Question: Before beginning meditation and concentration, I was wondering if there should be a specific manner of breathing.Sri Chinmoy: We have a traditional system of controlled breathing in India which is called pranayama. Prana is the vital energy, the life-breath; yama means control. Pranayama is the control of the life-breath. The very first exercise you can practise is to repeat once, as you breathe in, the name of God, the Supreme, the Christ, or whomever you adore. Or if your Master has given you a mantra, you can repeat that. This breath does not have to be long or deep. Then hold your breath and repeat the same name four times. And when you breathe out, repeat two times the name or mantra that you have chosen. You inhale for one count, hold your breath for four counts, and exhale for two counts, inwardly repeating the sacred name. If you simply count the numbers — one-four-two — you do not get any vibration, any inner feeling. But when you say the name of God, immediately God's divine qualities — Purity, Peace, Love, Bliss and many others — enter into you. Then when you hold your breath, these divine qualities rotate inside you, entering into all your impurities, obscurities, imperfections and limitations. And when you breathe out, these same divine qualities carry away all your undivine, unprogressive, destructive qualities.
The beginner starts with a one-four-two count. When he becomes mature in his breathing, he will be able to do it in a count of four-sixteen-eight: breathing in for four counts, holding the breath for sixteen, and breathing out for eight. But this has to be done very gradually. Some people do it even more. They do an eight-thirty-two-sixteen count, but this is not for the beginner.
Another thing you can try is alternate breathing. This is done by pressing the right nostril with the thumb and taking in a long breath through the left nostril. As you breathe in you repeat God's Name only once. Then you hold your breath for four counts, repeating God's Name. And finally you release your right nostril, press your left nostril with your fourth finger, and release your breath through to the count of two — that is, two repetitions of God's Name. Then you do it the opposite way, starting with the left nostril pressed closed. In this system, when you breathe in, it does not have to be done quietly. Even if you make a noise there is no harm. But of course, these exercises should not be done in public or where other people are trying to meditate in silence. You should not practise one-four-two breathing for more than four or five minutes, and you should not do alternate breathing more than three times. If you do it twenty or forty or fifty times, heat will rise from the base of your spine and enter into your head, creating tension and a headache. It is like eating too much. Eating is good, but if you eat voraciously, it will upset your stomach. This heat acts the same way. If you draw it up beyond your capacity, then instead of giving you a peaceful mind, it will give you an arrogant, destructive, turbulent mind. When you have developed your inner capacity, you can do this alternate breathing for ten or fifteen minutes.
Pranayama is a traditional yogic discipline with many serious, complicated breathing exercises. For these, ten minutes or fifteen minutes or half an hour of practice is good. But pranayama is dangerous if you do not have a teacher to guide you at every step. If you do the exercises improperly, you may develop tuberculosis. Many people in India have contracted this disease because they practise pranayama without proper guidance. But these exercises that I am telling you about — the one-four-two count and alternate nostril breathing — are very simple and, at the same time, effective. They will never harm your lungs.