The modern world is in a desperate search for techniques, methods, practices and ways of being which can mitigate the harms and consequences of the average lifestyle at this time. In an era where we are still recovering from a two-year long pandemic that put the brakes on the massive trajectory of our world machine, we were confronted with tough truths. When the world outside is no longer accessible, what do we do? How are we tending to the inner landscape -- the homes in which we live, and the environment which is immediately around us? The yogis -- our original breathwork scientists -- would say that it is through breath training that we don't need to worry any longer about the "world outside". They would say that once our attention is drawn inward, and we start to "tend to the inner landscape" -- the environment of the mind -- our concerns with things beyond and outside of us falls away. To the yogi -- a practitioner of pranayama, among other things -- it is this inner world that grows in beauty and radiance the more care and attention we give to it... and as this beauty and radiance grows, the light begins to overflow and pour out into the world. Although it is not the goal of the practitioner to change the world -- their goal is to bring the life-force back under control of the mind -- the world ends up changing as a result. It is a win-win situation. It is bringing this life-force under control that is the main topic of this post. In addition to discussing the purpose and goal of breathwork practices, we will discuss the tradition in which they are rooted, and the difference between breathwork and pranayama.
Breathwork is becoming more and more popular these days, thanks to the likes of people like Wim Hof. We are coming out with some excellent science backed research to validate the claims made by yogis from over a thousand years ago. We have real life examples of people demonstrating the superhuman potentials we are capable of when the nervous system is well-trained. It's not like the nervous system of the human being has changed much in the past 100,000+ years, since the beginning of early humanity. Our ancient ancestors had very, very similar biological and neurological structures to the ones we now operate with. Which means that breathwork practices, and the beneficial effects of them, are not new. We may be re-discovering them, but we are not inventing them. There are hieroglyphic seals dates back over 3000 years of early humans in postures designed to enhance the flow of breath in the body, implying that these early humans understood the value and importance of breath training. Even though it is becoming more popular, we are not coming out with anything new. We are just lucky that science is catching up!
Understanding the roots of breathwork can help us understand the true goal of these practices. Why would anyone want to sit down and spend 10, 20 or 30 minutes dedicated to breath training? What I want to share with you today comes from my own inquiry as to why breath training is important. As someone who (except for the very, very rare occasion where it was simply not possible) has dedicated every morning over the past 7+ years to deliberate breath training, my most simplified conclusion is that breath is THE essential nutrient. So my roots come from my practices, but these practices find their roots in the Yoga system from which I have received my training. So what is the goal?
First of all, we must acknowledge the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which is one of the "source" texts to the classical Yoga system. This text, the Yoga Sutras, was the first time in history that Yoga was codified and compiled into a single piece of literature.Secondly, we must acknowledge a second key source text, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, compiled by an early sage of the tradition and disciple of the Hatha Yoga guru Matsyendranath (read here). These two books -- the Yoga Sutras and the HYP, decisively cut through the mire of self-help books and give the reader a complete and succinct manual of human consciousness, the inner mechanics of what we call mind, and an understanding of how to train this (often unruly) mind and the life-force behind it. This is important to note, as we can defer to tradition when it comes to matters of question. Obviously, it is useful to critique and analyze the truths of things, especially "old" things, however I propose to consider the usefulness of what we consider scripture. These books can serve as pointers, suggestions on the path. Like everything else, it is up to us to apply what is suggested, conduct on our experiments, and validate the claims.
I bring this up now, as this distinction -- understanding the tradition in which breathwork is rooted -- gives us a more comprehensive view of its purpose. Back to the questions: why breathwork, and what is its goal?
