Breath and Breathing

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BREATH AND BREATHING . The concept of breath figures prominently in the development of thought in many religions. Egyptian ka, Hebrew nefesh and ruah, Greek psuchē and pneuma, Latin anima and spiritus, Sanskrit prana, Chinese qi, Polynesian mana, and Iroquoian orenda all demonstrate that the theme of breath has had a major place in humanity's quest for religious understanding. Moreover, theological conceptions of breath have led many of the world's traditions to feature respiratory exercises in their religious disciplines, especially in Asia and among groups influenced directly or indirectly by practices from the Indian subcontinent.

Breath and the Religious Understanding of Humanity

The centrality of breath in defining humanity has focused on understanding what it is that gives humans life and under what circumstances humans define their own deaths. Moreover, the theme of breath, along with related notions of vitality and energy, has been associated with views of the soul and with questions regarding the mortal and immortal aspects of human life.

Greek views

Although the theme of breath is seldom mentioned by Plato and Aristotle, some of their predecessors, for whom the universe was a quasi-living organism, saw air, wind, or breath as central to the definition of the soul. Pre-Socratic philosophers identified two qualities of the soul, movement and knowledge. Empedocles, for example, believed that because the soul knows all natural things, and because natural things can be analyzed into four constituent partsfire, air, water, and earththe soul must be made up of a combination of these four elements, together with the principles of love and strife.

Diogenes, taking up the position of the Ionians (one of whom, Anaximenes, described the soul as having an airlike nature that guides and controls the living being), credited air itself with sentience and intelligence. For Diogenes, air was the element most capable of originating movement, because it was the finest element in grain; in this characteristic, he thought, lay the grounds of the soul's own powers of knowing and of originating movement. Moreover, he stated, the internal air in the body had an important role in the functioning of each of the sense organs. Similarly, some of the Pythagoreans believed that the particles in the air, or the force that moved them, were soul, and Heraclitus declared that the soul as first principle was a "warm exhalation" of which everything else was composed.

Of the words Plato used for "soul," including nous, sōma, psuchē, and genesis, psuchē was the closest to a concept that incorporated breath. In Homer, psuchē refers to the life that is lost at death, as well as to the shade or wraith that lives on. Like the ancient Egyptian ka ("breath"), the "double" of humanity that was born with humans but survived death and remained close to the tomb, the Homeric soul was an airy, ethereal entity identified with the breath of life. In Plato, however, psuchē designates a comprehensive personal soul, the divine aspect of humanity that is the seat of rational intelligence and moral choice, entirely separate from the body. Although, from the beginning of Greek philosophy, psuchē referred to the "life force" in all its psychosomatic connotations, it was not always related to breath per se. Because Greek philosophy placed such a premium on the intellectual life of the soul, the "breath of life" came to be relegated to a place of little stature.

Biblical views

In the Bible, the role of breath rests on several concepts: rua, neshamah, nefesh, psuchē, and pneuma. Of these, nefesh and psuchē refer specifically to the individual as the subject of life, while rua and pneuma refer to a more generic understanding of breath as a symbol of life and even as life itself.

The Hebrew term rua means "breath, wind," or "spirit." As a concept of nature, it refers to the winds of the four directions, as well as to the wind of heaven. For humans as a species, rua is a general principle, covering such things as the physical breath that issues from the mouth and nostrils, words carried forth on this breath, animated emotions (such as agitation, anger, vigor, courage, impatience, bitterness, troubled disposition, discontent, uncontrollable impulse, and jealousy), and, occasionally, mental activity and moral character. Rua is also the spirit in humans that gives them life; because this spirit is created and preserved by God, it is thus understood to be God's spirit (the rua elohim of Genesis 1:2), which is breathed into humans at the time of creation. Biblical literature sees evidence of God's spirit in such phenomena as prophecy (whereby human beings utter instructions or warnings), ecstatic states of frenzy and possession, and situations of authority through which divine wisdom is revealed.

The term neshamah, although used considerably less often than rua, nevertheless carries many of the same meanings: the breath of God as wind (hot, cold, life creating, or life destroying), the breath of humans as breathed into them by God, and breath as found in every living thing.

