Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation homepage > Notebooks of Paul Brunton > Category 5: The Body > Chapter 6: Breathing Exercises
Comments on customs
The positive dynamic effects of deep breathing are well known. This is because with the indrawing breath, the deep inhalation, the mind is set positively and affirmatively; it is then taking advantage of the natural fact that the person's life-force is being drawn upon. If, however, we consider what happens when breath is exhaled, we see the process is reversed. During the interval between the exhalation and the next inhalation it is the universal life-force which then flows into the man because he is then passive, whereas when inhaling he was active. Now this universal life-force, when it expresses itself in man, acts as a link with the universal spirit and demands physical existence. In other words, when the breath is let out and briefly held before it is indrawn again, there is a bridge to the higher consciousness of man. The bridge is there, but he must take advantage of it and usually he does not. If, during those few moments of pause, he turned his mind into meditation upon his true being, he would find it easier then than at other times; or if he did the same thing after having had an unexpected glimpse, he could retain the uplift of the glimpse for a longer period.
The practice of breathing, when done as an exercise--whether sitting or walking--can be harmonized with a cosmic breath; that is, breathe out slowly, prolonging the outgoing breaths, so that the intake will come of itself naturally. While breathing out, mentally direct the air downwards towards the diaphragm. While breathing in, mentally connect with the cosmic life-force. Remember that the purpose of this lengthened outbreath is not only to empty the lungs of the stale air, but also to empty the mind of negative thoughts.
It will help to empty the mind of its tumult and the nerves of their agitation if he will breathe out as fully as possible, inhaling only when the first feeling of discomfort starts. He should then rest and breathe normally for several seconds. Next, he should breathe in as deeply as possible. The air is to be kept in the lungs until it is uncomfortable to do so. This alternation completes one cycle of breathing. It may be repeated a number of times, if necessary, but never for a longer period than ten minutes.
The other breathing exercise which is dangerous--not physically so much as mentally--is that which prescribes breathing through alternate nostrils so that one nostril is closed by a finger and only the other is used until the changeover is made to the other nostril. This exercise is the one that threatens sanity. I would enforce as a rule that everyone who sets up to teach hatha yoga to others should be compelled to go through a course of at least one year in the anatomy of the body and then in the physiology of the body. The work must have a scientific basis because it encroaches on the medical domain.
Revitalizing Breath Exercise: (1) Stand at an open window, spine erect, body straight, hands tightly holding hips. (2) Expel all stale air through the mouth. (3) Take three short, sharp sniffs of air and expel the total quantity in one long-drawn exhalation. Pause and breathe normally. Repeat three times. (4) Breathe in deeply through the nose, starting as low in the abdomen as possible, rising upward in the lungs until the upper part is filled. (5) The mind should concentrate on the solar plexus behind the navel. Imagine a stream of golden-white energy being drawn from there and radiated throughout the body. (6) Pucker up the lips and let all the air out as vigorously as possible. Tighten the diaphragm muscle while doing so, and move it upwards. Pause and breathe normally. Repeat three times.
Breathing Exercise: A useful exercise which I have mentioned in one of the earlier books is to breathe out slowly and then let the inbreath come of itself, naturally. While breathing out, hold the thought of throwing out all negative thoughts and undesirable emotions. I ought to add now to the description of that exercise that this exhalation should last as long as possible without undue discomfort and that it should be originated in the region of the diaphragm--the abdomen or behind the navel. Keep the spine upright, with the head and neck in line with it. This enables you to better receive cosmic currents of life-force. It also strengthens the power of self-control, of disciplining the body.
The Death-Gasp Breathing Exercise: Lie flat on your back. Take a deep, quick inhalation through the open mouth, accompanied by the gasping half-loud shriek which such an act involuntarily produces. Then gradually and slowly exhale again.
This breathing exercise tries to imitate the death cry of dying creatures, the vocal expression of their fear of death. Such an imitation of the physical side of dying should bring with it, momentarily, the associated death fear whose gravity and importance naturally swallow up all lesser fears. If this exercise is done twice daily, these lesser fears gradually become weaker, while the fear of death is itself overcome.
If the hatha yogis are right, if the way to the kingdom of heaven is nasal and atmospheric, then why should we trouble to become unselfish, disciplined, and intelligent? Why bother to improve our characters at all? No! the wise student does not need breathing exercises although he may use them.
The power of the inheld breath to augment the body's energy is striking. A heavy weight which one could hardly lift ordinarily can be lifted much more easily if a deep, long breath is first taken and the air is retained in the lungs while attempting the feat. A long forward leap or a high jump can be more successfully achieved by following the same method.
Health and strength are to a limited extent in ratio to lung power. It is needful to practise deep breathing and take long breaths.
