The breath lies at the very boundary between our conscious and our unconscious being. It lies between our thoughts and the whole of our physical, emotional, cellular and metabolic selves. Because it lies there, between, it is a bridge. It is an autonomic system, like our digestion and the ticking heart. But unlike those things, we can feel and pay attention to it directly, without a need for medical tools or machines. And unlike those things, we can choose to influence it.
Furthermore, there are few sensory experiences that have such an immediate effect on our nervous system – that is, our brains, our spinal cord, our nerves and neural pathways. The nervous system is responsible for mood, instinct, fight or flight, rest and digest. It plays a major role in our thinking and behavioral patterns. We could change our nervous system over time with intensive therapy, drastic physical shifts, ongoing dietary change, drugs or brain surgery. With breath, though, we can affect our brain, nerves, and spine within seconds.
Books could be written, and have, about the thousands of ways in which the breath is central to a yoga practice, but these two form a rock solid beginning.
By learning to pay attention to our breath (and, at times, to influence it), we take a step back from the thinking, ego part of who we are and directly experience our larger selves. We literally start to play with the world of the subconscious, the dream, memory, cell structure, brain tissue, nerves standing up or calming down, the life processes of birth and decay. There is metaphor and poetry to talking about the breath: the breath of god, the breath of life, stopping to catch a breath, you take my breath away. It’s important to realize this is no metaphor, but truth: changing your breath changes your physical reality, immediately, in ways your conscious ‘self’ can only catch glimpses of or appreciate at a surface level.
Because the breath occupies this boundary land of conscious and unconscious, it is a unique trap door we can use. It provides a way for the conscious self to step into and begin to influence and explore all that is unconscious and murky and so terribly influential in our lives. It is very hard to imagine controlling the secretion of digestive proteins, say, or to willfully slow down our heart rate or participate in the life cycle of a cell. It is nearly impossible to ‘think’ our way into feeling better or believing other than the way we do, no matter how many affirmations you repeat to yourself. Those are all processes dominated by the unconscious; they are stubbornly resistant to will power or conscious intervention.
But the breath – the breath is something we CAN notice and even change. It requires no fancy tools or expensive equipment, no laboratory tests or radical change in diet. It doesn’t require years and years of study. It is available to everyone, at any moment, and literally brings us to the gate of all those ‘subconscious’ processes happening within us. It is proof that we are participant in those larger, shadowy processes, even though our participation is usually unconscious.
The word ‘prana’ is usually translated to breath or life force. ‘Yama’ is restraint, observance, practice, control, or mastery. Hence, pranayama, a branch on the eight limbed path of yoga practices (asana, or the physical practice, is the 3rd limb), is observance and practice of the breath or life force within us.
Life, physicists tell us, is energy. I am not a physicist, and I couldn’t very well explain this to a toddler, let alone another grown adult. All that E=Mc squared, stuff. Yet I know and accept, on an intuitive and intellectual level, that life and cosmos are a mysterious tapestry in which our universe burst into being out of nothingness eons ago, that millions and zillions of stars are circling and exploding with materials so heavy a teaspoon’s worth weighs many billions of pounds, and the shifting of seasons is actually, on a level I cannot see, a shifting of atoms.
There is something that causes us to be alive and, after our last breath leaves us, to no longer be the same any more. I am not a theologian, either, and I will not bother to explore concepts of afterlife. But I will say there is something that is us that doesn’t seem to be just our bodies, since our cells change every second, but isn’t just our brains, either.
That self, the yogic tradition tells us, is one manifestation of prana. Prana is energy. Life is energy.
That, says the yogi guru, pointing to energy and mystery and wonder, is what you are.
The yogic sages were brilliant. They were able to discover and intelligently talk about this stuff without the benefit of am microscope.
Our western medicine has identified 6000 nerves in the human body: conduits along which impulses of energy move back and forth, shifting our hormones and cell structure and chemical composition along the way.
A yogic sage would nod at the concept of nerves. He would call it a nadi (see picture at the end of the essay).
The yogic sages say there are not 6000, only. That is only what our microscopes see. Some yogic maps show 72,000 nadis or energy/nerve pathways in the body. The yogic map of these pathways is uncannily like our map of the nervous system. Other yogic sources, though, say there are more than 350,000 energy pathways, coursing and roadmapping out the entire field of who we are. They’d say our science is just not sophisticated, not subtle enough to see it.
Life is energy. Life is prana. And yoga is a practice or path of learning what and where energy actually is. What has power and what doesn’t. This sounds simple, and it is: we learn we function better when our bodies are open and cared for, when we eat well and rest enough. But the study or practice of energy is also profound, and goes deeper and deeper the more open you become to exploring it. It will start asking difficult questions, along the lines of why do I feel or act this way? Why does this feel so good or bad? When I say ‘I’m feeling sad’, what do I actually mean? Is there a physical sensation to sadness or is it a set of thoughts? Where are those physical sensations, and can I tolerate or change them? What happens when I sit down and look fear right in the face for a moment? Why do I always feel this way after talking to so and so? How much longer will my body take this? What IS that pain in my neck? They are difficult questions, and push us toward self-knowledge and self-mastery. They also open into remarkable possibilities.
