Disclaimer: To fully understand why your breath is important pay close attention to the fact that you are alive. Without breath, life would seize to exist. And so would you.
To start my background is in human biology. I have been in the health and wellness industry for over 18 years and I have just discovered for myself why breath plays such an integral part of our being. And I say this as someone who, based on my training alone, had always told my clients to pay attention to their breath from a mechanical perspective. Since my training took place in the West, my perspective needless to say is one dimensional. In our education system we take solid things and analyze them physically and chemically. Everything our “sciences” measure stem in part from manipulation of matter. Therefore it is safe to say that our philosophy is basically rooted in materialism. Things that only our human senses can taste, smell, touch, hear and see.
Since our scientific approach is based on measurable aspects of our being, we feel most comfortable with things being objectively observable. This was where my training kept me stuck. If I could not see it or feel it, was it really happening? We start to question our reality and feel lost in things that are no longer observable. We know that we breathe to sustain life. This is evident with our day to day observations of breathing. We can objectively look at the breath from a physical angle. We know that in order for our bodies to carry us forward in living, we must breathe. It is also observable that once one stops breathing, life ends. When looking at the physical validity of breathing we know that we transport air in and out of the body. We can observe the chest and abdomen rising with inhalation and we can observe the chest and abdomen falling with each exhalation. Think back to a time when you were faced with a fearful event. Notice how your breath would change. How the heart even starts to beat faster and your body shakes and sweats. These are all observable traits of respiration. But what happens on a subtle level? The level we cannot see or often times feel.
This subtle level leaves most of us questioning whether this aspect of our life is really stemmed in science. Can your breath be a driving force in controlling other aspects of our being? How does the breath affect the body? How does the breath affect the mind? These questions plague many of us who have deep rooted interests in observing the physicality of our world. Although we know that the mind is there. We know we have thoughts and dreams and ideas of our future and memories of our past. We know the mind is a very real part of our existence yet the Westerns uncertainty is quite evident based on our scientific approach to life. We know breath allows us to live. Again, all observable traits and measurable indeed. But what and perhaps, who, is the driver of our thoughts? Research into psychology has been studied since Plato and Aristotle came on the scene and many have added their ideas and thoughts into this space over the years, but yet we are still confused about the relationship between the mental realm and the tangible world.
When ailments or disease arise in humans and the physical body does not respond to the physicians satisfaction, they throw up their hands and say it must be “psychological”. On the other hand when psychologists are unable to help their patients find balance in their mental space they shrug and say it’s some sort of physical problem. As a manual therapist I have seen this hundreds of times with patients. Majority of what our medical establishment considers alternative therapy, such as massage or sound healing, is rooted in misguided and genuine disinterest in the topic. Yet, there is a network of therapeutic approaches such as yoga and meditation that can help to balance out this misalignment in our modern day society. The root being the connection between the mind and the body. And that which connects the two spaces, your breath.
Gateway to being
What’s interesting to note is that many of our Eastern kin have been exploring this topic for centuries. The philosophy of the East, which gave birth to the science of yoga, has studied both the mind and body through various explorations on a deeper level. The Yogis would spend years exploring the inner workings of their own bodies and minds to unravel what the West is still confused about. Many hard nosed “scientists” are sure that anything worth studying is material and tangible and they may argue that the physical body gives rise to the mind. And that the mind grows out of the body. But according to this viewpoint, a fetus has no mind. Only after birth, thoughts and consciousness develop. We tend to look at the universe the same way. Random events occurred that forced molecules to collide and created the world as we know it. And along the way the human evolved into a conscious self-aware being. The so called “Big Bang Theory” which is still just a theory in the end.
