One of the Ananda teachers just sent me an article about the physiological link between the breath and a brain chemical, noradrenaline. Here’s a quote from the article:
The research shows for the first time that breathing—a key element of meditation and mindfulness practices—directly affects the levels of a natural chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline. This chemical messenger is released when we are challenged, curious, exercised, focused or emotionally aroused, and, if produced at the right levels, helps the brain grow new connections, like a brain fertilizer. The way we breathe, in other words, directly affects the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health.
The study goes on to say that passively observing the breath (a mindfulness technique) helps to increase attention, while controlling the breath (pranayama) helps us either activate or calm the mind as needed. On the Ananda path we do both of these: In the Hong-Sau technique we simply observe the breath, whereas with Kriya we actively control the breath. These two together not only lead to deeper meditation, but also help to balance and improve brain functioning.
I find these kinds of studies to be very interesting and helpful tools for explaining meditation. But they also need to be taken cautiously, because they are limited to the physical plane and can lead to the mistaken perception that it is the brain that produces awareness. With the current materialistic bias in science, it’s important to recognize that physiological processes don’t cause the changes in consciousness, but rather reflect them. Otherwise it would be like saying, “The heart rate and legs speed up, which causes the mind to decide to run.”
Yoga, including asanas, the Energization Exercises, and meditation, works with subtle energies, not merely physical ones. Yogis have long taught that the breath, mind, and prana are interrelated, and that our consciousness extends far beyond the brain and the physical realm. Great masters of many paths, after all, demonstrate the ability to consciously exit and reenter the body.
In Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramhansa Yogananda says:
The mystery of life and death, whose solution is the only purpose of man’s sojourn on earth, is intimately interwoven with breath. Breathlessness is deathlessness. Realizing this truth, the ancient rishis of India seized on the sole clue of the breath and developed a precise and rational science of breathlessness. Had India no other gift for the world, Kriya Yoga alone would suffice as a kingly offering.
Great yogis who can control both breath and consciousness can also manipulate the physical plane: they can levitate, manifest objects, and perceive thoughts at a distance. Lacking their consciousness, we think of these things as miracles.
As beginners, there is a great deal that we simply don’t understand, and that is why we need a teacher to increase our awareness of these subtle realms. The best course is to attune ourselves to the guru and ask him to reveal these deeper truths to us. To his sincere disciples, Yogananda emphasized attunement above all else. He could guide those who were open to him, and he will guide us still even though he is no longer present on the physical plane.
So, fascinating though these brain studies are, let’s understand that they are but a small part of a much more intricate and beautiful story of spiritual evolution.