The feather flew, not because of anything in itself
but because the air bore it along.
Thus am I, a feather on the breath of God. –Hildegard of Bingen
Introduction: Holotropic Breathwork
Throughout history, human beings have gone to great lengths in search of a unitive or “mystical” experience with Something greater than themselves. Risking poisoning or permanent neural damage, seekers in many cultures ingest psychotropic substances. Others fast to the brink of starvation. Some seek ecstatic union though intense pain, or prolonged sexual arousal, or a combination of the two. Some seekers push the physical limits of the body and mind through prolonged meditation or yogic exercise. Others seek a “runner’s high” to the detriment of their knees and spines. Any of these methods will in fact work; yet none of them is necessary. You can simply breathe.
But breathing is never really simple. Our breath bears our emotional history and is a playing field for our flirtations with both Eros and Thanatos. While our relationship with our breath is often barely conscious, the quality and form of our breathing enhances and communicates much about our emotional state. As children, we hold our breath to get what we want; breath steels and expresses our will. When we are frightened, we gasp for breath sharply with the upper chest; breath influences and expresses our anxiety level. When we sleep, exercise, concentrate, make love, or meditate, our breath takes on again other patterns to support our activities.
My own first memory of breath is as a two- or three-year old, breathing heavily in the sweaty aftermath of a nightmare. Then there were childhood asthma attacks, likely due—at least in part—to my parents’ in-house smoking and the air quality of Staten Island in the 1970’s. To overcome the asthma, I struggled with breathlessness through several painful and humiliating summers on a local swim team, at first unable to complete a single lap and hanging panting against the wall of the pool. Finally, the weakness was broken and my breath became strong… just in time for me to pick up smoking myself, smoking several packs of cigarettes a day, until I eventually quit and took up yoga and breath practices. The bizarre and surprisingly difficult path of smoking cessation—and the importance of conscious breathing in that process—showed me clearly that the breathing process is much more than a simple exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide: it holds the key to deep and sometimes invisible parts of our identity.
In 2009, I was lying on a yoga mat in a friend’s house, the first floor of which had been converted into a spiritual temple. I was with about ten other people, and was about to begin my first session of intense breathwork. After a preliminary orientation, we had begun breathing as we had been instructed: a simple breath pattern, through the mouth, with an emphasis on the inhalation, at a rate of about one breath per second. There was evocative ambient music, candles flickering among the holy figures on the giant, multi-tiered wooden altar, and a wide Taos drum in the center of the room. Our yoga mats were arranged around this drum like the spokes of a wheel.
After what seemed to be only minutes of this breathing, my breath began to take on a life of its own: sometimes deep, fast, and powerful… then shallow and rapid… then the breath would suspend itself for what seemed to be minutes. My hands and mouth contracted into tetany, which I experienced as a euphoric sensation. Soon enough, the tetany subsided. I had entered into an expanded state of consciousness that I came to know very well as I returned time and time again to breathwork.
In this expanded and visionary state I have had several powerful and euphoric encounters with archetypal and personal-biographical figures, experienced the healing of somatic pain, and even had what in the literature of Holotropic Breathwork is called a “perinatal experience,” an experience that seems to touch a memory of our pre-birth life.[i] The intensity and immediacy of these experiences cannot be overstated. These experiences, when they come, seem to originate from a deeper level of what’s really real than do the events of my external life. Needless to say, these experiences now figure strongly in how I understand the world around and within me.
Tradition as well as experience and research indicates that conscious work with the breath can help heal emotional and even physical pain and disease, and can vitalize our body/mind complex in ways that are so extraordinary that I hesitate to describe them… you simply wouldn’t be likely to believe me. Many of these practices have historically been taught in connection with faith traditions or spiritual systems such as yoga, and have been handed down from master to disciple in ways meant to protect the disciple (or the uninitiated) from psychological or physical harm.
The Abrahamic Faith Traditions and the Sacredness of Breath
It turns out that Holotropic Breathwork is but a very recent development of a millennia-long history of breath practices that we humans have discovered and utilized to enter states of expanded consciousness and divine union. In spirituality circles it has been en vogue for a few decades now to point out that the words for “breath” and “spirit” in several scriptural languages are related: ruach in Hebrew, ruh in Arabic, pneuma in Greek, and spiritus in Latin. From this last, we have in English words like “inspire/inspiration” and “expire/expiration” that carry dual meanings relating both to breath and to spirit in various forms (creativity, vitality).
