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Unleashing Inner Strength: The Transformative Role of Pranayama and Meditation that Can Empower African Americans and the World.

Pranayama and meditation are ancient practices that have been passed down through generations, originating from the great yogis of India. These practices hold immense transformative power and can empower individuals to unlock their inner strength. Pranayama is the practice of manipulating the breath to influence the vital life force energy, known as prana. Meditation, on the other hand, is a state of deep concentration and self-awareness. Consistent meditation practice leads to a heightened sense of awareness, peace and tranquility. In this article, I will explore the profound impact that pranayama and meditation can have on the lives of African Americans, specifically in overcoming trauma and emotional barriers.

Understanding the Transformative Role of Pranayama and Meditation

The powers of yoga are well-known, and pranayama and meditation are integral aspects of this ancient practice. Yoga has the ability to harmonize the mind, body, and spirit, allowing individuals to tap into their inner potential. Through the practice of pranayama, practitioners learn to control their breath, which in turn calms the mind and enhances overall well-being. Controlled breathing, especially slow and deep breathing, activates the PNS, (Parasympathetic Nervous System) the part of the autonomic nervous system responsible for 'rest-and-digest' activities. This activation counteracts the stress response triggered by the sympathetic nervous system, (the flight, fight, or freeze) response of the CNS (Central Nervous System,) and leads us to a calm state. 

Controlled breathing reduces the levels of our body's primary stress hormone, cortisol. Lower cortisol levels are associated with reduced stress, anxiety, and improved mood. Furthermore, deep breathing increases oxygen supply to the brain and stimulates the lymphatic system, which helps detoxify the body. Enhanced oxygenation is crucial for improved cognitive function and energy levels. Walking is also a supreme way to detoxify the lymph systems as well as improve overall lung and heart function. When combined with a consistent yoga practice, a daily walk transforms the mind and body.

Recall that breathing is a unique natural, autonomic function, but it can be altered or controlled consciously. When we step in and ‘usurp’ or hack our body’s autonomic control of our breathing, we gain the power to have direct influence over our mind-body connection. Focused aka “controlled breathing” brings attention away from external or subconscious triggers. These triggers act as stressors that can often send the body and mind into a tailspin. This happens during panic attacks, anxiety disorder, and depression. This practice of ‘tuning into our breath’ and away from random signals of the mind is a form of mindfulness, that enhances our mental clarity and provides us an emotional anchor at all times.

In addition, controlled breathing can positively affect the brain and improve heart rate. As a practice, controlled breathing alters brain activity, particularly in areas responsible for attention and emotional regulation. Thus, managing the brain. Proper management of the Lymbic System, leads to enhanced mental clarity and emotional stability. The limbic system is a complex set of structures at the center of the brain. It is crucial for the processing of emotions, memory, and linking cognitive functions with emotional states. Hence the importance of “being emotionally neutral” as a yogi. This area lay at the center of the brain and includes the amygdala, which processes emotions like fear and pleasure; the hippocampus, vital for memory formation and connecting emotions to memories aka “meaning” to memories; the thalamus, which acts as a relay station for sensory and motor signals and is a key player in consciousness and alertness; the hypothalamus, regulates autonomic functions, emotional responses, and hormone release; and finally the cingulate gyrus, which is involved in emotional processing and regulation, decision-making, and empathy. The Limbic System interacts with the prefrontal cortex and other brain areas and influences our emotional life and higher mental functions. Pranayama and meditation positively affect the prefrontal cortex, leading to improved cognitive functions, better emotional regulation, structural enhancements in the brain, and potentially a slowdown in cognitive aging. These benefits highlight the profound impact of these practices on brain health and overall well-being.

Lastly, regular practice of controlled breathing improves HRV. HRV or Heart Rate Variability is a measure of the variation in time between heartbeats. This pause or “negative space” between the beats of the heart has a strong correlation to the body’s ability to be resilient and tolerate stress. Generally speaking, a person suffering from hypertension will have a low HRV and a sniper soldier is likely to have a high HRV. This is because the soldier will have likely undergone training that includes stress management, breathing techniques, and mental conditioning. These practices can enhance parasympathetic activity and thus increase HRV, reflecting better stress resilience and control over autonomic responses. High HRV is generally associated with better cardiovascular health, stress management, and emotional regulation.

