An earlier version of this article appeared in Yoga Journal, Jan/Feb 1985.
Officer Stan Townsley of the San Francisco Police Department’s narcotics division is racing up a darkened stairway in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury District in pursuit of a drug dealer who is armed with a sawed-off shotgun. At the top of the stairs the man runs to the end of the hallway and turns, trapped and frantic, the shotgun his last alternative to 20 years in prison. He levels it at Townsley’s chest.
Stan looks into the suspect’s eyes, fighting back the awareness that he may die in a moment. “All I could think of was that I mustn’t lose contact with him,” Stan remembers. “So I looked into his eyes and projected my intention not to harm him. Police training had taught me that calm, deep breathing brings the mind under control, so I tried a few deep, deliberate breaths. That helped a lot; then I slowly held out my hand, palm up, projecting calmness and understanding. He dropped the gun and slumped to the floor.”
Stan (only the name is fictitious) is a disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda. Few of us have our yogic poise tested before the barrels of a sawed-off shotgun. But each of us, regardless of occupation, has experienced in some way the connection between breath, mind, and emotions.
Our breath reflects our inner energy
When we get angry, our breathing becomes labored and irregular. When we’re afraid, we breathe shallowly and rapidly, and may even hold our breath. In both cases, our breath reflects the inner condition of our energy, or prana.
Yoga teaches that the word “prana” refers to three separate manifestations of the same basic energy. In its most outward form, it reveals itself as the breath. More inwardly, it is the life force within our bodies. And most subtly, it is the subtle, intelligent energy that permeates all creation. By controlling any one of these, say the ancient texts of yoga, we can control the others.
Yoga teaches that energy control is central to spiritual development. Paramhansa Yogananda devised a series of “energization exercises” that teach a person to feel and progressively control the flow of prana in the body, and also to draw energy into the body at will. In writing about yoga postures, Swami Kriyananda shows how they affect prana in three primary ways: opening channels for its free flow, stimulating it into motion, and raising it upward in the spine. By giving us control of the pranic energy, the postures give us better control of the mind and emotions.
Those who can control just the life force in their own bodies reap considerable rewards: emotional stability, deep calmness, physical vigor. However, few people can feel the movements of subtle energy in their own bodies, not to speak of the movement of still subtler energies in the cosmos. That’s why yoga practice begins with what can be controlled – the physical process of breathing. If we can make prana move around in the body, we can learn to control it. And that’s what the yoga breathing techniques are designed to do.
Even small progress is helpful
To learn to interiorize our awareness completely can take many years, even whole incarnations. But even small progress in breath control can mean a great deal. The corresponding improvement in mental control can help us stay calm amid severe trials, to heal others with peace and kindness, and to concentrate successfully on our work.
Devi once carried a heavy box of delicate china up the hill from her house. Her arms got tired and she began to be afraid she’d drop the box. Stopping for a moment, she observed that her breath was tense and shallow. She breathed deeply a few times and immediately felt the life force flowing more strongly and her tension ebbing away.
Deep, open breathing accompanies an open, accepting attitude toward life. By reversing the tense, shrinking breathing that attends fear and anger, we affirm, “I am part of what’s happening all around me,” and thus we feel integrated again.
Changes in emotion and awareness
It’s easy to start learning to control our emotions using the tool of breath. First be aware that there are three stages of breathing and that each has special psychological significance. Inhalation is associated with an upward stimulating movement of energy and consciousness in the spine; retention of the breath helps to concentrate energy and attention; and exhalation encourages a mental state of relaxation, receptivity, and surrender.
We can work with these stages of breathing to change our awareness in helpful ways. When you’re in a depressed, negative mood, try making your inhalations longer and stronger than your exhalations. Often the direct, physiological route will take you out of a mood more quickly than trying to change your thoughts. Inhale deeply while visualizing a powerful upward flow of energy in the spine. This kind of “breath psychology” has been used successfully in the clinical treatment of depressed mental patients.
Simple breathing exercises like these affect us powerfully because the general tone of our thoughts depends on the movement of energy in the spine. “I feel uplifted.” “I’m on cloud nine today.” “I’m walking with my head held high.” “I’m dancing on air.” These expressions reflect the empirical truth that an upward movement of consciousness is accompanied by an upward movement of energy in the body. When we stimulate that upward flow of energy with the breath, we find our thoughts changing automatically.
Special breathing techniques
For the special purpose of energizing the body, Paramhansa Yogananda recommended vigorous “double breathing.” This consists of a short inhalation through the nose, followed by a long one; then a short and long exhalation through mouth and nose. Research at the University of California, Los Angeles, showed that double breathing empties and fills the lungs more completely than plain deep breathing does. For calming the mind for meditation, however, Yogananda recommended an even count for all three phases of breathing—inhalation, retention, and exhalation.
Yogananda also said that the mind is influenced by where in the nostrils the breath is felt to flow. People of prim, judgmental disposition tend to breathe narrowly through the center of pinched nostrils, as if to avoid taking in too much of a messy universe. Millions have become familiar with the heavy, power-seeking Darth Vader Pranayam. Breathing through the mouth pulls the energy downward in the spine and deprives the brain of part of its oxygen supply. Yogananda said that the most beneficial place to feel the flow of breath is in the upper nostrils, where oxygen can pass easily into the frontal lobes of the brain.
When the breath stops
What about not breathing? The breath stops when the mind is very calm in deep meditation. A simple meditation technique consists of watching the flow of the breath. This practice focuses the attention, which calms the mind. Mental calmness slows the breath, which further calms the mind. Thus a feedback loop is set up that leads the meditator deeper and deeper into calm, steady concentration.
Slowed-down breathing makes less work for the heart, which therefore slows its beat. Yogananda said that the heart chakra is the “main switch” that controls the flow of energy from the spine out into the extremities. When the heart slows, prana is automatically withdrawn into the deep spine, and the body enters a state of suspended animation in which oxygen is no longer needed, and breathing stops.
The doorway to cosmic consciousness
Some of the people whose cases were reported in the popular book Life After Life said that when their hearts stopped during surgery, they found themselves racing through a dark tunnel toward a brilliant white light that emanated pure love and joy. Swami Kriyananda says that this “tunnel” is the inner spine, which can be entered in deep meditation, and that the brilliant white light is the light of the spiritual eye.
Yogananda called the spiritual eye, at the point between the eyebrows, “the doorway to cosmic consciousness.” By focusing attention at the spiritual eye, we shift our awareness from the medulla oblongata to the frontal lobes of the brain, the centers of higher awareness. Yogananda said that when we learn to pass through the five-pointed star seen at the spiritual eye in deep meditation, we experience cosmic consciousness (samadhi). “I protest by the rejoicing which we have in Christ Jesus, I die daily,” wrote St. Paul, referring to the interiorized state of samadhi in which the breath has ceased, life force is completely withdrawn from the body, and one can leave the body at will.
Experience death joyfully
All of us are destined, if not to die daily, at least to die someday. By learning to race through the spinal tunnel into the light of the spiritual eye during deep meditation, we can experience death joyfully instead of with fear.
Breath! How marvelous that something so basic to mere existence can take us to the highest reaches of Self-realization. Vital to life, breath holds the secret of control over life itself.