Does Anapana refer only to respiration or can it more broadly refer also to life energies or vital processes?

As is commonly known, prana in the Vedas, in the Ayuvedic literature (which is sometimes associated with the sramana culture), as well as in later Hatha Yoga and later Indo-Tibetan Buddhism has connotations of “vital energy” and this affects how they approach meditation practice. Of course the term prana is known to have a broad semantic field even in the Vedas and thus it is beyond this post to focus on its varied meanings (and its associations with Atman-Brahman etc). For a good overview of Prana in the Vedas see:

While it is most common to see anapanasati as being “mindfulness of respiration” in modern Theravada circles, it seems that some modern teachers interpret the practice of anapanasati in a broader sense. One example would be Thanissaro Bhikkhu, who often speaks of being mindful of “breath energies” and so forth. Another example would be Chip Hartranft’s claims that the Buddha’s view of anapana is similar to the Vedic view of “vital energy” and cannot be restricted to just “respiration” (see “Awakening to Prana” in Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind, available in google books). Of course Chip is most likely being influenced by his study of Yoga since he is also a yoga teacher focusing on Patanjali’s Yogasutra. This perspective is also quite common in modern vajrayana teachings on breath meditation.

I find this an interesting perspective because my own practice tends to reflect this, mainly, that paying attention to respiration leads one to also pay attention to various “breath energies”. I don’t mean this in a vitalistic sense or in the sense of supernatural/unscientific claims of energy like reiki and so on, but in the sense of the perceptions and sensations felt in the body which are related to but are not exactly respiration itself (muscular movements which aid in respiration for example, and the circulation of the blood felt particularly in the heart). Now it seems like the perception of these physical processes would technically not be called anapanasati by most, but it is not clear why this is the case, because it is possible to see the circulation of the blood for example as a continuation of the spreading of oxygen to the rest of the body. That is to say, why must anapanasati stop at the point of the absorption of oxygen into the lungs?

I guess my question is, is it possible to interpret anapanasati is the broader sense of ‘vital processes associated with respiration’ from the EBT evidence, or are the texts perfectly clear that anapana is strictly just “respiration”?

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excerpt from MN 62:

Sāriputta tells him to practice ānā-pānas-sati

addasā kho āyasmā sāriputto āyasmantaṃ rāhulaṃ
Ven. Sāriputta {saw} Ven. Rāhula
aññatarasmiṃ rukkha-mūle nisinnaṃ
(at a) certain tree-root sitting.
pallaṅkaṃ ābhujitvā
cross-leg-posture (he was) bent-into,
ujuṃ kāyaṃ paṇidhāya
straightened body he-aspired-to,
pari-mukhaṃ satiṃ upaṭṭhapetvā.
near-the-mouth, mindfulness (he had) established.
disvāna āyasmantaṃ rāhulaṃ āmantesi —
On-seeing Ven. Rāhula, addressed (him) -
“ānā-pānas-satiṃ, rāhula,
"{Rāhula}, in-breath (and) out-breath mindfulness,
bhāvanaṃ bhāvehi.
(this) meditation you-(should)-meditate (with).
ānā-pānas-sati, rāhula,
{Rāhula}, in-breath (and) out-breath mindfulness,
(this) meditation,
bhāvitā bahulīkatā
(when) developed (and) pursued,
mahap-phalā hoti mahā-nisaṃsā”ti.
{is} of-great-fruit {****} of-great-benefit."
atha kho āyasmā rāhulo
Then *** Ven. Rāhula,
(in the) late-afternoon-time,
paṭisallānā vuṭṭhito
(from his) seclusion (he) emerged,
yena bhagavā ten-upasaṅkami;
**** (to) the-Blessed-One (he) approached;
upasaṅkamitvā bhagavantaṃ
having-approached the-Blessed-One,
abhivādetvā ekam-antaṃ nisīdi.
(he) bowed-down, (at) one-side (he) sat.
ekam-antaṃ nisinno kho āyasmā rāhulo
(at) one side sitting *** Venerable Rāhula
bhagavantaṃ etad-avoca —
{said-this} (to) The-Blessed-One -
“kathaṃ bhāvitā nu kho, bhante,
"{Lord}, How (do I) develop ** ***, *****,
kathaṃ bahulīkatā
how (do I) pursue (it),
mahap-phalā hoti mahā-nisaṃsā”ti?
{to be} of-great-fruit ****, great-benefit?"

1. Earth-property

“yaṃ kiñci, rāhula,
Any thing, ******,
ajjhattaṃ paccattaṃ
internal, within oneself,
kakkhaḷaṃ kharigataṃ
(that's) hard, solid,
& sustained [by craving],
seyyathidaṃ —
such-as :
kesā lomā nakhā dantā taco
head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin,
maṃsaṃ nhāru aṭṭhi aṭṭhimiñjaṃ vakkaṃ
flesh, tendons, bones, bone marrow, kidneys,
hadayaṃ yakanaṃ kilomakaṃ pihakaṃ papphāsaṃ
heart, liver, membranes, spleen, lungs,
antaṃ antaguṇaṃ udariyaṃ karīsaṃ,
large intestines, small intestines, contents of the stomach, feces,
yaṃ vā pan-aññampi kiñci
(or) whatever ** any-other thing
ajjhattaṃ paccattaṃ
internal, within oneself,
kakkhaḷaṃ kharigataṃ
that's hard, solid,
upādinnaṃ —
(and) sustained:
ayaṃ vuccati, rāhula,
This (is) called, ******,
ajjhattikā pathavī-dhātu
(the) internal earth-property.

(and so on for the other 4 elements)

The Buddha then gives some other meditations to do, before giving the standard 16 APS formula as the definition of in and out breathing (anapana).

The type of auxiliary breath sensations are covered by these 4 elements. And under the 16 APS, they would fit under step 7 & 8, as citta sankhara, which is defined elsewhere in the suttas as perceptions and feelings.

I would guess the answer to your specific question is ana and pana refer only to the familiar wind element, and not the other elements closely associated with the process of breathing.

But I do want to point out that how Ajahn Lee and Thanissaro teach is totally legit and covered by the EBT under 16 APS as a set, as perceptions and feelings of 4 elements.

under the wind element from the same MN 62 sutta, we can see ana and pana are a subset of the internal wind elements.

4. Wind-property

> > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > >
“katamā ca, rāhula, vāyo-dhātu?
"{And} what, ******, (is the) wind-property?
vāyo-dhātu siyā ajjhattikā,
(the) wind-property may-be-either internal
siyā bāhirā.
or external.
katamā ca, rāhula, ajjhattikā vāyo-dhātu?
{And} what, ******, (is the) internal wind-property?
yaṃ ajjhattaṃ paccattaṃ
Anything internal, belonging to oneself,
vāyo vāyogataṃ upādinnaṃ,
that's wind, windy, & sustained:
seyyathidaṃ —
uddhaṅgamā vātā,
up-going winds,
adhogamā vātā,
down-going winds,
kucchisayā vātā,
stomach winds,
koṭṭhāsayā vātā,
intestinal winds,
aṅgam-aṅgā-(a)nusārino vātā,
{winds that} {course through}-parts-[and more]-parts [of the body],
assāso passāso,
in-breathing (and) out-breathing,
iti yaṃ vā panaññampi kiñci ajjhattaṃ paccattaṃ
or anything else internal, within oneself,
vāyo vāyogataṃ upādinnaṃ —
that's wind, windy, & sustained:
ayaṃ vuccati, rāhula, ajjhattikā vāyo-dhātu.
This is called (the) internal wind-property.
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Thanks! That’s helpful.

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Some teachers (e.g. Ven. Jagara Sayadaw) consider that, in concentration focusing at the nostrils in ānāpānasati, the sensation is classed as that of touch, which, according to Ven. Nanamoli, has the qualities of the air, earth and fire elemental properties.

And the Pa Auk Sayadaw once, in addressing the problem some people have in flipping-out when trying ānāpānasati style meditation, notes that such is the result of experiencing it solely in terms of the air/wind element. As pure motion, this can be less grounded.

Analogously, classical Chinese medical teachers note that Americans, who are in
general overly yang – pushing, stressing all the time – can easily be negatively affected by eating too much chicken and turkey. (Due to s/w popular notions against red meat and pork, fowl is used almost exclusively in many kinds of meat products, e.g. sausages.) Fowl are associated with air/wind, by the Chinese “doctrine of signatures”. One could say “too flighty”.

Deconstructing breath sensation, then, more broadly into earth (substance) and fire (temperature) as well as air (motion) aspects can be more grounding (yin, so to speak).

This can be seen in Thanissaro B.’s general meditation method (and Ajaan Lee’s 3 levels of breath, which approximate Chinese notions). He teaches to first “get the body into position to meditate” with the breath-body scan technique; then, when the mind is free of possible distractions from bodily discomfort, it’s easier to “get the mind into position…”, and using both in harmony as a basis for concentration.

So, it’s plausible to interpret the Buddha’s instructions as broader than the strictly physical , modern physiological (reductionist) concept of respiration. Clearly, at the time of the Buddha, in Indian culture (as well as contemporaneous Chinese) prana (and qi) were treated as broader experiential phenomena, taking into consideration what we now know about the close interconnections between breath quality, mental quality, and the nervous system (e.g. tensing vs. relaxing).

The short answer would be ‘yes’- certainly there is nothing in the texts to doubt it isn’t ‘strictly’ respiration. There is no mention of the wind element in the texts, when talking about anapanasati or any other mystical breath force such as prana, which as far as I know was a later development in Hinduism.

However, looking at this in context, we must be clear what the object of one’s meditation is. The breath can be used for both samatha, as it allows for a object solid enough to focus on; and Vipassana as its impermanent nature is readily visible. This as can be seen, is entirely experiential. Scientific processes which cannot be detected by awareness, is no good for meditators and cannot be used as objects of meditation. However the breath does alter subtle sensations in many parts of the body. Therefore there is no big problem in using a wider definition of the breath- a wider focus does mean a gentler, less concentrated, development of samadhi, which is useful for the meditator who’s faculty of concentration is very strong (thereby reducing headaches etc). It isn’t helpful with Vipassana though, as the sense of a solid entity will be reinforced with a wider field of awareness. It therefore will be harder to see not-self in a wider field of focus compared to the narrower breath focus.

with metta