Could there be anything more profoundly enriching in life than to befriend the breath? Not to just notice it, or to shape it as for pranayama practices- but to savour and enjoy how it is to be breathing, now.
I am constantly astounded that some of that big bang breath that was gifted by grace to everyone and thing, has by some turn of cosmic luck- permeated me, too. You see we don’t own the breath or make ourselves breathe- it simply, magically is.
Universal fate and alignment, heart beat and breath brings us to a vivid full colour life, and our last released breath takes us onward toward what most of us call death- the space beyond the last earth bound breath.
Science doesn’t explain very well about where the breath comes from, in the same way we don’t know where universe comes from. Yoga has theory’s for both. I enjoy the mystery.
So let’s open to the possibility that breathing goes much deeper than the lungs and physical body: it is the means to realise the totality of existence within a moment, and this magic is open to everyone.
It is repeatedly suggested in yogic scripture, ancient to modern- for the sadhaka ( yogic practitioner and seeker) to ‘listen to the sound of one’s own breath’ as a means towards realisation - a state of non separateness, stillness or bliss- which can be known as Samadhi or Enlightenment. For some this might seem like a bit of an ‘out there’ ( or in there ! ) request. Yet the benefits of cultivating breath awareness are many and quite obvious!
On a foundational level - breath is life. We can’t survive for more than a few minutes without breathing. The body needs oxygen incoming and carbon dioxide outgoing to survive and this is delivered through the automatic respiratory processes as a mechanical function. This is very simplified yet common outlook in relation to the breath. The natural movement and rate of respiration in mammals is known scientifically as Eupnea. This is ‘normal’, automatic and mostly unconscious breathing.
Yet we know through experience, that the way we breathe is affected by environment and lifestyle choices; work, habits and stressors all profoundly influence our vitality and health. Perhaps most importantly how we breathe directly affects our levels of energy and ability to focus, and in turn the thoughts we have, our ability to interact with others and, vitally, the we feel into and about ourselves.
“when breathing is disturbed, the mind also becomes disturbed. Control of the breath enables steadiness of mind” Hatha Yoga Pradipika (2.2)
In stressful or sporty situations we find that regulating the length of the breath steadies heart rate and calm the nervous system- helping us relax, see more clearly or pace ourselves to go the distance. This can be both a conscious action i.e ‘take a few deep breaths and chill out’ , an automatic or learned response.
In pleasurable situations, such as sex - syncing the breath comes naturally as you flow connected with another in heightening intensity- the mind and body are absorbed into a rhythmic peak state of bliss. When your in deep concentration you may realise you have been holding your breath or simply have not breathed for some time. As if suspended between breaths absorbed in task based meditation!
From these examples we can see how breath is certainly connected to awareness. We can slow down the breath to become more ‘tuned in’ and becoming more aware soothes and smoothes our inter-connected systems…body, mind and spirit.
Infact the words spirit and breath share the same etymological roots in many cross cultures ( see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirit ) .
“Sometimes we make an effort to slow down the action, but in reality, it is presence that makes the action slow down. When there is presence, the body begins to function differently,, It can no longer function as before, in an intermittent manner, it is as if consciousness is gently emerging and the unfurling of the body is harmonizing itself with that consciousness.”
Daniel Odier, commentary on stanza 25, Yoga Spandakarika
This tells us something vital not only about the importance of quality breathing but what is within breath and what breath is composed of- vital energy and consciousness. In yoga we call this Prana (see ‘what is prana’ article) and Chitta (mind). According to Sri Ramana Mararshi, breath and mind arise from the same source- the self. We also see that the breathing process is potentially highly transformative- helping us evolve from one state of being to another.
“It is prana alone as the conscious self that breathes life into this body. Prana is the essence of the life breath. And what is life breath? It is pure consciousness. And what is pure consciousness? It is life breath”
Kaushitaki Upanishad (V.3)
In and Up? Down and Out?
In yoga breathing is considered to be a very important process because it is the most vital means of absorbing prana into the body. Breath is considered man’s ‘soul companion’ as the energy of life, prana, imbued with universal consciousness fills the body, mind, heart and cell through the medium of the flowing breath. Sthoola Prana ( the gross life force) is the cosmic breath and has two aspects- universal and individual.
As well as these two manifestations of prana/breath ( which are different and intrinsically linked) there are five well known movements of prana in the body - the pancha prana vayu’s- which can be actually be felt through the breathing process and support bodily function and movement.
The two main movements are known as prana/udana and apana. Prana/Udana is known as the upward rising force and commonly associated with the inhale- it has an uplifting and energising quality. Apana is the downward force and commonly associated with the exhale: it has a grounding releasing quality.