Breathing Exercise to Improve, Control, and Prevent Colds: Take in a series of six short breaths through the mouth very quickly, hold the air in the lungs for about two or three seconds, then let it out in a single, easy exhalation.
When deep breath is united to keen thought, and when the fused result is driven upwards physically to the brain and mentally in lofty aspiration to the Soul, the visitant will know by a beautiful change of consciousness that it is welcome.
Chuang Tzu also said that the pure men of old drew breath from their innermost depths, whereas the vulgar, only from their throats. We might say, this is equivalent to breathing from the point of the hara: a slow, deep breathing from behind the diaphragm.
Breathing exercise to pacify mind and body: (1) lie flat on back with closed eyes; (2) breathe in fully, then hold breath for three seconds; (3) exhale, and restore normal breathing to get comfortable. This completes one cycle. Repeat it for a complete cycle of seven repetitions. Further instruction for use and development of this exercise must be obtained from a qualified teacher.
The danger of taking to these breathing exercises for the sake of developing personal powers is that if the powers are finally gained, the spiritual path is often lost.
Deep breathing practised in the shade of fir trees is not only invigorating, but beneficial to the lungs.
The importance of diaphragmatic breathing is not only a physical one, because full breathing enables us to get the full manifestation of the life-force in the body, but also because it allows for a fuller and freer manifestation of the mind.
Those who wish to invigorate themselves quickly should practise for two or three minutes what has been variously called deep breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, and abdominal breathing. Expel the breath vigorously, then with palms resting on the lower ribs take in very slowly a deep breath, stretching out the diaphragm muscle while doing so, then exhale somewhat less slowly. Repeat this exercise until feeling freshly renewed. A variant of this is practised in hatha yoga, but it is not recommended to those working without a competent hatha yoga teacher, because it has its own dangers. This variant consists in holding the breath before exhaling it and the exhalation itself is done with a hissing noise. All breath holdings can be dangerous. If the breath is held for too long, consciousness is lost, and what is too long for one person may not be for another.
The practice of breath control (pranayama) may be viewed in terms of its goals, the means to attain them, and possible misuses of the practice.
Goals of breath control include: to reduce the number of wandering thoughts; to stop wandering thoughts completely; potential production of a glimpse; lengthening of a glimpse, if obtained; and bringing about a glimpse if lost.
The most common means of achieving these goals through breath practices are dual, and include the holding of the breath for short, safe periods, and the equalizing of the in and out breaths.
Dangers of breath control, if improperly practised, include: holding the breath for too long a period, causing a feeling of suffocation; the arisal of noticeable pressure on the heart; and a feeling that the lungs are about to burst. These warnings do not imply waiting to suspend practice until the problem occurs. It is more prudent to stop before the danger line is reached.
An aspirant came to Swami Ramdas and complained that, practising the instruction given him by a guru, he had done breathing exercises. These had ruined his health to the degree of forcing him to resign from a high government post. Ramdas often warned his disciples and visitors that these hatha yoga breath exercises were not meant for those living in the world, but for yogis who had withdrawn from it, and especially for those who were totally celibate.
Whether or not breathing exercises should be practised depends upon what feelings they arouse in the individual. If there are indications that they are leading to undesirable physical or psychical results, one should remember that progress can be made equally well without them if greater emphasis is placed on prayer.
Aspirational thought should not be suspended during breathing exercises, but should, on the contrary, be combined with them. Breath control is primarily intended to help still the mind, but it is not enough by itself to bring results.
The only safe breathing exercises to follow are given in the books. There are many other breathing exercises, but they are useless for the Western seeker and will positively NOT give him the higher consciousness he seeks. They will certainly produce queer effects, beautiful reveries, or refreshing deep sleep, but one can get the same results by using hashish or opium, and with less trouble. Neither Truth nor Peace can be got via the nose. There is only one way to arrive at the goal he seeks and that is by disciplining thought in meditation and concentration, and then using it for all it is worth in enquiry into the meaning of life.
There are great dangers in the indiscriminate practice of yoga breathing exercises. Even the one given in Vivekananda's books causes much havoc among Western students and in his later years Vivekananda himself greatly regretted having published it. Breath control is a sharp-edged instrument which can be very serviceable and yet at the same time very dangerous. A safe exercise which may be practised without a teacher is that given in Dr. Brunton's books. An abnormal nervous condition and ganglion trouble may well result from the ill-informed experiment of holding the breath.
