Often in life, we overlook the value of the simple and familiar: a kind word, a helping hand, a timely smile. Such everyday gestures impart meaning and a sense of connectedness as we wend our way through time and space. Similarly, the breath is our constant companion, yet seldom do we realize the pivotal connecting role it plays in our existence and the great power and mystery that lie hidden in its effortless flow.

All life on the planet is connected through the breath. We dwell within a common atmosphere, which we continually draw into ourselves, process, and then give back to. We exchange molecules and partake of one another through this flow of energy. Perhaps some of the molecules that were within a butterfly a few moments ago, or were part of the Buddha over 2000 years ago, are now circulating as our own body or mind. The simple act of breathing renders us all intimately connected, and not separate, distinct entities. As Swami Satchidananda used to say, “We are cells of one universal body.”

Breath is our very life. In the Bible we read that God formed Adam out of inert matter and breathed life into him. Approximately fifteen times per minute, or 21,600 times a day, the Higher Power continues to do so in each of us today. With each exhalation, we are on the brink of “expiration.” If it didn’t return, we’d die. Yet, without any forethought on our part, the Higher Power keeps sending it back as long as there’s more for us to do.

When we inhale, along with the air, we take in prana, the vital energy that sustains all creation. While we can live for minutes without air, we wouldn’t even survive a moment without prana. We also obtain prana from the sun, water, and food we consume. It is the life force that permeates and animates every particle of the universe. Wherever there is movement on any level—from the most outer, gross, physical movements to the most inner, subtle, mental ones—it is powered by prana.

The movement of the earth through the heavens, the wind blowing through the trees, the ebb and flow of the tides, the gasoline that powers a car, the electricity that charges a computer, the physiological processes that maintain the life of an organism—are all expressions of prana. Even the passage of thoughts through the mind is made possible by prana. It is prana that causes all the movements within an individual—both physical and mental. So, by controlling the pranic currents within, we can optimize our physical and mental well-being.

The goal of Yoga is to still the mind so we can experience the supreme peace and joy that is our true nature. This is the most challenging task, one that has been compared to trying to tame a drunken monkey that has been bitten by a scorpion. While it may be very difficult to directly control the mind, if we can regulate the energy that moves the thoughts, we will have found an indirect route for achieving our goal.

The control of the prana is accomplished through the yogic science of pranayama, which involves regulating the breath. We focus on the breath because it is a grosser, external manifestation of the prana. By controlling it, we gain control of the subtler prana within.

Additionally, among all our physiological processes, the breath is unique in that it can be either voluntary or involuntary. Our entry point is voluntary control, and this, in turn, gives us access to controlling the so-called involuntary functions within. Adept yogis have demonstrated that even the heartbeat and brainwaves can be altered, or even stopped, if one knows how to direct the prana.

When we learn how to control the prana within, we gain mastery over the cosmic prana as well. Our bodies are a microcosm of the universe. The same laws that govern the prana within our bodies pertain in the macrocosm as well. Picture a group of scientists who wish to learn about seawater. It would be impossible for them to bring the entire ocean into their laboratory. Instead, they analyze the water in a small beaker, with the understanding that the water in the ocean would be the same. Similarly, within the laboratory of our spiritual practice, our bodies are like little beakers of the cosmic prana. We learn about the cosmic force within ourselves, and it is the same force that is functioning on other levels throughout the universe.

There are three basic ways we can relate to the breath: Through pranayama, we regulate it. For pain management and pranic healing, we visualize and direct it. As a meditation practice, we observe it.

Regulating the Breath

The science of pranayama offers techniques that can energize, strengthen, detoxify, relax, and heat or cool the body. There are methods to calm, balance, fortify, focus, and uplift the mind. Through regular practice, the dormant spiritual energy within, known as kundalini, is awakened leading to an expanded state of awareness. All this is possible simply from working with the breath.

Sri Gurudev was once asked if it was better not to do pranayama in cities where there was a lot of pollution. He responded that even if the air was polluted, the prana always remains pure. And, he added, that is why we continue to be able to live in such challenging environments.

