Throughout the history of human spirituality, with its diversity of myths, practices and beliefs, the breath has always been a source of meditation and reflection. This is not surprising. Breath is linked with Life. To breathe is to live. When human beings, along with mammals, birds and reptiles, are born they take their first breath – and with their last breath, life withdraws from the body. Breath affirms relationship with the world: in order to maintain life we must draw in the oxygen needed from the atmosphere and we must release carbon dioxide into that atmosphere. The ancient masters of Yoga believed that the manner by which one breathes determined the length and quality of life, a view based on the observation of the rhythms of nature. It was thought that all living things possessed a certain number of breaths and the idea developed that slow, rhythmic breathing, by keeping the body well supplied with oxygen, contributed to a longer and more harmonious life.
You know that our breathing is the inhaling and exhaling of air. The organ that serves for this is the lungs that lie round the heart, so that the air passing through them thereby envelops the heart. Thus breathing is a natural way to the heart. And so, having collected your mind within you, lead it into the channel of breathing through which air reaches the heart and, together with this inhaled air, force your mind to descend into the heart and to remain there.
Nicephorus the Solitary
The link in thought between breath and life is affirmed in the Latin word spiritus which, in addition to meaning spirit, courage, and vigor, also means breath. The same idea is repeated in Semitic languages, including Arabic, where the word for spirit is associated with aspects of the air, including breath, wind and even odor. And in Sanskrit the word prana, in addition to meaning breath and respiration, refers to the Life Principle, energy, vitality, spirit and ‘vital airs’.
In the Vajrayana traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, rLung means wind or breath and is a concept that’s particularly important to understandings of the subtle body and the Three Vajras (body, speech and mind). The general description of rLung is that it is a subtle flow of energy and out of the five elements (air, fire, water, earth and space) it is most closely connected with air. However it is not simply the air which we breathe or the wind in our stomachs, it goes much deeper than that. rLung is like a horse and the mind is the rider, if there is something wrong with the horse the rider will not be able to ride properly. The general function of rLung is to help growth, movement of the body, exhalation and inhalation and to aid the function of mind, speech and body. Its most important function is to carry the movements of mind, speech and body.
Thus, breath symbolizes not only relationship with the physical environment but also the subtle environment of energies and forces. The Hebrew Bible describes how Adam became a living soul when God breathed the breath of life into lifeless substance (clay), and it suggests that at the moment of death the breath returns to God.
In Christianity there is a tradition of spiritual breathing. While physical breathing is automatic, spiritual breathing is a conscious act – imaginatively inhaling the pure energies of the Holy Spirit on the in breath and exhaling all that is yet to be redeemed on the out breath. The Buddhist Tonglen practice, popularized in the Shamballa tradition, is a practice of compassionate breathing. Pema Chodron gives the example of a child you know who is in pain: you breathe in the wish to take away all the pain and fear of that child. Then, as you breathe out, you send the child happiness, joy or whatever would relieve their pain. Tonglen is also used to breathe in impurities in the collective psyche (anger, violence, greed) and to breathe out healing lighted energies.
Buddhist meditation practices that have now spread widely throughout the West often begin with an exercise in concentration focused on mindful breathing – the careful watching of the breath becoming a technique for the development of the mind’s ability to concentrate and focus. The challenge is to mindfully observe the inhalation and exhalation of breath, one breath at a time. As Time magazine has recently reported, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is now widely taught in hospitals and medical establishments throughout the western world. The Eastern tradition of pranayama is an active approach to the breath, developing insight and spiritual power through careful regulation of the rhythm of the breath.
At birth we breathe in and the matter that is ourselves is imprinted with a cosmic pattern that potentially contains within it the symbol of the purpose of our lives. Death as we understand it comes when the spark that held it all together departs and transits to another dimension. And although the form dies we know life goes on. In the ancient Vedic traditions of the East the life force was called prana which was understood as a cosmic energy that flows into our system from distant places and, via the sun, connects all things one with the other. Pranic currents distinguish the living from the dead. In the Prashna Upanishad, prana was called the eternal breath, the essence of life, “...the universe [is] one with prana. The rising sun pervades the east, and fills with energy all beings that there inhabit...”
