practice pages: meditation
the breath prayer
a japa breath from the radiance sutras, a new version of the vijnana bhairava tantra
by dr. lorin roche
Ayurvedic physicians are fond of saying, “Have all six tastes on your tongue every day: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent (spicy), and astringent.” Whatever your body type, by treating yourself to diversity of taste (rasa) you will have more vitality and your body will be able to balance and heal itself. More subtly, rasa means to taste the juicy essence of life – to savor our life experience. Yoga stretches our capacity to be aware, and we become open to aesthetic delight.
Tantra Yoga suggests we embrace the full spectrum of the different types of rasa in our practice: “Delight in all five of the elements (tattvas) every day – air, earth, water, fire and space. Use all your senses (jnanendriyas) to experience each of the elements – touch, hearing, vision, smell, taste and the inner senses that tell you what is going on inside your body.” We can do this every day, all day, with something as simple as breathing, because all the elements and senses are there in each breath.
In the conclusion of The Radiance Sutras, Shiva is talking about breath as a gift, the grace of the Goddess; the little ah sounds we make as we breathe are mantras. We are invited to listen to the breath, to cherish it as a prayer.
Since you began breathing,
Every breath has whispered a prayer to the Goddess
Breath flows spontaneously
Thousands of times a day.
Thus all breathing beings
Continually worship Her.
Be conscious of this unconscious prayer,
For She is the most holy place of
ṣaṭśatāni divā rātrau sahasrāṇyekaviṃśatiḥ |
japo devyāḥ samuddiṣṭaḥ sulabho durlabho jaḍaiḥ || 156 |
shat shatani – six hundred; diva ratrau – in the day and night; sahasrani – thousand; eka vimshatih – twenty-one; japa – chanting mantras (from jap, to whisper, repeat internally, utter in a low voice); devyah – of Devi; samuddishtah – mentioned, indicated; sulabhah – easily accessible, feasible, common; durlabhah – difficult to be found; jada – apathetic, senseless, dull.
In other words,“Breath is a prayer, an automatic prayer taking place 21,600 times in every 24 hours. The mantra of the Goddess is uttered continually by all who breathe. Thus the energy of the divine is available to everyone. This is difficult only for the apathetic.”
Listening to breath as a rhythmic mantra adds an element of musicality. Mantras and breath create wave forms in the body, and we can feel and hear those waves. What other senses are engaged in the prayer of breath? When I ask people to focus for sixty seconds, this is the kind of thing they say:
• I feel the air touching the inside of my nostrils and gliding down the back of my throat.
• I sense the motion of my ribcage, expanding on the inbreath and contracting on the outbreath.
• The breath feels like an internal massage.
• I feel nourished by the breath.
• I can smell the flowers on the other side of the room.
• The flow of breath is soothing, waves of calmness spreading through my body.
• When I breathe out, I feel a great relief, falling into restfulness.
• I feel the fatigue washing away.
• I hear the breath flowing in and out with little sighing sounds: Saaahhh.
• When I breathe in cold air, it chills my nose and feels dry, and when I breathe out, the air is much warmer and moist.
Touch, temperature, motion, hearing – it is always different, and for each person the senses involved and the textures change continually. Give yourself a chance to explore in this way – you might find your experience of breath becomes richer and more sensuous, as befits a prayer to the Goddess.
Breathing is by nature an intimate act. Atoms of oxygen and nitrogen that have been circulating in the atmosphere of Earth for billions of years come into our mouth and nose, into the temple of the lungs, and are borne by blood throughout our bodies to permeate every cell. Breath is an intimate communion with the forces of life, the most intimate relationship we have and is to be savored. The more awake we are – with all our senses, and all our emotions – to the astonishing intimacy that is breath, the more freely the life-force, prana, can circulate in our bodies, and keep us healthy and in balance.
Dr. Lorin Roche has been involved in a love affair with the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra since 1968. He has a PhD from the University of California at Irvine, where his research focused on the language meditators generate to describe their inner experiences. The Radiance Sutras, a new version of the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, is available from Lorin’s website: lorinroche.com. Lorin teaches from the Sutras on Wednesday nights in Venice. Feel free to email comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Vijnana Bhairava Tantra describes 112 Yogas of wonder and delight for touching the divine in the midst of daily life. The teaching is framed as a conversation between lovers, Shakti and Shiva, the Goddess Who Is the Creative Power of the Universe, and the God Who Is the Consciousness that Permeates Everywhere.