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REVIEW ARTICLE
Year : 2020  |  Volume : 52  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 38-44

Jala-Bhramari, OM chanting, and Kaivalya: A neuroscience perspective


Emeritus Associate Professor of Neurology, University of Florida, Jacksonville, Florida, USA

Date of Submission26-Apr-2020
Date of Acceptance07-May-2020
Date of Web Publication11-Jun-2020

Correspondence Address:
Vinod D Deshmukh
University of Florida, Gainesville, FL
USA
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DOI: 10.4103/ym.ym_9_20

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  Abstract 


Bhramari is an ancient technique of the yogic pranayama practice. It has been described in the Vedic-Upanishadic literature. Currently, it is being actively practiced and taught in the yoga classes all over the world. Jala-Bhramari is a new term that I am proposing for doing the classical Bhramari while floating in water on one's back, swimming back-stroke, and while standing or sitting in water with both ears under water, while the face is in the air to breathe and vocalize. With this technique, one can hear the humming sound of Bhramari loud and clear through the water and feel the transmitted biomechanical vibrations in the head, face, chest, spine, and the whole body. It is a unique variation of the Bhramari technique with calming and energizing effects. The OM chanting is another very ancient yogic meditation practice from the Vedic-Upanishadic period. Mandukya Upanishad described this valuable meditative practice in detail and gave its rationale as well as the benefits. With this practice, one can achieve a state of profound stillness, silence, and serenity. One can become Atma-tushta, self-satieted, and Atma-shanta, at peace with self. One can also feel liberated from the stressful burdens of one's body, mind, and ego. Such a state was described as Turiya, the fourth state of consciousness. It is also called Kaivalya or the absolute self-freedom and a feeling of unity with the natural existence. Kaivalya is defined as the holistic state of absolute unity, self-liberation, and timeless serenity. Very few people can achieve such an advanced spiritual state and live a blessed life in nature. However, there have been many examples of sages and enlightened visionaries from India as well as other parts of the world. Most of us live with a limited outlook and an isolated individual perspective in this busy and challenging human world. Yogic meditation is a disciplined and purposeful process of self-discovery, which may lead to great insights and a blissful nondual self-awareness.

Keywords: Jala-Bhramari, Pranayama, OM chanting, Meditation, Kaivalya, Samadhi, Brain-mind


How to cite this article:
Deshmukh VD. Jala-Bhramari, OM chanting, and Kaivalya: A neuroscience perspective. Yoga Mimamsa 2020;52:38-44

How to cite this URL:
Deshmukh VD. Jala-Bhramari, OM chanting, and Kaivalya: A neuroscience perspective. Yoga Mimamsa [serial online] 2020 [cited 2020 Nov 27];52:38-44. Available from: https://www.ym-kdham.in/text.asp?2020/52/1/38/286555




  Introduction Top


The mind–body medicine practices of yoga and mindfulness can help to develop mindful presence, serenity, empathy, and benevolence. They can also lead to a stress relief, personal well-being, emotional resilience, prosocial behavior, and an adaptive personality. These practices should be used more often and taught regularly and widely in our education and health-care systems (Dossett, Fricchione, & Benson, 2020). Bhramari and OM chanting are well-established mind–body medicine practices to help achieve such resilient and holistic health and wellness (Telles, Singh, & Balkrishna, 2019).


  Jala-Bhramari and Jala-Omkar Top


Swami Kuvalayananda in his historic book on Prānāyama, quoted a classic description of Bhramari from the Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā: “By quick forced inspiration one should produce a high humming sound like that of a male bee and by a very slow expiration a low (humming) sound should be produced resembling that of a female bee. By the continuous practice of this type (of breathing), there easily supervenes a condition of bliss in the minds of eminent Yogins that defies all description” (Kuvalayananda, 1931, p. 97).

Bhramari is a well-known technique of skillful slow-deep inspiration, followed by a steady prolonged nasal phonation or humming, and a quiet and silent pause, as described in the ancient and modern yoga texts (Kuvalayananda, 1931; Gunde, 1988; Nagendra, 1998; Ramdev, 2005; Sarkar, 2017).