Historically, breath and expanded consciousness have been strongly linked, and these links have often been expressed through faith traditions. The Name of God (ha Shem[ii]) given to Moses in the Biblical book of Exodus, YHVH, is thought by some Scripture scholars to represent the sound of breath itself: the YAH sound representing an inhalation, the VEH sound representing an exhalation. The very breath, then, is a holy mantram; each breath is, whether we intend it or not, a calling out of the Holy Name. This also means that the first thing we utter—and the last thing we say (before expiring)—is the Name of God. The Name of God is breath.
In one of the two creation stories in the Book of Genesis God takes the human figures created out of clay and breathes into them. Breath, which vitalizes the human being, carries with it something of the Divine presence and identity; to breathe upon, or into, something is to share life essence with that something. This link between breath and ha Shem remains in Judaism: as one example, a recent book of Jewish prayers translated into English by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi carries the title, All Breathing Life Adores Your Name.[iii]
Mystical Christianity has taught for over 1500 years that attentiveness to the breath opens one up to the presence of God. The Hesychastic tradition of Christian meditators (alive and well worldwide these days, and centered on Mt. Athos in Greece) teaches that one can experience the Kingdom of God within oneself:
Try to enter your inner treasure-house and you will see the treasure-house of heaven. For both the one and the other are the same, and one and the same entrance reveals them both. The ladder leading to the kingdom is concealed within you, that is, within your soul.[iv]
This inner treasure-house is the human heart, which is entered/opened through the breath:
Breathing is a natural way to the heart. And so, having collected your mind within you, lead it into the channel of breathing through which air reaches the heart and, together with this inhaled air, force your mind to descend into the heart and to remain there… then a [person] sees that the kingdom of heaven is truly within us…[v]
In Islamic Sufism, too, breath is seen as a bearer of, and conduit of, the presence of the Divine. Sufi poets such as Hafiz al-Shirazi, Rumi, Saadi, Attar, and others, speak of “the fragrance of God” which, of course, is sniffed in with the breath. One of the main metaphors for the human being is the reed flute, which God presses with divine lips and through which God blows the holy breath. For its part, the flute exists in a state comprising both moments of the ecstatic with a deep longing for the reed-bed, for full divine communion as was known before it was “cut” or individualized. And within the breath itself lies the essence of that divine ecstasy that is searched for but can never be the object of a search:
Here’s the new rule: Break the wineglass
And fall toward the Glassblower’s breath.[vi]
Breath Practice and the Erotic
Why is it, you may ask, that breath-based spiritual practices are not part of the curriculum in every yeshiva, mosque and Sunday school in America? One guess is that the silence around these methods among the masses of the faithful has less to do with theology and more to do with the traditionally body-denying cultures within which these traditions came to reside. At some point, as Western cultures came more and more to take on the viewpoints of Modern philosophy and the Cartesian paradigm, such practices ceased to make sense. Then as discomfort with embodiment (sexuality, death, particularity, etc.) came more and more to define the Western mind and spiritual paradigm, such practices became either feared (if their powerful effects were remembered) or dismissed and ridiculed (if their powerful effects were forgotten). One early example of such ridicule comes from the theologian Barlaam the Calabrian (14th century, well before modernism!) who coined the term “navel gazers” (Greek: Omphaloscopoi) in his attacks upon the Hesychasts.
When you ride the breath into an experience of expanded consciousness, there is an undeniably erotic flavor informing the experience. Notice, for example, how breath and eroticism are linked in the poetry of the medieval Spanish Jewish mystic Yehuda Halevi:
Since the day we parted,
I have found nothing that is like your beauty.
So I comfort myself with a ripe apple—
Its fragrance reminds me of the myrrh of your breath,
Its shape of your breasts, its color
Of the color that used to rise to your cheeks.[vii]
The intensity of the experience of the divine union achieved through breath work makes the material world and the suffering it brings bearable, perhaps even meaningful by simultaneously filling it with meaning and relegating its goings-on to a non-ultimate position in comparison to the Really Real, the sacred breath. As the Sufi poet Sanai writes:
Someone who keeps aloof from suffering
is not a lover. I choose your love
above all else. As for wealth
if that comes, or goes, so be it.
