Articles

The Importance of Breath

Author: Leif Ahrens

Leif Ahrens

The Importance of Breath

“Verily, the mind is unsteady, tumultuous, powerful, obstinate! O Krishna, I consider the mind as difficult to master as the wind (breath)!”

• Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 6, Verse 34

“Pranayama removes the veil covering the light of knowledge and heralds the dawn of wisdom.”

• Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Chapter 2, Verse 52

“The mystery of life and death, whose solution is the only purpose of mans sojourn on Earth, is intimately interwoven with breath. Breathlessness is deathlessness. Realizing this truth, the ancient rishis of India seized on the sole clue of the breath and developed a precise and rational science of breathlessness.”

Sri Paramahansa Yogananda in “Autobiography of a Yogi” pg 539

INTRODUCTION

What is the very first thing that a baby does when it’s born? It breathes! The life of every living human and animal begins with breath and ends with breath. We can therefore infer that breath equals life and life equals breath. Without breath, there can be no life. More precisely, breath contains “Prana” and it is this invisible substance, which sustains all life. Prana is also present in food and water and even sunshine, but we can survive a few days without water, weeks without food and months without sunshine. However, without breath, we cannot survive more than a few minutes. 

Breath is not only the key ingredient to life, but it is also an essential tool that yogis use to raise their level of consciousness. Ultimately, through the observance and control of breath in meditation and “pranayama”, an advanced yogi is able to go beyond breath into a state of breathlessness called “kevala kumbhaka”.

BACKGROUND

The ancient yogis and rishis of India have been employing breath as a tool for “dharana” (concentration) and “dhyana” (meditation) for thousands of years. So it is thanks to these yogis and the scriptures which they have left for posterity, that we got our knowledge about the breath. These scriptures include the “Bhagavad Gita” (which is a part of the “Mahabharata”), Patanjali’s “Yoga Sutras”, and the “Hatha Yoga Pradipika” written by Swami Swatmarama around 1200 AD. 

Breath can be used in yoga either passively or actively. Passively, it can be used as an object of concentration during meditation or during the practice of asanas. Actively, it can be controlled through various pranayama exercises. 

BREATH IN MEDITATION

The main idea here is to use breath as an object to concentrate and mediate on. My Guru, Shankarananda Giri, from Orissa, taught that throughout our lives, God is breathing for us, but if we concentrate and observe our own breath, then we are in charge of our own breathing, and as such, we are doing God’s work. This, he said, is the true meaning of Karma Yoga. Also, by being aware of, and observing our breath, we are no longer creating any new karma. 

By careful observation of our breath, we can begin to note certain characteristics about the breath. For example, we will notice that breath can be pided into four parts; inhalation, retention after inhalation, exhalation, and retention after exhalation. In Sanskrit, these four phases of the breath cycle are respectively referred to as puraka, antara kumbhaka, rechaka and bahya kumbhaka. Kumbahaka means the retention of breath. 

Another aspect of breath we may observe is that breath is inhaled and exhaled either through mainly the left nostril, which corresponds to the Ida Nadi, and is cooling; or breath may be inhaled and exhaled through mainly the right nostril. In Swara yoga it is said that the breath changes from one nostril to the other every one or two hours and that during the transition period, both nostrils may be open for a brief period of time. 

When we meditate on our breath, we can observe it either at the point where it enters our nostrils, or we may concentrate on the expansion and contraction of our chest area or the abdomen area. In proper yogic breathing, it is advised to breath from the abdomen. It is also advised to breath slowly and deeply for several reasons. One reason is that slow and deep breathing is supposed to calm the mind, and relieve any tensions. So, if you are meditating and your mind is jumping from thought to thought in a restless fashion, try making your inhalations and exhalations as long as possible. Do this as an exercise for a couple of minutes and then continue normal breathing but with your mind still focusing on your breath. 

A keen observer will also realize that the breath is intimately interconnected with the emotions. “Many illustrations could be given of the mathematical relationship between mans respiratory rate and the variations in his state of consciousness. A person whose attention is wholly engrossed, as in following some closely knit intellectual argument, or in attempting some delicate or difficult physical feat, automatically breathes very slowly. Fixity of attention depends on slow breathing; quick or uneven breaths are an inevitable accompaniment of harmful emotional states; fear, lust, anger.” (Yogananda, 2007) So generally, we can say that calm, relaxed, and slow peaceful states of mind result in slower breaths and nervous, agitated or restless states of mind lead to faster breathing.

The last reason why slow and deep breathing is beneficial has to do with longevity. “The restless monkey breaths at the rate of 32 times a minute, in contrast to man’s average of 18 times. The elephant, tortoise, snake and other creatures, noted for their longevity, have a respiratory rate that is less than man’s. The great tortoise, for instance, which may attain the age of 300 years, breaths only 4 times a minute.” (Yogananda, 2007) This same theory can be applied to human beings: those who breathe slowly, may live longer.

Finally, it needs to be stated that correct meditation or true meditation occurs when the subject – the breather, merges or unites with the object, in this case, the breath, and also with the process of breathing. So when breather, breathing and breath unite as One, then the goal of meditation has been attained. 

BREATH IN ASANAS

Just as in meditation, it is wise to focus on the breath during the practice of asanas. Basically, it can be used as a tool for concentration and for calming and relaxing the mind while one is holding an asana position. It helps the body and mind to relax. 

The breath can and should also be used for coming into and out of each asana. As a general rule, one should exhale when the body is contracting and inhale when the body is expanding or opening up. So, for example, we should exhale going into “Pashchimottanasana” (the forward bend), and inhale coming out of this posture. It can also be added that generally, one should inhale with exertion to increase the supply of oxygen to the blood. 

BREATH IN PRANAYAMA

“Prana means life force and ayama means ascention, expansion and extension. Pranayama is the expansion of the life force through control of the breath.” (Iyengar, 2002) In meditation we are passively observing the breath, but in pranayama we are actively controlling it using various techniques employed and developed by India’s ancient yogis. 

Many different techniques and methods of pranayama have been discovered and developed with varying purposes such as heating the body, or cooling the body, or cleansing the lungs, or calming the mind. However, the main intent of pranayama seemingly is to assist the Sadhaka (practitioner) to retain his breath (kumbhaka) longer in a smooth, controlled and systematic way. This ultimately can lead to Kevala kumbhaka – a state in which the breath becomes naturally suspended without any effort, resulting in Samadhi and kaivalya (absorption and emancipation)

CONCLUSION

Breath contains prana or life force without which we cannot live. Breath can also be used as a tool in asanas, pranayama and meditation to attain higher states of consciousness. Ideally, we should strive to be consciously aware of every single one of our breaths throughout the day. This may ultimately lead to breath mastery which, ironically, is a state of breathlessness. In the words of my Guru, Swami Shankarananda Giri, breath is our real guru, or our “SatGuru”. Therefore, every person already has a guru, whether they realize it or not. So, follow your Guru: follow your breath, with each inhalation and exhalation.

The views expressed are solely those of the author. Yogapoint.com may or may not agree with all statements.

REFERENCES

Iyengar, B.K.S., “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”. London: Thorsons, 2002. 

Yogananda, Sri Paramahansa, “God talks with Arjuna – The Bhagavad Gita”. Dakshineswar, W. Bengal: Yogoda Satsanga Society of India, 2002.

Yogananda, Sri Paramahansa. “Autobiography of a Yogi.” Los Angelese, USA: Self Realization Fellowship, 2007.

Yoga Vidya Dham, “Hatha Yoga.” Nashik, Maharashtra: Yoga Chaitanya Prakashan, Vibhay.

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