Breath: Life of Body, Leader of Mind

lionHave you ever noticed that your breathing slows and occasionally stops when you concentrate deeply, and your concentration diffuses out offocus when you breathe deeply? Awareness literally moves on breath. For awareness to be still, breath must decelerate and occasionally pause. For awareness to move, breath must become active.

Practices built on a recognition of this connection between breath and awareness are designed to help develop what is often referred to as “mind control,” but might more appropriately be called awareness control. The working principle here is that awareness, which is not physical, can be controlled through the skillful manipulation of breath, which is physical. This is a most practical teaching. It states that, if we find our awareness fixed in a place we do not want it to be, we can unfix it by simply breathing deeply. Conversely, if we like where our awareness is, we can keep it fixed there by calming the breath into stillness.

The first practitioners of yoga thought of breath as life. Hence, their term for breath control was pranayama, literally “the control of life force.” As those early yogis and yoginis worked with this life control, they learned that pranayama could boost physical health by enhancing the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the physical body. They also learned that pranayama could bring an element of transcendent control to both yoga and life.

There are many pranayamas. All pranayamas are significantly strengthened when they are performed rhythmically. A rhythmic pranayama is a breath control that is measured with a counting that is felt as a pulse. Rhythm brings hypnotic cadence to breath control and makes it enjoyably sustainable. It also awakens a powerful mysticism.

From a mystical perspective, rhythm is a trance-building pulsation of doing interspersed with being—each pulse is a do; the space between each pulse is a be—that can yield, in any action performed rhythmically, nearly limitless power. Such a marvelous potential is too often left sleeping in life, but not in yoga. In yoga, rhythm is extolled for all its worth.