After listing the nine obstacles for the yogic path (in YS I.30), Patanjali mentions a few means for tackling these obstacles. One of them (YS I.34) is an awareness of the breath which is the core of Pranayama practice:
Prachchhardana vidharanabhyam va pranayama
This is translated by B.K.S. Iyengar as:
“Or, by maintaining the pensive state felt at the time of soft and steady exhalation and during passive retention after exhalation“
It is indeed remarkable that Patanjali recommends awareness to the flow of the breath as a mean to overcome the impediments.
The Buddha in the discourse on the establishments of the foundation of mindfulness (The Satipatthana Sutta) also recommends awareness to the breath as a mean for Sati or mindfulness.
The breath is indeed a marvel! On the surface, it is just another physiological process to ensure the continuation of our lives. However, a closer inspection reveals the uniqueness of this process. The breath is both voluntary and involuntary. It happens on its own and doesn’t need our conscious intervention. But, unlike the other involuntary physiological processes of our body, we can become aware of the breath and also modify it! We don’t really feel the secretion of insulin by our pancreas, or the digestive juices secreted by our stomach, but, we can know that we are inhaling as we do so, and can be aware of our exhalation as we breathe out.
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This unique accessibility of the breath to our conscious awareness opens a gate for deep introspection and reflection.
Try this now:
Exhale softly and steadily and then pause for a passive retention – just observe this state of retention after exhalation. What happens? How does the next inhalation occur? What force directs the respiratory muscles to contract for the next inhalation? Observe this with the utmost curiosity; as if this is your first breath, as if you have never breathed before. Just wait there without making any willful effort to inhale nor to resist the inhalation when it comes, and ask yourself, what brings about this next inhalation? How does it happen? If I don’t do it myself, then who does?
This is indeed a wonder! A mystery! Don’t take for granted that the inhalation will occur, maybe it won’t; definitely one day it won’t. However, so long as you live, this miracle happens again and again, a dozen times every minute, whether we are aware of it or not.
The answer of yoga to this mystery is that there is a cosmic energy, called Prana – the cosmic life force, the source of all vitality – and this energy makes us breathe. What really is Prana? You can get a glimpse of it by careful observation of the “passive retention after exhalation.” Such observation and exploration through an awareness of the breath can bring deep insights, which may help to overcome obstacles, difficulties, confusion and doubt that we may encounter on our way.
The breath is indeed a great object to look at and explore, since in a sense, it resembles and reflects our life situation. Most of what happens in our life is beyond our control, however, we do have some control. We cannot control the way in which we came into this life, or the family we were born into, nor the body we got. We cannot control the aging process, the passing of time or the decay of our body. Yet, to a certain extent, we can choose our path in life; we can choose to foster some qualities and to subdue others. And to a certain extent, we can control our reactions to life’s eventualities.
A careful examination of the natural flow of our breath, as well as gentle manipulation of it, as done in the practice of Pranayama, can teach us a great lesson about Life itself. We get a glimpse into a process, which on one hand, is beyond our control, while on the other, can be affected and modified. We can retain the breath for a minute or two, but at some point, the natural impulse to breathe will take over; or, in yogic terms, the force of Prana will take over and make us breathe (it’s said that it’s impossible to commit suicide by holding the breath because of this reflex). Essentially, it’s a force beyond our control, much as Life is. This is a very liberating realization. We can’t control everything; we can let go and just go with the flow of life…
The breath can also soften our strong identification with the idea of ‘self’. We all have a concept of self that is running the show of our life. It is a very solid concept that we are very attached to and identified with. We have an idea of a solid, independent and constant ‘I’ or ‘me’. Whether we like or dislike our body, we are very much identified with it. We feel that we own it. If we like it, we are proud of it, but when it betrays us, we are miserable. We also have aversions and clinging to our mind; we are totally identified with it and tend to believe every thought that passes in our mind. However, we don’t have such ownership feeling about our breath, we don’t feel we own it. It comes and goes, and only stays with us for a few seconds; still it’s very essential and liked by all (even those who have breathing difficulties cherish and relish the breath). Or, as Prashant Iyengar puts it:
“All that is ours remains ours, because of the breath which is not ours but for us… It can be described as virgin nature, sublime, noble, divine, magnanimous, glorious, Godly, infinite, metaphysical, ageless, endless, boundless, immutable, indescribable”. .(Yoga Rahasya, Vol 26 No. 2, 2019)
In reality, we are just like a river which is constantly flowing and changing. The cells of our body are constantly changing. Not much of the molecules that constitute our body remain there after a few months. Our thoughts, emotions, sensations and feelings change all the time. We are like a collection of streams in constant motion. However, this reality is not always apparent for us. Through a close and deep awareness of the breath, we can see our inter-dependence with the universe and the impermanent nature of ourselves. At every breath some air molecules penetrate our body and become part of us; a second ago they were external, dead matter, and now they become a part of me, a part of the organic matter that constitutes my cells. At the same time, some CO2 molecules, that were part of me, are exhaled and returned to the environment. Observing closely this flowing, ever changing nature of the breath can teach us a great lesson about anitya (impermanence), which is one of the essential characteristic of the Reality.
Would you see this as an invitation to dedicate some time to just observe your breath?