Not all organisms on earth require oxygen, but those of us set up with lungs to respire aerobically need it to live. So we breathe. We inhale air rich in oxygen but filled with other gases, bacteria, viruses, yeasts, water and countless other particles and exhale air similar in complexity but with proportionately more carbon dioxide.
But despite its centrality to our existence, for the most part we don’t have to worry about breathing. It just happens somewhere beneath our notice as a peaceful, rhythmic swelling and recoil of our lungs. If we’re relaxed and well, the process is mostly unconscious and controlled by our brainstems which are all also busy with other unconscious functions such as regulating our heart rates.
Breathing, in enabling life, also underlies our ideas of what is spiritual. Air and its movement – either as breathing or as the wind – is divine: inspiration is both filling the lungs with air and being influenced by deity. The English verb “to breathe,” may be related to the Proto-Indo-European, (s)peis- which is “to blow” and cognate with the Old Church Slavonic pisto “to play on the flute”: breathing, music, and the divine are all absolutely entangled.
But breathing is not always calm and unconscious any more than the gods are always kind, or music tuneful. In fact, when we’re distressed, very sick, endangered or physically overtaxed, it comes sharply to our attention as a jagged, shallow and laboured sucking in and blowing out. And even this breathing is unconscious. It might be as a response to increased energy demands or it might be an immune response, both mediated by the sympathetic nervous system which reacts to perceived threats by mobilizing the flight-or-fight response with hormones which speed the heart-rate and dilate the bronchial tubes. The latter response focuses our attention, makes us tense by increasing the contractility of our muscles while decreasing thirst and hunger and slowing digestive secretions and processes. We might also respond with some sickness behaviour. But our affective responses to these hormones are generally to feel energised, nauseated, anxious, afraid or angry and this is all very helpful in the event of immediate danger and threat. But, given the inherent inefficiencies of the fight-or-flight response in terms of energy outlay and excess waste production, and the depleting effect of sickness behaviour, such responses are damaging if they become chronic, habitual and long-term. In situations where perceived threat doesn’t go away, our sympathetic nervous system becomes overactive. We feel constantly and excessively anxious, or afraid and angry as our hormones continue to overexpress. Inflammatory processes go into overdrive and cause lasting damage which increases the rates of chronic disorders and illnesses like depression and lack of motivation, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
But, when we can and want to, we take control and regulate breathing consciously. It’s what we do in speech, whistling and singing, and control tends to be about communication and music. And when breath – as sound, vibration and movement – is synchronised with the environment, it gives rise to the mystical – as in the Music of the Spheres – and the magical, as with the work of Renaissance writers such as Marcilio Ficino. The fact is, we raise enormous power in communal anthem singing and chanting when we, as a crowd, synchronise our inhalations, exhalations, hormone flows and heartbeats – and probably movements (as dancing) as well. More mundanely, we control breath when trying to stop hiccups, and when swimming and during exercise, especially yoga. And regarding this last, nowhere is the control of breath so developed as in the yogic practise of Pranayama.
Pranayama is the simultaneously divine and pragmatic discipline of breath which has belonged to Indian culture for thousands of years. It joins seven other physical and ethical principles which, in addressing together the human body and soul as a holistic entity, enable movement along the Noble Eightfold Path to a meaningful, purposeful and integrated life. Attainment of Samadhi – which is the yoking, or union, of the individual with the Supreme Spirit – is the ever-present bright goal which is realised fleetingly along the way but permanently at the end of this journey.
Pranayama combines two Sanskrit words: The first is prana which refers to the life force, in particular as breath, but which is also found in blood and at its most concentrated in semen and vaginal secretions. The second is ayama which means to extend or draw out. Thus the word contains connotations of lengthening and deepening each individual breath whilst simultaneously lengthening the whole individual lifespan.
To remove Pranayama from the religious context of the Eightfold Path is to sacrifice some of its associated holistic benefits. This path is called Ashtanga or ‘eight limbs’ and combines ideas of universal and individual ethics with physical postures intended to rest the spinal cord, shift the centre of gravity, massage the organs, and strengthen the body. It calls for control of the senses, development of concentration, the practise of meditation and, at the end of it all, it promises sakadhi or bliss. But this is not to say that there aren’t still plenty of benefits from practising Pranayama without its other limbs. For one thing, it’s so profoundly relaxing. This comes, partly, from the joy of eupnoea or, in other words, almost effortless, optimally-efficient respiration. It’s a sense of fluidity and lubrication that builds as one grows better at coordinating breathing, heartbeat and movement. It’s like having one’s lungs coupled with the sea so that one inhales and exhales all of that – something like in the old Norse myth, when Odin’s drinking horn was connected to the oceans and, thanks to his godly capacity, he managed to swallow enough seawater to cause the tides…
As a set of breathing techniques, Pranayama combines inhalation, breath retention, and exhalation. Breaths are often slow and relaxed but may be forceful and energising as in ‘bellows breath’ or Bhastrika pranayama. But breathing may involve the conscious separate filling of the lower, middle, and upper portions of the lungs, or it may be that the intervals and durations of inhalation and exhalation, or gaps between them, are altered. Breath may enter the body through an open mouth or this may be closed. It may come through alternate nostrils. Inhalation and exhalation may be synchronized with movement or involve deeply exaggerated contractions of the diaphragm, the oblique muscles and the pelvic floor such as in Agnisar pranayama…
But, however air enters and leaves the body, all the different techniques offer different benefits. For instance Bhastrika pranayama clears the sinuses and any blockages of the nadis (or energy pathways), while Agnisar pranayama strengthens and tones the digestive system, cures constipation and eases Irritable Bowel Syndrome (so long as it’s not practised on a full stomach – in which case it gives even non-sufferers a nasty bout!).