Modern scientific research has uncovered that regular yoga practice can significantly improve Heart Rate Variability. Yoga encapsulates, stress management, breathing techniques, and mental conditioning similar to that of an advanced sniper soldier.

Overall, HRV is a key indicator of autonomic nervous system balance and cardiovascular health. Thus, improvement in HRV reflects a body’s enhanced ability to alternate between sympathetic and parasympathetic states, which is crucial for stress management and overall well-being. Remember that sympathetic is fight, flight, or freeze, and parasympathetic is “rest and digest”.  The reduction in stress hormone levels and the mood-enhancing effects of yoga contribute to more stable and higher HRV readings, signifying a more resilient cardiovascular system. These findings emphasize yoga's potential as a holistic approach to heart health and stress reduction. You will find HRV readings common on your smartwatch, smartphone, and sleeping apps as indicators of positive health.

We tend to think of ourselves as a “personality”, a body as a real object in real space. But yoga reminds us that we are a series of constant miracles, a complex system of systems that play out in various ephemeral activities in a single moment of time. We are not real, but our energy is.

Exploring the Powers of Yoga (Siddhis) and its Impact on the Mind and Body

Siddhis are a set of supernatural abilities or powers described in various Indian spiritual texts, particularly in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The term "Siddhi" is derived from the Sanskrit root 'sidh', meaning 'to accomplish' or 'to succeed'. In the context of yoga and meditation, Siddhis are extraordinary capabilities that are said to be attainable through rigorous spiritual practice, deep meditation, and complete mastery over the self.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a foundational text of classical yoga philosophy, describe various siddhis. These include abilities such as:

  • Clairvoyance: The ability to perceive distant events and objects.

  • Clairaudience: The power to hear sounds from afar.

  • Telepathy: The ability to read the minds of others.

  • Levitation: The power to float or fly in the air.

  • Telekinesis: The ability to move objects with the mind.

  • Invincibility: Being unaffected by fire, water, or other elements.

  • Omniscience: Possessing complete knowledge.

For a more exhaustive breakdown of yogic powers or “gifts,” as I call them, you can look to Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by BKS Iyengar. On pages 36 to 37, of the first edition, under the title heading “Properties of Yoga”, guru Iyengar lists (34x) powers as translated from Patanjali’s ancient text. These are followed by the title heading “Caution”. Indeed every blessing is a curse. We live in a dichotomous world so things that give life also take life. Even on a sojourn spiritual path like yoga, we still have to be very aware, conscious, and mindful of what takes place in our body and mind. Greed, and our human tendency toward power, lust, and self-satisfaction are common hindrances to enlightenment. In yogic philosophy, siddhis are often seen as by-products of deep spiritual advancement. But, we must remember that they are not the ultimate goal of yoga. Patanjali warns that attachment to these powers can become a distraction on the path to spiritual liberation (Kaivalya). Patanjali reminds us that the ultimate aim of yoga is to achieve self-realization and union with the Divine, not to acquire supernatural powers.

Therefore, yoga is not just a physical exercise, but it is a holistic practice that encompasses mind, body, and spirit. The practice of pranayama and meditation takes us beyond the physical asanas and focuses intensely on the breath and inner awareness. By harnessing the powers of yoga, we as African Americans can consciously tap into the innate powers of inner strength and resilience and develop them further to the point of mastery. Mastery of self is mastery of everything. Dominion over the inner world is dominion over the outer world. This is why a pivotal tactic of war and dominance is aimed at the psychological nature of man, on par with physical supremacy. In training our minds and bodies through yoga we arrive at the concept of śakti, aka “shakti” which refers to the “unification of intelligence and consciousness”. The ardent practice of pranayama and meditation awakens us to our innate “higher” intelligence and allows us to tap our true potential.

The Concept of Śakti: The Unification of Intelligence and Consciousness

I am doing my best to keep this offering as an article, a discourse, and not an entire book. That will be forthcoming. But I have to bring other aspects of yogic philosophy and practice to light because yoga is so rich and overrun with resources. Shakti refers to the divine feminine energy that exists within all beings. It is the unification of intelligence and consciousness and represents the creative force of the universe and all beings. When we engage in the practice of pranayama and meditation, we tap into the powerful “shakti” energy. We allow the “inner gazing” quality of the practice to flow freely within us. It is through this unification of consciousness (Shiva) and matter (Shakti) that we can access our inner strength and unlock our highest spiritual potential.

