Free Press Journal

The calming effect of the breath


“Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.

Our shoulders are touching.

You will not find me in the stupas,

not in Indian shrine rooms,

nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals:

not in masses, nor kirtans,

not in legs winding around your own neck,

nor in eating nothing but vegetables.

When you really look for me, you will see me instantly –

you will find me in the tiniest house of time.

Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?

He is the breath inside the breath.”

— wrote the great Sufi and Bhakti movement poet Kabir

The Sufi and Bhakti movements that blossomed in medieval India not only challenged the orthodoxy and supremacy of the temporal power of the then ecclesiastical order – be it Hinduism or Islam, but also provided an alternative platform and paradigm to seekers and the masses who were treated as pariahs, not accepted by the established order.

Both these socio-religious movements stretched the imagination in terms of faith and had enormous intellectual, political and emotional reserve; such that philosophers, authors, poets and mystics mushroomed across the land, and contested and combated the existing bigotry. A noteworthy aspect of both the Bhakti movement and the Sufi renaissance was the focus on breath. It connected the seeker to the Divine.

Sadhana – Way to Life is a slim book, which describes how a pastor prays to almighty God. It is quite unparalleled in that the priest surrenders at the altar to meditate. And this he does by focussing all his attention on the breath. Similarly, the ancient Buddhist technique of Vipassana, which has swiftly gained currency across the globe, is a voyage to uncover and unearth the true self by drawing all the attention towards the breath.

“Your mind is like a kite and breath is like a string,” says Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. This reinforces the belief in the gargantuan power of breath.  A simple sequence of breath entails inhalation of energy; exhalation expatriates antipathetic thoughts, leaving the body and mind brim-full of vital prana.

Once there was a pair of schoolmates turned best buddies. One of them a celebrated doctor with a roaring practice, and the other, a cognoscente and aficionado with numbers. He was a financial wizard and a business analyst much in demand in the corporate world and business schools for his wide repository of knowledge in the befuddling game of figures.

Every evening they met at a tavern and exchanged notes. On one such evening, abruptly the face of the financial expert started to twitch and his heart started beating rapidly. The doctor wheeled his faithful friend to the most proficient hospital. The financial wizard gasped for breath as he was put on a ventilator. He seemed to dive into a luminal space between hallucination and semi consciousness. Years of harum-scarum living, smoking, binge eating, carousing and living life (king size?) had eventually taken their toll. The doctor remained frozen at this near brush with death.

Though a medico, it was then that the immense potential and power of the breath dawned up on him. It was sheer condescension and hubris that they had refused to acknowledge mindful living. He recalled sharply, how as sophomores it was indoctrinated in medical college to take deep breaths when confronted with exigent and recondite situations.

Upon recovery, they swiftly embarked on a spiritual sojourn to recharge their worn-out batteries, by sublimating and capitulating to the supreme power. On the sagacious counsel of a perspicacious senior medical practitioner they undertook the Happiness Programme of the Art of Living to learn the secrets of human breath.

The clinician and the warlock of figures were to assimilate in the course that there are primarily four sources of energy – food, sleep, breath and a calm and meditative state of mind. But breath was the singular source of energy which sustains the human body.

Delving deep into the course they learnt the unique rhythmic breathing technique called Sudarshan Kriya. This breathing technique is the bedrock of all Art of Living courses. Recent research on this breathing technique has revealed miraculous curative powers, with almost miraculous the prowess to combat ailments.

In his enigmatic and impenetrable manner Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has disseminated to humanity that Maharishi Patanjali in his treatise Patanjali Yoga Sutras has talked about rhythmic breathing techniques which could be similar to the technique of Sudarshan Kriya.

“Prachchardana vidharanabhyam va Pranasya,” wrote Maharishi Patanjali in the 34th Sutra which mentions splitting the natural rhythms of the breath. Prachchardana implies splitting (expulsion); vidharanabhyam (through retention) va (optionally); pranasya (of breath). The efficacious process is splitting and retention of the breath in a special way.  And regular practice of the technique injects vital prana in the body and calms the mind.

There is a compelling and trenchant Zen story which captures the effectual character of breath. Once a mentee approached a Zen Master and explained his ennui and languor in merely observing inhalation and exhalation of breath. He almost demanded a hair-raising and exhilarating meditation regime.

The Zen Master merely smiled and replied, “My stripling tutee is now mentally prepared for robust meditation schedules.”

He led the tutee to the court yard and asked him to gaze into a barrel of water. Obediently the student followed the command. Instantaneously the Master shoved the tutee’s head first into the barrel. The youngster squawked in anguish to be relieved from what he perceived as sheer persecution. The postulant begged for forgiveness and realised that mindful breathing is fundamental to tranquil physical and mental living.

The utile and effectuality of breath is seldom appreciated by individuals. An athlete gasping for breath while sprinting for the yellow metal cherishes the value of breath. Similarly, a person suffering from migraine senses the presence of the brain. Mindful breathing is a certain method to harness the vast potential of breath and its rhythms.