The Great Power of Breathing

On Breathing, Consciousness and the Problem of the West

“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”

― Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation

Nilch’i translates in English as “air, wind, or atmosphere”, but to the Navajo it refers to Sacred Wind, Holy Spirit, even to the Supreme Creator that gives life, thought, speech, and motion to all living things, serving as the means of communication between all elements of the living world. Of course, no English translation can truly express the depths of Navajo philosophy.

In the beginning, according to tradition, the Sacred Winds passed through the bodies of men and creatures and made the lines on the fingers and heads of human beings, and on the bodies of the animals.

The Wind has provided men and creatures with strength ever since. The Wind was creation’s first source of nourishment, and put motion and change into nature, giving life to everything, even to the landscape, the mountains and the water.

In India, the winds that circulate through our bodies are called pranas. Vayu is the Hindu deity known as the lord of the winds or “The Breath”. The most familiar of these pranas are those that control our in-breathing and out-breathing, whereby vital substances are brought into our bodies and destructive substances are removed. These vital forces sustain life throughout our souls, stimulating our instincts, emotions and ambitions.

There are also pranas that direct our vital currents upwards toward the higher centres of our heart and mind, a cycle involving aspiration and inspiration: aspiration meaning “to breathe toward spirit, to ascend, to soar”, and inspiration, “to draw in, being infilled with spirit, divinely inspired”.

In the Book of Genesis, it reads:

“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”

The Hebrew word for spirit is ruach, meaning “air in motion”. It is the same word for “breath or “life”. There are many verses that describe the wind as the Holy Spirit or the breath.

“The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

John 3:8

“At this moment, you are seamlessly flowing with the cosmos. There is no difference between your breathing and the breathing of the rain forest, between your bloodstream and the world’s rivers, between your bones and the chalk cliffs of Dover.”

― Deepak Chopra, The Book of Secrets: Unlocking the Hidden Dimensions of Your Life

My purpose for highlighting these examples — and there are many more I could have chosen — is to show that our ancestors believed the act of breathing to be inseparable from the blowing of the wind or the waving of the trees.

They knew the wind, the air to be our life force; it is the flow of nature, the power that gives rise to all things. It is for this reason why each culture has a practice of prayer, meditation or self-reflection whereby breathing deeply is often the focus. These moments of reflection allow people to ground themselves and appreciate the natural passing breeze of life.

However, we in the Western world have forgotten the sacred, untouchable nature of the breath and the body. Instead, we are stuck in the trappings of our own mind, focusing all our energy into our heads, neglecting the rest of the body. This is partly due to our stationary lifestyle, where all the body must do during the day is to hold the head up towards the computer screen. The body, it is assumed, is a mere vehicle, a carriage that follows the pilot.

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Most people exist entirely in their heads, so they breathe as if they are trying to fill their minds with air, rather like a balloon. They do not breathe diaphragmatically, into the lower base of the lungs, but instead, take short sips of air that sit in the upper chest, never flowing throughout the entire body. The problem here is that the upper part of the lungs handles stress responses such as fight or flight.

Many people, then, are bathing in a constant negative, hyper vigilant state even when they are merely going about their day to day. This gives a footing for a variety of illnesses — depression and anxiety are my great concerns.

“With every breath, the old moment is lost; a new moment arrives. We exhale and we let go of the old moment. It is lost to us. In doing so, we let go of the person we used to be. We inhale and breathe in the moment that is becoming. In doing so, we welcome the person we are becoming. We repeat the process. This is meditation. This is renewal. This is life.”

― Lama Surya Das, Letting Go Of The Person You Used To Be

But, our bad breathing habits are simply a reflection of our surroundings. We live in a fast paced, nervous, stressed and hurried world where there is a constant fear and worry about events that cannot be controlled. When people are anxious, their breathing becomes hasty, short and sometimes frantic, almost to the point of panic.

A terrible cycle occurs where people breathe poorly because they are anxious, but they become more anxious because their breathing is poor. Few people are ever truly grounded or at peace.

Natural breathing needs the entire body, it is not just the work of the mouth and lungs. Indeed, the lungs play an almost passive role during the entire process.

Watch when an infant breathes, how their stomachs rise and fall as the air circuits their system. The air moves through the nostrils, filling the belly first, then the rib cage expands. The whole cycle is rather relaxed and gentle, there is no speed or worry. This is the natural way of breathing. The child will, eventually, unlearn this natural mode of breathing, taking to the unhealthy habits of the adults around them.

“When life is foggy, path is unclear and mind is dull, remember your breath. It has the power to give you the peace. It has the power to resolve the unsolved equations of life.”

― Amit Ray, Beautify your Breath — Beautify your Life

Oriental and indigenous philosophies understand the breath to be the soul. They recognise the power of the breath, how it has the supremacy to lift or depress our spirit and how it pedals energy in and out of the body. They have great ceremonies and practices such as yoga or meditation that celebrate the breath as nature, as the wind of the air and the wave of the water.

It is revered as the path towards enlightenment, God or the highest self — a secret the West has long forgotten.

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The West continues without a narrative or even a proposal that brings life to the significance of the breath. There are many individuals who are illuminating the way with their information — Deepak Chopra and Steve Maxwell are two I am most familiar with.

But, so long as we remain apathetic, even spiteful, towards nature, the wind and the body, we will never truly be able to appreciate the great power of the breath.

“Your breathing should flow gracefully, like a river, like a water snake crossing the water, and not like a chain of rugged mountains or the gallop of a horse. To master our breath is to be in control of our bodies and minds. Each time we find ourselves dispersed and find it difficult to gain control of ourselves by different means, the method of watching the breath should always be used.”

― Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation

Thank you for reading.

H.J. Stead

harry stead