Mindfulness with Breathing - Selections

A Manual for Serious Beginners


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Bodies of Breath

As we have mentioned before before, altogether there are four groups that we must contemplate, each group corresponding to one of our four fundamental objects of study. Each group includes four steps, or dhammas; hence they may be called “tetrads.” In all, therefore, there are four tetrads, or groups, each of which contains four steps. This makes a total of sixteen dhammas. Of these sixteen, the breath is directly contemplated in only two steps. The remaining fourteen steps focus on other objects.

The first of our four objects of study is anapanasati focused on the kaya. In this chapter we will examine the practice of the first two of the four steps of anapanasati focused on the kaya.


In the kaya tetrad, or kayanupassana (contemplation of the body), we study and understand the breath. We learn to understand the different kinds of breath, their various qualities and characteristics, and the influences they produce. We get to know the breath in all aspects and from all angles in order for it to be correct.

To put it briefly, we must have correct prana. Prana is a Sanskrit word, the Pali equivalent is pana. Ordinarily, this word means “life” or “life force” or “that which preserves and nurtures life.” We must understand it correctly; our prana should be healthy and correct. Then our lives will be correct. Thus, it is necessary to study the subject of the breath.

In India every style of yoga—and there are dozens of styles—has trainings involving the prana. These trainings are called Pranayama, which means “control of the prana” or “breath control.” To control the breath is to control life. When the prana enters the body, it is called ana and when it leaves it is called apana. The two words combined become anapana, that is, the prana enters and the prana exits. To control the prana is to control that which enters to preserve life. Then we live a life that is fresh and cheerful, ready and fit for training and practice. Such prana training can be found even in Buddhism.

Pranayama is the first subject of anapanasati. Although this may seem surprising, it does not contradict our principles at all. In fact, anapanasati is the equivalent of any system of yoga; indeed, it actually improves on all of them. This system of kayanupassana (contemplation on the body) takes up the Pranayama of the Indian yogas and improves upon them in appropriateness and practicability. Thus, our first item of study is this system of training known as kayanupassana.

If we adjust the prana-body, so that it is good, healthy, and calm, it makes the flesh-body good, healthy, and calm as well. Calm and healthy prana brings the greatest peace and well-being in this life. This is why we must understand both kaya (bodies): the flesh-body and the breath-body. Then we shall be able to cultivate the “good” until there is good peace and good calm. The word good here means “fit and proper to be used in performing duties and work.”

The last item of this tetrad is calming the body-conditioner, that is, making the preservers of the body peaceful and calm. By calming the breath, which conditions the body, then the body too becomes tranquil. The citta will feel this tranquility and will also be calmed. When the citta is calm, it is ready to perform its further duties.

This is the subject matter of the kaya. It is important to note that the more you understand these facts, the more benefits this training will bring; you will become able to make this the best life possible. So we begin with learning about the kaya as the first tetrad.


It is essential that we understand this profound truth: the prana-body is the conditioner of the flesh-body. We ought to know that there are these two kaya or levels of kaya. We know about the first level, the flesh-body, but we hardly know the prana-body at all. Therefore, it is very important to understand the prana-body, as it can condition the flesh-body in beneficial ways. In India, the Pranayama is considered to be the highest and most important subject for study. While different schools vary in their explanations and meanings for the prana-body, all schools seek to regulate the prana-body so that it conditions the flesh-body appropriately. We need to study and train the breath in order to use it to condition the flesh-body. Since we cannot regulate the flesh-body directly, we regulate it indirectly. We study the prana-body and practice regulating it. By learning to regulate the prana-body, we regulate the flesh-body, making it calm and peaceful.

We develop this knowledge through practice and training until we are able to regulate the prana. In this way we gradually develop a good, healthy body that is ready for concentrating the citta. Both the body and mind are prepared to do their respective duties. The first tetrad, the kaya, has these characteristics, this objective and method of practice. We should examine this tetrad carefully. Is it necessary or not? Is it worth our time and effort to study and practice? If so, then we should wholeheartedly commit ourselves to this study and train in it until we are successful. This is the way to cultivate the best pranayama—Buddhist pranayama—through the practice of vipassana-bhavana (the cultivation of insight or direct realization).

There are four steps in the practice of the kaya tetrad: knowing the long breath, knowing the short breath, knowing how the breath regulates the body, and contemplating the breath in order to calm the body. These four steps are not difficult if we sincerely observe and genuinely study in a scientific way.

Before the Buddha’s time people practiced many types of pranayama. When Lord Buddha appeared, he too practiced pranayama; he then incorporated it into this system of contemplating the breath. And through this system of contemplating the breath, we regulate life and the body.

There are many advantages and benefits to pranayama that are not directly concerned with religion or Dhamma. These extra incentives may serve to interest you in pranayama or breath control and encourage you to manage it correctly. First, you can live longer through practicing pranayama. Or you can make yourself die immediately, even today, if you so wish. In fact, with the practice of pranayama you can die during any breath you choose. On the other hand, you can have a healthy breath and a good, healthy body with pranayama. You can play sports, drive a car, work in an office, or do whatever you choose if you regulate the breath or prana in a way that is in accordance with your aims. You should know that these are some of the side-benefits of anapanasati outside the scope of religion or Dhamma proper.


