Breath is one of the few instinctive functions of the human body that can easily be controlled by the conscious part of ourselves. All the instinctive processes in our organism are driven by natural, divine laws. Each of these functions represent symbols related to a natural life and a conscious evolution. Breath is one of these functions, so this symbolism also applies. Indeed, breath manifests some laws and mechanisms that can be studied and used as an aid in achieving a transformation of consciousness.
Combined with food, water, light and the impressions acquired during our daily life experiences, breath is the nourishment through which we guarantee our physical body to be maintained in life and all the organic and energetic functions.
In ancient times, breath was considered symbolically the connection between spirit and matter, and this affirmation is more than a simple abstract representation of reality. Indeed, breathing is essential for maintaining our organic life, but it’s also a mean for subtle energies.
So, through breathing we can feed our body, but through a science of breath we can perform a real alchemical act of transmutation to realize a higher state of consciousness.
The art of breathing is part of a very ancient knowing and, similar to meditation, it represents a very powerful tool to observe ourselves and discover our intimate nature.
Even if this art and its importance has been recognized among traditions differing in space and time, when one speaks about a “science of breath”, he refers to the the practice of the Hindu vedic pranayama.
Substantially, pranayama is the intentional aim of lengthening the breath intended as inhalation, retention and exhalation.
During the inhalation, which in Sanskrit is called puraka, the practitioner receives energy through breath. During the retention (sanscrit: kumbhaka), the same energy is kept with the aim of tasting its qualities; during the exhalation, rechaka, breath is released, and with the breath, there is released, as a consequence of the intentional act, the excessive burden of emotions and thoughts present in the related centers. During the pause between inbreath and outbreath, with empty lungs (this phase of suspension of breath is called bahya kumbhaka), the “I”, our individual energy, merges with the primordial energy. Perhaps, what this means is not possible to understand nor explained without a direct experience of the practice, but this is what happens in the practice of pranayama, as with every genuine practice of breath which is performed in a correct and intentional way.
But what does this word, pranayama, mean? It is composed from “prana” (breath, life, vitality, energy, strength, vital force, flow of energies) and “yama” (expansion, extension, length, amplitude, control, lengthening, restriction, regulation); so, this word could be defined as “the conscious-intentional lengthening and regulation of breath”.
This term, “prana”, is more interesting than what it seems at first glance. Indeed, it assumes not only the significance of energy, but a greater significance. We could state that prana is the subtle principle which permeates all that exists in the universe in all its levels. It’s not only air, but even subtle energy, present even in empty spaces. We can relate prana to a principle, and also as a physical, intellectual, emotional, sexual, and cosmic energy. Briefly said, all that has its own vibration, is pervaded by prana – light, heat, gravity, magnetism, electricity and all the manifestations that are studied by physics. Prana is an energy or manifestation, not only its actions we can perceive with our physical senses, but also a manifestation which overcomes the ordinary senses. When we feel that particular state before danger, which conventional medicine relates to a surge of adrenaline in our body, it is the same energy (or, to clarify, it is driven by the same energy), thus a condition related to our emotional perceptions. Vigor, power, vitality, and life itself are all forms of the manifestation that the ancient Hindu called “prana”. So, according to the ancient texts of this culture, prana is the motor which lies at the base of every activity- a creative force able to create and destroy. So, instead of seeing it as a “white” or “golden light” such as it is imagined in the common conception, it must be considered as a principle that lies beyond all the touchable and untouchable manifestations.
The Upanishad, the most ancient texts in the Hindu tradition, more ancient than the Vedas, give a marvelous description of this “energy”, saying that prana is the principle of life and consciousness. It’s compared to the real “I” and corresponds to the vital breath of all which exists in the universe. All beings in this universe are pervaded by this principle: they acquire it at the moment of their birth. It is the mean which permits life, that determines the quality of their life , and, that is dissolved and returned to the Cosmos after death.
One of its manifestations in the human body- the manifestation which interests us in this post- is the breath. It’s a vital manifestation of our physical body, and it has to be clarified that it is not the only one. In the ancient teachings, there are five different types of manifestations of the vital energy: prana, apana, samana, udana, uyana. These are specific aspects of a unique cosmic force, a primordial principle present in the existence of all living beings.
Even the mind, that in these teachings is called Citta, is associated to the prana. Indeed, these teachings describe the mental substance as “the location” in which the pure consciousness is condensed, in which are kept all the remembrances, memory, individual thought, impressions and other tendencies related to the mind. There is a statement that says where the Citta is focussed, there the prana is condensed, and where there is the prana, the Chitta is concentrated (it has to be said that a similar view is not a prerogative of the Hindu philosophy, but is also present in other traditions such as the Taoist, Egyptian, various shamanic and even ancient Western esoteric traditions- esoteric Christianity included).
This type of mind is a mean that is driven by two powerful forces – the prana and the vasana (desires) that move in accordance with the forces that is most powerful at a determined moment. To explain this statement in practice, if the prana, represented in the body as breath, predominates, then the “desires” and “senses” are under control, and the result is that the mind becomes quiet. Oppositely, if “desires” predominate, then the breath becomes compulsive and the mind chaotic.
So, when speaking about the “art of breath”, it’s clear that we don’t intend the habitual, mechanical, uncontrolled breathing. Even if prana is present in all that exists, so even in the air, an intentional action must be performed in order to keep it in the psycho- physical system during the practices of breath. If one is able to keep it and maintain it in his system, then he may refine it and analyze it so that it could fully express its potential.