Importance of breath

By Parama Pujya Swami Nityananda Giri

Kriya-yoga lineage of masters used to say, “Breath control is self-control and breath mastery is self-mastery”, and again, “Breathlessness is deathlessness. In the breathless state of Samadhi, there happens the realization of the Absolute”. Are these simply to highlight the Kriya techniques, or, are these exaggerations? The answers are certainly in the negative. It needs some careful analysis to understand the underlying meaning of these sayings. When one takes birth from his/her mother’s womb with the physical body one starts to breathe, and when the breath departs, the body dies. We are also breathing inside the mother’s womb through our mothers. This process of breathing is happening all the time, we keep breathing in and out. We inhale a new life from the cosmic source with each inhalation, and we exhale those which are dead within the body with each exhalation to the same source. We are conjoined to our source through our breath but we are not conscious about it. So to realize who we are, the unity of our life with the source, we have to be consciously connected to the source of life through the breath.

Here one can argue that our physical body and mind also comes from the same cosmic source and finally merge with the same; then for realization why breath is most important?. This is a valid argument though here with body and mind continuous communication with the Cosmic source throughout the life is not as marked as compared to breath. Further we all know from everyday life that breathlessness is death.

Then another valid argument can be “Breathlessness should be death and not the deathlessness”. These need some careful analysis and understanding.

The entire creation is from the same source named as God, Atman or Self, or Brahman. “From That (the Transcendental Being) originates the life-force or Prana as well as the mind, all the senses, ether, air, fire, water, and earth that supports everything” (Mundaka Upanishad, 2-1-3). That one source which is formless even subtler than space, which is the ancient one without a beginning and from which all others take birth, which is transcendental to everything and every being, is the imperishable one; that is the Truth and is the matter of realization. That source has given birth to life-force, the first manifestation in the form of cosmic energy and is known as Prana or Hiranyagarbha in our scriptures.

The Brahman can be called as static energy principle even beyond the cosmos whereas Prana is the active energy principle responsible for creation. This is a continuous entity in all beings and in living beings this exists as individual life-force though not separate from the Hiranyagarbha or cosmic life-force. This Hiranyagarbha or Samasti Prana is the Thread Self (Sutratma) continuing in all beings. This is highlighted in Prashnopanishad (4-8) as the earth and the essence of earth or smell, the water the essence of the water or taste, the fire and the essence of fire or vision, the air and the essence of air or sensation, the ether and the essence of ether or sound, eyes and the object of vision, ears and the object of hearing, nose and the object of smell, taste and the object of taste, skin and the object of touch, speech and the content of speech, hands and the object given, organ of sex and enjoyment, organ of excretion and excreta, feet and the distance walked, mind and the things thought, intellect and the subject understood, ego and the content of egoism, subconscious and the impressions gathered on it , the luster of a body and objects revealed by it , all is Prana and is held by Prana. So the life-force or Prana is most important in understanding the Source. The normal understanding of a layman on life-force is the physiological activity within the body but this is a limited knowledge. Everything is life-force, and that primordial energy took birth from a transcendental static source named as Atman or Brahman. All physical manifestations and subtle manifestations like mind and intellect are also from the same energy principle named Prana.

Even if we consider life-force is a physiological energy within the body, yet this is of foremost importance. One may not agree with this since normal understanding goes that mind and intellect are of much importance since mind is the cognitive principle and intellect is responsible for our analytical ability and understanding. But the working of mind and intellect is based on life-force, also the working of all physical organs like eyes, ears, nose, hands, legs etc. Without the life-force one cannot see, hear, feel, taste, smell, speak, work or think. So primacy of Prana as vital energy in body is established.