But, speaking of Odin, I want to concentrate a little on the technique called Ujjayi pranayama, which is ‘conquering’ or ‘ocean breath’. This is diaphragmatic breathing with the mouth closed and glottis slightly engaged so that the passage of air in and out produces a soft rushing sound not unlike the wash of waves along a shoreline. One exhales fully and then engages the perineum, tightening it along with the lowest oblique and rectus abdominus muscles, before relaxing them and filling the lower belly with air first, thus activating the first and second chakras. One continues to inhale so that air rises to the lower rib cage and the third and fourth chakras. Finally one inhales to full capacity as the air moves into the upper chest and throat and awakens the fifth chakra. One pauses then exhales, repeating the steps in reverse whilst drawing up and in the perineum and abdominal muscles again.
This exercise repeated meditatively for a few minutes a day builds core stability and strengthens the digestion. But, besides, the slightly closed airway stimulates the vagus nerve and, through this, the parasympathetic nervous system. Thus, it increases heart rate variability while lowering the heart-rate and blood-pressure and calms palpitations arising from irregular electrical cardio-activity.
What has happened in the course of Ujjayi pranayama is that one has shifted the balance from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system. One can shift it back if one wants through a bout of Bhastrika pranayama. Or one can chose a place of equilibrium between the two by incorporating alternate-nostril breathing. And the benefits of all this conscious control are that over-activity of the sympathetic nervous system is gradually calmed and the whole mindful, meditative process settles anxious, fretful minds and bodies and trains us to be proportionately afraid and angry only when the situation calls for these kinds of responses. And it’s not simply that psychologically we are calmer, but inflammatory processes caused by hormonal over-expression are soothed so that we are less prone to chronic illnesses like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and so on.
Pranayama isn’t for everyone. Some techniques are taxing physically and any of you with cardiovascular disease and conditions like diverticulitis and colitis shouldn’t undertake it, certainly not without consulting your doctor. But, even if we can’t or chose not to practise Pranayama, we can still appreciate the divine gift of breath which links all respiring organisms in a network of interconnection. Because it’s free and safe to sit quietly alone while fully experiencing the draw of cool air across the warm moist membranes of our noses and mouths. It should be fine too to draw this air down tubes into filling lungs and relaxing bellies. And it costs nothing to add a little of ourselves before contracting our muscles to send now warmed air out into the world with added elements for all the organisms who need us to be part of the living web.
An astrological final note…
I’m at the end of my tribute to pranayama. But I want to place a little of this eastern system in terms of western medical thought via the unlikely conduit of astrology. This is going to be very brief so anyone wanting to talk more about it can contact me.
What one finds in any attempt to understand energy medicine astrologically is that east doesn’t meet west. For instance, the root chakra – which takes in the area of the perineum and genitals – is said to be ruled by Saturn. But, in western astrology, this area is Scorpio’s and ruled by Mars. However, the proof of the pudding is always in the eating and what one finds through the practise of pranayama is that Saturn is a good ruler of the root chakra, while Scorpio does the job in western terms.
This is something best understood experientially when seated in the Lotus Position, or Padma asana. This makes it easiest to appreciate the importance of the strong base offered by the perineum and pelvis which facilitate together responsivity from the abdomen, straightness from the spine, and softness from the sternum: Saturnine integrity arises from the Saturnine root chakra.
Much of my work is in balancing the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems because it is imbalances between these that lie at the root of so much modern lifestyle disease. And what I’ve found is that it’s useful to think of these in terms of Indian Philosophy and the channels of Prana, or nadis, because then one incorporates the idea of flow and blockage whilst thinking holistically about interrelation.
There are said to be 350,000 nadis in the body but three take precedence: these are the Ida, Pingala and Sushumna nadis. The Ida nadi relates to the right side of the brain, and the left side of the body, and terminates at the left nostril. The Pingala nadi relates to the left side of the brain, the right side of the body, and terminates at the right nostril. And the Sushumna nadi connects the root chakra at the base of the spine to the crown chakra at the top of the head and is the energy centre, aorta, and confluence of the arterial system.
In order to integrate these energy channels into astrological thought, one needs to decide which planet rules what. The right side of the brain tends to be ruled by Jupiter, the left by Mercury but the route of the Pingala nadi suggests correlation with the sympathetic nervous system which, in terms of function, shows itself to be Martian. The route of the Ida nadi correlates with the parasympathetic nervous system and that is Venusian in function. Last, the function and route of the Sushumna nadi shows it to be ruled by the sun.
The simple idea is that immunity is Mars-ruled but the immune response is too nuanced for such a simple, blunt overlord. Resilience and balance of the immune system require that the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are serenely in balance while simultaneously individually primed to respond in timely and proportionate fashion to demands placed on them through stress, infection and disease. It’s no good either being hypo- or hyperactive since the latter extreme leads to chronic misery and inflammation, allergy, and autoimmune diseases, and the former to lowered immunity and constant threat of invasion. Balance is too tall an order and none of us can expect to achieve it, except fleetingly. Nevertheless, the seeking of balance is to the higher good and, in the astrological chart, in terms of balancing the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems or, similarly, the Ida, Pingala and Sushumna nadis, one works primarily to balance the sun, Mars and Venus, with an eye to Jupiter and Mercury.