The individual soul of humans is usually designated by the term nefesh. From a root probably meaning "to breathe" (cf. Akkadian napashu, "expand"), nefesh occasionally designates the neck or throat (which opens for breathing), but is more often the concrete sign of life, the breathing substance, and then the soul or inner being, in man. Moreover, since the living are distinguished from the dead by breath, nefesh indicates the individual, the person or "I," which after death goes to Sheʾol. As the life force in individual beings, nefesh is mentioned in referring to both animals and humans, and is that which makes flesh alive. The relation between neshama, as "breath," and nefesh, denoting "person," is seen in Genesis 2:7: "Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath [neshamah ] of life; and man became a living being [nefesh ]." This belief in the unity of body and soul is continued from the biblical period into later Jewish philosophy.

Like rua, pneuma in the New Testament denotes "spirit," and it refers both to the Holy Spirit and the spirit of an individual person, as well as to the evil spirits or demons that are responsible for mental illness. Although it has the same psychosomatic implications as ruah, its ties to the notion of breath are less obvious.

The New Testament term psuchē, on the other hand, although it continues to carry the old Greek sense of life force, corresponds more to the Hebrew notion of breath of life than it does to its use in Plato or the pre-Socratics. Like nefesh, psuchē is the individual soul, the "I" that feels, loves, and desires, and that lives only because it has been infused with breath. Nevertheless, under Greek influence, the nefesh -become-psuche concept was gradually opposed to the mortal body and used to designate the immortal principle in humans.

Breath is of little importance in later Christian investigations of the soul. Tertullian, however, relying on the Stoic tradition, emphasized the union of soul and body, and said that the soul is "born of the breath of God, immortal, corporeal, and representable"though it was only Adam's soul that was created by God, as all others have come into being by an act of generation.

Islamic views

Arabic terms related to breath parallel the Hebrew. In pre-Qurʾanic poetry, for example, nafs is the "self" or "person" and rū is breath and wind. Beginning with the Qurʾān, nafs takes on the additional meaning of "soul," while rū comes to refer to an angel, or heavenly messenger, or to a special divine quality. The two words are eventually synonymous in post-Qurʾanic literature, where they refer equally to the human spirit, to angels, and to jinn (supernatural beings). The term nafas, "breath" and "wind," is cognate to nafs through its root and to rū in some meanings. It first appears in Islamic literary history in the early poetry.

Classical Islamic philosophy gives a central role to breath in the perfection of humanity within the cosmos. According to Ibn Sina, God created the left side of the heart, the main organ of breathing, to be a source and storehouse for breath, which is the rallying point for the faculties of the soul and the conveyor of these faculties to various parts of the body. Breath begins as a divine emanation moving from potentiality to actuality, proceeding without interruption until each form is complete and perfect. There is one breath that acts as the origin of the others; this principal breath arises in the heart and moves throughout the body, giving its parts their proper temperament. It is identified with the force of life itself and is thus the link between the bodily and spiritual aspects of an individual's being. The principal breath of humans, then, makes possible the perfect equilibrium and balance of the elementsa condition necessary for the manifestation of the divine.

Hindu views

The Sanskrit term prāa is a word of broad import that can refer to breath, respiration, life, vitality, wind, energy, and strength. In general, it is used in the plural to indicate the vital breaths in the body, but is also related to speculation about the individual soul. Early Indian literature proposed a variety of notions about the relation between human breath (prāa ), its natural correlate the atmospheric wind, and the cosmic order. The most important of these equated the atmospheric wind with the breath of Purua, the cosmic man (gveda 10.90.13) who was, like the Egyptian god Amun, a deity manifest in the wind and, as breath, the mysterious source of life in men and animals.

Indian medical theory, the basis for hahayoga, identifies five prāa s operative within the body: prāa, the "breath of the front," or thoracic breath, which ensures respiration and swallowing; udāna, the "breath that goes upward," which produces speech; samāna, "concentrated breath," which provides air to the internal "cooking" fire for digesting food; apāna, the "breath that goes downward," or abdominal breath, which controls the elimination of urine and feces; and vyāna, the "diffused breath," which circulates throughout the entire body and distributes the energy derived from food and breath. The general process of inhalation and exhalation is referred to by the compound prāāpānau.