In speaking to a group dealing with HIV, the main practice Sri Gurudev recommended was to incorporate the basic three-part, deep, diaphragmatic breathing, known as dirgha svasam, throughout the day in order to rebuild the immune system. This simple technique, the foundation of all the other breathing practices, fills the lungs to capacity and empties them thoroughly, supercharging the system with oxygen and prana. The lymph system, which detoxifies the cells, is activated by deep breathing, so elimination of poisons and wastes is enhanced. The movement of the diaphragm also produces a gentle massaging action that improves the functioning of the heart and the various organs in the abdominal cavity.

For healing, in general, Gurudev recommended working up gradually to three, 30-minute pranayama sessions per day. Unless contraindicated by one’s condition, a routine that involved three to five rounds of rapid diaphragmatic breathing (either kapalabhati or bhastrika), followed by five to ten minutes of alternate nostril breathing (either nadi suddhi or sukha purvaka), would be ideal. Your choice of technique would depend on whether or not you were ready to include retention in your practice.

Regulating the breath can also be a powerful tool for managing stress. The body, breath, and mind are the same stuff at different densities or rates of vibration—like ice, water, and steam. The breath is the intermediary level. As such, it is the link between the body and mind. Everything that is happening within, both physically and mentally, is expressed through the flow of the breath. And the reverse is also true: By controlling the breath, we can affect what’s happening within.

When faced with stressful situations, we move into a pattern known as chest breathing. Unlike deep diaphragmatic breathing, our breathing tends to become shallow, unsteady, and localized higher in the chest. This pattern is part of the “fight or flight” mechanism. At such times, if we take pause, observe the breath, and then consciously make it slow, steady, and deep as in dirgha svasam, we can induce a relaxation response. In a more relaxed state, we will be able to more skillfully deal with the situation at hand.

When stressed, we can also get stuck in that mode of functioning, or side of the brain, that is dominant for us. An experiment was done that demonstrated that when the breath flows through the left nostril, there is an increase in blood flow and electrical activity to the right side of the brain; when it flows through the right nostril, there is a corresponding reaction on the left side of the brain. Given these findings, alternate nostril breathing could potentially be helpful for regaining balance and enabling us to see a fuller range of options in stressful situations.

Intuitively, we know that the breath and mind go together, and employ this principle regularly in daily life. If someone is angry, for example, the breath becomes correspondingly agitated. Our common advice is to tell the person to take a few deep breaths. As the breath becomes slower, deeper, and more regular, the mind, too, calms down.

Because of the correlation between the mind and the breath, regulating the breath figures prominently as preparation for meditation. The best preparation for meditation is pranayama: three to five rounds of rapid diaphragmatic breathing, followed by five to ten minutes of alternate nostril breathing. The rapid breathing energizes the system and makes the mind very alert; the alternate breathing then harmonizes and balances the energy. This combination gets the mind into optimal condition to focus well and go deep.

Directing the Breath

Directing the breath is an effective technique for pain management. Simply send the incoming breath to the area of distress and release the pain with the exhalation. Once a young child was nearly hysterical with an intense itching rash. Together, we focused on bringing in cool, soothing air, directing it to all the “itchies,” and then sending out the “itchies” with the breath. Within ten minutes, the child was totally calm and went outside to play.

I’ve had numerous experiences that attest to the benefit of this practice. Years back, I underwent a colonoscopy. I did not wish to have any anesthetic and asked to be positioned so that I could view all the monitors, which displayed heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen perfusion levels of blood. I asked the doctor what the proper range was for each. Whenever I felt any pain or saw an indicator go out of range, I focused two or three breaths on the problem area, and the situation quickly resolved.

I became so absorbed in this experiment that, at one point, I blurted out, “Far out!” This was followed by the doctor softly intoning, “No, far in.” He was so intrigued by my enthusiasm that he offered to extend the tour so that I could see my appendix. As interesting as the experience was, I was eager for it to be over. But not wanting to disappoint him, after a slight hesitation, I was able to agree.

Consider using the breath to cope with any discomfort at your next dentist appointment. Inhale and send the energy of the breath to the painful area. Feel the breath surround, fill, and absorb all the painful sensations. Then, release them with the exhalation. It can work surprisingly well in those trying circumstances.

Whenever you direct your thoughts to an area, you also send the prana there. You can use this principle to effect tremendous healing. Sri Gurudev used to say: “All that you need to heal are prana and mantra”— divine energy and vibrations.

You can visualize prana flowing into the body with the breath. Or, you can visualize prana in another form—such as light, sound, fire, or water—and imagine it entering through the top of the head, flowing down the body, going to the area in need, and doing its healing work. For example: you can visualize fire burning up any toxins, or water washing away the impurities. Then, visualize all the problems exiting through the soles of the feet. All forms of touch for health, psychic healing, or distance healing—knowingly or unknowingly—use this principle of mentally directing the pranic force.

Observing the Breath

Observing the breath is a wonderful approach for formal meditation and for maintaining peace in daily life. Consider the three levels of our being—body, breath, and mind. The body is mostly the product of the past. The mind fluctuates between the past and future, landing on the present moment intermittently as it whirls about. The breath, however, is always in the now. When we link our attention to the breath, our awareness becomes established in the present moment. We spiral out of control due to memory and anticipation. We can summon an enormous capacity to cope simply by staying in the moment. The mind becomes concentrated and gains power.

There are various ways to meditate on the breath. You can observe the movement of the abdomen, the airflow at the nostrils, the pauses at the bottom of the exhalation and the top of the inhalation, or the corresponding energy movement along the spine. You can listen to the sound of the breath as it flows in and out. Whichever approach you choose, the breath will lead you to a deeper state of awareness and stillness. When the mind becomes very calm, a subtle inner heat is generated. This warmth then awakens the kundalini—the storehouse of cosmic prana within. Once that is awakened, our consciousness expands; the body, senses, and mind come under our control, culminating in realization of our true nature.

Messages in the Breath

The resounding message of the breath is: connection. The breath is the subtle thread that runs throughout creation. It is our primary connection to life. It connects our inner world with the outer. It is the link between the body and the mind. It is a gateway through which our everyday consciousness can enter higher awareness.

Additionally, the breath can either be voluntary or involuntary. It’s as if another message has been encoded in our system, a constant reminder in the flow of the breath, telling us that we have a choice: We can function in an unconscious, involuntary way, or we can exert proper effort and gain control and mastery. In other words, bondage or liberation is in our hands. That is the message that lies hidden in the breath.

About the Author:

Swami Karunananda is a senior disciple of Sri Swami Satchidananda. In 1975, she was ordained as a monk into the Holy Order of Sannyas. She has had over 40 years experience teaching all aspects of Yoga and specializes now in workshops, retreats, and teacher training programs that focus on the science of meditation, the philosophy of Yoga, personal transformation, and Yoga breathing techniques for better health and wellbeing. She developed, and for 25 years has taught, the Integral Yoga Teacher Training programs in Raja Yoga and in Meditation.

Swami Karunananda served as president of Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville in Virginia and in California, as well as director of the Integral Yoga Institutes in San Francisco and in Santa Barbara. She currently serves on the Board of Trustees, and as the chairperson of the Spiritual Life Board at Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville, Virginia.

Interested in fostering interfaith understanding and harmony, she is featured in the interfaith documentary entitled, With One Voice. She also compiled and edited the Lotus Prayer Book, a collection of prayers from various faith traditions, and Enlightening Tales as told by Sri Swami Satchidananda. She served as contributing editor for The Breath of Life: Integral Yoga Pranayama, as well as a senior writer for the Integral Yoga Magazine. In her book, Awakening: Aspiration to Realization Through Integral Yoga, she describes the spiritual path and provides guidance for the journey.

Source: Awakening: Aspiration to Realization through Integral Yoga by Swami Karunananda