The theosophist H.P. Blavatsky spoke of “life” as that mysterious essence that pervades all things and synthesizes the three great aspects of matter, soul and spirit. As we expand our sense of relationship and extend it from our friends and family, to include our group, our nation, the world of nations and the one humanity, we recognize that through this vast network of relationships we can each play a part in distributing the energy of goodwill. Together we learn to breathe in the energy of love from the higher realms of consciousness, and send it out into the world. By this means we aid in the establishment of right human relations and the healing of cleavages in our world.
We all share this same breath – the animals, the plants, our fellow human beings, and the higher spiritual kingdoms. Simply holding this recognition in mind as we breathe in and out can be a simple spiritual practice that, over time, serves to foster the consciousness of oneness. Prana is said to be received from the sun, from our food, and from rest, but the most important source is through breathing. It is thought that the quality and quantity of the prana has a direct relationship to the state of mind. Due to the stress of planetary conditions for many people, the flow of prana has been disrupted, resulting in conditions such as fear, worry, depression, doubt, and many other negative emotions that often lead to physical ills.
These problems stem from the fact that humanity has for too long placed itself outside of the divine circulatory flow of energy and fallen prey to materialism, selfishness and separateness. We have broken the link within the great Chain of Being, and since humanity stands as the central link within that chain, this break has had severe consequences. The climate change crisis can partly be attributed to humanity living outside the rhythms of nature, which are, in effect, the rhythms of the soul. Planetary pollution thus has its starting point on the subtle levels of emotional and mental consciousness, which are presently permeated with dark, turbulent clouds of thought and emotion. In some spiritual writings, these conditions are known as glamour and illusion, conditions that impede the ability to see and act in accordance with the higher self, the soul. Within these fogs and mists humanity lives and moves, seeing all things misshapen and distorted.
Spiritual seekers, and, increasingly, spiritual groups, are asked to make the effort to live above these fogs and mists and harness the power of their collective thought to bring about a change in planetary conditions. One could say these groups stand as a band of spiritual environmentalists, working in the inner realm of causes, rather than with effects, hence their power to aid the process of planetary transformation, especially when coordinated with the key times within the annual cycle such as the festivals of Easter, Wesak and Goodwill. But this group has yet to come fully into its own, and the coming decades will surely see a more coordinated effort on the part of the spiritual groups of the world to work together to meet the need. This group, composed of a myriad of small groups, can create a channel through which spiritual energy can flow. For example, we cannot underestimate the cumulative effect of the sounding of the Great Invocation and the sacred word, the OM, if used as they should be used, to reorient the consciousness of humanity, stabilise men and women in spiritual being, open the door into the New Age, and usher in a new and better civilisation.
Ancient peoples patterned their lives on the cycles of nature. There are many such cycles that affect the kingdoms of nature but the most obvious and important are those related to the sun and moon. These stand as symbols of the cyclic inbreathing and outbreathing of the planetary life. They are called the interlude periods, the time for pause and reflection. The four main stages in the cycles of the breath are the period of inbreathing, which corresponds to the stage of alignment within the meditative practice, followed by the higher interlude, when we pause for reflection and the receipt of spiritual impression. This is followed by the period of outbreathing of the contacted energies which, in turn, culminates in the period of the lower interlude when the contacted energies are grounded and find expression through form.
The breath is a current which can be attached to any thing or being, near or distant, if one only knew how to attach it, and those who are masters of the breath can attract all things in life. Mahadeva, the Lord of Yogis, has said that there is nothing on the face of the earth that cannot be accomplished by the masters of the breath. But for him who does not know its mastery, even to live a healthy life is a difficult thing.
Hazrat Inayat Khan
The cycle of the breath governs all life and as we pattern our lives thereby we become more effective workers. We breathe more deeply and easily. Life begins to flow without so much struggle as we have faith in the soul’s wisdom and its ability to establish relationship. But it takes time and patience to establish these new rhythms that so often seem to run counter to much of contemporary culture. Fortunately for us we are entering a time when planetary conditions facilitate a return to a more rhythmic living and breathing. With the incoming of the age of Aquarius, brotherhood and freedom is fostered.
As we enter this new zodiacal age, we likewise enter a new element and in the case of Aquarius that element is air. There is a five hundred year transition period between the ages wherein the energies of the old sign and its elemental qualities become less dominant and are gradually supplanted by those of the new and incoming age. With each passing decade we are, however, coming more under the influence of the element of air, which is not only related to an increasing mental polarisation but also to the higher aspect of the mind, the intuition. So we’re moving from an age qualified by the element water and its association with the feeling nature, into a sign in which the mental body will come into increasing control. This will aid humanity in taking a major step forward towards greater emotional control.