In addition, there are five subsidiary "winds" or vāyū s: nāga, which relieves abdominal pressure through belching; kūrma, which controls the movements of the eyelids, thereby preventing foreign matter and bright light from entering the eyes; kkara, which controls sneezing and coughing, thereby preventing substances from passing up the nasal passages and down the throat; devadatta, which provides for the intake of extra oxygen into the tired body by causing a yawn; and dhanajaya, which remains in the body after death, often bloating up the corpse.

There is some debate about the relation of yogic prāa to the cosmic forces in the universe. In modern literature on yoga, prāa, even in the compound prāāyāma, "the restraint of breath," is often interpreted as a subtle psychic force or cosmic element. This is not borne out by the early texts, however, and Patañjali, who provided the first real exposure to yoga, uses the term prāāyāma to refer only to respiratory movements. Later hahayoga texts do use the word prāa to indicate a subtle psychic force, but this is the force awakened by the process of prāāyāma and not prāāyāma itself.

The Brāhmaas and Upaniads equate breath, as "vital breath," with the ātman or soul (cf. German Atem, "breath") and with brahman, the cosmic essence. The vital air in the upper part of the body is here thought to be immortal and to be the inspirer of thoughts. Moreover, it is by the breath of his mouth that Prajapāti created the gods and by the prāa of his lower body that he created the demons. Finally, in the Vedic sacrifice, bricks for the altar are sniffed by the sacrificial horse, who thereby bestows "breath" upon themexplained as a "sniff-kiss" in which the horse transfers beneficent power to ritual objects.

Chinese views

In ancient China, each person was thought to have two souls, both composed of very subtle matter: the hun ("air soul") came from the upper air and was received back into it at death, while the po ("earth soul") was generated by the earth below and sank back at the end to mingle with it. Of the two, it was the hun that was the object of ancestor worship. This two-part system corresponded to the yinyang equilibrium, the hun soul being the yang aspect, in which the spiritual dominates, and the po being the yin aspect, in which the demonic dominates. In later tradition, the hun soul was thought to give rise to the seminal and mental essences, while the po was responsible for the existence of the flesh and bones of the body.

Breath and Religious Disciplines

Many of the major religious traditions are familiar with some type of respiratory practice. The oldest known and most comprehensive of these breathing disciplines is that of Hindu yoga, from which the disciplines of Jainism and Buddhism are derived. Some scholars have suggested that other traditions as well (particularly Daoism and Islam) have been influenced, at least in part, by Indian practices.

Hindu yoga

The Indian science of respiratory discipline, prāāyāma, fits within the larger complex of Hindu yoga, the most important type of which, for understanding breath control, is hahayoga. In general, yoga has as its goal the steady control of the senses and mind, leading to the abolition of normal consciousness and to freedom from delusion. Prāāyāma, the rhythmic control of the breath, is the fourth in the traditional eight states of yoga, coming after āsana, posture, and before pratyāhāra, withdrawal of the senses. Its main purpose is to change the ordinarily irregular flow of breathwhich can be upset by indigestion, fever, cough, and cold, or by emotions like fear, anger, and lustby bringing the breath under conscious control so that its rhythm becomes slow and even and respiratory effort is eliminated. By means of prāāyāma not only are the lungs cleansed and aerated, the blood oxygenated, and the nerves purified, but longevity as well as subtle states of consciousness leading to spiritual release are promoted. Although prāāyāma came to be a yogic exercise of great importance, Patañjali allots only three sūtra s to it (1.34, 2.29, 2.49). The technical details for prāāyāma were then elaborated in the commentaries of Vyāsa, Bhoja, and Vācaspati Miśra, and especially in the classical works on hahayoga.