I have been a keen student and a practitioner of yoga and Vedanta for more than 65 years. For the same period, I have been curious about the complex workings of the brain–mind, its growth, development, and evolution. Currently, I perform Bhramari, OM chanting, and silent meditation in the morning and evening daily. For the past several years, I have also been swimming every day for about 30 min in a heated, indoor swimming pool in our community. Recently, I tried doing Bhramari pranayama, and OM chanting, while I was swimming on my back with both ears under the water and face in the air to breathe and chant. It was an incredibly unique and calming experience.

I could hear the humming sound of Bhramari as well as OM, loud and clear, through the water and perceive the transmitted biomechanical vibrations in my head, face, chest, spine, and the whole body. This was probably because the sonic energy is conducted faster through water than through air. For example, in air at a temperature of 18°C, the speed of sound is approximately 341 m/s. In contrast, in salt water at the same temperature, the speed of sound is approximately 1524 m/s. It is important to have both ears covered with fingers in the classical Bhramari, especially the external auditory meatuses. Ears should be covered by the surrounding water in Jala-Bhramari and Jala-Omkar. Excessive stimulation of the auricular branch of the vagus nerve in the ear, by sonic vibration, touch, pressure, and a rapid change in the temperature of the surrounding air or water, can cause coughing, vomiting, and even fainting through the reflex activation of the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus nerve in the medullary brainstem (Wilson-Pauwels, Akesson, & Stewart, 1988).

During Jala-Bhramari and Jala-Omkar, I felt as if my nasopharynx and skull acted as a resonating cavity like a balloon that transmitted the sound vibrations throughout the body. Not only my breathing and phonation were synchronized, but my whole-body swimming movements were also coordinated. This was, as if, there was a central command from the brain–mind to coordinate the whole body–mind activity. All these were happening effortlessly as if, my whole bio-psycho-physical organism was on an auto-pilot. It was an incredible and ineffable experience that I will never forget.

I also repeated Bhramari and OM chanting while sitting and leaning back in a jacuzzi. It created the same sense of well-being, calmness, and rest. At the end of Jala-Bhramari and OM chanting, I had a feeling of stillness, silence, and serenity. It was such a unique and peaceful experience that I decided to call these activities as Jala-Bhramari and Jala-Omkar. Since then, I have done research on it in order to understand my experience in terms of modern neuroscience.

Recently, some scientific research was published on Bhramari (Manjunatha et al., 2018; Hakked, Balakrishnan, & Krishnamurthy, 2017; Vialatte, Bakardjian, Prasad, & Chichocki, 2009). Manjunatha et al. (2018) described the Bhramari pranayama technique. It involved sitting in a relaxed upright posture with ears and eyes covered with hands and making humming sound like a bee during exhalation. Any distraction by external sights and sounds were minimized. The sensation of vibration on the face, chest, and the whole body could be experienced. They studied the aerodynamics of Bhramari chanting and also phonation of the vowels a, i, and u in young healthy volunteers. They found that the duration of maximum phonation to be between 14 and 21 s, and the sound frequency or pitch to be between 223 Hz and 253 Hz. Regular practice of Bhramari improved their overall performance.

Hakked et al. (2017) studied the yogic breathing practice (YBP) in young competitive swimmers. They summarized their findings by suggesting that YBP for 30 min a day along with routine physical exercises for 5 days a week, decreases airway resistance and increases respiratory muscle endurance and the number of swimming strokes per breath, possibly, through better autonomic regulation, oxygen diffusion, and reduced anxiety.

Vialatte et al. (2009) studied electroencephalography (EEG) in Bhramari practitioners and found that during Bhramari Pranayama, the practitioners developed fast brain electrical activity of gamma frequency (30–300 Hz) in the left temporal-parietal region, which is a well-known node in the articulatory loop for human speech. The gamma activity and the feeling of arousal and calm alertness continued for several minutes after the completion of Bhramari Pranayama. Recently, Nishida et al. (2017) described a cortical neural network of superior temporal gyrus, precentral frontal region, and the inferior frontal cortex, which is involved in the recursive articulatory loop during human speech and phonation. This was shown by electrocorticography in patients before and during epilepsy surgery.

