Sample from the Summer 2008 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine

By Catherine Ghosh

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…

Read the rest of this article in the Summer 2008 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.