Although extraordinary feats resulting from respiratory discipline have been documented in numerous sources, including submersion in water or burial alive for unbelievable lengths of time, more frequent mention is made of the dangerous results of improper breathing. Practitioners are cautioned to undertake prāāyāma only under the instruction of a knowledgeable teacher, and to proceed with the exercises very slowly at first and according to their own capacity; otherwise they will incur disease or even death. By improper practice of prāāyām, for example, a pupil can introduce disorders into his system, such as hiccups, wind, asthma, cough, catarrh, pains in the head, eyes, and ears, and severe nervous irritation; by proper practice, however, one is freed from these and most other diseases. The classic example of improper respiratory discipline is that of the nineteenth-century Hindu saint Rama-krishna. When he was young, Ramakrishna's practice of yoga almost always ended in blackout. He later developed bloodshot eyes, then bleeding of the gums, and finally the cancer of the throat from which he died. In this regard, the classical tradition holds that when prāāyāma is too intensive, that is, when the body becomes overloaded with prāa, colored flames dance before the eyes and blackout inevitably occurs.

The respiratory rhythm of prāāyāma is measured in units of time called mātrāprāmāa, one mātrā being the time necessary for one respiration. This rhythm is achieved by harmonizing the three basic activities of inhalation (pūraka ), retention of breath (kumbhaka ), and exhalation (recaka ). The most favored proportion of pūraka to kumbhaka to recaka is 1:4:2, although other traditions recommend 1:2:2 (for beginners) or an equal measure for all three parts. Still another tradition recommends that beginners not practice kumbhaka at all. Although this particular terminology is not used by either Patañjali or Vyāsa, it is traditional in hahayoga texts, where kumbhaka alone can sometimes refer to all three respiratory processes. A more detailed analysis describes two different states of "breath retention," antara kumbhaka, when breathing is suspended after full inspiration (the lungs being full), and bāhya kumbhaka, when breathing is suspended after full exhalation (the lungs being empty).

The technique of prāāyāma is thought to transform the natural processes already at work in the body. It is believed that every living creature breathes the prayer "Soʾham" ("The immortal spirit, he am I") with each inward breath, and "ʿHamsah" ("I am he, the immortal Spirit") with each outgoing breath. This unconscious repetitive prayer goes on throughout life, and is to be brought into full consciousness through the discipline that begins with breathing.

Prāāyāma should be undertaken only when the third stage of yoga has been mastered, for it is only when correct posture has been achieved and complete relaxation has set in that breath can be made to flow freely. The student of prāāyāma should be sure that the bowels and bladder are empty, and especially that the stomach has little or no food in it when he or she begins the practice: for the physical culturist, prāāyāma should take place at least one half hour before the next meal and four and a half hours after the last; for the spiritual culturist, one meal a day is best, but at least six hours should have elapsed since the last meal was eaten. For serious students, prāāyāma should be practiced four times a day (early morning, noon, evening, and midnight), with a count of eighty cycles per sitting. The best seasons to begin are spring and fall, when the climate is equable, and the best place to practice is one that is well ventilated but without a strong draft. Traditionally prāāyāma was performed on a carpet of kuśa grass covered with a deer hide and then with a clean thick cloth, but current rules prescribe a folded blanket on the floor. The eyes should be fixed in a special gaze (usually directed ahead or at the tip of the nose), while the mind is passive but alert. The breathing itself is directed through the nostrils only, not through the mouth. Specific rules for prāāyāma differ according to the authority in question, but in most treatises, special respiratory rules are given for pregnant women and those just completing childbirth.

Breath is made to flow through the yogin's body by an elaborate system of controls designed to prevent internal damage: the bandha s are postures in which certain organs or parts of the body are contracted and controlled; the nāi s are tubular channels in the body through which the breath energy flows; and the cakra s are the flywheels controlling the body's machinery. The three most important bandha s are the jālandhara bandha ("chin lock"), whereby the chin is pressed against the chest and the abdomen is withdrawn; the uīyāna bandha ("raising of the diaphragm"), whereby the diaphragm is pulled up and the abdominal organs are brought against the back and held toward the spine; and the mūla bandha ("anal contraction"), whereby the sphincter muscle is tightened. These postures affect what most authorities believe are the seventy-two thousand nadi s, along which the breath or life current flows to all parts of the body. Some nāi s are more important than others, the single most important being the suumna, identified with the spinal cord. The breath energy flowing through the nāi s is then regulated by the cakra s, control points placed at crucial locations in the body.