Wealth and love inhabit separate worlds.
But as long as you live here inside me,
I cannot say that I am suffering.[viii]
There is a consonance here, too, with Christian mysticism of the breath. For the hesychasts, “God appears to the mind in the heart, at first as a flame purifying its lover.”[ix] Traditional Christian mystical texts have always affirmed that the mystical life is rooted in the erotic life,[x] and has found in erotic poetry one of the highest vehicles for the expression of divine union.[xi] It is highly likely that these Christian theologians (such as Gregory of Nyssa or (Pseudo-) Dionysios the Areopagite) cut their mystical teeth on breath practices. And I can affirm from my own experiences using breath as a spiritual tool that such methods highlight the erotic nature of divine union: religio as conjunctio. If you want to take a vicarious look at this experience from the outside, simply do an internet search for Bernini’s sculpture The Ecstasy of St. Theresa located in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.
Yoga and the Transformational Power of Prānāyāma
While the Abrahamic faiths have done their part in linking expanded (God) consciousness with breath, it’s likely true that no tradition has done more to elucidate, catalog, or meticulously describe the use of breath for spiritual growth than the yogic traditions of India.
I salute Lord Hanuman, Lord of the Breath,
Son of the Wind God—
Who bears five faces and dwells within us
In the form of five winds or energies
Pervading our body, mind, and soul,
Who reunited Prakriti [Matter] (Sita) with Purusha [Spirit] (Ram)—
May he bless the practitioner
By uniting his vital energy—prana—
With the Divine Spirit within.[xii]
The poem above says a lot about the traditional Indian understanding of breath. Breath is the bearer of prana, the vital energy of life. There are five pranas, or vital breaths, within the human being, each with a different field of activity.[xiii] Working with our own breath helps balance and enhance these vital energies to elicit health, joy, and eventually, mystical communion “with the Divine Spirit within.”
Prānāyāma, the control of the breath (really, of the life essence which is carried upon the breath) is one of the eight traditional limbs of yoga. There are hundreds of methods of prānāyāma, devised to enhance very particular aspects of one’s being and/or address very particular weaknesses in the physical, emotional, intellectual, or psychological being of the yogi.[xiv] Practitioners claim that directing the breath in particular ways can build and enhance cross-hemispheric functionality of the brain as well as optimize the function of glandular systems and mental and physical performance.[xv]
The whole collection of hatha yoga postures (asanas) are, in one traditional understanding, useful primarily in preparing the human complex to enter into the practices of prānāyāma, which are considered to be much more powerful than the physical exercises themselves. To put this in perspective, think back to your most intense Power Yoga or Hot Yoga experience—that yoga class that left you sore and sweaty and panting. That class was merely a preparation so that you might endure, and profit from, the power of prānāyāma practices!
Mastery of various forms of prānāyāma is an endeavor requiring years of practice and study. One learns to exercise precise control over inhalation (puraka), exhalation (rechaka), and breath retention (kumbhaka): through building stamina and extremely sensitive muscular control, one can “move” the breath with precision into various areas of the lung, retain the breath for extended periods with fine control over air pressure, and also finely tune the nature, rate, and form of the exhalation, creating a nearly infinite array of possible breath patterns.
The benefits and effects of prānāyāma are nearly unbelievable to those who have not experienced them. Directing the breath into various bodily energy centers can bring about experiences of expanded consciousness or incredible bliss; slow alternate nostril breathing can calm and balance the mind and emotional self; and strong, mouth-based prānāyāma such as is done in breathwork can open levels of experience and consciousness typically thought accessible only through hallucinogens or years in a snowy cave in the Himalayas or upon Mt. Athos. Sound interesting? Here are some starting points to begin gathering your own data on the power of breath…
Getting Started: Jumping into the Experience of Breath
Here then are three entry-level prānāyāma exercises that can give you a first taste of what is eventually possible through the control of breath. I am a certified yoga instructor, but am not a healthcare professional: please check in with your doctor or healthcare professional before beginning any of these practices, and if you become dizzy or ill… stop and rest.