However, in the East, as well as the ancient world, there has been a different view. Yoga philosophy insists that each of the levels of being evolve out of the one above it. Consciousness gives rise to the mind. Out of the mind comes the physical and tangible world. The mind desired a physical existence and thus evolved a body in which to manifest itself. This implies that the essence of our being lies beyond the physical and mental. It implies that we are simply manifestations of an inconceivable form of consciousness that lie beyond what we can study in the material and tangible. Think of it as a tide that constantly flows in and out. The entire universe flows in and out of that consciousness and it is from there we came and to there we will return. This process is a familiar one of expansion and contraction, similar to that of our breath. As noted above, the Big Bang Theory, which states that after a certain point of expansion the cosmos will begin to contract and all the planets, stars and galaxies will be pulled back into yet another dense centre from which it will explode yet again. Perhaps looking at this phenomena of contraction and expansion we can grasp the “cosmic breath”. On one level we become human beings, we become physical manifestations and then we return to consciousness. We are essentially the universe experiencing itself through the cosmic breath. If we are to look at the macro in this respect perhaps we can take the same approach on the micro.
As was mentioned before, the Yogis in the East have been exploring the connection between mind and body for centuries. In this deep exploration there has been some interesting discoveries that the West is slowly awakening to. One of these discoveries is the study of energy. Newtonian physicists have always been interested in the mechanics of life. How one physical body relates to another and is affected by the other. That was the basis of my study with anatomy, which gave rise to the study of physiology and then integrating both into the study of the whole. And the study of the whole organism involved the study of energy. So what is energy and how does it affect the whole? What is in fact energy and if we can’t see it, is it real? And if it’s not possible to see, is it even worth studying?
Being a witness to the world we can see that our life relies on energy. From the push pistons and steam engines of the past to the current subtle energy in circuit boards in our phones and our lightbulbs, we know energy exists. We also know that there is a relationship between energy and matter. Matter can be changed into energy and energy can be converted back to matter. That is the basis of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Interesting to note here is that the Yogis knew this existed even before Einstein came out with the theory in 1905 (which some physicists still debate whether Einstein did in fact discover this concept). However, based on ancient scriptures and texts that were written in Sanskrit (a classical language that gave birth to others in the Indo-European region), this energy or “life force” is called Prana.
Therefore, Prana can be viewed as the vital life force of our being and the link between our psyche (mind) and soma (body). According to the ancient texts like the Upanishads, the various levels of existence form a continuum. The physical, the pranic, the mental and the higher levels of consciousness are all layered upon each other. If the body wants to affect the mind this can be accomplished through altering the flow of energy through the breath. And if the mind wants to affect the body, this too can be accomplished through an effect on the flow of energy. If it is true that the breath can influence both mind and body, then the rhythm and rate of one’s breath would reflect one’s physical condition but also can in turn create it. Confronted with this rather obvious information, it is strange indeed that the West continues to ignore it. We abstain from looking deeper because our programming has kept us locked in a perpetual cycle of not questioning that which is not “scientific” and presented in a neatly wrapped package. Perhaps becoming simply aware of ones breath can begin to crack open this rather obvious fact.
Out of the mind and into the body
Breathing is a process that is continuously being broadcasted into the world but no one is receiving this news. In my own practice, I have seen hundreds of people with dozens of physical degenerations brought on simply by a reduced state of breath awareness. I have felt tissues change and restrict flow of energy because of this change in their body mechanics that often stem from incorrect posture and breathing. When one begins to sit down and deliberately focus on the breath you begin to be a witness to the changes that breath can have not only on the functioning, but also the appearance of tissues.
We are constantly living in our heads. Preoccupied with our thoughts, which we shove around like a jigsaw puzzle to make sense of what we are experiencing. We believe that our thoughts are precious only to us and we guard them with the utmost of care. Often times hiding behind experiences that have shaped us and brought us into where we currently are. We regard them as our treasures because it is how we experience and interact with the external world. What if we were to become aware of prana in the same way? What if we took the time to explore that part of our being and came to bear witness to the phenomenon that so many before us experienced for themselves?
Breath is the King of the MindSri B.K.S. Iyengar