Respiratory discipline is central in bringing about the unification of consciousness, the goal of yoga. From an early period, mind and breath were held to be intimately connected, and the arousal or cessation of one was known to affect the other. Patañjali, for example, recommended prāāyāma for achieving equanimity and inner peace, and Bhoja noted that through the suspension of sense activity, breath control could bring about single-pointed concentration (the fifth stage of yoga, pratyāhāra ). The classical image used here is that of the chariot, according to which the mind is a chariot yoked to a pair of powerful horses, one of which is breath (prāa ), the other, desire. The chariot moves in the direction of the more powerful animal; if breath prevails, desires are controlled, but if desires prevail, breath becomes irregular. Through prāāyāma, which ensures the controlled progress of the chariot, the advanced yogins can penetrate the four basic structures of consciousnesswaking, sleeping with dreams, sleeping without dreams, and the tuīya statethereby unifying all four within themselves.

With the development of Tantrism, the yogic disciplines of posture and breath control were combined with sexual practices that served to unite the practitioner with cosmic energy or śakti, as symbolized by the great goddess. According to Tantric texts, the object of prāāyāma is to arouse kualinī, the divine cosmic force in the body, symbolized by a coiled and sleeping serpent that lies dormant in the lowest nerve center (cakra ) at the base of the spinal column. Once aroused by prāāyāma, this energy rises up through the spinal column, piercing each cakra on its way until it reaches the head and there unites with the supreme soul.

Buddhist meditation

For Therāvada Buddhists, respiratory discipline is counted as part of the contemplation of the bodyānapānasati ("mindfulness of breathing"). The Pali canon describes the meditation as "mindfully he breathes in, mindfully he breathes out," and then enumerates sixteen ways in which mindful breathing can be practiced. The work begins with developing an awareness of "breathing in a long breath, breathing out a long breath, breathing in a short breath, breathing out a short breath," and continues through the practices until discursive thinking has been cut off and full concentration attained. Unlike yogic breathing techniques, however, Buddhist mindfulness of breath does not hold or control the breath but lets it come and go naturally, with the goal only to become fully aware of all states of the breathing process.

In Tibetan Buddhism, breathing is a part of the complex process of visualization by which a deity is mentally created in front of the practitioner out of his internal psychic elements. Tibetan Buddhists believe that breath or vitality in the body enters not only through the nose but also through the eyes, ears, mouth, navel, male or female organ, anus, and head and body hair pores. Since these "winds" act as a mount or basis for consciousness, the mind's scattering is stopped when they are restrained. Visualization, therefore, can proceed only when vitality (or breath) and exertion (or distraction) have been controlled. To achieve the mental stability needed for visualization, meditators are advised to practice "wind yoga," that is, to hold their breath"hold the wind"while simultaneously holding their mind on the divine body that is the object of meditation. When they can no longer retain the breath, they should let it out gently, see themselves clarified as the deity, and then hold their breathing again, keeping in mind, as before, one aspect of the deity. It is only when the mind is thus stabilized that the divine body will appear.

Daoist yoga

In China, breathing exercises go back to an early period. Laozi and Zhuangzi were familiar with a "methodical breathing," and a Chou dynasty inscription, dating from as early as the sixth century bce, prescribes a precise collection and circulation of the breath inside the body that is designed to achieve long life. Also known were archaic shamanic techniques that imitated the movements and breathing of animalsa practice reflected later in the Daoist notion that the deep and silent breathing of ecstasy is like the breathing of animals in hibernation.