Though the primordial Prana has been dichotomized as vital life-force and mind, this vital energy is responsible for working of mind. But here the purpose of discussion is realization or having knowledge, and for that we have one instrument with us and that is the mind. Then how for a spiritual journey vital-force within the body is more important than mind? The answer can be found if we do counter questioning; why with our internal organ mind we are not having that knowledge? Human beings have a superb brain and development of intelligence has excelled. But we are not able to realize the Truth. This is because our mind is in a restless state. As running water does not reflect images, similarly a running mind does not reflect the Self. So we need a mind at rest to reflect the Self and that state is called Yoga.

So, to achieve that state we need to halt all the applications of mind; and for that we need a technique which can consciously silence our mind. A psychic technique will not give the desired result though it may result in increasing concentration and better analyzing ability. Here we have to give up the motions of all the four aspects of our mind, viz, mind, intellect, ego and subconscious; then only we can remain in pure consciousness.

It has been illustrated in Mandukya Upanishad how in a deep sleep state only the life-force remains awake and mind along with senses and sense organs take rest; again each person also experiences the same in everyday life. Since mind merges with vital-force, working on the vital-force to silence the mind is of utmost importance in a spiritual practice. The manifestation of Prana or life-force is pranavayu or the breath. So we have to work with our breath to win over the mind.

It is our breath that controls our life. A human being is a rational being; unfortunately most humans are not having the capacity for rational thinking and behavior. Then their life is like that of an animal indulged in food, sleep, anger, fear, greed, jealousy, hatred, sex and violence etc. In these ways our life is even worse than that of the animals. If we do not follow the discrimination faculty of our intelligence then we are not rational. We may be born as animal beings but we have to transgress to become rational beings and finally evolve to divine beings full of nobility. Even the weaknesses of a rational being struggling to win over the vices must go. For this to happen we need to develop our viveka prajñā, the discriminating knowledge of right over wrong. If a breath practice can help us to do that then only we can say that the meaning of breath is life and the meaning of life is breath. Once our breath departs our body, we are no longer here to complete our evolution into a divine being. We are temporarily in the grasp of death. We need another human life to complete our spiritual evolution.

So sustenance of our life is hiding behind our breath. Of course animals also breathe but since in the evolutionary ladder they are in a lower rank due to less development of the faculty of intelligence they are dependent on Mother Nature for their evolution. Human beings can speed up their evolution since they have a higher intelligence and a free will to do so. Here, breath should help us in this regard in further developing our discriminating intelligence and a calm mind. We all have experienced that for all moods of our mind, be it anger, fear, sex, frustration, dejection, sorrow, happiness, desires and emotions etc the mode of our breath changes. So for a mind in equanimity we need to breathe properly and we should make our breath stable. Other living beings do not have this understanding.

A human being with an evolved brain can utilize the power of breath to increase concentration, sharpening intellect and to develop the discriminating faculty of intellect. A mind in turmoil does not listen to the voice of our inner being; it is incapable of doing that due to restlessness, even if the voice is heard such a violent mind is powerful enough to suppress this voice of wisdom. So for wisdom to prevail upon an allured mind, the mind must be made calm. A breath practice can do that since mind merges with breath.

This is the importance of breath; hence it is said, “Breath control is self-control and breath mastery is self-mastery”. This is the first lesson in Kriya-yoga and is our practice.

By practicing a proper breath technique as illustrated in Kriya-yoga, a kriyavan (the yogic practitioner) reaches the ‘no thought’ state when the breath or pranavayu becomes slow and finally be suspended, and the kriyavan remains only with life-force, the inner subtle prana. This automatic suspension of breath is known as Kevala Kumbhaka. The breath also starts automatically after the suspension period by a specialized practice taught in Kriya-yoga known as Thokkar Kriya. By achieving again and again such a ‘no thought’ state by repeated practice, the practitioner becomes specialized in it. The result of such specialization is, ‘ritambhara tatra prajñā’ (Yogasutras: 1-48); this means the intellect of the practitioner now holds the truth by experience.

One knows that he/she is the Consciousness Principle, and not an interaction of body, mind and ego complex. Now the kriyavan has the knowledge, his/her discriminating intellect is sharp and the desires are thin. For simple understanding we have to know that as our mind becomes more silent by meditation with less disquiet and desires, our discriminating intellect becomes more sharp and powerful.