In my experience, prana and apana are resident in both the inhale and exhale: breathing in- I feel the downward flow of breath & physicality of my body which is stabilizing ( apana), I also feel light and energised with the body expanding around breath ( prana). Breathing out- I feel the body relax and breath move out ( apana), I also feel air moving up and a feeling of spaciousness ( prana). The direction of the inbreath is down, which is also linked to apana.
Hatha Yoga, the yoga we practice today ( yes vinyasa is part of hatha!) is based on equalising these two forces, bringing balance to the body and peace to the mind. Hatha means Sun (HA) and Moon (THA). In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali ( Swami Satchidananda translation, pages 54/55) Sutra’s 1.34 and 1.35 suggest that gently watching and regulating the breath and the subtle sense perceptions helps bring peace and steadiness to the mind.
Certainly I have found making space daily to feel the breath, is a healthy habit that helps peace move in and tension move out.
The Creative & Multifold Manifestation of Breath
The most ancient yogic Text of India- the Rig Veda- has multiple interesting references to the breath as key component in the unfolding of creation:
There was neither non-existence or existence then: there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred? In whose protection? (10.129.1)
That one breathed, windless, by its own impulse… (10.129.2)
This suggests that there was a form of animating force with intent before there was life as we know it today. That perhaps the shape shifting nature of energy imbued air motivated by desire and given direction creates purpose, planets and peoples to be breathed and experienced.
Another hymn speaks of “All the world that moves and breathes” (1:101:5), implying that the whole world breathes, that breath encompasses the whole world.
Only you can feel what it is to breathe your body, it is completely individual, and yet the whole planet - every human and being, plants, even the oceans breathe- wow! In-fact breath is considered the totality of life- every single movement in the cosmos is a movement of the cosmic breath.
Holy Whole- a movement miracle!
This magic movement is felt in the body as expansion/contraction and is experienced as duality: the inhale and exhale. But wait!- the in and out are not two separate entities, for one could not exist without the other! Therefore we realise that breath is one and whole, in a continuous cycle- a thread that runs through the entirety of our existence, and within it exists, or it is both consciousness and expression.
In outer life we see this duality mirrored in cycles that manifest as night to day, dark to light, new to full moon, young to old, and the seasonal cycles of rebirth.
“The breath itself, being imparted from the cosmic self, contains the cosmic force therein”
Swara Yoga by Swami Muktibodhhananda, Bihar publications
We even see this principle in our daily life rhythms- there are times when we are more vibrant and extrovert ( Ha- sun) and times when we are needing regenerative quiet ( Tha- moon). It is also seen in the creation to completion/dissolution cycle of relationships and projects- you may note that the more positive awarenss and energy you put into these cycles the more they come into natural and beautiful fulfilment and fruition. It is the same with breathing.
“The day is the upward moving exhale, and the night is the downward moving inhale”
(Kalottara Tantra x1.9)
In the tantric tradition ( the basis of today’s well known hatha yoga practices) every breath reflects these cycles of time, which are referred to as vinyasa. A single round of breath is a reflection of the cosmic rhythm, internalising time. Paradoxically, this internalisation allows us to transcend our limited perception of time through meditation on the breath.
There is an exchange of energy and information between every thing. Particle physics explains how the atoms of every object interconnect with the particles of the surrounding environment.
Certainly our own vibrations permeate the space around us, and intuitively we can often feel the ‘mood’ frequency of individuals and spaces, since that which surrounds us is also part of us.
While we breathe, the energy particles of the surrounding environment become one with us and then some of us moves into and merges with the surround. Every breath emits sound vibrations and leaves an energetic imprint, with a resonance that will effect chain reaction ( karma), within and beyond our bodies borders.
In fresh countryside air we feel invigorated- this is due to higher levels of negative ions in the atmosphere. City air is often polluted and recycled with more positive ion practices, and over time is more depleting. It is important to get into nature regularly to breathe clean pure air with organisms that grow from the ground, to allow for a good energetic exchange and system reboot, surrounded by the trees and plants which are the lungs of the earth. In this beautiful exchange we offer carbon dioxide to the trees, which the soak through their leaves and they offer us a little oxygen and some inspiration.
It is of the utmost importance that we do what we can to secure a good air future through reducing carbon & methane emissions, consuming less and using biodegradable/eco friendly products. No-one wants bad breath.
It is wonderful that we have the choice to bring awareness to our daily breath. To help ourselves and others be well through this simple and profound appreciation, knowledge and action.
“A yogi measures the span of life by the number of breaths, not by the number of years”
The sadhaka practices not just for themselves but in order to raise the energy throughout the atmosphere.
Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed this post. Please remember everything here is my feeling, opinion from self experience and research, supported by texts and dialogue from books. Please honour the source for your own research and teaching!