Unlike the many alchemical practices of Chinese tradition, which use aphrodisiacs to restore sexual activity, Daoist yoga aims primarily at restraining and rechanneling the sexual urges of the body. Through the regulation of breathing and other yogic techniques, the practitioner learns to sublimate the generative force that produces sexual fluid, and to prevent this fluid from following its normal course of satisfying desires and producing offspring. The correct method of breathing is essential in Daoist yoga, for it serves to circulate an inner fire through a microcosmic orbit and so immobilize the generative force, causing the genital organ to retract and stopping the drain of vitality caused by the emission of semen.

The ultimate purpose of stemming the generative force is to obtain chang sheng ("long life"), a state understood as a material immortality of the body. The practitioner begins by holding the breath through a period of 3, 5, 7, 9, and 12 normal respirations, then up to 120 or even more. To attain immortality, however, one must hold the breath through 1,000 respirations. The practitioner will, in the end, enter a state of serenity characterized by the qualities of nianchu ("thoughtlessness"), xizhu ("breathlessness"), mozhu ("pulse-lessness"), and mie jin ("unmindfulness of worldly existence").

Daoist respiratory disciplines are not, like prāāyāma, preliminary or auxiliary exercises in meditation to prepare the yogin for spiritual concentration but, rather, techniques that actually accomplish the purpose of the yoga itself: the indefinite prolongation of bodily life. The question whether there may be a historical relation between Daoist and Indian practices has not been resolved. Some scholars believe that Neo-Daoism borrowed from Tantric yoga practices. Others have noted that Daoism must have taken the notion of a physiological role of breath from India, for ancient Chinese medicineDaoism's most likely sourcehad no such notion. Whatever the case, the results of both yogas are, in some instances, very similar, for the Daoist's ability to enter the water without drowning or walk on fire without being burned resemble Indian yogic powers or siddhi s.

The aim of the breathing exercises is to try to return to the type of breathing experienced by the embryo in the womb; when the umbilical cord was cut at birth, this initial type of breathing was replaced by breathing through the nostrils. During the practice, inspiration and expiration are kept as quiet as possible, and breath is held closed up in the body"swallowed," some texts sayuntil it is intolerable, and then let out through the mouth. "Embryonic breathing" or "immortal breathing" is thus a restoration of profound fetal breathing; it wipes out all postnatal conditions so that prenatal vitality can be transmuted and the seed of immortality nurtured. As a stage in the quest for immortal breath, the embryonic breathing of Daoism is not merely a checking of respiration, but an internal circulation of vital principles whereby the individual can remain completely airtight. If, however, breathing through the nostrils and mouth is used (and used randomly) in advanced stages of this yoga, then the psychic center in the heart will burst and the practitioner will become deranged.

Central to the yogic endeavor of Daoism is the theory of the five vital breaths located in the heart, spleen, lungs, liver, and kidneys that keep these organs functioning, and without which the body perishes. These vitalities have their source in the brain, and when they converge again in the head into one vitality, a golden light is made manifest. This system of vital breaths is held to correspond to the interaction in the body of the five basic elements: heart (fire), spleen or stomach (earth), lungs (metal), liver (wood), and kidneys (water).

The vital breaths are linked to one another by a network of eight main psychic channels that, when clear, have two distinct roles: the unimpeded flow of the generative force and the unrestricted circulation of the vital breaths. This network contains a microcosmic orbit with four cardinal points: at the root of the penis, where the generative force is gathered; at the top of the head; and at the two points between them in the spine and in the front of the body, where the generative force is cleansed and purified during the microcosmic orbiting.

Dysfunctional breathing in Daoism is designated by the "nine unsettled breaths." They are caused by anger, which lifts the breath, and fear, which lowers it; joy, which slows it down; grief, which disperses it; terror, which throws it out of gear; thinking, which ties it up; toil, which wastes it; cold, which collects it; and heat, which scatters it.

