An Interview with Richard Rosen

In this interview, Richard Rosen shares his expertise on pranayama from the perspective of a practitioner and a master teacher. He explains the importance of connecting with one’s authentic breath and promises that developing a practice can be meditative and transformative. 

Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): In your classes you pose the question, “Who is the breather?”

Richard Rosen (RR): Yes, it’s like a koan. I don’t ask my students to answer that question or to even think about the answer, but to let the answer emerge through the breath. The breath emerges on various levels, and we see there’s a physical, psychological and spiritual breather. We can talk about the physical level fairly easily. How do you feel when you inhale and exhale? You can’t use the brain to figure that out. You need insight into your personality as a breather. So, I tell my students: “Don’t think about the answer, just ponder the question.” I think that asking, “Who is the breather?” is the same as asking, “Who am I?” That’s a process that keeps going on. There’s no ultimate answer. I’m continuously looking and asking in order to look at myself and figure out who I am.

Watching my breath and watching myself, as the breather, is a two-pronged practice. The breather is a message of who I am. If I listen carefully to the breather, I can start to get some feel. I can listen physically to the sound and also to what comes up from the breathing—meaning, listening in a figurative sense. In the beginning, I don’t think most students grasp the transformative power of breath. Because we breathe from the moment we’re born to the moment we die, we don’t recognize the transformative effect on the body and mind. My practice has been going on for a good, long while—25-plus years. I wish I could say I have some very deep insights but I’m still a work in progress. It’s been a very useful thing to think about the breath. It helps me look at myself day after day, to keep aware and to stay conscious about what I’m seeing, what I’m doing and my daily behavior.

IYM: What does it mean to “control” the breath?

RR: I don’t like to use the word “control” in reference pranayama. I know that the Sanskrit term for pranayama is often translated as, “control of the breath.” But, I think the breath has an innate intelligence. If we allow it to lead us in the practice, we can learn a lot about ourselves in the process. I don’t think it’s a good idea to try and control the breath. Control comes from the brain and the ego. Breathing is a deeper process; we need to cooperate with the breath. I like to think about pranayama as having three steps.

The first step is conscious breathing—you don’t really do anything except to observe the breath. Do that for a good, long while so you get to physically know yourself—how you breathe, your breathing idiosyncrasies. You have an identity as a spouse, a friend, a worker, but you also have an identity as a breather. You have to understand a bit about that breather before you do anything about it. This first stage is very important.

Next, is to begin to work with the breath. Once you have a basic sense of your identity as a breather, you can begin to work with the breath using traditional, time-tested techniques—whatever your Yoga school teaches. The third stage is spontaneous breath, in which a technique isn’t needed. It’s like crossing the river with a boat—once you get to the other side, you don’t need the boat anymore. That’s what Patanjali called “the fourth breath.” He said there are three everyday phases: inhalation, exhalation and the pause between the two. The fourth breath is the breath that comes on its own. There’s nothing you can do; you have to wait for it to come to you.

IYM: What else should we know?….

Read the rest of this article in the Fall 2010 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.