In the first text on Yoga, the Yoga Sutras, the author describes in the very second sutra that yoga is citta-vrtti-nirodhah. Allow me to translate this Sanskrit: yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of thought. It is implied (and is certainly the case in other spiritual traditions) that cessation of thought is what brings peace to the restless and unsettled mind. The author (Patanjali) goes on to propose that it is when the fluctuations of the mind cease, the seer can then abide in its own true nature. That is to say that the aspect of us which "sees", since it no longer has anything to perch onto, becomes aware of what it is. The soul meets itself, so to speak. While these are indeed metaphysical propositions, through logically reducible argument we can validate the claim for ourselves. However, intellectual proof is not enough. We must experience for ourselves these claims. As it says in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika:
"The practitioner will succeed; the non-practitioner will not. Success in Yoga is not achieved by merely reading books."
"Success is achieved neither by wearing the right clothes nor by talking about it. practice alone brings success. This is the truth, without a doubt."
So, where does that leave us? Talking about it? Shucks.... the yogis are frowning upon us! Let's finish up our discussion so we can get on with it.. and you can join me for one of my online breathing classes :)
So, according to the Yoga Sutras, yoga is the cessation of thought, which leads to consciousness becoming aware of itself (because there is nothing left to be aware OF, other than the very source of awareness). A lofty goal, and one that -- according to the yogis, at least -- the chief goal of human existence.
From what I have seen, it is the discovery of one's self that leads a person into making more aligned life choices. Making aligned life choices can be difficult, especially when we consider the fact that most of us are dealing with a mind that has so many different opinions! The restless and scattered mind (the untrained mind) has us constantly stopping and starting things, following random roads, being endlessly distracted, and otherwise never achieving "the goal". This is why the yogis were huge fans of training the breath. They suggested not to worry about the mind, but to focus on cultivating the life-force through breath control. They wanted to develop mastery over their own life-force so as to direct it towards the highest objective. Even if we don't have the same spiritual goals as the yogis of old, we can still take a page out of their book. I would suggest to look at it like this: self-realization may not necessarily need to be a final resting place or even a distant goal. Rather we may see the ideals of "self-realization" or enlightenment as a process on the path of mastery and living one's purpose. This makes the goals and perspectives of the yogis fit into our modern lives. We need not meditate for years in a cave to reap the profound benefits of breath control! We can dedicate a little time each day to the cultivation of our precious life-force, as propounded by our original breathwork scientists (the yogis), and receive tremendous benefits. This is why discovering who/ what one is, before our belief system is imposed on the mind and personality structure, is so important.
As we make the effort to discover who we are, we might turn to the techniques and methods of the Hatha Yogis, which have been shared over centuries by dedicated practitioners of this ancient art. These methods deal with the energetic channels in the body, which are directly manipulatable through breath control and subtle inner mechanisms outlined by the yogis. This sort of work is what separates breathwork from pranayama. To correctly practice pranayama it is not the huff-and-puff of "breath work". There are additional subtleties which must be present to receive the most (and safe!) benefits. This is where I think much of the breathwork today is lacking. There seems to be an explosion of breathwork practitioners around -- many different trainings, different styles even -- but we seem to have forgotten the tradition in which breathwork has its roots. Examination of the texts will greatly support our efforts, and although we may receive some benefit from the mechanistic aspect of breathwork practices, the yogis suggest that there are far, far greater benefits to be had. If you are anything like me, this is what I am after. Obviously I love receiving the added bonus of health benefits and stress reduction, etc that my breathwork practices have awarded me over the years... but the true fruit of this work comes in the constant re-discovery of who/what I am. Allowing the life-force energy in my body to awaken and move through me as I become more and more identified to the nature that moves in me and less and less identified to the ego structure, which I know will change and disappear in time anyway. Yes, I believe that over time it is possible to find greater and more natural alignment with all of life... beyond the mind. It is not an intellectual endeavor. It is an experience.
Thus, I conclude with my discussion thus far on breathwork practice as to expose further information now is not necessary. I invite you to join me in one of my upcoming online learning opportunities as, after all... it is through practice that all shall be revealed.
See you soon and happy breathing, yogis