In practicing yoga, we are always reminded to concentrate on our breath while we are performing asanas. I have studied meditative traditions linked to the world’s great religions, and most of them include ‘breathwork’ as part of the discipline.
Why the focus on breathing as a necessary component of contemplative traditions?
In Western religion, the breath is our most direct link to God. Early in the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, the story of man’s creation is told. … “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his mouth the breath of life, and man became a living being” (Genesis: 2:7)
Thus man is brought to life through God breathing into the soil. God’s breath forms the essence of man, his sprit, while the soil becomes man’s earthly nature.
In the Hebrew tradition the word for breath is ruach, and ruach is also the name for spirit.
God gives us life through breath, and breathing is the essence of our being. Unsurprisingly, when someone dies they claim, “He took his last breath.”
The yogic tradition of India independently arrived at similar conclusions, equating breath with the basic energy of the universe: “I salute Lord Hanuman, Lord of the Breath, Son of the wind God — who bears five faces and dwells within us in the form of five winds or energies pervading our body, mind and soul.
We reunited Prakriti (matter) with Pereusha (Spirit) — may he bless the practitioner by uniting vital energy-prana-with the Divine Spirit within.”
In this tradition, breath is the bearer of prana, the vital energy of life. There are five pranas or vital breaths within each of us. Breathwork creates balance between the vital energies, uniting body, mind and spirit in a mystical communion with the Divine Spirit within.
Pranayama is the art of breath control, and constitutes one of the eight traditional limbs of yoga. There are myriad methods of pranayama, with each method aimed at correcting particular imbalances between the hemispheres of the brain, the glandular system, mental imbalances, or nervous dysfunction.
Kundalini yoga is a system based on various mind, body, breath exercises, also aimed at resolving dysfunctions of self.
The Chinese Daoist system which is based on the interplay of yin and yang refers to the primordial energy as chi. Normal breathing is unconscious and shallow. Awareness of the breath and utilizing techniques to deepen and expand the breath, expands states of consciousness. Some systems outline nine levels of consciousness, most of which we can only access through meditation, which is facilitated by the breath.
A pioneering psychiatric approach to breathing was formulated by Stanislaw Grof. According to this system, our breath patterns display our emotional history. For example, we hold our breath when frightened, or breathe rapidly when anxious. Grof developed a mouth breathing system with an emphasis on inhalation, using one breath per second. Music, drumming and other forms of stimulation accompany these breathing efforts. The rapid breathing often produces visionary states which serve as guides toward developing spiritual goals. Such states are like dreams, which unite great affect or emotion with visions which, like metaphors, help us access higher levels of consciousness. It is through accessing those higher states that our historical and cosmic life purpose is realized.