In the present state of the world, because we have knowledge of worldly affairs happening and unfolding in real-time, there appears to be much chaos, disconnection, and existential anxiety. But yoga teaches us, as above so below, as on the right, it must be on the left, and as within, it must be on the outside. So there is equal good happening that we often don’t get to see. As humans, we are hard-wired by our reptilian brain to focus more on the negative aspects of life and commit them to memory. This was an early survival mechanism for our primitive ancestors and it still resides within us today. Awakening shakti within us is transformative. This inner power, when realized and harnessed, leads us to personal empowerment beyond physical boundaries, and invokes a mental and spiritual strength. We cultivate our intuition and our ability to “know” things without knowing why we know things. Shakti is our “feminine” power of intuition that balances out the masculine power of rationality and fact-chasing. 

We achieve balance, between the masculine and feminine energies inherent in us all. This is not gender as taught in the Western world, it is more scientific. Shiva and Shakti can be thought of as principles like, positive and negative, up and down, inside and outside, or male and female. The two concepts are words that represent two different polarities. Modern society often skews us towards aggression and competition, against opposing forces, but shakti unifies. This unification of body and mind, or shiva and shakti, allows us to bring balance and harmony first within ourselves, and then outwardly to society.

You can imagine what millions of black people sharing this unified balance can do for humanity. The world would change overnight. Remember the axiom that as change happens within (consciousness), it must be represented without, as (matter) in the world. All manifestation comes from un-manifestation first. The activation of this principle in our minds is critical in changing the current state of things on the planet. We must make self-realization our highest priority.

Moreover, this shift is not merely individual; it ripples through the collective consciousness. As black people awaken to their inner power, we will contribute to positive social and environmental changes, thus fostering a sustainable, equitable, and compassionate way of living. Our collective, individual self-realizations can catalyze a worldwide spiritual awakening. If you meditate on this fact, the understanding begins to foster a sense of hope, unity, empathy, and compassion, unlike anything we have seen before. As humans led by a more conscious, interconnected society, we all become true global citizens when we embrace the power of śakti. Thus, in contemporary times, this is a pathway to personal empowerment, holistic health, balanced living, and a collective awakening toward a more compassionate and spiritually aware world.

Samyama: The Practice of Meditation, Concentration, and Object-Subject Unity

There is some acknowledging we must do first. By acknowledgment, I don’t mean blame. We can point fingers and recite history but ultimately we must account for the monster that still stands in the room with us today. For many African Americans, and black people as a whole when you look at the holistic effects and practices of colonization, trauma is that monster. Trauma is a large part of our present state of being. Naming it, allows us to frame it. And when trauma is tucked neatly in a box aka “frame” we can start to study (self-study) and dismantle it. Thus, mitigating or destroying the debilitating effects it has on our lives. Ultimately we name it, then we frame it, to begin the process of letting go. And letting go happens naturally when we know that we are the indestructible, all-seeing, and all-knowing soul.

Our lived experience is just that, it is an experience, an expression of life on an individual scale. Yet life as an expression of energy is buttressed by something else, something larger than energy. Even energy has a source. Energy is a beginning with no ending but it has a start. This is why, “no weapon formed against us can prosper.” We are energy. And although we cannot be created or destroyed, the experience of physical manifestation gives the illusion of a definitive start and an ultimate end. But we can transcend this basic belief through the practice of samyama.

Samyama combines meditation, concentration, and object-subject unification. It is a state of total absorption, where the meditator/observer becomes one with the object of their focus. Let me give a practical testimony. I have two examples but in consideration of time, I will only share one. 

