Nine Purifying Breaths: Basic Form


I want to talk about one of my favourite Buddhist energy work techniques. Personally right now my system is a bit sluggish, and considering I’m doing a retreat and spending the next three weeks pretty much living in temple with my Rinpoche I need to be at my best, so I’m doing this a lot. Also a few weeks ago I was at a party and a friend asked about clearing out her system, and I wanted to do a write up for her and forgot.

The Nine Purifying Breaths (དགུ་རླུང་བསངས་ gulung sang) is a great technique, it’s simple, it’s effective, and it has the potential to be really complex and powerful, but doesn’t have to be. It’s also a fairly popular technique. Without even pausing to think I can come up with three books I’ve seen it in. The “trouble” is the way it’s written about differs, I’ve learnt it from four different lamas in four different forms. There is a Tibetan saying (according to my Rinpoche, google came up with nothing) “Every lama has his own rituals” which basically means everyone does things a little bit differently.

This post will be a little bit different from all the times I’ve been taught it, or read it, but I’m going to write it in a way, that will allow people to “scale up” as needed and able. What I mean is the practice, as is most traditionally taught relies on a fair amount of Tibetan Buddhist symbolism, but if you aren’t familiar with what red or blue or green symbolize, or what a snake or chicken symbolize the practice will be more bizarre than helpful. That said it’s a practice that I’ve effectively seen simplified by teachers to make it accessible, and those of us with more of a foundation in tantric practices can add in more as we go.

The Nine Purifying Breaths is pretty much what it sounds like, a set of nine breaths that purify your energy system. They do a lot more than that, especially in the complex forms, but at the basic level it’s a great way to get energy moving and cleared out. It’s practiced in all the schools of Vajrayana Buddhism, and as far as I can tell historically it predates them and comes from the Bön tradition. (I can find historical mentions of the practice, but never any mention of who came up with it, which suggests it came from Bön)

Before we can even begin you need to have a sense of the Energy System we’ll be working with. First disclaimer: If this doesn’t match the way you see your energy body that is fine, these things are our codification of abstract stuff beyond our understanding, so just practice it this way with these visuals and then you can go back to your own system, that does work. What is described here is a model, not ultimate reality.

Pay attention to the placement of the channels, don't worry about the colours or the other shapes.

Pay attention to the placement of the channels, don’t worry about the colours or the other shapes.

The practice will focus on the three main channels: The central channel which opens at the crown of your head runs through the spine (or just in front of it) and opens out the base of your spine, and the left and right channel which open at the nostril go up behind the eyes over the skull and down the side of the spine and then curl up into the central channel just above the base of the spine. There are traditional colours associated with the channels, but they differ occasionally, and aren’t important for the basic version of this practice. The central channel is about as thick as your thumb or index finger, the left and right channel are a bit thinner than your pinkie finger. Some other practices and systems have the left and right channel swirling around the central channel, or looping at certain points, in this case they just go straight down. Do not worry about your energy centres and how these channels do or don’t interact with them, it’s unimportant at this point.

Onto the actual practice: Sit in a proper meditation posture, if you can do the Seven Point Posture I recommend that. This is one of the few practices where I feel the need to stress sitting on the ground in some form of crossed legs. Getting it to work properly in a chair is a bit of extra work, though it might not seem like it, because how the subtle channels interact with the physical body it is important.

In both hands place you thumb firmly against the base of the ring finger and keep them there until the practice is done. Raise your right hand and with the ring finger press it against your right nostril to close it. Take in a slow deep breath through the left nostril. As you’re breathing in picture radiant clear light flowing in with the breath, into the left nostril, up the left channel behind the eye and over the skull, and down beside the spine, and then finally into the central channel. Don’t worry if you can’t “fill” the central channel, you’re not trying to, you’re just trying to put your breath into it. Pause holding the breath and move as much of this light into the central channel as possible. Move your right hand over, and using the ring finger block your left nostril. Breathe out your right nostril. As you breathe the light moves from the central channel into the right channel where they connect by the base of the spine, travels up the channel around the back of the head over the skull, behind the eye and out through the right nostril. As the light moves through this channel it clears out the obstructions, the negative/stagnant energy, the gunk and crap stuck in that channel, the breath that comes out isn’t the clear light that came in, but instead is a thick oily smoke. You can guide the smoke to either settle into the ground where it is absorbed by the earth and carried deep into the planet to be purified there, or it can spread out into space like smoke would and as the light and wind catch it it is scattered and purified into nothing. Repeat this two more times.

Now repeat the same process, but switch sides. Taking your left ring finger block your left nostril and breathe in clear vibrant light through the right nostril, up the right channel, down the channel, and finally into the centre. Move the left hand over and block the right nostril. Breathe out the left nostril, having the light drain from the central channel into the left channel through the connection by the base of the spine, up the channel, clearing out the gunk as before, then finally releasing the oily smoke through the left nostril. Repeat this two more times.

Place both your hands on your legs near your hips, palms up. Press down with your wrist putting a bit of pressure on your legs, your wrists should be over your femur. (I’m going light on the more technical/physical instructions, but I feel this is a good practice even in the simple form) Breathing in through both nostrils draw in that radiant clear light into both the left and right channel at once, up behind the eyes and over the skull, down the back and curling up into the central channel. Pause holding your breath for a moment to draw as much of the light into the central channel as possible. Now continuing to press down on your legs, slowly start to bend over from the waist as you breathe out. While the breath is physically leaving your nostrils, the light is actually going to travel up through the central channel, as before clearing and purifying as it goes, and out through the crown of your head as that oily smoke again. You don’t have to bend all the way over, but as far as you comfortably can. When you’ve finished breathing out the black smoke from your head sit up straight and repeat two more times.

This post is becoming longer than expected, so I’ll have to explain the more complicated/detailed elements in another post. For now practice it this way.

I will give some advice though. If it’s your first time doing it, or the first time in a long time, only do nine breaths. It might seem simple, and you might want to try again, don’t. Give you system time to adjust. After a day or two you can try doing the nine breaths twice in a row if you want. You should never do more than three sets of nine even if you’re used to it. That’s a general rule I see, and I find trying to do more will leave you more light-headed and open than is useful. You can wait a few hours and do another set, just avoid doing them too close together. Also I’ve been told you’re never to do more than three sets of three in a day, but I’ve never done that many, so I can’t say if that limit is symbolic or there for a purpose, but I can think of several reasons why it would be unwise.

The way I put it here has you do three breaths on one side, three on the other, and then three for the central channel. Another way to do it is to do one breathe on the right, one on the left, back and forth until you’ve done three each, and then do the central channel. I find that is less effective in the simple form if your system isn’t clean yet, you’re pushing some of that energy gunk back and forth, rather than slowly pushing it out of the system. If your system is in good shape though and you don’t have much to push through, then it’s fine. I find it’s less effective in general with the more complicated forms, probably because you’re doing more complex visualizations and energy work, and switching energy types and visuals back and forth is less productive than the repetition.

Since this is something I’ll have to revisit soon to explain more, ask questions and I’ll try to incorporate them into the following posts.

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