Deergha Swasam (Three-part Yogic Breath): Sit in a comfortable position with a straight spine, either cross-legged on a cushion (making sure knees are lower than the hips) or in a chair with feet on the floor. Rest the hands in the lap. Eyes are closed. Begin by inhaling slowly through the nose into the diaphragm/abdomen. Once the abdomen is full, allow more breath to come into the chest, expanding it forward and outward (i.e., both the front and sides of the chest expand). Finally, bring in even more breath so that the collarbones slightly rise. Let this long inhalation be smooth and gentle-but-firm. Now exhale the same way: let the air come out from the collarbones, from the thoracic cavity, and finally from the abdominal cavity. Fully empty the lungs by bringing the navel in toward the spine. Repeat for ten minutes.
This breath builds lung capacity in a pleasant way (there are really tough prānāyāmas that do so in a less-than-pleasant way!). Our typical, unconscious breaths usually involve inhaling about 500 cubic centimeters of air; through a full deergha swasam breath, you will inhale (and expel) about 3000 cubic centerimeters of air. Six times the air means offers six times the oxygen. Aside from fuller oxygenation and removal of toxins, deergha swasam helps steady the emotional state and create a peaceful, alert focus of the mind.
Kapalabhati (Skull-shining Breath, or Breath of Fire): Sit as above. Here you focus on the exhale, which is sharp and brought about by quickly “snapping” the navel in toward the spine. The inhalation will occur naturally as the abdomen relaxes. Build this up so that you can accomplish two or three cycles per second. Both exhalation and inhalation occur through the nose. This breath can be practiced with arms raised to the side at 60 degrees, elbows straight, palms up. Bring the focus of the closed eyes to the point between the eyebrows. Practice for three minutes, then inhale and hold the breath. Finally, exhale and rest for two minutes with hands sweeping down at the sides and coming to rest in the lap. Let the breath return to normal.
According to practitioners of kundalini yoga, this breath builds the aura and cleanses the blood and the lungs. It invigorates the whole body and is great to do as part of your wake-up routine. Although in the early stages of learning this breath we focus our energy and concentration on the exhale, there should be a balance between the exhalation and inhalation so that you do not become breathless.
Nadi Sodhana (alternate nostril breathing): Nadi sodhana is really a family of prānāyāma techniques that focus upon balance and opening of the nadis, energetic channels that are said to exist in the subtle (pranic) body. One typical practice uses alternate-nostril breathing in order to balance and clear the two main nadis (ida and pingala) that intertwine around the main channel (shushumna) that corresponds with the spinal cord. Ida and pingala wrap around the spinal cord/shushumna forming a caduceus. Where the three channels meet, we find energy plexuses known as chakras (wheels).
To perform nadi sodhana, sit again as outlined above. Allow the left hand to rest on the left thigh or lap. The right hand forms a two-pronged pincer, with the index and middle fingers bent into the palm. The extended thumb forms one end of the pincer and the ring finger and pinky, kept together as one finger, form the other. Take a few preparatory deergha swasam breaths, and then after an inhalation, use the thumb to close off the right nostril. Exhale. Inhale. Now use the ring finger-plus-pinky to close off the left nostril and remove the thumb to allow the exhalation to pass through the right nostril. Inhale. Now again block the right nostril and open the left. Exhale and inhale. Continue, gradually working to lengthen the inhalations and exhalations. Once you are comfortable, you can work on having the exhalations last for twice as long as the inhalations. To complete a cycle (let’s say, ten minutes to start), let the right hand return to the lap and the breath return to normal after an exhalation through the right nostril.
This nadi sodhana practice calms the mind and the heart and balances the hemispheres of the brain.[xvi] It builds strength in the lungs as well, especially when one pauses to retain the inhaled breath and then pauses again when the lungs are fully evacuated as part of the practice. Yoga teaches that we alternate which nostril is dominant roughly every 90 minutes (experiment with this; you’ll see it’s about right), corresponding to our natural “switching” between hemispheric brain dominance. Through the practice of nadi sodhana, we simultaneously active both hemispheres of the brain, bringing both balance and deeper connectivity between the hemispheres.