Let’s consider in more detail the first two steps of the first tetrad, the practice concerning the kaya (body). Having followed the instructions in the last chapter, we have developed a preliminary understanding of the breath. We know about the various properties of the breath: long duration, shortness, coarseness, fineness, easiness, and uneasiness. Our knowledge extends to the properties connected with the breath and how our mind reacts toward and is influenced by these properties. We even know how to control the length of each breath. The next step is to enter a course of training with the breathing. We begin with the long breath.

The first lesson is the contemplation of the long breath. Having learned how to make the breath long and to keep it long, we are able to breathe long whenever we need to. In this first lesson, we will study exclusively the nature of the long breath. When a breath is long, how pleasant is it? Is it natural and ordinary? What kinds of calmness and happiness arise? In what ways is it different from a short breath? We begin by studying just the long breath to find out its properties, qualities, influence, and flavor. We should sit and investigate only the long breath. This is lesson one: understanding all matters connected to long breathing.

Finally, we observe how the body works in relation to the long breath. How does the body move when there is a long inhalation? In what places does the body expand? Where does it contract? When there is the deepest possible long breath, does the chest expand or contract? Does the abdomen expand or contract? These are things to examine. As you observe, you may learn that the process happens differently than you might have thought. Most people have the simple idea that when we breathe in,  the chest expands, and when we breathe out, the chest contracts. In studying the breath carefully, however, we find that in taking a very long inhalation, the abdomen will contract and the chest will expand. We find the reverse of what common sense teaches. Thus, we investigate the very long breath, the longest possible breath, to see what changes occur. We do not take anything for granted but instead learn these basic facts for ourselves.

In order to know the nature of the long breath, we study all the secrets and attributes of the long breath. We are able to contemplate its long duration, learning to protect and maintain it. In fact, we become expert in all matters concerned with the long breath. Practicing with the long breath is lesson one.

It is extremely important that we learn the interrelationship between each type of breath and the body. We shall find there is a very close interconnection between them. As we learn the effects that the long breath has on the body, we discover the happiness and comfort the long breath brings. Further, we come to understand more deeply the secret of the two kaya: the breath-body and the flesh-body. We can observe this even at this early stage, although we will not discuss it specifically until step three. Still, in this lesson, we should begin to realize how the breath and the body are interconnected. Therefore, when breathing long, or in any way, we observe how the rest of the body is affected. We learn in a deeper way, through personal experience rather than through thinking, that the breath is intimately associated with the body.


Our second lesson concerns the short breath. We practice this step in exactly the same way as we practiced the long breath, only now we focus on the short breath. Whatever we learned about the long breath, we shall learn the equivalent facts about the short breath.

For instance, we observe and feel immediately that the long breath brings ease and comfort while the short breath leads to abnormality, that is, uneasiness, agitation, and discomfort. Thus, through our ability to regulate the breath, we know how to make the body either comfortable or uncomfortable. We need to know the complementary differences between the two kinds of breath as clearly as possible. So here we are particularly interested in the short breath. We study everything, every aspect, every property of the short breath until we know it as extensively as we know the long breath. Although the two kinds of breath have opposite natures, our way of studying them is identical.

Of special interest is the observation that when we breathe long, the breath is fine, and when we breathe short, the breath is rough. Once we learn to make the breath fine or coarse as we wish, we can use this ability to our advantage. The benefit is that the fine breath will calm our body. It becomes cool. When we wish to cool down our body, we bring out the fine breath. When we require the fine breath, we simply make the breath longer. This is one of the fine points we need to study.

Another example is that when we are angry, the breath becomes short. When the breath is short, the body is disturbed. If we make the breath long, our anger will not continue. When we are angry, the breath is short and rough, and the body is rough. We can drive away such anger by breathing long. The body will be relaxed, and the anger will disappear. This is an example of the many different interactions and relationships between the breath, the body, and the mind. It is important that we understand the relationship and differences between long and short breathing. We must experience this relationship and feel it for ourselves so that we become experts.


Let’s summarize these first steps: it is possible to regulate, control, limit, and manage the emotions by using the breath. We can make the emotions correct, useful, and beneficial through the breath. We develop the ability to control the breath itself through knowledge we have gained about the breath. If we train our breathing, we can control our emotions, that is, we can cope with the happiness and pain in our lives. We should practice until we feel this; our practice is not complete until we can see this clearly.

When you are sitting in meditation and a mosquito bites you, you may develop an evil emotion. How can you get rid of it? To drive it away, improve the breath. Make the breath long, make it fine, make it chase away that wicked emotion. This is the best method to solve such problems and is another example of the beneficial knowledge and useful abilities that we are learning.

The topics and facts to be studied in the first lesson about the long breath and in the second lesson about the short breath are the same. The only difference is that everything is complementary. The number and type of things to study are equal, but the differences between long and short breathing lead to complementary sets of facts.

This completes our discussion of the first two lessons of the first tetrad. Two more lessons of this tetrad remain to be considered. Please practice what you have read as you prepare for what comes next.


How to cite this document:
© Evolution/Liberation, Mindfulness with Breathing (Wisdom Publications, 1988, 1996)

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