There is, at any flickering moment in time, a tremendous amount of power and intelligence in your body. The human body can power up televisions, they say. Human bodies could light up whole cities. Every heart beat is triggered by an electrical surge. Anger has a voltage. So does laughter.
What yoga begins to show is that we have this huge potential, this oceanic tide of kinetic energy, even if we feel sluggish and stuck and powerless. The power in us is often misplaced, repressed, or resisted – which causes energetic turmoil and dis- ease. But it is there.
Prana and the energy body
Prana is life force , or breath. It is the energy of the million, billion stars exploding and gyrating in the sky. Human beings receive this life force directly into the body through the process of breathing. We take it in in other ways as well: through live foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, minerals, through fresh water, through living, breathing trees and vegetation.
I tend to think that we also take it in through the love of other people and other creatures. We probably also take it in in more subtle ways still, through music, the sound of inspiring words, beautiful sights. Through empathy and art (neuroscience is backing this up). Human beings are hardwired for connection: the tug and pull of affection, inspiration, rejection, or acceptance leave tracks or stains or floods of energy inside us. It is the emotive force, complete with its ocean of endorphins and stress hormones and sex hormones and joy, that binds us to life and makes us want to live, more.
Yoga discovered that in addition to the physical architecture of our body we have an interpenetrating and underlying sphere or tapestry of reality. They called it the pranamayakosha (the body of vital energy or airs. (There are five bodies. Food for a different essay)). The nature of this subtle structure is movement, flow, change and tidal shift. Over the centuries, they developed not just the theory of the pranamayakosha, but the anatomy of it. They discovered the roadmap to our emotional selves, our characters (again, see picture at the end of the essay).
The structure is shot through with these invisible channels, those nadis, through which prana flows, energizing and literally sustaining all parts of the physical and energetic and intellectual structure. Again, a visual representation of these tracks looks very much like our representations of the nervous or circulatory systems, but many times more dense.
Many western students are loosely familiar with the term ‘chakra’ or energy wheel. According to yogic science, these energy wheels are like grand central terminal for the railway of the nadis. They are energetic hubs, major thoroughfares of power and information. Interestingly enough, these chakra points correlate directly with major nerve plexuses, organs, circulatory and lympathic centers of our body. Their observations were physiologically accurate.
The energy body is deeply intelligent, although it doesn’t exactly speak English. Much of yoga practice is learning to develop awareness of and trust in the wisdom of this energy body.
As yogis learned to experience the energy body directly, to map the flow of its major currents, they made another fascinating discovery:
Breath has an immediate impact on the entire flowing, waving, shimmering thing. More than anything else, it is breathing that builds and regulates the flow of prana in the body. On the most basic of physical levels, breathing sustains and supports the metabolic processes of every anatomical system in the body. The very life of the body’s tissues is created by and dependent on the process of the breath. A body can go more than a week without food, almost that long without water. Without breath, we would die in moments. Breath supports the strength, responsiveness, and ability to detoxify the bones, the muscles, and the organs. Unhealthy breathing habits (which most of us have) cause cellular structure to weaken, become dysplastic, irregularly shaped.
The breath balances, regulates, opens, closes, controls, and channels the flow of energy across the entire field of who we are, from our core beliefs and emotions to the skin of our toes.
The word yama is translated restraint or ascetic practice. This is a harsh word, to our modern day ears. It rankles of renunciation, fasting, rules and regulations. Yet the point wasn’t an embrace of suffering for the sake of suffering. The point was to suffer less; to be oneself, more. Yogis sought reality. Knowledge as ‘taught’ by priests, hierarchies, rituals was not their goal; experienced truth was. There is an element of hard truth to ‘yama’; but there is also an element of authenticity and integrity. The practices and restraints may be thought of as cultivated habits, a dedication to right things over easy answers, or an approach to self mastery. At its most general, practice is the effort to replace blind auto pilot with conscious choice and mindfulness.
The earliest yogis dedicated their lives to spiritual and psychological experimentation. They investigated diet, breathing, physical exercises, ethical behavior, prayer, meditation, chanting, worship, dedication to every conceivable kind of god and goddess. Over the course of time, some headway was made in discovering the path to a fully alive human being. A loose tradition was born. A set of reliable and verifiable principals and practices emerged. At some point, these principals and practices came to be known as yoga.
Yogis used their own minds and bodies as laboratories for experiments in living. They arrived over and over again at a series of stunning insights into the human condition.
In the final analysis, they found that it is not what you know or believe, but how you live that counts. Yamas are rungs on a ladder, a net to catch our days and our experiences with, a guide away from suffering and into that ‘more’ we suspect is there.
Interestingly enough, yogic wisdom does not make any claim to be undertaking spiritual writing or theology. There is no interest in founding a new religion or disabusing one from the religion one already has. There is little of entertainment, and not much drawing on the archetypes of the religious imagination. Instead, the yogic wisdom texts seem to say that what mature human beings require is not another or different religion. What we require is not more theology, but a reliable practice; a training program that may help the body and the mind realize the full potential and ramifications of being human.