Some years ago, when I was about 25 years old I was riding my bike for exercise early one morning. I would ride 8 miles or so from my house to the beach. On the last leg of the ride, I would go through a densely wooded neighborhood that ended at a small, gated road that led into the State Park. This gated road was paved and had lush green forests on both sides. In spring, the road was awash with a bright green hue, illuminated by the new growth of trees, grasses, and mosses carpeting the forest floor. The road ended at a sandy outlet onto a small private confluence of river stream and bay that formed a tiny beach. The canopy of trees allowed for some shade on the road and I steadied my bike at the center line and began to drift. In the distance ahead, I could see a large bee traveling at my eye level. As I closed the distance the bee, which I now identified as some sort of large Bumble bee, stayed steady on course. I did what only felt natural and said “Good morning.” I spoke out loud to it then I moved my bike to the left since it was clear he was preoccupied and set in his lane.  We rode together side by side. I got the feeling that he didn’t want to be talked to, so I rode in silence. I didn’t want to disrupt the natural magic and serendipity of the moment. Now, this stretch of road is a mile at best. So I couldn’t have been on it too long. But as I road and he flew, together we remained in silence. Then a strange thing happened. I lost sense of all time and space. At a certain point, I don’t recall steering my bike. Before I knew it, I traded places with the bee and was able to fly and see its vantage point through its eyes. That went on for a moment and then there was nothingness. Just a feeling of being afloat, as if I were light itself.  I assume he/she, was able to jump into my experience. I don’t know. What I can say is that we were one, and then suddenly I was nothing.  The moment as it unfolded felt like it lasted 5 minutes. But based on the distance I traveled when I “came to”. I could see that I only traveled about 40 feet. So at best, this experience lasted only a few seconds. This event was samyama. I have experienced samyama several times in my life without provocation.

Perhaps it is the compilation of many of my past experiences and spiritual efforts that have made samyama a “naturally occurring” event in my life. All I know is that in that moment, a spark, an extraordinary experience happened without causality. Samyama and all forms of meditation are like that. They arrive to you, you cannot reach out to them. All the effort we put in through yoga is to cultivate our mind-bodies to have the ability to open ourselves up to the moment. And to allow the moment to arrive once it descends: on and into us. In my experience in samyama, there was no sense of self, space, time, or identity. I was all the things that surrounded me, I was all things and all things were me. 

Ultimately, the mind acts as a bridge between manifest and un-manifest. When we practice or experience samyama, that bridge contracts, and draws both sides together until they are one. Consciousness once again, becomes a part of superconsciousness. The ego sheath is removed so that there is no separation, and unity takes place.  Through samyama, individuals gain profound insights. For African Americans, samyama can be a powerful tool in overcoming PTSD and many forms of trauma by a different name. When we focus our attention on positive and empowering thoughts, we transform our mindset and begin to create a new narrative for our lives. These narratives come from deep within us. These are not stories from the marketing of “rugged individualism” or material wealth, gain, and power. The possibilities are endless when one gains the ability to separate “the wheat from the chaff” and pick thoughts that yield spiritual substance, as opposed to worldly products that will wither away with time. Samyama allows us to cultivate clear vision, right thinking, and correct action, that leads to personal growth and transformation.

The Importance of Aspiration and Living a Life of Peace and Calm

As we draw to an end, we understand that meditation coupled with pranayama is important.  We know that meditation alone can be a powerful tool that can heal trauma and PTSD. Meditation is not just a practice of relaxation; it is a practice of self-discovery and personal growth. Through meditation, we cultivate a clear vision of our goals and aspirations. By quieting the mind and focusing on positive thoughts, we align our thinking with our desired outcomes. We become a practical guide to ourselves. This shift in thinking leads us to what Patanjali calls, ‘correct action, correct thinking, and correct doing’. Meditation, therefore becomes a powerful tool for creating a life of purpose and fulfillment.

We must focus on creating safe spaces mentally within our own being first, and then subsequently manifest those safe and healing spaces in the world. For me, I have created The Om Space, my personal yoga studio, built on a pasture of my land known as “The Field Beyond”. This 1/2 acre section is inspired by the Persian poet Rumi, in his selection - Out Beyond Ideas of Wrongdoing and Rightdoing: 

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

There is a field. I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

The world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase each other

Doesn't make any sense.

The Om Space allows me to have a private sanctuary, a space solely dedicated to personal reflection. A space to cultivate inner awareness. A place where through meditation, I am allowed to process, reframe, and ultimately let go of my associations with trauma and emotional pain. This space provides a sense of both self-empowerment and resilience. I also share this space, in service, to my family and the broader community, so that people may come and do the same. In addition, I train two cohorts of yoga teachers annually in the Om Space. You can see how the un-manifests can manifest and bring change into the world at its own pace,  and doing so as healing unfolds. 