As one masters the breath, one masters the life. The most effective way to do such difficult things as climbing a mountain and giving birth to a child is through the rhythmic breathing that enables the consciousness to transcend physical and mental constraints by focusing on something that links into the universal current that gives strength and a certain transcendental quality. But due to the stress of contemporary life many people breathe in a shallow, disjointed manner, often with little conscious recognition that this is so. In our race to do, we forget to breathe. People are often out of touch with the effects that stress is having on them unless they begin to breakdown physically. It would appear that there is a widespread condition today wherein the prana is short-circuited, creating blockages in the flow of energy with a consequent depletion. The pace of contemporary life is accelerating and perhaps this is as it should be, but paralleling this growing tension, that has its spiritual counterpart related to humanity’s appropriation of the spiritual will, we must take care to continue to breathe. It has been observed that there exists a type of “breath apnea” that occurs when people use too much technology. We forget to breathe and we need to bring back this focus. This situation is particularly damaging for young children who increasingly don’t want to go out to play in the “real” world, preferring the captivating unreal world that is calling to them from inside the box. Children’s sensitive natures become easily overstimulated by too much time spent online and this addiction to technology causes actual changes within brain chemistry.
Throughout time spiritual practitioners, particularly those working within the esoteric or hidden traditions of the world’s faiths have recognized the power of the breath as a tool for transformation. The use of breathing exercises was a long established tradition within the ashrams of the east. But these practices were carried out under the careful and watchful eye of a teacher and were only given to students who were fully prepared to undertake them. Today, when all things are shouted from the rooftops, many people ‘put the cart before the horse’ and begin their spiritual journey of transformation with the practice of breathing exercises when, instead, this should be one of the very last techniques employed. Also, much of the focus in present day practice of breathing techniques focuses largely upon the physical aspect of breathing, whereas it should instead be upon consciousness. By using simple mantrams to accompany the different stages of a simple breathing in and out, the exercise becomes related to service, to the expansion of consciousness, to an attunement to the love energy of the universe and away from a focus on the form.
Despite the clear benefits of working with the breath, many spiritual teachings contain repeated warnings of the dangers of the premature spiritual awakenings that often occur among those who “play with fire.” Such practices can cause a rising of the kundalini energy, sometimes known as the serpent power. This energy normally lies dormant in the center at the base of the spine until such time as it awakens naturally, through a life of discipline, meditation, study and service. But unfortunately, in our world today such precautions are often thrown to the wind in the search for rapid effects. We seek shortcuts, not understanding the need for the necessary precautions. Unwise teachers of breathing techniques may thus cause much damage to their followers. People crave stimulation and yet they do not realize that the unleashing of this tremendous energy can have dire consequences leading to what is known as overstimulation. Overstimulation can result, among other things, in mental imbalances, hallucinations, an undue critical nature, a strong conviction of one’s own destiny, insomnia, and sexual stimulation. This overstimulation is one of the main reasons why the path of spiritual development is so challenging, often referred to as a ‘razor-edged path’. The problem is that, once these forces have been unleashed, it is very difficult to bring them back under control. Often, the best solution to such situations is to refrain from all meditation and study until the condition stabilizes, which may take many years or a lifetime.
It’s said that the new age will see the birth of a new form of yoga, Agni Yoga – the Yoga of Fire – also known in some writings as the Yoga of Life. Agni yoga is related to the sense of oneness, of a realized brotherhood in place of the present theory. Its keynotes are synthesis and universality arrived at through identification with the whole, with life itself. Hence its connection with the breath and the air, for in a sense this yoga is an embodiment of these qualities. There is always a strong interrelationship and interchange between air and fire, being complementary elements. In a sense it is the fire that prepares the way for air by breaking down or burning away the barriers that have hitherto fostered a sense of separation--barriers such as race, class, age, gender, religion, nationality and sexual orientation. As these barriers are done away with the breath flows freely and permeates all things. Past yogas each dealt with a particular aspect of life, a particular body but this new and coming yoga will comprise “the essence of the whole of life, all embracing, evading naught.” (Agni Yoga, 158.)
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