Pranayama – practicing life’s energies
I taught a woman in a domestic violence shelter for two months, and after she left the shelter she continued coming to some of my classes. Over time, the change in her was so poignant, and so inarguably TRUE, that I was baffled. Of course, I say that yoga is change and transformation all the time. I believe it. But to see the change so radically, right before my eyes, in a way that was not metaphor but real, was stunning.
In the beginning, she showed up in jeans, a thick sweater, and tennis shoes. I made a general comment to the room about the sensory receptors on the bottoms of our feet, but didn’t push it. She practiced in those clothes for months. When I gave cues to stretch the arms or take big steps, she would either mince her way into it and then draw back to her norm, or lose all control and not be able to move her arms and legs in co-ordination. She always took the same place in a back corner of the room.
Although her disconnection from her body was obvious, it wasn’t really any different than the disconnect most of us have. There are variations. But it is a difference only of degree.
Yogically speaking, we begin a personal, spiritual, and psychological change through the body. While this may seem a bit of a stretch for western minds, to yoga this is a very valid path. The body plays a central role in the development of our character. When we were young, those things mostly happened to us. When we begin to practice, however, character and psychology are things we begin to make, ourselves. Most psychology, self help, or spirituality begins with what the yogis would call the ‘mental body’ – thoughts and feelings. But yogis take a radical step in moving the entry point right into the body. They understand it to be the doorway to the more subtle interior worlds.
One evening this woman showed up to class in sweats and carrying a yoga mat of her own. She sat down and took off her shoes. I caught her eye and she gave a slight, shy smile before she went seriously into her pre-yoga practice cross legged seat.
It was as if she knew she had found something, here. She was willing to see what else she might find.
A week or two later, she took her yoga mat out of the back corner and found a place in the front row.
All of this was beginning to show in her yoga postures, as well. She became intensely concentrated in her practice. It was clear she was enjoying, especially, the standing postures and heart opening practices – the warrior poses, mountain, dancer. She told me one day after class that she loved the sense of feeling her feet on ground. For the first time in her life, she said, she felt strong. I noticed that she had taken a sudden leap with her breathing: it was steady and smooth and full even when she was most tired and other students were distracted.
One day, I noticed she was crying in camel pose. Everyone went into child’s pose, afterward, where our faces are lowered to the ground. When I cued the class to move again, into the next pose, this woman stayed down. I noticed that her tears had turned to a kind of quiet and slow weeping.
This has happened before in my classes. It has happened to me. But I was surprised when a few minutes later, the woman stood back up again. She followed the cues and did a few more poses with all of us. And then, all on her own, she went back into camel pose and stayed there for a very long time.
It wasn’t until weeks later that she and I processed this together. We were able to process not just that day but all the slow weeks and months that had come ahead of it. Yoga works that way. There are obvious and sudden moments of epiphany. But there is also consistent, day after day subtlety and the basic willingness to show up.
She told me much of what I myself had seen: that she felt a powerful kind of concentration in yoga, and sometimes just moving from one posture to another felt inexpressibly good to her. She noticed how her breathing had changed and grown more steady and free, and said this was true especially in class, but was showing up in her life off the mat as well. She said that her arms and her legs began to have energy in them, and it was like there was a burning, fiery power right behind her belly button as well.
In talking about what happened the day she cried, she shrugged. She said it was ‘weird’. She had begun to feel very dizzy. Her heart began to race and her vision blurred, as if there were dust motes in her eyes. Her whole chest and throat began to feel hot, “full of heat, it really kind of hurt”. She felt she was going to pass out. Then she realized she was crying, and felt ‘relief’ that we were going into child’s pose afterwards.
But what happened, later, I asked? Why did you decide to go back into the pose?
She shrugged again. “I knew that I could.” she said; “I knew it was okay, and there was something in my chest and throat that just needed to be felt again. I don’t know, Karin….but a few weeks ago I heard something you said in class, and I realized I felt beautiful. I’ve never felt beautiful in my whole life. Somehow, it seemed a beautiful thing to do to go back into that pose.”
I know that this moment was an outward and visible sign of a major shift in her practice. She was able to touch – to literally reconnect and feel – her feelings. Feelings are the subterranean life of our energy body.
What I saw happen in that student is a thing I have felt in different ways – and to many different degrees of intensity – in my own life.
It is a stunningly beautiful thing. You see it happen and you feel privileged, blessed to see a human achievement so rare in our day to day life.
But honesty tells me I have seen this happen, over and over and over again.
It would take hours to discuss the ways in which yoga – and perhaps other practices or people in her life – helped this woman. We’d launch into psychology and theories and about how healing works, how people become stronger or happy. But all of those discussions are really diversions from the real truth: it would be impossible to articulate all that happens to us in a yoga practice, but the sum total is good. There is something to simply watching our breath that opens doorways to the soul we didn’t know were there. If what we need is a way to feel better, stronger, more alive and more self-assured, than theory or theology don’t matter so much as practice does.