As African Americans, we each have the responsibility to provide for our future generations by creating spaces like this. But be cautioned that these spaces should not be attempted or completed until the necessary self-work is done, as expressed in the Yamas and Niyamas. Aspiration is important, but more important is intention, when speaking on the transformative power of pranayama and meditation. Our desires can get ahead of us if we do not first have a sadhana or “practice” as Patanjali outlays in Book 2 of the Yoga Sutras. And this practice, must not be attempted until we have accomplished the Yamas and Niyamas for ourselves. By setting clear intentions and goals, we can direct our energy towards positive change. Where our energy goes, our attention flows. Cultivating a life of peace and calm is paramount and must be given our collective attention. Through the practice of pranayama and meditation, our sense of inner peace transcends all external circumstances. This inner peace becomes our foundation and takes form as strength and resilience. And it is these two outcomes of strength and resilience, that allow us to navigate life's challenges with grace and composure.

Understanding the Importance of Proper Breathing Techniques for Maximum Benefits

Proper breathing techniques are essential for maximizing the benefits of pranayama and meditation. Deep, slow, and conscious breathing activates the relaxation response in the body, reducing stress and promoting a sense of calm. For many of us, as African Americans, we face high levels of stress and anxiety due to systemic oppression. Proper breathing techniques can be particularly beneficial. By focusing on the breath and practicing conscious breathing, we can cultivate a state of inner peace and tranquility. This produces dopamine in the brain and helps the body self-regulate. Diseases like hypertension, Diabetes 2, and cancer feed off of a body's “battle” with itself. Inner turmoil causes inflammation. Inflammation breeds disease because it lowers the body's energy and life force aka prana. Prana has a primary role in activating the cells of the body and promotes feelings of overall well-being.

Prana, the vital life force energy, is a fundamental concept in yoga and meditation. More elaborate detail on prana is established in The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP), by Swami Svatmarama written in the 15th century. In the HYP, Svatmarama places significant emphasis on the concept and practices associated with prana as the ‘vital life force’ or energy present in all living beings. Patanjali discusses prana in the context of Pranayama as one of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, but he does not go into the same depth as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika regarding specific practices and the manipulation of Prana. Borrowing more from the HYP, we look at prana as a ‘life force’ that animates all living beings and is responsible for the activation of cells in the body. By practicing pranayama and meditation, black people can tap into this vital energy source.  Through various breathing techniques, we can increase our flow of prana, to nourish our cells and enhance vitality. Prana supports our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Ultimately, mastery over prana leads to mastery over the body and mind, which paves the way for spiritual growth and realization.

Conclusion: Embracing Pranayama and Meditation for an Empowered and Fulfilling Life

In conclusion, pranayama and meditation hold immense transformative power for African Americans. The practices have a profound impact on our well-being. Meditation corrects our words and thoughts, neutralizing the effects of improper words and negative thinking. Thus, this right thinking mitigates physical and emotional pain and suffering. Reframing our inner dialogue reshapes our outer lived experience. This refines our intelligence to its most subtle and highest frequency. Through a highly developed inner awareness or “awakening’ we can make active choices that dictate better outcomes for life and living. 

These ancient practices act as an ancient technology with a new relevance. By embracing the powers of yoga we tap into the unification of intelligence and consciousness. As African Americans, we can collectively rise above the challenges we face in the Western and modern world. A place that quite often does its best to outrun us or at best attempts to leave us behind. And while yoga isn’t the only way, it is the way I know through lived experience and lifetimes of practice, so it is the method that I share with you. The intention, the hope, and the aim is to support the achievement of obtaining a life of empowerment and fulfillment. Through the practice of pranayama and meditation, we can harness the powers of positive psychology, cultivate a clear vision, and tap into the innate wisdom of the soul. It is time for us to collectively embrace these practices and unleash our inner strength in the modern world. The outcome will be healing and wholeness.

If you are an African American seeking empowerment and transformation, I encourage you to embrace the practices of pranayama and meditation. Begin by setting aside a few minutes each day to practice deep breathing and quieting the mind. Gradually increase the duration and intensity of your practice, and you will begin to experience the transformative effects. Allow yourself to tap into your inner strength and resilience. Actively create a life of empowerment and fulfillment. Start your journey today and unlock your true potential. Download a free practice guide here. Namaste.

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