The forceful retention of breath used in the yoga of body control was found by Buddha to be most painful as well as exciting to the nervous system, and it was only when he sat under the tree where he attained Nirvana that he found and practised the superior method which harmonized well with his lofty aim. An exercise which is largely identical with the one practised by the Buddha has been given in The Secret Path and The Quest of the Overself. The essence of it consists in breathing as gently and slowly as possible as is consistent with comfort for a few minutes prior to the actual practice of meditation. Thus the taking in and giving out of the breath is brought under temporary control. During the operation, attention should be wholly directed towards it, so that the student is fully conscious of the entire breath movement and of nothing else. This exercise is particularly recommended to remove thoughts of depression, bitterness, and unhappiness. Its chief aim, however, is to help bring down the upspringing thought waves to a calm surface and thus merge the numerous separate thoughts in undifferentiated Thought. Students of the ultimate path can just as usefully practise it as a preliminary to their mental exercise and it will be just as valuable to them. Two points ought, however, to be added to the description given in those books: the first being the necessity of keeping the torso erect so as to help and not hinder the respiratory process, and the second being that the breathing is not to be done by raising and lowering the shoulders but by raising and lowering the diaphragm so that the muscular region affected lies between the stomach and the chest.
The highest achievement of the yoga of body control which is effected through certain breathing exercises is the state of utter unconsciousness of the physical body and of the physical world. Although this also effectively stops the process of generating thoughts, its result must not be confused with that stoppage which is attained in the intermediate or advanced mystic exercises. It is quite true to say that before or during the deep-trance state to which these breathing exercises eventually lead, the yogi's body can show remarkable powers; it may be buried under ground for hours or even days and emerge unharmed; it may be stabbed with knives but suffer hardly any loss of blood; its heart and lung action may cease entirely so far as finger and stethoscope tests may be able to ascertain; and corrosive poisonous acids may be poured into its stomach without hurting its membranous lining.
The first movement after waking up in the morning is intended to drive off drowsiness. It is practised by completely exhaling all stale air from the lungs and then deeply inhaling pure fresh air.
By watching the incoming and outgoing breath, its rhythm naturally slows down, thus calming the violent action of heart, lungs, and diaphragm. The heart pumps about seventeen tons of blood a day, and gets no rest at night, hence is the most overworked organ in the body. The ancients knew this method of resting the heart, thus increasing the span of life and also liberating a tremendous amount of life power, which revitalizes the cells of the body.
The exercises in breath control are intended to affect the nervous system, or the psychic centres, or the bodily muscles, or certain organs according to which exercise is practised.
Chinese yoga: Breathe in very gently and hold the breath for the longest possible time. Breathe out just as gently. This gives mental abstraction.
The exercise requires him to empty the lungs thoroughly of all air, to wait two or three seconds, and to fill the lungs again slowly and deeply. At the same time, by using his creative imagination and his concentrated will, he commands the lower energy and consecrates it to lofty aspiration.
Transmutation exercise: Breathe in deeply and repeatedly. At the same time, definitely direct the energy to achieve magically and to create mentally whatever specific physical or mental objective is aspired to. It becomes a vehicle of sacred consecration, born from the transmutation of sex fluid into spiritual force. Thus a white magic ritual is performed, not for emotive relief but to start a new current of creative power. It may be done along with prayers and declarations.
If the retention of breath, which is the praised aim of hatha yogis, were enough by itself to confer spiritual benefits, then the pearl fishers who dive far below the surface of the waters of the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean holding their breath for several minutes should feel and show these benefits too. But no report of such a result has ever been made.
Breathing exercises are best done in the morning. This is because the air is then purest, the body most in need of stimulation and awakening, the mind most ready to join with the breath in influencing the whole person.
Inhaling deeply is a health-giving exercise which revives spirits and cures depression. But this is so only provided the air is sent to the bottom of the lungs and thus expands the diaphragm. Expanding the lungs sideways is not enough. They must also be expanded in a downward direction.
A yogic breathing exercise which is really useful and danger-free combines constructive thinking with deep breathing. On the inhalation, the student is to imagine he is strengthening his will by transmuting his lower forces; on the exhalation he is to imagine that he is casting out emotional weakness and rubbish. The breaths should be deeper than usual, forceful "like a pair of bellows powerfully manipulated by a smith," as an ancient Hindu text says.
These breathing exercises are safe only if certain abstentions are practised. The chief of them are chastity, teetotalism, and non-smoking.
What does he seek to do by practising a process of breath control? First, the freeing of his mind from distractions and wanderings; second, the awakening of the "spirit-heat." The deeper the breathing, the greater the power awakened.
There is another reason besides Nature's stillness or environmental quietness for choosing dusk, dawn, or midnight, and that is the balanced breathing which temporarily follows. This in turn steadies the mind. At other times the breath passes more through the left or through the right nostril--disequilibrium which affects the mind.
The Hebrew Bible allots seventy years as the human life-span but the Hindu Vedic scripture which is far older, allots a hundred years. It is a curious fact that the ancient Svarodaya Manual of Yoga reported man as breathing three times less each minute than he generally does today. This means that each breath was longer in those early days when he lived out a century of years.
