Friday, May 15, 2015

Yogic Breathing as an Esoteric Exercise

silhouette, meditation

Yogic Breathing, or Pranayama

By R. Joseph Capet

The yogic art of breathing, known in Sanskrit as pranayama, deals with more than simply the control of breath; it has to do with the control and balancing of the flow of one's spiritual life force—prana. The esoteric connection between breath/wind and animating spirit in the same word is common to many cultures, as witnessed by the Greek pneuma and the Hebrew ruach, but it has rarely been so thoroughly cultivated as a practical discipline as it has in India.

Pranayama distinguishes four types of breathing: high, low, middle, and complete. High breathing takes place in the chest and upper lungs. It is a superficial kind of breathing which takes in relatively little air—the kind of breathing done when sucking in one's stomach or wearing a tight belt. Low breathing takes place in the abdomen and the lower lobes of the lungs, assisted by the action of the diaphragm. It takes in much more air and absorbs it far more efficiently than does high breathing. Middle breathing, as the name implies, takes place in a zone of the lungs between high and low breathing, partaking of some of the characteristics of both.

In yogic practice, all three of these everyday modes of breathing constitute preparation for complete breathing, which forms the basis of most of the breathing exercises in pranayama. Complete breathing involves the whole of the lungs, but also the whole of the respiratory system. The body breathes as one, and thereby achieves not merely deep breathing, but the deepest possible breathing.

It is interesting to note the parallels between the four types of pranayama breathing and the four conditions of the Self (atman) described in the Mandukya Upanishad. This short text of the first or second century AD distinguishes the waking life directed toward the outside world, the dreaming life of the consciousness turned in upon itself, the sleeping life devoid of thoughts and dreams, and lastly the pure state of absolute consciousness, at one with the universal reality of brahman, which incorporates and transcends the first three conditions.

meditating, breathing

Like the waking life, high breathing is, by itself, superficial and fails to fully utilize the resources of the human being. Like the dreaming life, low breathing is deeper and richer, but associated with laziness and a degradation of posture, represented in this analogy by escapism and withdrawal from the outside world. Like the sleeping life, middle breathing hangs in a precarious balance between the two. Like absolute consciousness, complete breathing incorporates all of the previous stages but goes beyond them to achieve a result which is more than the sum of its parts, and which fully integrates the human being.

The Mandukya Upanishad analogizes the conditions of the Self to the sacred syllable aum, likening the first three conditions to the three letters considered separately, and the fourth condition to the letters taken together to form the fundamental vibration of the cosmos. We might just as easily apply this analogy to the four types of breathing.

This idea of three stages which build to a fourth constituting unity, is not unique to India. Section 42 of the Tao Te Ching states, “The Tao produced One; One produced Two; Two produced Three; Three produced All things.” On the other side of the world, in Greece during the fifth and fourth centuries BC, Pythagoras and his disciples elaborated their notion of the tetractys—a pyramid of numbers represented by dots, with one dot on the top, two on the second row, three on the third, and four on the fourth. The addition of the fourth row made the total number ten, which the Pythagoreans believed to be a higher dimension of unity—a kind of cosmic One.

From the tetractys, Maria Prophetissa, a first century woman who was instrumental in the creation of alchemy, derived her famous axiom 'From the first comes the second, and from the second the third, and from the third comes the fourth as the One', which has been a proverb of European esotericists for centuries. Among them Jakob Boehme, a seventeenth century German mystic, used the axiom to interpret the tetragrammaton—the four Hebrew letters which make up the name of God—noting how the first three letters find their completion in the fourth (which is yod, a repetition of the divine name's first letter) to spell out the name of the ultimate cosmic Unity.

In all of these thinkers we find ever new phrasings of the same spiritual truth that yoga traces upon the very breath. The exercises of pranayama, or yogic breathing, far from being simply about breath control, are thus revealed as the microcosmic gateway to one of mankind's most enduring and universal spiritual teachings—the emergence of ultimate unity from the apparent multiplicity of the universe.

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