I remembered an incident that happened in one of my yoga classes in 2002. It was during the deep relaxation phase, I guided a group of students to visualize breathing all the way down to the toes with awareness. After the class, one middle-aged lady, who was a teacher, came to ask me “How can we breathe to the toes when we only breathe through the lungs?”
This incident taught me the importance of giving a deeper understanding about the breath beyond the physiological process to a layman. To the laymen who are wired by logics and intellectual scientific facts, they are only able to accept facts relating to the matter world. In the field of energy, the modern science still has a long way to catch up with spirituality. The good news is they are moving towards the right direction. We can see a growing interest in research about energy and the popularity of alternative therapy such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Acupuncture, Ayurveda and different forms of energy healing in recent couple of decades. One thing these practices have in common is their fundamental core understanding in seeing the human body as holistic bio-energy not just as matter of different systems.
Thanks to Albert Einstein, the modern science has found that the basic fabric of this entire physical world is nothing but energy, “E=Mc2”. This is something the Upanishad of Vedic tradition had been saying at least 10,000 years ago i.e. “Everything that exists is energy”. To understand the world as energy, we need to get down to the basic fabric of the whole creation – Prana (life energy) which is a self manifesting life force capable of changing itself. There is a spectrum of Prana, from one end are the mineral world, vegetable kingdom, animal species to human beings and super human regions at the other end.
According to Yogic physiology, within human beings, there are 5 sheaths (layers) – Annamaya Kosha (food body layer), Pranayama kosha (breath layer), Manomaya kosha (mental layer), Vignanamaya Kosha (visualisation layer) & Anandamaya kosha (bliss layer). Each layer gets more subtle as we move inwards.
To understand the science of breathing a step deeper, we need to delve into the breath layer (Pranayama Kosha). Varistha Prana refers to the life-giving energy that we inhale through air, every time we breathe. The air that goes inside through the nose is not prana. We need to understand that air is merely the carrier or medium of prana, much like a truck carrying its load of content. The truth is we don’t need air to survive, we need prana. It is prana that sustains us every moment of our life. You may have seen yogis in Himalayas burying their head into the earth for days and they are sustained just by the prana from the air and sun as a proof!
In our body, there are 5 processes in the pranic layer called the Pancha Prana which includes:-
- Inhaling of Prana. This is the energy that is responsible for governing the senses of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and breathing
- The Vyana is the prana that stays inside the body and experiences as kumbhaka (a pause). Vyana governs the sense of touch and the flow of impulses in the nerves.
- The Udana is responsible for separating the air and the prana so that the prana spreads all over the body. This is the part that is responsible for physiological functions in the upward direction like anti-peristalsis, belching and vomiting.
- The Apana cleanses the body system. This energy works downwards and is responsible for excretion, urination and discharges of reproductive organs.
- The Samana is responsible for the prana leaving the body. This energy maintains balance between Prana and Apana and controls the digestive system. When the Samana is balanced within the body, a person levitates.
Essentially, in the breathing process, the air which carries the Prana energy, goes inside the body and unloads the energy and comes out. The problem is, due to our restlessness, unconscious and shallow way of breathing, the separation of Prana energy from air, that is the unloading time is too short. If your breathing has become very unconscious, the unloading time is very limited. This results in only half of the prana getting unloaded and spread through the body and the air comes out. We need to understand that our mind and pranic cycle and the way in which we breathe are closely connected.
If we can bring awareness to the five prana movements, much more prana can be unloaded from the air that goes inside and spreads throughout our system. It is prana that coordinates the activities of the body and the mind, and the things such as rationality, emotions and other aspects of our personality. Unfortunately, we are constantly in tension or being lack of awareness which takes away from the proper process of breathing and cleansing. Due to our poor breathing awareness which results in the cleansing part not done properly, we are likely to experience bad breath, constant sweating and a feeling of suffocation.
In yogic system, the profound science of prana is called the Pranayama which is about harnessing the five pranic movements, mind and the overall prana flow that leads us to good health, energy and healing to our body. This science not only offers answers to the intriguing body-mind problem, but it also helps us to understand and gain mastery over these inner pranic forces. It is said that when you add awareness to prana process, you will experience the immortal nectar (amrita) throughout the body i.e. you experience the life energy flowing throughout the body, the joy and bliss which leads to longevity.
Another important thing you should know – your desires are closely linked to your prana flow. For example, if you are caught in lust or any intense desire, your inhalation and exhalation will become intense. The prana going in & coming out will increase. When our mind is disturbed, the Prana also gets disturbed which expresses itself as breathing haphazardness or imbalances. The imbalances in breathing disturb the physiological functions and become pathological. Modern diseases like asthma, hypertension, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), migraine, hyperacidity in the stomach are the result of such imbalances. However, if you are in a silent and peaceful mood, the prana flow will be mild that you may not even notice that the prana flow is taking place.
Mahavira, an enlightened master once said that before we were born, we chose our desires. At the time of birth, we bring with us all that we need to survive and achieve the desires for which we assumed the body. Those desires that you bring with you to fulfil in this life are called Prarabdha Karma (true desires). But after birth, society imposes many desires on us and we start to pick up borrowed desires from others. When we are running after others’ desires instead of our own true desires, our breathing becomes shallow and we do not have the energy, money or time to fulfill all the desires.
Hence, one part of inner work is for us to figure out our true desires. When we work on infusing energy into the pranic layer through yoga and pranayama, we can find out our real desires and all the borrowed desires imposed on us by society will leave our system. This begins the steps in alignment for self transformation.
In summary, breathing goes deeper than the lungs. As far as medical science is concerned, it is connected with purely organic function of the respiratory system. This is only correct on the physical plane, but man’s existence does not begin and end with the physical body. It affects more than just the gross plane of existence. Breathing is the medium for transmission of the vital energy force (prana shakti) througout our whole body. The sacred truth is breathing not only maintains the physical body, it is a direct medium for the evolution of consciousness. This understanding is very important in the subtle and spiritual realms.Look out for the next article on science of breathing from the spiritual dimension.