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Living the Yoga Life: Breath

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The breath is the very basis for our existence. Breath is the power of birth and death, the determiner of all that occurs to us in this world. Even more: it is the basis of our sadhana.

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Breath and life are identical. When there is breath there is life, and when there is no breath, there is death. In Sanskrit a single word–prana–is used for both breath and life. Breath is the prime trait of all sentient beings. It is an absolute.

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It is good to keep in mind when reading translations from Sanskrit or Sanskrit-based languages that “breath” is a translation of “prana.” Sometimes prana means the physical breath, sometimes it means the subtle internal energy and at other times it means both. So we should carefully consider this when studying any text in which “prana” or “breath” occur.

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The breath is intimately connected to our consciousness, to our Atman-Self, the word “Atman” coming from the root at which means “to breathe.” So the Atman is the breather. This is why breath is always a part of authentic yoga meditation practice. The breath is a reflection of our state of consciousness at all times. It is a kind of spiritual weather gauge.

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The breath rises from the Self, so the Self is the seat (sthan) of the breath. That is why we observe the breath in meditation. It arises from the chidakasha, from the internal paramananda (supreme bliss), the paramashanti (supreme peace). The inmost, subtle breath makes the subtle sounds of the atma-mantra “Soham” by its very movement.

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The psychological effects of the breath can be perceived especially in yoga practice. There is no doubt that yogis of prolonged practice breathe differently from non-yogis–not just during meditation, but also outside meditation. Yogananda insisted that the quality of a yogi could be gauged by his breathing, and I have found it to be so. My breathing changed fundamentally–not intentionally, but purely automatically–very soon after I began practicing yoga meditation.

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Through the breath the inner life is opened and becomes accessible to us.

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Artificial and strenuous breathing exercises are not authentic yoga, but are in the realm of physical culture called Hatha Yoga. Although they can in time produce some minor psychic abilities, they have no real substance, and therefore no real benefit.

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There is an inner and outer breath. The outer breath moves the lungs as it flows in and out. The inner breath moves inside in a movement that approximates inhalation and exhalation, but there is no movement of the lungs. Rather, it moves completely independently on its own. The diligent yogi experiences this for himself. There is no need to cultivate or practice it, it arises spontaneously and all the yogi need do is perceive it.

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As long as the breath is an external matter involving drawing in air from outside through the nose and holding it in the lungs, etc., it is not pranayama. Only when the breath becomes a fully internal process, a movement of the inner pranic forces through the subtle nadis, is it pranayama. Until then it is no more than Hatha Yoga breathing. We should not spend years on gross breathing in the hope of suspending the breath or “conquering the breathless state” in some unspecified future. Breathlessness certainly can occur, but the really important condition is that of the internalization of breathing. The external breath is a small river, and the internal breath is the sea which we must cross to the Other Shore of the union of jivatman and Paramatman.

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Yogis realize that the breath is not a mere physical function, necessary though it is for the maintenance of life in the body. Rather, it is a manifestation of the prana which is the substance of the living universe itself. Vivekananda has explained that if we want to get hold of our inner being, the antakharana, the subtle energy mechanism upon which our manifested existence depends, we must work with the breath.

In Raja Yoga, he says this in the second chapter: “Breath is like the fly-wheel of this machine, the body. In a big engine you find the fly-wheel first moving, and that motion is conveyed to finer and finer machinery until the most delicate and finest mechanism in the machine is in motion. The breath is that fly-wheel, supplying and regulating the motive power to everything in this body.

“There was once a minister to a great king. He fell into disgrace. The king, as a punishment, ordered him to be shut up in the top of a very high tower. This was done, and the minister was left there to perish. He had a faithful wife, however, who came to the tower at night and called to her husband at the top to know what she could do to help him. He told her to return to the tower the following night and bring with her a long rope, some stout twine, pack thread, silken thread, a beetle, and a little honey. Wondering much, the good wife obeyed her husband, and brought him the desired articles. The husband directed her to attach the silken thread firmly to the beetle, then to smear its horns with a drop of honey, and to set it free on the wall of the tower, with its head pointing upwards. She obeyed all these instructions, and the beetle started on its long journey. Smelling the honey ahead it slowly crept onwards, in the hope of reaching the honey, until at last it reached the top of the tower, when the minister grasped the beetle, and got possession of the silken thread. He told his wife to tie the other end to the pack thread, and after he had drawn up the pack thread, he repeated the process with the stout twine, and lastly with the rope. Then the rest was easy. The minister descended from the tower by means of the rope, and made his escape. In this body of ours the breath motion is the ‘silken thread;’ by laying hold of and learning to control it we grasp the pack thread of the nerve currents, and from these the stout twine of our thoughts, and lastly the rope of Prana, controlling which we reach freedom.”