In the fifth chapter of the Chandogya Upanishad (8th – 7th century BCE) the faculties of speech, hearing, seeing, thinking, and breathing have an argument concerning which of them is primary for the human person. These bodily functions[xvii] ask Father Prajapati (the uber-person) which of them is the finest. He answers that the one whose departure leaves the body in the worst case is the primary function. Speech, hearing, seeing, and thinking each in their turn leave; upon their return, they all discover together that the body can still function, albeit with some deficit. When breath determines to leave, however, all the other faculties find they are dragged along with it; indeed, breath is the most important of these.
Aside from its obvious necessity for physical life, the breath expresses and influences our emotional and mental states. The various techniques of working with breath—from traditional pranayama and hesychastic breathing to more modern practices such as breathwalk[xviii] and holotropic breathwork—we can utilize this often-unconscious process to affect our lives physically, mentally, and energetically:
Life is not under your control and the mind is not obedient, but there is something the mind does obey. That is the rate of the breath… [xix]
A breath rate of eight times per minute or less the pituitary starts secreting fully. If the breath is less than four times per minute the pineal gland starts functioning fully and deep meditation is automatic.[xx]
As the mainstream scientific community begins to assimilate the growing body of research that points to our ability to re-wire our brains, breath practices are emerging as one important methodological family from which we can draw in order to actively co-create ourselves and influence the flavor of our life experience. So breathe, breathe, breathe! Whether it’s a slow change in a habitual thinking pattern or an ecstatic experience of divine union that you are seeking, the breath can take you there.
[i] Stanislav Grof. Beyond the Brain: Birth, Death and Transcendence in Psychotherapy (Albany: State University of New York, 1985).
[ii] It is traditional in rabbinic Judaism that the Name of God (YHWH) is never spoken aloud. Rather, God is often referred to as “ha Shem,” literally, “the name.” Interestingly, when the consonants YHWH occur in scripture, “Adonai” (Lord) is often substituted in public reading. This substitution leads to the erroneous pronunciation of “Jehovah” which is formed from the consonants YWHW pointed with the vowels for Adonai to remind the reader to make the substitution. The word “Jehovah” is not possible according to the rules of pronunciation of Hebrew.
[iii] Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. All Breathing Life Adores Your Name (Gaon Books, 2011).
[iv] St. Isaac the Syrian, quoted in E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer. Writings from the Philokalia: On Prayer of the Heart (London: Faber and Faber, 1992), p. 30.
[v] St. Nikephoros the Solitary, quoted in ibid., p. 33.
[vi] Jalal al-Din Rumi, Coleman Barks, John Moyne. The Essential Rumi (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1995).
[viii] Coleman Barks, trans. Persian Poems (New York: Everyman’s Library, 2000).
[ix] Nikephoros the Solitary, quoted in E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer. Writings from the Philokalia: On Prayer of the Heart (London: Faber and Faber, 1992), p. 24.
[x] For instance, see The Life of Moses by Gregory of Nyssa.
[xi] See for example, the poetry of St. John of the Cross or the commentaries on the Song of Songs by St. Bernard of Clairvaux.
[xii] B. K. S. Iyengar. “Invocation” in Light on Pranayama. (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2008).
[xiii] Ibid., p. 12.
[xiv] Ibid., p. 16.
[xv] Gurucharan Singh Khalsa and Yogi Bhajan. Breathwalk: Breathing Your Way to a Revitalized Body, Mind, and Spirit (New York: Broadway Books, 2000).
[xvi] B. K. S. Iyengar. Light on Pranayama. (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2008), pp. 209-210.
[xvii] In Vedantic thought, object-oriented thinking is considered to be a bodily function and is part of the world of matter (prakriti or Shakti) rather than being part of the world of spirit (purusha or Siva).
[xviii] Gurucharan Singh Khalsa and Yogi Bhajan. Breathwalk: Breathing Your Way to a Revitalized Body, Mind, and Spirit
[xix] Sat Purkh Kaur Khalsa, Gurucharan Singh Khalsa, Harijot Kaur Khalsa, eds. Kundalini Yoga: Sadhana Guidelines, 2nd Edition (Santa Cruz, NM: Kundalini Research Institute, 2007), p. 87.
[xx] Ibid., pp. 72-73.