My mother didn't take kindly to this advice. Shortly after I was born, she had the most serious of her "flare ups." She was in hospital for nine months, dreading she'd be moved to the sanatorium where her father had died. I remember waving to her from the hospital garden, through the ward window, not allowed to go in and visit her. When she came out of hospital, my mother had lost her beautiful red hair, and only three quarters of one lung still functioned. The doctors gave her a year to live. Wheezing, and fighting breathlessness 24 hours a day, she survived for another 46 years.
Why is stilling of the breath so important for the awakening of kundalini? Kundalini is transcendental consciousness in a physical form. Kundalini arouses, and reveals, the subtle forces that produce bone, nerve, skin, blood and breath; the nexus of forces that configure the body's individuality. Kundalini also reveals, like a candle shining upwards at a face in the dark, the individual body's relationship with the cosmos. This relationship is breath. This to-and-fro is breathing.
My mother had a terrible time breathing. A constant gurgling in her chest; wheezing 24-7, even in her sleep; fits of coughing at concerts; and the dreaded breathlessness attacks when there simply was no air. What kept her going? The will to live. The desire to be with her husband and watch her child grow up. Prana, the subtle force in air that is the source of being alive.
When I first practiced meditation and mindfulness of the breath, it was as if I'd contracted — not tuberculosis; dragged along to the X-ray unit every six months of my childhood, I showed no sign of the disease — but my mother's struggle with breathing. Panics. Black-outs. Oxygen-starved euphorias. Slowly, I came to realize that a lengthening of inhalation and exhalation, and a protracting of the time the lungs are empty, is natural. Suspension of breath was the natural, and optimum, condition for a new body that became discernible behind my gasping, gurgling, anxious physical body.
This deeper, subtler body is the source of my breath, blood, skin, nerve and bone. The moments when I live in it completely, I find that my physical body gets along quite okay on its own. It relaxes. Grows stronger. Thinks clearer.
What is this new, subtle body? I don't really know. To me it doesn't feel individual. It doesn't feel as if it's mine. I have a hunch that other people are somehow part of it, which is odd, because the precious thing about other people, particularly the ones I love, is their otherness. This subtle body, which kundalini lights up, insists on certain gestures. Twining of the wrists above the head, touching of the fingertips at a point above the fontanelle, spreading of the arms, straightening of the spine, and, coming from within, neither willed nor chosen, nor remembered from anywhere, the raising of the left hand, palm outwards, in front of the heart, and the opening of the right hand, palm flat, in the lap, the ancient gesture of blocking fear and offering gifts.
This subtle body is made of consciousness in a way my physical body isn't, and which my physical body often resists. This subtle body is where the fact that consciousness is more powerful than matter gets a foothold. It's the source of thoughts that are aware of their own deeper power; thoughts that come out of transcendence to be, sometimes, captured by the brain. They are Wordsworth's "thoughts too deep for tears," JJ Semple's "ideograms harvested in another dimension." The power of these moments of consciousness is proven by the way the physical body — anxious, panicky, strung out — resists them. This resistance happens, to me, in the lungs, a sudden clenching in the chest, like my mother's breathlessness attacks, that blocks my brain from registering what it already knows.