In our average breathing we draw and expel about one sixth amount of air that can be inhaled or exhaled during a kriya breathing followed in kriya-yoga. In an average breath, the air that enters in and comes out of the lungs is about 500cc but in kriya breathing, one can inhale about 3000cc of air.

Now our air intake capacity is six times more than that of average breathing. Normally inspired air contains on an average of 20.94% oxygen and 0.04% carbon dioxide, expired air contains 16.3% oxygen and 4% carbon dioxide, and alveolar air contains 14.2% oxygen and 5.5% carbon dioxide. By Kriya practice we make the alveolar air more oxygenated and with less carbon dioxide and that in turn affect oxygen and carbon dioxide concentration in the blood leaving the pulmonary capillaries. In this way by Kriya breathing we make our blood free of carbon dioxide and more oxygenated. More carbon dioxide in blood forms carbonic acids that make the body fluids acidic and this is the cause of many diseases. This results in formation of toxins in body. This also results in mental irritability. More oxygenated blood and removal of carbon dioxide makes the body fluids alkaline. So breath is important for good health, long life and overcoming mental tensions.

From the experiences of many spiritual practitioners we learn that only the breath practice (pranayama or kriya) leads to a breathless state called samadhi, pulse rate and heart beat slows down coming to a state of near stoppage and sometimes even stopped. Scriptures also say about achieving breathless state by the breath practice. We can explain this in a following way. Removing the carbon dioxide from the body and making the blood oxygenated over a period of continuous breath practice make our body fluids alkaline and when these tend to cross the normal range of hydrogen ion concentration towards the alkaline side, we do not need breathing anymore. So automatically there is stoppage of breath. During the period of respiratory suspension or samadhi in we do not need more energy as the vital activities are under rest, hence there is less oxidation and less amount of carbon dioxide is produced. So when again the body needs oxygen and removal of carbon dioxide after a pause (respiratory suspension in Samadhi), the respiratory movements start automatically due to the effect of a specialized breath practice named as Thokkar Kriya in Kriya-yoga.

But to achieve this state we need a long term and uninterrupted practice. But most important aspect in case of samadhi is the conversion of vital resources into the conscious vital element and thereby gaining access to the Cosmic Consciousness.

Hence it is said,

“Breathlessness is deathlessness. In the breathless state of Samadhi, there happens the realization of the Absolute”.

We have already discussed how proper kriya breathing is the key to good health, and is the cause of a peaceful and healthy mind. A new born infant breathes about 40 breaths per minute whereas an average individual breathes about 18 breaths per minute. But a healthy person takes about 15 breaths per minute, and in this way in twenty-four hours one breathes 21,600 times. A healthy man can a live a life of one hundred and twenty years, and in this way has a capital of 933,120,000 breaths.

However, due to excessive attachments, aversions, disturbances of mind, sorrow, excessive pleasure, excessive work due to desires, psychosomatic diseases like hypertension etc. the rate of breathing increases. This makes life shorter. The impurities of mind and body increase, and death soon approaches. If we want to remove sufferings, poverty of mind and failures we have to develop equanimity in our mind through equanimity in breath. We also know that animals like dogs, jackals, tigers breathe fast and short; they have a shorter life while animals like elephants who breathe long and deep have a longer life. In the Kriya breathing practice we only breathe three breaths per minute.

In ancient India by reducing the breath rate people lived a long, healthy and peaceful life. They knew that the breath technique is the key to unlock a successful life. This is the spiritual tradition of India given to us by the ancient saints and sages, and is depicted in the Vedas, Upanishads and Agama scriptures.

A peaceful breath silences all the desires and angers of the mind and develops an intellect that can take right decisions. Our environment then becomes peaceful. This also results in material prosperity. Individual life, family life and social life become harmonious.

More information can be found in the book Kriya Yoga - The Science of Life Force

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