The Sanskrit word Hamsa translates as a swan. In yoga, the word breath is also known as Hamsa. One method of using the breath in meditation is to focus on the mantra hamsa. This meditation comes from the short Hamsa Upanishad, which explains the mystical nature of Hamsa, the inner swan, located within all. The text gives instruction on how to contemplate Hamsa — the inner essence of the heart.
The two syllables of the word—ham and sa—stand for the ingoing and outgoing breaths, as well as the ascending and descending currents of the life force. They contain a great secret, for the continuous sound of the breath conveys the message, “I am He, I am He, I am He.” In other words, the breath is a constant reminder of the absolute truth that we are identical with the great Life of the cosmos, the Absolute, or transcendental Self. This idea is at the core of the teachings of the Hamsa Upanishad. It becomes a spontaneous prayer of the breath. In this way, the text states, “all kinds of internal sounds (nada) are generated.
During pranayama, which is a yogic exercise of breath control, the inhalation is believed to sound like ham, while the exhalation is believed to sound like sa. Thus, a hamsa came to epitomize the prana, the breath of life. The Swan symbolizes purity, detachment, divine knowledge, cosmic breath (prana), and the highest spiritual accomplishment. The Swan or Hamsa is said to transcend the limitations of the creation around it: it can walk on the earth, fly in the sky, and swim in the water. It is said to eat pearls and separate milk from water, from a mixture of both.
Sit in a comfortable meditation position with your eyes closed. Concentrate on the breath rising and falling. Fix the mind on the process of breathing. During inhalation, the breath flows down from the nose to the belly, and the belly pushes out slightly. During exhalation, the breath flows up from the belly to the nose, and the belly pulls in slightly. Concentrate on this movement. The breath should be relaxed, not forced.
The yogic breath is a complete inhalation and exhalation that maximizes the volume of air that is brought into the lungs. The inhalation of the yogic breath is divided into two parts, each roughly equal in length. In the first part, the abdomen goes out as you begin to inhale through the nose. During the second part of the inhalation, the upper chest expands as the inhalation is completed and the abdomen moves inward slightly as a result. In this manner, the lungs are filled from the bottom upwards. During the exhalation, first, the chest relaxes, and then the abdomen relaxes outward. Finally, the abdomen is pulled inward to expel the last of the breath. The breath will rise from the Muladhara chakra and move up through the six chakras to rest briefly at Ajna chakra between the eyebrows. In this pause, contemplate the formless aspect of the divine essence within.
Meditate on the sound of the breath. Think Ham on inhalation and sa on exhalation. Exhale your breath with the sound SA and inhale with the sound HAM. Then continue for the duration of your practice. When your mind wanders off the breath, you can return to the mantra: with each inhalation think Ham and as you exhale, think Sa.
As you continue with this practice, you may notice the experience of the inner sound corresponds to the sound of your breathing in a seamless way, bringing a sense of calm and centeredness. Because the sound is closely tied to the sound of the breath, it is said that this mantra is repeated 21,600 times day and night. By using the mantra in a focused way during formal meditation practice, you will eventually increase conscious awareness of the breath as you move throughout your days and nights.
Listen to instructions and view optional visual meditation here.