The Self-Healing Power of Breathing
Learning the Perfect Breath: How to Breathe Optimally
In the language of the Navajo Indians, the word “Nilch’l” translated into the English language means “wind, air or the sky”. Of course, the English translation cannot truly express the depths of Navajo philosophy. For the Navajo, “Nilch’I” represents a god, the Supreme Creator, the infinite, boundless force that communicates between all elements of the natural world. In the Navajo creation myths, this force circulated through the desolate land of dark mists and formed the mountains, the trees, the water and the clouds above; it brought shape and life to nature, and served as a source of nourishment. In India, the winds that circulate through our bodies are known as pranas. The most familiar of these pranas are those which control our inhalation and exhalation, whereby vital substances are carried into our bodies and destructive substances are pushed away. The pranas direct vital elements upwards toward the higher chakras of our heart and crown, 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”. These vital powers bring life to our bodies, and excite our impulses, emotions and desires.
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.”
Rûach is the Hebrew word for “air in motion” or rather “wind, spirit, breath”. Elohim can mean “great” or “god” and thus, Ruach Elohim can translate as the “the breath of God”. The wind then is a symbol of the breath and spirit of God. In the Genesis story, it is said that the Rûach of God moved over the world and began the creation of all living things, and in the story of Noah and the Flood, the wind is the means by which God restored the earth.
“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.”
My purpose for highlighting these examples — and there are many others across the religions and mythologies of the world — is to show that the breath is spirit, and that breathing is a spiritual practice. Not so long ago, the spirit of the breath was alive and active, and the ancient religions understood the breath to be no different to the vibrations, to the waves and weather, of the natural world. The ancients recognised our breath as the primary expression of our energy, and they each had great ceremonies and rituals that celebrated the breath as the path towards enlightenment, God and the highest self. Unfortunately, the modern scientific paradigm, in spite of ancient wisdom, has neglected the spiritual dimension, and it has thus stripped the breath of the traditional sacred notions, reducing it to nothing more than a physical function; the breath no longer contains spirit, the wind no longer a force of God — spirit and God, it is assumed, do not belong in the modern world. Thus at present we are without a narrative, or even a proposal, that brings life to the majesty of the breath.
The contempt for ancient wisdom has created a culture which orientates itself around the mind, emphasising thinking and power and logic; but this is only one aspect of our being, and does not make up the whole. The other aspect is of the body and feeling, which is spontaneous and alive, and which cannot be straightened out with logic or reason. Our ignorance of the body, and the assumption that we exist only in our mind, shows itself physically in our shallow breathing patterns, and in our poor posture and swollen stomachs. As far as I can tell, it seems most people breathe as if they are trying to fill their head with air, rather like inflating a balloon; they take in short and hasty sips of air, and then let the air leak into their chest — and for some people the air only flows as far as the neck. The air is always being held onto, as if the individual is not quite capable of letting go and allowing the breath to flow freely.
The problem here is that the upper quarters of the lungs handle the stress responses, and when you constantly breathe into this area, you put yourself into a state of general nervousness; and even when you are supposed to be relaxed, you will not feel wholly at ease. This endless hyperactivity provides, in the long term, a footing for a variety of illnesses: the greatest concerns being depression and anxiety, which are caused by the continuous contraction and denial of the energy in the body — whether it be excitement, anger, stress or pain — that wishes to express itself. When the breath is weak, so too is the prana, the life-giving force of the body, and thus the body depresses into a lower and flatter posture. A terrible cycle occurs whereby people breathe poorly because they are anxious or depressed, but they become more anxious and depressed because their breathing is poor. The narrow life of the modern body is aggravated by this cycle, by a restraining of the lifeforce within the body; add onto this problem the lack of exercise and the mass consumption of sugar, carbohydrates and caffeine, and also the loss of relationship with nature, and it is not surprising that the modern body has become entirely spiritless and incapacitated.
The breath and mind mirror each other, but, as Iyengar writes, ‘Breath is the king of mind.’ In ancient India, it was said that there are forty-nine types of breath, and they each correspond to a state of mind, to the worries, emotions, passions, and anger of the beholder. These types of breath are compulsive and fitful, and they make us feel ungrounded, that is, dissociated from the body and the earth. Every stress produces a state of tension in the body, for the body is trying to maintain a state of balance in the face of a constant unbalancing force; this bitter struggle brings about a state of exhaustion, and eventually the body becomes vulnerable to disease. Chronic disturbances or imbalances in the breath and the body, therefore are the cause of both physical and psychological illness. Proper breathing restores our inner balance by returning the mind to the vibration of the heart, to the harmony of nature, whereupon scattered thoughts are dissolved and heavy emotions are dispersed. In this way, as the ancients have always known, conscious breathing is not merely a physiological function, but a natural medicine.
Deep breathing is the process of ‘coming down to earth’, for it is rooted in the pelvic floor, at the base of the body, and is accompanied with the feelings of softness and lightness, of being settled and at peace. The breath is not inhaled with force; it is not a matter of ‘trying’ to breathe, or striving for it, or even thinking about; rather it is about feeling into the breath and the body. Nature is doing our breathing for us, she breathes into us — in the same way as God breathed life into Adam when he made man — and our only role is to get out of her way and allow her to move within. Meditation therefore is the practice of being aware of and feeling into the breath as it is happening to us, and not as something we are actively doing; it is the awareness of the delicate balance between the voluntary and involuntary nature of the breath, and of how we work with nature and how nature is working through us.
The depths of the breath depends on the volume of the shape that the air flows into — in the same way as the amount of water in a bottle depends on the measurements of the bottle. So, breathing does not involve the pulling or pushing of air, rather it is the act of creating space for the air to fill. The method therefore begins by allowing the air to ‘fall into’ the sexual organs, the primal brain, and then feeling the torso expand until comfortably heavy; on the exhale, the air ‘falls out’ of the body, whereupon it returns to the wider world. Aspiration ascends through the body and begins with the pelvis; whereas expiration descends the body, withdraws from chest and stomach, and ends with the pelvis. This whole cycle is gentle, and the frequency of each breath is slow and long — the optimal breath rate is said to be around 5–8 breaths per minute, which is much slower than people might have anticipated.
Below is a short summary of a simple approach to meditation:
1. Slowly breath in, and fill stomach and chest in one motion until comfortably full.
2. Pause for a few moments until you feel ready to let go.
3. Gently let go and breath out. (So slowly that you can hardly feel the air coming out of your nose.)
4. Pause for a few moments until feel ready to inhale.
5. Repeat for at least five minutes.
Harry J. Stead