Why Hong-Sau Works
By Bharat Cornell
A friend of mine was organizing a large religious festival in which hundreds of people would be involved. Days before, he wryly complained, “Even when I meditate, my mind is planning the event!” As meditators, we often find ourselves in the same predicament: fighting an over-active mind, with, seemingly, a life of its own. To meditate deeply, however, we need to quiet the mind. The more we do this, the more effective our meditations will be. It’s only in perfect stillness that we experience the higher states of consciousness.
Swami Kriyananda wrote in The New Path, “Devotees attempting inward communion with God often find their efforts thwarted by restless thoughts. But long ago yogis found a technique for overcoming this obstacle. The breath, they discovered, is intimately related to the mental processes. A restless mind accompanies a restless breath. By simple, effective techniques for calming the breath, they found they could free the mind more easily for divine contemplation.”
As the breath flows, so flows the mind, yogis say, because there is a feedback system between the mind and the breath. As the breath becomes calmer, so does the mind, and vice versa. In the practice of Hong-Sau we concentrate on the breath, and as we do so, the quieter it becomes.
The breath is the greatest obstacle to deep meditation. As long as there is bodily tension, heart movement, and brain activity, the body needs oxygen to purify the blood, which causes us to breathe. Physical activity breaks down tissues in the body and causes decay. Running causes us to breathe more rapidly, while sleeping has less physical and mental activity, so we need less oxygen and our breathing slows down significantly.
The energy needed to keep the body functioning is like a magnet that draws us into matter consciousness and restlessness. Every night we experience the reverse of this principle when we sleep. Then our energy is withdrawn from the periphery of our body and into the spine. This is why sleep is so rejuvenating. Paramhansa Yogananda, however, called sleep “counterfeit samadhi (oneness),” because it is a subconscious act, as opposed to meditation, in which we use our conscious will. The direction of the flow of our inner energy determines our state of consciousness. Breathing techniques, like Hong-Sau, allow us to redirect this energy inward so we can experience a higher level of consciousness.
While many meditation methods ask you to concentrate on something outside of yourself, the beauty of the Hong-Sau technique is that you focus on something inside of you — the breath. Since our minds are naturally drawn toward movement, the breath also is a natural focal point for meditation.
When you begin practicing Hong-Sau, you may notice first the mechanics of your breathing, but as your breathing becomes calmer, you’ll be more aware of the breath itself. When this happens, focus on the feeling of the air as it touches the inside of the nose. (If you consciously relax your nose, you will be able to feel the sensation of air more strongly.)
As the breath quiets, you will feel this sensation higher and higher in the nose until you feel it at the highest part of the nose, at the point between the eyebrows. (An important benefit of Hong-Sau is that it directs the mind to the spiritual eye, but it is important not to try to concentrate at the spiritual eye until you feel the sensation of air stimulating this point. Otherwise your concentration will be divided.) In time, your breath will gradually diminish, until finally, it is automatically and effortlessly suspended in breathlessness. Although this may seem incredible, when the body is totally still and no longer creating waste, there is no longer a need for the heart and breath to keep working.
The first time you notice your breath has slowed down, or even stopped altogether, it’s natural to feel a little anxious. Don’t be alarmed — these pauses can’t possibly hurt you, as long as you let the breath flow naturally and don’t try to hold it in or out of the lungs by force. When your body needs to breathe again, it will do so. As you practice Hong-Sau, it will help you to try consciously to enjoy the pauses between your breaths. Remember: the purpose of Hong-Sau is to increase the intervals between the breaths naturally, and eventually to free you from body-consciousness.
As a boy Paramhansa Yogananda used to practice Hong-Sau for hours at a time, withdrawing ever more deeply into the spine until he found himself without breath altogether. Hong-Sau’s three components of observing the breath, gazing at the spiritual eye, and mentally repeating the mantra, (Hong, with the incoming breath, and Sau, with the outgoing,) all work powerfully together to draw your consciousness toward Spirit. Although it may appear to be a simple technique, its simplicity is its greatness.
Repeating the Hong-Sau mantra not only gives the mind a point of focus, its Sanskrit syllables stimulate the chakras and have a vibratory connection with the breath, thereby calming it. Yogis say that on a subtle level “Hong-Sau” is the very sound made by the astral breath. Gazing upward at the point between the eyebrows, or spiritual eye, puts you more in tune with the superconscious, because in deep meditation your energy is centered there. Observing the breath helps to calm it, and since the breath, as we’ve said, is the greatest obstacle to deep meditation, Hong-Sau works in the most direct way possible to bring you to a state of true meditation.
During Hong-Sau you are a silent observer of the breath. Do not try to breathe slowly or deeply; just let your body breathe as it wishes and notice the flow of air. It may help you to feel as though you are watching someone else breathe. Observing the breath without controlling it may seem a little awkward at first. But this passes quickly.
The practice of not controlling the breath brings deep spiritual benefits, one of the most important being a sense of detachment from your physical body and mental processes. Every time you observe the breath without controlling it, you are affirming the attitude, “I am not this body.” Every time your mind wanders and you bring yourself back by repeating the Hong-Sau mantra, you are saying, “I am not this personality.” Paramhansa Yogananda said, “The ego is the soul identified with the body.”
Patanjali, the great exponent of yoga, pointed out that when we no longer identify with our one, little body, we experience ourselves in all bodies. Swami Kriyananda tells of the time he was helping Yogananda walk in the desert while the Master was in a deep state of God-consciousness. To explain his difficulty walking, Yogananda said, “I am in so many bodies, it is difficult for me to remember which body I am supposed to keep moving.”
If you find yourself struggling with unruly thoughts during your Hong-Sau practice, know that every time you bring your attention back to the technique, you are helping to free your Soul of its identification with the breath and the body. At the same time, you also are strengthening your ability to concentrate. Concentration is like a muscle, the more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes.
Using the Hong-Sau technique to discipline your mind will bring you a great sense of peace and clarity. You will find that you can think more clearly and efficiently, and so work more quickly. Holding onto the deep calmness you feel from meditation will enable you to apply that peace to all of your activities and relationships. Besides the many spiritual benefits you’ll receive from your Hong-Sau practice, you will discover countless physical and mental ones as well.
While visualizations, affirmations, and many modern meditation and relaxation practices are extremely beneficial, the Hong-Sau technique is unique in that it has the potential to take you to God. Yogananda said this technique is “the greatest contribution of India’s spiritual science to the world,” and that one hour of Hong-Sau equals twenty-four hours of sitting in the silence. One of the most sacred and ancient of all yoga practices, Hong-Sau is one of the four main techniques that comprise the path of Kriya Yoga, which Paramhansa Yogananda brought to the West in 1920.
May your practice of Hong-Sau be blessed with deep peace and awareness of God’s Presence.