What is the relationship between cosmic energy and pranayama?
In yoga cosmic energy is known as prana. There is life energy in the whole atmosphere, but in addition to this there is an infinite quantity of cosmic energy. This energy is predominantly present in the five elements. Just as we say the source of protein is meat, eggs, nuts and soya beans, in the same way the five sources of prana are earth, water, fire, air and ether. But the best source of prana is the air, and that is why pranayama is such a powerful practice.
The breath which you take inside is not pure prana; it is air with prana. Ultimately it is purified and separated into positive and negative ions, into ordinary air and prana. This separation occurs during kumbhaka, and at the time of meditation these pranas are assimilated. Therefore, a hatha yogi who practises pranayama must also practise meditation in order to assimilate the separated prana. So this cosmic prana becomes a part of individual prana through pranayama and meditation.
Is concentration on the breath considered an essential part of the tantric practices?
Concentration on the breath is one of the most powerful methods of introverting the restless mind. The practice of meditation is divided into four stages: pratyahara or introversion; dharana or concentration; dhyana or meditation; and samadhi or transcendence.
Concentration on breath comes in the first category. As you concentrate on the breath, the mind automatically becomes withdrawn. When this stage has been accomplished you must then try to fix your mind on one chosen point. If you continue to withdraw and introvert the mind without bringing it to one point it will be absolutely hypnotised. Therefore when you are able to introvert the mind to a certain point and when psychic experiences suddenly begin, immediately start the practice of dharana.
Regardless of which system you follow, practices of introversion alone cannot lead you to awakening. They are only intended to create passivity and tranquillity. The restless tendencies of the mind must be pacified. This is the first stage. The next stage, dharana, means fixing the mind on one point and reducing the area of space. When the mind is fixed on one point and is concentrating itself it will lead to dhyana and samadhi.
What is a correct and systematic method of preparing for meditation?
Concentration and meditation come under raja yoga, and before you practise raja yoga, you must purify the physical body by the techniques of hatha yoga. In yoga, we believe that as far as possible, the causes of thought processes should be cleared up first through the physical medium. For example, sometimes a thought can be the outcome of a bad stomach or the effect of a thyroid malfunction. Therefore we recommend the purifying techniques of hatha yoga. There are six hatha yoga cleansing techniques: neti, dhauti, basti, nauli, trataka and kapalbhati. They are called the shatkarmas. With the guidance of an experienced teacher, you do these practices according to your requirements and capacity.
After you have practised the shatkarmas for one to two years, harmony is attained within the nervous system, the parasympathetic and sympathetic, in ida and pingala nadis. They are responsible for manas shakti (mental energy) and prana shakti (pranic or vital energy) respectively. If either of these nadis are disturbed, then you have diseases born of manas or prana shakti.
By hatha yoga, therefore, we are actually purifying all the flows so that they are homogeneous and uninterrupted. When this has been accomplished you should then start concentration for which a strong nervous system is imperative. When the flows in ida and pingala are correctly energised and balanced with respect to each other, the third flow, sushumna, is automatically activated. When this happens, meditation becomes spontaneous. However, this doesn't mean that you should not practise japa or that you should not do anything else now. You must continue with these things also, but if you are going to enter into meditation practice seriously, then you must do it systematically.
Apart from the relaxation and health benefits is there a deeper purpose for practising meditation?
The purpose of meditation is to develop super-awareness which should take charge of all the affairs of life, replacing the mind just as in presidential rule the governor takes charge of all the affairs of the state when the cabinet does not function. In the same way, when we know that this mind is not able to conduct the affairs of life properly, when it is creating torture, agony and suffering we say, "No, the mind is not a good director". The limited mind must be replaced by a superpower, super awareness, but the problem is that there is no super awareness. Therefore we practise meditation to develop it.
During meditation, is the position of the hands important? If so, what is the best position?
If both nostrils are not flowing freely the position of the hands should be as follows. Place the right hand under the left armpit and the left hand under the right armpit and press. The arms should be relaxed. This is called swara yoga mudra. At the time of meditation both nostrils must flow freely, if they do not, then one part of the brain remains inactive and you cannot meditate properly. When both the nostrils flow freely, both hemispheres of the brain are equally active and meditation can be accomplished without any difficulty.
If, however, both nostrils are flowing freely when you sit for meditation, you can place your hands in the lap. This is called yoni mudra. Or you may adopt chin mudra, with the thumb and the index finger joined and the remaining three fingers separated, symbolising the separation of yourself (index finger) from the three gunas of rajas, tamas and sattva, and the joining of yourself to the supreme consciousness (thumb).
In meditation it is very important that both nostrils are free. If for example only the right nostril is flowing and the left is blocked, the mind will run terribly hither and thither like a monkey. If only the left is flowing you will start dreaming after some time or depression may set in. When both nostrils are flowing, the right and left hemispheres of the brain are harmonised and begin to function in a greater dimension. In this way meditation can be accomplished.
During meditation something starts jumping in my body, then the body starts shaking. What is this?
It is perfectly all right but don't dwell on these happenings. Try to remain aware of the point of your concentration. With concentration many things can happen. If the mind is swayed by these psychic experiences and physical symptoms, it is a distraction from the main centre. However, sometimes, in a state of meditation these disturbances become so powerful that it is useless to fight with them. It is better to find out the reason for their presence. Maybe you have not fulfilled some of the preliminary conditions of yoga or have not stabilised your nervous system or emotional structure.
Sometimes in meditation there is an experience when the breath stops automatically.
There is a certain moment when prana and the mind interact and move together. When the mind is controlled the pranic forces also stop and when the pranas are controlled the mind automatically stops. In yoga this is known as kevala kumbhaka, automatic, spontaneous retention. The moment your mind ceases to function or is consumed in the point of concentration, automatically the breath must stop because in the brain these two activities are interconnected. The raja yogis first control the mind then stop the breath. Hatha yogis control the breath and thereby control the fluctuations of the mind. When kevala kumbhaka takes place allow it to happen without resisting because it culminates in the awakening.