Slow-deep breathing leads to a physiological relaxation response with reduction of anxiety, sustained attentiveness, and improved memory (Noble & Hochman, 2019). Slow-deep breathing at the resonance frequency of 0.1 Hz or 6 breaths/min induces such a physiological relaxation response. With each deep breath, there is stretching of the rapid as well as slow adapting pulmonary receptors. This stimulates the parasympathetic nucleus tractus solitarius, as well as the sympathetic locus coeruleus-norepinephrine (LC-NE) system leading to improved arousal, awareness, and attention. In addition, there is an inhibition of the central nucleus of amygdala, which reduces anxiety and aggressiveness and induces relaxation. Nasal breathing and the act of humming stimulate the olfactory receptors in the olfactory bulbs, which then activate the hippocampus. This leads to improved memory and self-orientation. Resonance frequency breathing at 3–6 breaths/min can be commonly achieved during Bhramari pranayama as well as OM chanting.

Voluntary neural control of phonation and respiration has been documented by Loucks, Poletto, Simonyan, Reynolds, & Ludlow (2007). Phonation is defined as the laryngeal motor activity used for speech production. Using functional brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), they compared the brain activity during simple exhalation versus phonation of vowels and syllables. Cortical auditory areas were involved only during phonation of speech, but not during simple exhalation.

Melnychuk et al. (2018) proposed a dynamic coupling or synchronization mechanism between the respiratory and attentional networks via the LC-NE system. LC nucleus produces norepinephrine, which modulates both the respiratory rhythm and conscious arousal, alertness, and attention. LC is also sensitive to CO2 levels, which influence respiration as well as wake-arousal-awareness-attention. Meditation and pranayama seem to generate a relaxed attentive state with restful awareness. This has been described as Shanta-Udita in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra III:12.

The neural networks in the midbrain–hindbrain coordinate and synchronize three major oscillatory behaviors, namely breathing, phonation-vocalization, and locomotion. In yogic practices, there is usually slow-deep breathing with humming as in Bhramari and OM chanting. This can also be synchronized with locomotory activity such as swimming or walking. Our sense of time and duration evolves based on our bodily movements, breathing, and phonation-vocalization. All the three of these activities are generated and maintained by the midbrain–hindbrain–spinal cord neuro-oscillatory system. The midbrain-tectum network (bilateral superior and inferior colliculi) generates the response of either approach for reward or avoidance of threat and pain.

The neuroscience of human voice and speech production has been reviewed by Simonyan, Ackermann, Chang, & Greenlee (2016). They elaborated the hierarchical speech production system into three subsystems: the subsystem I is the lowest level represented by the sensorimotor phonatory nuclei in the brainstem and spinal cord. They control the laryngeal, articulatory, and respiratory muscles during the production of innate vocalizations. The subsystem II is represented by the periaqueductal gray, cingulate, and limbic cortices. They control the initiation and motivation of vocalization as well as voluntary emotional speech. The subsystem III is represented by the laryngeal and orofacial sensory-motor cortex under the influence of higher associative cortex. They are responsible for voluntary speech production, maintenance, and willful control.

The comparative neuroscience of the control of the upper airways in humans and animals was reviewed in great details by Kubin (2017). The key observations were that the upper airway muscles subserve many essential survival orofacial activities, including ingestion of food and fluid, swallowing, coughing, sneezing, and phonation. There is currently good evidence that multiple neurotransmitter systems including norepinephrine, serotonin, and acetyl choline are involved in modulating the upper airway muscle activity in a vigilant state-dependent manner.

There is a close relationship between respiratory rhythm and brain's electrical activity. This was demonstrated by the intracranial EEG study by Herrero, Khuvis, Yeagle, Cerf, & Mehta (2018). Voluntary control of breathing engages frontotemporal-insular cortices, whereas awareness and monitoring of breathing involves the anterior cingulate cortex. The respiratory rhythm seems to serve as an organizing principle of many cortical oscillations in the human brain. There is a neural network for volitional (caudal-medial frontal, premotor, orbitofrontal, and motor cortex, insula, superior temporal gyrus, and amygdala) and attentive conscious breathing (anterior cingulum, premotor, insula, and hippocampus).


