Since time immemorial, traditional cultures have been aware of the importance and significance of the breath. A brief overview will offer knowledge into how universal and elemental it has been to all living beings and to the inseparable relationship between breath, state of mind and evolution of consciousness.
Breath in ancient India
The understanding of breath in ancient India came from the concept of prana, which is a Sanskrit word that translates to breath, air and ‘the sacred essence of life’, the vital energy that drives us. As some might know, breath is a very important part of Yoga and Pranayama, the art of breath control.
Ayurveda, a traditional philosophy from ancient India defines the root cause of all illness as an accumulation of toxins or debris. The physical toxins are cured with diet and herbs while the mental ones are cured by the breath. The yogis of India, since ancient times, have mastered this science of breath and have discovered that there are forty-nine types of breath; each type of breath corresponds to a state of mind.
There is a fiftieth state known as nirvikalpa samadhi, the ultimate state of transcendence and spiritual realization in which the realized yogi no longer has breath or pulse. It is fascinating to know that there are different types of breathing that occur when we experience anger, excitement, the various states of sleep and so on. Finally, both Ayurveda and Yoga see breath and mind as mirrors of each other.
Breath in Chinese Philosophy
Chinese philosophy denotes chi as the cosmic or vital essence related to our physical, emotional and spiritual being. In Japan, breath plays a very important role in spiritual disciplines and martial arts.
Breath in the Ancient Greece
The understanding of breath in the West started, perhaps, in ancient Greece. The Greek word pneuma refers to air, breath, the spirit and life essence. The Greeks understood the close relationship between the breath and the psyche. The Greek word phren refers both to the mind and to the diaphragm, the largest muscle involved in breathing.
The ancient Greeks understood that disturbances or imbalances in the breath both reflected and were the cause of both physical and emotional illness.
Breath in the Hebraic tradition
The Hebraic tradition uses the term ruach, to denote both the creative spirit and the breath. In the Old Testament, the breath of God gives life to Adam. The Essenes taught that the gateway to the heavens was between the inhale and the exhale, this was also prevalent in the Indian Yogic tradition.
Around the time of Christ, there was a colony of healers called the Therapeutae. The famous healer and philosopher Philo of Alexandria stated:
“All healing of the being is done through the breath. The breath allows us to become aware of the tensions, blockages and resistances that prevent our breath from circulating freely. It is the path of fulfilling the soul in the body. Unblocking the breath means freeing ourselves of the blockages of the soul and opening ourselves to Creative Intelligence.”
Breath – the modern view
In spite of the infinite wealth of knowledge of our forebears, today in the scientific paradigm which is the predominant view in the West, our conception of the breath has been stripped of traditional sacred notions and reduced to nothing more than a physiological function. Moreover, instead of understanding the meaning of variations and disorders of the breath as reflecting our inner state, we have labeled them as physical pathologies.
The prana or vital energy that we absorb through the air we breathe stimulates our vitality and our ideas. By breathing consciously, the prana becomes a source of nourishment for our spirit and our immaterial aspects, same as how we drink, eat and breathe the material elements to nourish our physical and energetic bodies. The breath, subsequently, contains in itself, the very essence of life.
Stay tuned for next week’s installment in our breathwork series.
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