Breath is the Essence of Life
"Control over breath is control over life." - Swami Rama
All the great yoga teachers of the past and present talk specifically about how important the breath is in our yoga practice. Ancient texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika along with gurus like Pantanjali & B.K.S. Iyengar advise us to become more aware of our breath and to practice the art of conscious breathing. This is because the breath is extremely important to our life in countless ways – it truly is the essence of life. Although the breath has numerous positive physiological effects and is vital to our survival, what’s more important is what it does for our emotional, mental, and spiritual health.
You see, the breath is the direct connection to our awareness deep within ourselves; it’s what brings us back to the present and back to our true self. Once we have a connection to our breath and develop control over it, we are better able to control our thoughts, emotions, and reactions. Kariba Ekken, a 17th Century mystic says, “If you would foster a calm spirit, first regulate your breathing; for when that is under control, the heart will be at peace; but when breathing is spasmodic, then it [heart] will be troubled. Therefore, before attempting anything, first regulate your breathing on which your temper will be softened, your spirit calmed.” Iyengar agrees, stating, “Emotional excitement affects the rate of breathing; equally, deliberate regulation of breathing checks emotional excitement. As the very object of yoga is to control and still the mind, the yogi first learns pranayama to master the breath. This will enable him to control the senses and so reach the stage of pratyahara.” So what these teachers are telling us is that the breath and our emotions are directly linked and as we gain control over our breath, we also gain control over our emotions. For example, think of what happens to your breath when you get angry – does it automatically gets shorter, faster, and shallower? Do you notice the body getting warmer as the breath grows more rapid? Now think of what happens to your breath when you lay down to rest. Does it get longer, deeper, and slower? Do you notice how the body cools as it grows heavy and relaxed? Consider some other emotions – fear, anxiety, panic, surprise, happiness, joy; laughter, sobbing – what happens to your breath? With a consistent pranayama practice, we inevitably will develop a sense of steadiness and ease within our emotional state. We find balance and peace within the stillness of our mind.
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois is noted for saying, “Through the practice of pranayama the mind becomes arrested in a single direction.” Pranayama practice allows us to enhance our ability to control the mind with single-point concentration by directing our focus to our breath. This single-point focus of the mind is what allows us to let go of external distractions and find peace and stillness within (hence why the focus is always on your breath in meditation practice). Consider this: we can really only think about one thing at a time - if we are only thinking about our breath, we can’t really be thinking about anything else; and if we are thinking of something else we are no longer thinking about our breath. It seems simple, but training the mind to stay focused is no easy task. Often called ‘The Monkey Mind,’ our thoughts tend jump from one to the next faster than we can blink. It takes some people many, many, many years of practice before they feel their mind has completely let go. Iyengar compares the mind to a chariot being yoked to two teams of horses. One team represents our breath, focus, and concentration; the other horses represent our thoughts, desires, and distractions. He tells us that the chariot moves in the direction of the stronger team – if the breath is stronger, thoughts and distractions will diminish and the mind will be stilled; if thoughts and distractions prevail, then “the breath is in disarray and the mind is agitated and troubled.” Think about that for a moment. Pause here to re-read the last two sentences and really envision what he describes here; then notice what tends to happen when you try to find stillness. Iyengar continues, “Therefore, the yogi masters the science of breath and by the regulation and control of breath, he controls the mind and stills its constant movement…By making the mind motionless and freeing it from sloth and distractions, one reaches the state of mindlessness (amanaska) which is the supreme state of Samadhi.” Pranayama is the tool needed to master the science of our breath and over time gain control over our mind. Once we achieve this, we find peace, stillness, and ease in all aspects of life.
Developing and maintaining control over the breath is harder than you may think and should be practiced very slowly and very mindfully. Rushing your pranayama practice without intention and awareness has a negative effect on the body and can cause significant disruption within. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika warns us that “As lions, elephants, and tigers are tamed very slowly and cautiously, so should prana be brought under control very slowly in gradation measured according to one’s capacity and physical limitations. Otherwise it will kill the practitioner.” As with everything in yoga – there is no rush to the finish line. In fact, we want to take this journey as slow as we possibly can. Mark Stephens says when we rush, “we miss out on the mindfulness.” Going slow allows us to carefully examine and fully experience what is happening within our bodies and in our minds. We create a deeper sense of awareness and are able to become fully present in the current moment.
“However often the restless mind may break loose and wander, he should rein it in and constantly bring it back to the self.” The Bhagavad Gita tells us what our teachers tell us daily in our asana classes – when the mind wanders, return your attention back to your breath. Coming back to your breath brings you back into the present moment, focuses your mind, and balances your emotions. With pranayama practice we gain the awareness we need to begin to control our breath and eventually gain control over our emotions. When we are able to mindfully use this control, we will be able to maintain a place of steadiness and ease; a place of peace and quiet within the mind allowing us to connect with our truest nature, the Self.