This is why Paramhansa Nityananda said: “Those who do not concentrate on breath have no aim, no state, no intelligence and no fulfillment.” Anandamayi Ma said: “Nothing can be achieved without cultivation of the breath.”

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Liberation of the spirit is the liberation of the breath from downward polarization to upward polarization. Right away in his practice the yogi should become aware that through his breath the subtle prana is being steadily moved upwards. This leads in time to the yogic state known as urdhvareta, in which the pranas always predominantly flow upward into the Sahasrara chakra (corresponding to the brain) where liberation is experienced and the senses are transcended. This is peace.

Next in Living the Yoga Life: India and Sanatana Dharma

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About to Living the Yoga Life–Perspectives on Yoga

Living the Yoga Life–Perspectives on Yoga

Living the Yoga Life–Perspectives on Yoga: Introduction

    1. Living the Yoga Life: Climbing the Ladder of Consciousness
    2. Living the Yoga Life: Sanatana Dharma, Sanatana Yoga
    3. Living the Yoga Life: The Atman/Self
    4. Living the Yoga Life: Bhakti and Jnana
    5. Living the Yoga Life: Brahman
    6. Living the Yoga Life: Ishwara
    7. Living the Yoga Life: Breath
    8. Living the Yoga Life: India and Sanatana Dharma
    9. Living the Yoga Life: The Importance of Independence
    10. Living the Yoga Life: The Intelligent Path
    11. Living the Yoga Life: The Internal Life
    12. Living the Yoga Life: Japa and Sound (Shabda)
    13. Living the Yoga Life: Japa with the Breath
    14. Living the Yoga Life: Jnana
    15. Living the Yoga Life: The Jnani
    16. Living the Yoga Life: Karma and Karma Yoga
    17. Living the Yoga Life: Kundalini
    18. Living the Yoga Life: Liberation
    19. Living the Yoga Life: It Is All Up To Us
    20. Living the Yoga Life: Madness, Divine and Worldly
    21. Living the Yoga Life: Manas (Mind) and Buddhi (Intelligence/Intellect)
    22. Living the Yoga Life: Buddhi Yoga
    23. Living the Yoga Life: True Masters (And Not)
    24. Living the Yoga Life: Maya
    25. Living the Yoga Life: Meditation
    26. Living the Yoga Life: Prana
    27. Living the Yoga Life: Raja Yoga
    28. Living the Yoga Life: Reincarnation
    29. Living the Yoga Life: Religion
    30. Living the Yoga Life: Samadhi
    31. Living the Yoga Life: Sadhana
    32. Living the Yoga Life: Dedication to Spiritual Life
    33. Living the Yoga Life: Self-realization
    34. Living the Yoga Life: Shivashakti
    35. Living the Yoga Life: Spiritual Experience
    36. Living the Yoga Life: The Spiritual Teacher
    37. Living the Yoga Life: Subtle Anatomy
    38. Living the Yoga Life: The World
    39. Living the Yoga Life: Worship
    40. Living the Yoga Life: Yoga, the Body and the World
    41. Living the Yoga Life: Dharma and Adharma
    42. Living the Yoga Life: Yoga–The Supreme Dharma
    43. Living the Yoga Life: Yoga Nidra
    44. Living the Yoga Life: The Yogi
    45. Living the Yoga Life: Some Advice to Yogis
    46. Living the Yoga Life: Qualities of a Yogi
    47. Living the Yoga Life: This and That
    48. Living the Yoga Life: Touch Not
    49. Living the Yoga Life: The Gita Speaks To The Yogi
    50. Living the Yoga Life: How It Is Done
    51. Living the Yoga Life: Use your mind
    52. Living the Yoga Life: Some things it is wise to avoid
    53. Living the Yoga Life: Things you should definitely do and have in your life
    54. Living the Yoga Life: Spiritual Reading
    55. Living the Yoga Life: Gorakhnath Speaks To The Yogi
    56. Living the Yoga Life: And A Final Word From Me
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