When the breath is deliberately inhaled or exhaled gently and evenly as an initial period of the meditation practice, the mind is slowly forced into a calm and concentrated mood.
The outgoing breath is not less important in its influence on the mind. If it is to contribute to the attainment of tranquillity, it should be so gentle that powder in a hand held to the nose would not be blown away. A forcible or violent exhalation obstructs the rising of the desired mental state.
Since the primary purpose of these exercises is to contribute toward the general attempt to gain control of the mind, to lessen and quieten the activity of thinking, to bring a settled calm into the entire consciousness, and to soothe and pacify the emotions, the primary means used is to establish a rhythm by breathing at a measured rate.
All breathing exercises should be done with the head, neck, and spine erect, hence done standing or sitting upright. This is partly because the spinal cord is ultimately affected by them, and should be kept free for the passage through it of nerve currents, and partly because the cerebellum at the nape of the neck is likewise ultimately affected by the passage of nerve currents through it.
Because I gave out an exercise (in The Quest of the Overself) in gentle, shallow breathing to be done for not more than five or six minutes when preparing for meditation in order to help induce the proper condition of calmness, some wrongly understood this to be a recommendation to be practised constantly throughout the day, and for a special purpose. To do it as a settled way of breathing was never advised and ought never to have been misread into the published instructions. On the contrary, for habitual day-long use I advise always and prescribe with conviction the method of deep diaphragmatic breathing as one to be adopted as customary.
Draw the Force into every pore of your skin until it pervades your whole body.
Breathing exercises should never be pushed to excess, for then they may become very dangerous. It is safer to underpractise them than to overdo them.
Why do people sigh agitatedly or catch their breath when hearing unexpected news about a relative's death? Is this not a sign that breath is the brother of thought?
The breath-watching exercise is a useful one. Keep the current of attention firmly fixed on the current of breath itself for a few minutes. Thus breathing becomes converted temporarily from an unconscious into a conscious process.
With every inhaled breath, draw in mentally also the calm strength, the renewal of poise which you need most at the time.
The combination of deep abdominal breathing with high spiritual aspiration forms an excellent exercise which is simple, easy, and effective. It gives a momentum to the positive and ennobling forces of the whole being.
The practice of equalizing the time periods of the incoming and outgoing breaths makes for a balanced flow of the nervous currents. This leads in turn to better control of the nerves and feelings. It is therefore a desirable exercise for those emotional types of persons who need it.
It is not only during set periods that he is to practise these slow, deep, and long breaths, but as frequently throughout the day as possible. In this way, it will become his habitual pattern of normal breathing.
The state of his breathing shows also the state of his feelings, his mind, and even his will.
Since the breath and the seed are man's most vital and valuable energies, they must be rightly used; they cannot be left out of such a scheme of purification and transformation.
A warning must be given that the regular occurrence of pain or of acute discomfort during the practice of any of these exercises ought to be taken as a red signal to abandon it. Otherwise an injury may result.
Clare Booth Luce, formerly an ambassador to Italy, once told how when she practised breathing exercises her body became cataleptic, as though dead, while she saw it lying inert from above. That stopped her exercising!
Deeper and fewer breaths will be needed by a vital, healthy man than by a weakly, sicker one.
The relaxed tension-free life brings with it a loss of nervousness, and this in turn a loss of the desire to smoke tobacco. The practice for a few minutes daily of slowing down breathing to half the usual rate is an exercise which affects blood circulation and slows it down, too. This indirectly helps to reduce the desire to smoke.
All breathing exercises should begin by cleansing the lungs with a thorough exhalation.
The man who is being treated in the Indian jungle for a snakebite, and whose wound must be cut out with a knife, is told to hold his breath during the cutting operation. Why?
In the Japanese art of karate, which can disable a man immediately by a blow with the side of the hand upon sensitive areas of the neck or throat, it should be noted that the art is performed on the outgoing breath.
The breathing exercises of yoga have results beyond the physical. They cleanse the emotional nature and purify the nervous system.
When the breathing is reduced to a few counts per minute, the production of poisonous carbon dioxide is reduced, too; the operation of the heart becomes calmer as the flow of blood slows down, the oxidation in the brain gets less, and the head feels markedly lighter. The rest of the body seems vaporous as if half-anesthetized. Thoughts are fewer and less insistent, the mind tending towards inactivity.
Inattention during this practice will produce sleep, whilst concentrated attention will bring a tingling sensation of Divine Life to every cell in the body. By faithful concentration we eventually learn to focus the mind and its power on any desired line of thought and hold it there, free of distinction. This enables us to rightfully seek a solution for every problem, and bit by bit opens up for us a greater and more fascinating spiritual horizon.
The Notebooks are copyright © 1984-1989, The Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation.