No surprise, breathing exercises have been a vital part of virtually every mystical order from the yogis to sufis to the ancient mystery schools. A man who has not gained power over his breath is like a king who has no power over his domain, wrote a Sufi saint hundreds of years ago. Poojya Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of the Art of Living, whose breathing technique Sudarshan Kriya has found universal acceptance, calls breath the forgotten secret of life.
In Bhagvada Gita (Chapter 4 Verse 29) Shri Krishna reveals to Arjuna how spiritual knowledge is received through breath. Shri Krishna says, Some offer the outgoing breath to the incoming breath and the incoming breath to the outgoing breath; in this way checking the flow of both the incoming and outgoing breaths they arduously practice breath-control.
Islam also lays a lot emphasis on the spiritual importance of breath. Renowned Sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan writes, Mans health and inspiration both depend on purity of breath and to preserve this purity, the nostrils and all the tubes of the breath must be kept clear.
This order is built on breath, says Shah Naqshband of the Naqshbandi Sufi order. So it is a must on everyone to safeguard his breath. In certain Sufi gatherings, its a practice for members to take turn and make the assembly conscious of their breathing. They call aloud Hosh bar dam, meaning keep conscious of the breath.
Virtually equating breath to life, Guru Nanak writes in Guru Granth Sahib, A man is useful as long as he has breath in his body. When the breath departs, the body becomes useless. No medicine works after that.
The Bible defines life as breath in several passages, including the story of Adams creation in Genesis 2:7. God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. Or take the tale running through John 20:22. Jesus has come back to visit the disciples and tell them that he is sending them out to forgive or not forgive the sins of the world. Then he (Jesus) breathed on them, saying, Receive the Holy Spirit
Its not just the scriptures that equate breath to life itself. Nearly all words now used to mean soul, spirit and life trace their origins to words meaning breath. For example, prana in Sanskrit, ruach in Hebrew and ruh in Arabic are loosely used to mean different aspects of breath.
Even the English word spirit comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning breath. In the Greek and Hebrew Bibles, the words used to mean soul and life have breath as their literal meaning. For example, in the King James version, the Hebrew word neshamah (literally meaning breath) is twice rendered as spirit, once as soul and ruach is rendered 240 times as spirit and six times as mind.
The derived meanings are probably the most authentic commentary on how our ancestors saw and honoured the intimate connections between breath and life. In almost all spiritual traditions, breath is seen as the link between the outer life and the inner life.
The rhythm in breath can help us get in touch with the depth of our self, our soul, our consciousness, our being and make us feel connected with everybody, with everything in the world, explains Sri Sri Ravishankar.
Breath is like a swing with a constant motion and whatever is put in the swing, swings with the movement of the breath. Breath has a great lesson for us. For every rhythm in the mind, there is a corresponding rhythm in the breath. Just as emotions affect the patterns of breathing, the mental and behavioural patterns can be changed by altering the rhythm of our breath, he adds.
Confusion, depression, or any other psychological disorders often arise because of irregularity of breath. For instance, if a person comes running or is hurried for a moment, he loses the regularity of his breath and at that moment he is incapable of thinking rightly. When one cannot handle the mind directly, it can be handled through breath. The mind is like a kite and breath, the string. You dont have to take Prozac if you can attend to the breath, says Sri Sri Ravishankar.
In a study conducted by National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore, researchers found that Sudarshan Kriya was as effective as drugs in treating depression and the result came without any side-effects.
After practicing the Kriya, brain wave patterns were found to stabilise and there was an increase in serum prolactin count.
Another study conducted by All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi, concluded that regular practice of Sudarshan Kriya and pranayama invokes positive emotions, replacing anger, frustration and jealousy. Conversely, people become impulsive or irritable, impatient and get fits of anger because of improper breathing. The physician has no remedy for these tendencies and modern psychology is still debating the link, but the mystics of old have long known that the balance of mind entirely depends on regularity of breath. If administrators and lawmakers knew this, many who are put in prisons for some crime committed during moments of irregular breathing, would have been sent to breathing schools rather than to jails. The knowledge of this link is the core of the Art of Livings immensely successful PrisonSMART programme. By teaching them breathing techniques, it has altered the lives over 200,000 inmates in jails all over the world.
Apart from the influence on emotions, breath is also the means of receiving all intuitive knowledge from every direction of life. The AIIMS study recoded significant increase in beta and alpha activities among Sudarshan Kriya practitioners, indicating a state of relaxed and heightened alertness.
Channelling of the breath into a certain direction is the essence of almost all ancient Indian practices such as yoga asanas. Every direction the breath takes has a different result. Every posture of the body induces certain patterns of breath and yogis use them to attain control not only over emotions but also physical health.
We breathe nearly 16 to 17 times a minute. It may go up to 20 when one is upset and up to 24 when extremely tense and angry. On the other hand, it will come down to 10 when one is calm and happy and to two to three breaths while in meditation.
Deep meditation reduces the number of breaths one takes and when one breathes deeper, the heartbeat reading also slows down to about 65 per minute as against around 90 when breathing in a shallow fashion, like most of us does.
Ancient wisdom has it that the human heart would beat about a billion times. Now scientists have also reinforced that this machinery is designed to go up to that point and break down. The secret to make that quota of a billion last longer is in learning to breathe properly and deeper. Truly, breath is the forgotten secret of life.