  Om Chanting Top


A landmark study of mentally chanting OM, ONE, or a period of nontargeted thinking was published by Telles, Nagarathna, & Nagendra (1998). They concluded that during both periods of mentally chanting OM and ONE, the respiratory rate and heart rate decreased significantly, compared to the pretest control period. However, only in the mental repetition of OM, but not ONE, occurred a significant decrease in skin resistance level. This suggested that the practitioners recognized the meaning, significance, and value of mentally chanting OM. This may have been due to increased attentional arousal, awareness, motivation, and personal value.

An excellent functional magnetic resonance imaging study during OM chanting versus “SSSS” phonation was published by Kalyani et al. (2011). As compared to the resting brain state, they observed a significant deactivation during “OM” chanting in bilateral orbitofrontal, anterior cingulate, parahippocampal gyri, thalami, and hippocampi. The right amygdala also showed significant deactivation. No significant activation of any cortical area was observed during “OM” chanting. In contrast, neither activation nor deactivation occurred in these brain regions during the “SSSS” phonating activity.

OM chanting and its effects on the cortical network connectivity were studied by Rao et al. (2018). They found that outputs from the insula, anterior cingulate, and orbitofrontal cortices were significantly reduced during OM chanting. Of interest is the reduction of outputs from these regions to the limbic area of amygdala, which is implicated in emotion processing and major depressive disorders (MDDs). This raises a possibility of OM chanting being useful in the treatment of MDD.

EEG spectral analysis of OM meditation was studied by Harne, & Hiwale (2018). They found a significant increase in the theta power after OM meditation for 30 min. This signifies a reduction in cortical arousal and anxiety during the state of meditative relaxation.


  Kaivalya (Self-Freedom) Top


The most ancient description of OM meditation to achieve self-realization and self-freedom is in the Mandukya Upanishad. It has only 12 mantras to explain this complex process. Two of those mantras, the 7th and the 12th, are the most profound. Here is a translation of those two mantras by Chinmayānanda (1983. p. 62 & 99).

“It is not that which is conscious of internal subjective world, nor that which is conscious of the external world, nor that which is conscious of both, nor that which is a mass of consciousness, nor that which is simple consciousness, nor is it unconsciousness; It is unseen by any sense organ, beyond empirical dealings (interactions) incomprehensible by the mind, uninferable, unthinkable, indescribable; essentially it is realized by the peaceful, auspicious, and the nondual Self alone, negating all experiential phenomena (Neti, Neti: Not this, Not this). This is what is considered as Turiya, the fourth state of consciousness. This is also Atman (essential Being) and it is to be realized” (7).

“That which has no parts (which is whole), the soundless (silent), the incomprehensible, beyond all the senses, the cessation of all phenomena, all-blissful and nondual AUM, is the fourth state of consciousness, and verily it is the same as Atman. He who knows this, merges his self (ego, sense of agency and ownership) in the Supreme Self – the individual (being) in the Total (Universal Being)” (12).

The Vedic roots of OM meditation, Vedanta, and the concept of Kaivalya or the absolute self-freedom have been well documented (Kuvalyanandaji & Vinekar, 1963; Vinekar, 1968; Deshmukh, 2006; Deshmukh, 2011; Deshmukh, 2012; Kumar, Nagendra, Manjunath, Naveen, & Telles, 2010). Turiya, the fourth state of consciousness and other meditative states in the Vedic and Yogic traditions have been described as well (Deshmukh, 2004; Deepeshwar, Nagendra, Rana, & Visweswaraiah, 2019). Deshmukh, 2004, suggested that neurophysiologically, Turiya can be considered as a state of non-REM wakefulness, that is dreamless, effortless, restful, serene and nondual awareness. In other words, it may be Turiya, the fourth state of consciousness without any day-dreaming and mind-wandering – an advanced meditative state with a nonreactive, effortless mental quietness, clarity, and tranquility.

Deepeshwar et al. (2019) described four different mental states of consciousness including cancalata or random thinking, ekagrata or nonmeditative focusing, dharana or focused meditation, and dhyana or meditation as defined in yoga texts. Meditation is a self-regulated mental process associated with deep relaxation and increased internal attention. These authors described three higher states of meditative consciousness namely (a) Samadhi as the merging of the seer-seen with a three-dimensional awareness; (b) higher Samadhi with all-pervasive awareness; and (c) the highest state of consciousness with a feeling of Oneness with Reality, and Self-freedom, which is called Kaivalya, the infinite awareness with absolute self-absorption and freedom from the meditator with his/her self-centered motivations, biases, and limited perceptions.

Based on the yogic and Buddhist meditation practices and literature, I recently described seven stages of mental growth and the sense of being-in-existence or self (Taimni, 1961, p. 292-300; Swami, 1983, p. 257-263; Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 103-106; Buksbazen, The Zen Writing Series, 1978).

The seven stages of mental growth are as follows:

  1. Mudha chitta (mind): A mind that is unenergetic, bored, ignorant, disinterested, and may be even confused at times
  2. Kshipta chitta: A mind that is impulsive, hyperactive, unruly, chaotic, and unpredictable
  3. Vikshipta chitta: A mind that is distracted, day-dreaming, and wandering unintentionally
  4. Ekaagra chitta: A mind that is focused on the task at-hand, intentional, and purposeful
  5. Niruddha chitta: A mind that is calm, composed, self-organized, self-integrated, effortless, and unselfish with a caring attitude toward others and the natural environment
  6. Uparama chitta: A mind that can stop and pause in the middle of activity, anytime, anywhere. It is present-minded, mindful, self-aware, and at peace with itself and at home in the world. It is admirably adapted, integrated, holistic, resilient, undisturbed, and nested in itself
  7. Prashaanta-Vaahita chitta: A mind that is in an optimal state of awareness with an effortless flow of psycho-physical energy and activity. Such an activity is autopoietic or self-generated, and autotelic or an end in itself. Nothing more is desired or feared, not even personal death. One becomes naturally creative and innovative. One has a benevolent, loving presence while interacting with others and the natural world. It is a natural flow of perfect living!


In such a life, one is enlightened and inspired by all things, as the Zen saying goes: “To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things. To be enlightened by all things is to free one's body-mind and those of others. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace (state) continues endlessly. Dogen Zenji (1200-1253)” Buksbazen, (1978).

Patanjali's Ashtanga Yoga was interpreted from a neurologist's perspective by Deshmukh, It is available online as a part of the Ancient Indian Wisdom website: www.ancientindianwisdom.com. In summary, most of the Vedic literature was devoted to self-culture and actualization of one's essential being with innate wisdom. Wisdom implies the innate intelligence with complete natural peace of being in reality. Vedanta described it as blissful conscious being or Sat-Chit-Ananda. What one experiences from moment to moment depends on one's self-perspective or mind set. An extraordinary perspective of the essential, existential being, in day-to-day life, is only possible after a deep self-understanding and self-realization. This wise stage in life was described in the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita as the state of supreme equanimity, Sthita-prajña, Turiya, and Atma-prasād.

Patanjali's Ashtanga Yoga has also been recently interpreted in terms of neuroscience by Gard, Noggle, Park, Vago, & Wilson (2014) p. 6 and 14. They summarize their comprehensive neuroscience-based model of optimal self-regulation in yoga as follows: “we propose that yoga practice facilitates self-regulation via an ethically motivated monitoring and control processes that involve initiation and maintenance of behavioral change as well as inhibiting undesired output by both higher-level and lower-level brain networks in the face of stress-related physical or emotional challenge.” Their system network model of yoga for optimizing self-regulation is well summarized in their [Figure 1], on page 6 of their article.{Figure 1}

Neuroscience of flow state was reviewed by Harris, Vine, & Wilson (2017). They summarized their views as follows. The flow state is a mental state where attention is focused, self-awareness is reduced, positive emotions are elicited, and automatic actions can take control of behavior. Their findings suggest (1) a reduction in self-awareness, through reduction in the activity of medial prefrontal area, and the default mode network; (2) improvements in impulse control related to dopamine activity; and (3) considerable activity in the networks related to higher-order attentional processing in the dorsal stream of attention network.

Van Elk & Aleman (2017) propose a predictive processing model to explain the spiritual and religious experiences in terms of neuroscience. They summarized their proposed neurocognitive basis of religiosity and spirituality. Their model includes four brain mechanisms that play a key role in religious and spiritual experiences: (1) temporal brain areas are associated with religious visions and ecstatic experiences; (2) multisensory brain areas and the default mode network are involved in self-transcendent experiences; (3) the Theory of Mind network is associated with prayer experiences and overattribution of intentionality; and (4) the top-down mechanisms instantiated in the anterior cingulate cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex, which could be involved in acquiring and maintaining intuitive supernatural beliefs.

Advaita-bhava, nondual awareness, or consciousness-as-such is finally being recognized in the neuroscience literature, especially in the writings of a few neuroscientists (Josipovic, 2019, p. 279-280). He proposed a dynamic functional neural network with its main node in the central area of precuneus, and its main axis with the node in the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex, as the likely neural correlate of nondual awareness. He went on to describing ten self-evident properties of nondual awareness or Advaita-bhava as follows:

  1. Presence or Being – This is perhaps the most obvious of all dimensions of consciousness-as-such. It is self-evident existence
  2. Emptiness – Nonreification, ineffability. This is, both, an absence of any phenomenal content other than itself and an absence of any categorization or reification about itself
  3. Nonrepresentational reflexive cognizance – Nondual awareness that knows itself to be conscious or aware directly, without relying on conceptual and symbolic representations, and without subject–object structuring
  4. Luminosity or radiance – Nondual awareness appears as if lit from within itself by its own clear transparent light. Clarity here refers to how unobscured by the substrate this awareness is
  5. Bliss – A silent contentment of being complete in itself; no sense of anything lacking in any way
  6. Nondual – Without subject–object structuring; not taking itself as either subject or object of its knowing
  7. Infinite – Nothing outside of it…it is experienced as infinite in that it does not have any boundaries or edges
  8. Singularity or unity – Homogenous, unity of all dimensions; not constructed or created through altering mind or body but merely recognized or realized
  9. Continuous – Unchanging self-sameness; upon clearly self-recognizing, it also recognizes itself as that awareness which was always present in all experiences
  10. Self – Self as aware presence, singular, and continuous. This is not a self in the usual sense of constructed self…Yet, nondual awareness is not someone else' awareness, or an object fundamentally different from oneself. Rather, it is who one is, and has always been, as the conscious presence in all one's experiences, an intrinsic reflexive knowing.”


These ten properties of Advaita-bhava remind me of the beautiful Sanskrit verses from Adi Shankaracharya's Aparokshānubhuti, the direct experience of self-realization and freedom.

Nondual and dual awareness are two modes of our being-in-existence. In the dual mode, we interact with the other person, an object, a mental idea, or a thought (Quesque & Brass, 2019). The dualistic response and reactive behavior are hierarchically organized at the brainstem tectum level, the subcortical limbic level, and finally at the cortical level. (1) At the tectal level, the response can be either approach or avoid depending on whether the object or person that one is facing is inviting or threatening (Cisek, 2019). (2) At the subcortical limbic level, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex are involved in self-monitoring, interoception, and the approach response, whereas the insular cortex and amygdala are involved in the exteroception, and the avoidance, aggressive, or defensive response. (3) The complex cortical response is much slower and more deliberate. It would involve the consideration of the context of the situation, as well as the consequences of one's actions and behavior. This would involve self-awareness and value assessment via anterior cingulate, prefrontal, precuneus networks and the fronto-parietal executive network. In nondual awareness, there is no interaction with the other, because there is no otherin the unique primordial unitive awareness. Therefore, there is no sense of agency or ownership; it is spontaneous, intrinsic, complete, and blissful in itself.

Kaivalya or true self-freedom is freedom from one's self-centered mindset. When one is free, it is natural to be happy, cheerful, curious, and creative. Such an absolute mental freedom is possible. All of us have the potential for it. It is a matter of our self-observation, learning, self-regulation, self-perspective, and essential nondual awareness.

Acknowledgment

I would like to thank Dr. Sunanda V. Deshmukh, MBBS, DGO, DA, and FFARCS, for her careful reading of the manuscript and making many valuable suggestions. I would also like to thank Dr. Shreekumar Vinekar, MD, for updating me on the pioneering work of Dr. S. L. Vinekar and Swami Kuvalyanandaji at Kaivalyadhama and for encouraging me to write this article.

Financial support and sponsorship

Nil.

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.[43]



 
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Introduction
Jala-Bhramari an...
Om Chanting
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