Ancient sages inform us that breath is the mirror of our ever flowing emotions. It reflects the way we each perceive and process external stimuli, and how we position our consciousness in relation to it. Because breathing is so intimately interwoven with our mental states, our relationship to our breath can become a transformative tool we can readily engage in affecting the quality of our consciousness, and thus the quality of our life—and death.
The flow of breath through our inner geography maps the ways in which we flow through our external geography. The way our breath behaves within us becomes a dynamic metaphor for the way we move on the outside. Full breaths are characteristic of living a full life, and visa-versa. As our breath becomes more expansive it becomes like great white-water rapids rushing between our material and spiritual planes of existence: a flowing river holding the potential to float our consciousness into the most profound region of our emotions. There we encounter our own divine nature.
The Sanskrit word pranayama is used to describe this remarkable vehicular quality to our breath. Prana refers to our life and ayama implies extension. It points to the inherent potential within our breathing to deliver us to locations beyond our breathing, so that life is extended past impermanence and into the infinite and indestructible realm of Divinity. It is Divinity’s great cosmic breath that effortlessly creates all the impermanent universes with a single exhalation. Vedic creation narratives then inform us that when Maha Vishnu breathes in, the entire cosmos returns into his divine body. Our lives as we know them thus rest in delicate suspension between the in- and out-breaths of God.
Floating upon the five types of universal breaths, or airs; prana, apana, vyana, samana and udana, (Mundaka Upanishad, 3.1.9), our soul acts as a gentle witness to each of our own microcosmic creations, which emerge every time we breathe in and out. From our very first inhalation, to our final exhalation, our movements depend on the circulating of breath. Through mastering our breath we are consequently able to master the directions in which we move; including the destinations we reach after we exit our physical body. The dance between the mastery of breath and the mastery of death is indeed an intimate one. For this reason yogis across all traditions engage in meditative exercises that invite us into this very dance. We know this dance as savasana, or the “corpse pose.” It is within this comforting asana, aimed at embracing the distinctive breathing patterns accompanying death, that we ironically acquaint ourselves with a most seductive quality to our life: its utter indestructibility. Marrying our consciousness with our respiratory rhythms is preparation for taking our final breath, and learning not to resist this process, as the udana air expels our soul from the destructibility of its material body.
Our relationship with life informs us as to what our relationship with death looks like. Our unconscious breathing patterns are like neatly embedded codes containing our chosen lifestyles. Deciphering the messages in our breathing can enlighten us with instructive insights on how we relate to death and dying. Resistance, not only towards death, but also towards life, is quite a common human phenomenon. It threatens the natural flow of breath and expresses itself as shallow and restricted flows, rarely engaging our diaphragm. A still diaphragm points to emotional tension and is detectable as quick and shallow inhalations. During childbirth, resistance can actually kill the new life about to be born. Through conscious breathing a mother lovingly brings forth new life. Similarly, we birth new opportunities for deepening our spiritual practices when we stop resisting the peace and love that naturally rests within us.
A newborn’s breath circulates as it was meant to: the abdominal area contracts and the diaphragm moves up with each exhalation, massaging the heart. Our unconscious resistance to massage our heart, to embrace any experience life places before us, including death, plays itself out in our body. In Ayurveda, it is understood that specific parts of our physical bodies become the storage centers of difficult emotions, like anger and grief, which we subconsciously hold within ourselves. These areas can become very perceptible to us during our practice of asana. But it is only through the breath that we are able to access and release these tensions. The exhalation of breath accompanied by its natural sound helps move out stagnant energies in the body, as well as obstructed visions from our minds. It is a simple practice that can carry us through our most difficult emotions. Through befriending our breath, we simultaneously become intimate with a clear view of our indestructible Self.
In Bhakti Yoga, mastery of the breath connects us with a clear vision, like a candle illuminating our way. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (3.40-41) refer to this as an outward flowing radiance containing the innate potential to touch others. Like a lotus flower gracefully raising the Yoga practitioner above “water, mud, thorns” and other obstacles, the mastery of breath elevates our previously muddy perspectives so we may view life through lenses of pure love: prema bhakti. The bhakta understands that it is only perspective that separates us from love’s realm, for Divine love is always calling out to us. If we listen carefully enough, we will hear this divine calling within the sound of our own breath. Just as the material creation began with sound, so sound shall liberate us from it. Actively engaging the highly potent yet subtle element of sound to adjust our perspectives, we even recognize devastation as fuel for our Yoga practice.
There is perhaps nothing that feels as devastating to the human heart, than the feeling of separation from a loved one. This agonizing experience can be so overwhelming it can feel as if it were about to annihilate us. The more advanced pranayama technique of brahmari, in which the sound of a buzzing bee is imitated, absorbs the bhakta into meditations on the Bhramara Gita, known as “The Song of The Black Bee”, and exercises our capacity to hear divine love songs within every breath we take. The Bhramara Gita is the portion of the sacred Bhagavat Purana that emphasizes the theme of prolonged separation from one’s beloved. This sacred passage captures the sentiments of loving madness that feeds the love between the soul and Divinity during separation.
