stillness between breaths, Yoga Sutra 2.52 tells us that the veil blocking our true knowledge is weakened. This is powerful stuff.
But remember, this kind of breath work is advanced practice. It needs to be approached with guidance and intention. Please don’t ever force or abuse the breath. Remember, the vital life force flows with the breath. The kind of practice being described here, resting in the stillness between breaths, takes time. If you want to experiment with it, you can begin by simply watching the flow of your breath. And you can pay attention to the relationship between your state of mind and your breathing patterns. When you notice that your mind feels agitated, tune into the quality of your breathing. When you notice that your breathing feels choppy or difficult, tune into the state of your mind. As you deepen into this noticing practice, I promise that you’ll discover some connections.
As your awareness of the breath deepens and you feel ready to expand your practice, you can take the space between breaths as the object of your meditation. Sit and watch closely as the exhale fades away into stillness… And then rest in the space between breaths until the inhale naturally arises.
Again, the tradition of yoga tells us there’s magic in the stillness between breaths. It’s a portal leading toward the deep inner stillness—the deep inner silence—of our Being. It’s a space where the vitalizing force of prana builds. It’s not something I can describe to you. It’s something you’ll have to explore for yourself. And while I don’t know exactly what you’ll discover in this spaciousness, I have faith that over time it will deepen your understanding of what it feels like to have a calm and clear mind.