This prolonged state of separation speaks directly to our own condition in this everyday world: our ever aching for total absorption in love. More specifically, however, it depicts Radha’s longings for Krishna escalating to such climactic intensity during his absence that she hears songs about her beloved being sung in the drone of a buzzing bee! When our perception of love becomes all encompassing, as Radha’s sarvatma-bhava was when she spoke to the black bee, we, along with our breath, become one with love’s eternal flow. Radha, the supreme Goddess of bhakti, then expresses herself to the bee in a beautiful exhalation of pure love that sounds something like a sigh.
The expulsion of breath in the form of a sigh springs from saranagati, or a total offering of one’s self. Our sighs are emotionally charged with our relinquishment of control, or resistance. Peaceful last breaths harmonize with the sentiments in such graceful sighs. Sustained mindfulness on the flow and sound of our breath, without conscious effort to control it softens and calms it, inviting the settling of consciousness. Within this gentle state of surrender we enter the very flow of bhakti’s breath. It is then that our physical location, including existing within our own body, suddenly becomes entirely obsolete, as everything we’ve ever longed for becomes perceivable within us. So how do we reach this state? We begin by noticing our breath.
Though we breathe an average of 18,000 to 30,000 breaths a day, most of them go unnoticed. It is said that our lifespan is measured by the number of breaths we take. For the practicing yogi, it is the quality of our breathing that measures the quality of our life. We shift from ordinary living and breathing, to yogic living and breathing through expanding our consciousness. In wrapping our awareness around our breath we simultaneously move closer to the forces that birth each breath. Are they full, love-breaths that will nourish life? Or constricted fear-breaths that will take from life? In our willingness to carefully observe something as accessible as our very breath, we open ourselves to letting love become the animating force behind every breath we breathe, and consequently, every action we take. Giving oneself to this animating principle of love is at the very core of bhakti, or devotional, Yoga.
The anatomy of bhakti, as illuminated in The Bhakti Sutra of Narada (text 2), indicates three essential elements: The lover, the beloved and the location of pure love (prema) in which the two come together: “It is truly an offering unto him [the Beloved], it is that in which one is wholly devoted, it is pure love, prema, its very nature.” 1 Appropriately, as what sustains our very life, our breath reflects love’s ingredients: Within every inhalation, one encounters Divinity lovingly drawing the bhakta in. Exhalations become one’s offerings of love unto the Divine, and the gentle suspension between the two, where the inflow and the outflow conjunct, becomes the uniting force of Divine Love upon us.
Divine love is a delightful force that cannot take full effect on us unless we let it. This essential volitional element of love is most dramatically represented by our outward flowing breaths, in which we exercise our willingness to give ourselves to love. For this reason exhalations become the most important part of one’s pranayama practice. The bhakti yogi wants to be breathed by love, thus they will lay their very-life breath upon the altar of divine love, of which Krishna informs Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita (4.29).
Arjuna acts out of love. The most prominent characteristic of bhaktas as described in the Bhagavad Gita (6.47) are their pure absorption in making offerings of love unto Divinity. A much more intimate glimpse into this devotional heart is given through the amorous poetry of the Rasa Lila. In this climactic part of the treasured Bhagavad Purana, the cowherd maidens of Vraja known as the Gopis, spontaneously devote their every thought, their every action, their every word and their every breath unto Krishna, the supreme object of their love. This spontaneous offering of the heart is the perfection of samadhi described by Patanjali: Samadhi-siddhi isvara-pranidhanat (2.45): without any conscious effort they offer their all unto Divinity. Within this full absorption in love, one’s entire being is permeated with love’s very essence. Here loving and breathing become one.
The breath of divine love is ever flowing. The perfection of pranayama culminates in an absorption in love so grand it takes our breath away! To be left breathless is a state in which our focus on something captivates us to the point that our involuntary breathing is instantaneously arrested. It hints at the heart’s innate understanding that we live on more than just our own breath. Like a beautiful landscape, the mere sight of our beloved can take our breath away.
Pranayama asks us to relate to our breathing as we would relate to our lover by giving it our undivided attention. Within Bhakti Yoga we align our very soul with this divine breath, letting ourselves be breathed by love. The love mystics of bhakti from antiquity to the present have paralleled a true bhakta’s burning desire to attain prema (pure love) with a drowning person’s desperate longings for a breath of air. The absence of it becomes commensurate with a threat to one’s very existence, and thus breathing love becomes both the way and the goal upon which eternal samadhi itself rests.
As the Sufi mystic Jelaluddin Rumi states:
There is one way of breathing that is
shameful and constricted.
Then there is another way;
A breath of love that takes you
All the way to infinity.
1 This translation is from Dr. Graham Schweig’s forthcoming book, The Bhakti Sutra: Narada’s Concise Teachings on Divine Love (Columbia University Press).
About the Author:
Catherine L. Schweig, RYT, was introduced to Yoga when she was only two years old. In her mid-teens, she formerly took up the practice of meditational and devotional Yoga with teachers in India as well as the West. Catherine, also known as Krishna Kanta Dasi, traveled to India several times, visiting holy places, meeting teachers and deepening her passion for the study of Bhakti Yoga and Eastern philosophy. Together with Graham M. Schweig, PhD, she develops workshops on “The Secret Yoga.” For more information please visit: www.secretyoga.com.