Islamic prayer

The Muslims belonging to the school of Ibn al-ʿArabi practiced a technique comparable to the prāāyāma of Hinduism. In breathing out, the words lā-ilāha ("There is no god") are formed, while the inward breath coincides with the words illā Allāh ("but God"), resulting in a profession of faith. Breath control is practiced by Islamic mystics in dhikr ("remembrance"), a practice dedicated to the glorification of God that repeats certain fixed phrases in a ritual order, either out loud or in the mind, and is accompanied by certain breathing and physical movements. Although it is not known exactly when methods of breath control (abs-i dam, "keeping one's breath in recollection") were adopted into Sufism, there is a twelfth-century text prescribing the following: the breath is "emitted above the left breast (to empty the heart); then the word lā is exhaled from the navel (against the sexual demon); then ilāha is uttered on the right shoulder, and illā at the navel; finally Allāh is strongly articulated in the empty heart."

For the ūfī, every breath that goes out without remembering God is "dead," while every breath that goes out in recollection of the Lord is "alive" and connected with him. In dhikr one is enjoined not to speak much but rather, in a variant form of the above text, to say, three times in one breath, "Lā ilāha illā Allāh" from the right side and then, having brought the breath down to the heart, to bring forth "Muammad rasūl Allāh" from the left side. The importance of breath regulation in dhikr to the advanced ūfī is seen in the following example from Pashto poetry: "Thy every breath is a pearl and a coral of inestimable price / Be careful, therefore, and guard every respiration well!" Directions are given in various texts for the exact count and duration of the respiratory cycle in dhikr, and some sources state that the experienced mystic is often able to hold his breath for almost three hours. Dhikr is also used for healing purposes. Even in the early twenty-first century the recitation of the Fātiah or some other prayer, together with a "breathing upon" the sick, is common in the Muslim world.

The extent to which the breath control used by ūfīs in their dhikr developed under the influence of Indian practices is not certain. It is known that regulated breathing existed among the ūfīs of eastern Iran before Sufism spread to India, but in the later period when there was contact with India, yogic practices undoubtedly further colored numerous aspects of ūfī life.

Christian prayer

Respiratory techniques similar to those used in Hindu yoga can be found in the Christian tradition of hesychasm. Hesychasm is a type of prayer in Eastern Christianity based on a control of physical faculties and a concentration on the Jesus Prayer to achieve peace of soul and union with God. Although the earliest descriptions of the hesychastic method of contemplation go back at least to the fifth century, to John of Jerusalem, the earliest datable combination of the Jesus Prayer with respiratory techniques is in the writings of Nikephoros the Solitary (fl. 1260). Nikephoros writes: "Sit down, compose your mind, introduce ityour mind, I sayinto your nostrils; this is the road that the breath takes to reach the heart. Push it, force it to descend into your heart at the same time as the inhaled air. When it is there, you will see what joy will follow."

The traditional breath control that begins hesychastic contemplation is used, like prāāyāma, to prepare for mental prayer, that is, to bring about a "return of the mind." In a quiet cell, with the door closed, one sits in the corner and presses the (bearded) chin against the upper part of the chest, much as in the jālandhara bandha of Hindu yoga. One then directs the eyeand with it all the mindto the navel, and compresses the inspiration of air in the nose so that normal breathing does not come easily, all the while ceaselessly repeating the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!" This exercise prepares one for the attainment of absolute quietude of the soul and for the experience of divine light.

See Also

Buddhist Meditation; Inspiration; Life; Meditation; Prāa; Samadhi; Yoga.


Good summaries of the role of breath in biblical theology can be found in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, 4 vols., edited by George A. Buttrick (New York, 1962), under such headings as "man," "soul," and "spirit." Likewise, important discussions of breath and the soul in Christian and Jewish theology appear in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, 17 vols. (New York, 1967), and in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, 16 vols. (Jerusalem, 1971). David B. Claus's Toward the Soul: An Inquiry into the Meaning of ΨυΧ before Plato (New Haven, Conn., 1981) is an important, but often very technical, survey of the development of the concept "psyche" in pre-Socratic thought. Jean Gouillard's Petite Philocalie de la prière du cœur (Paris, 1953), on the tradition of hesychasm, has a good bibliography and an excellent sampling of textual translations. On the respiratory technique in Islamic dhikr, see Louis Gardet's "La mention du nom divin, dhikr, dans la mystique musulmane," Revue Thomiste (Paris) 52 (1952): 642679 and 53 (1953): 197216.

The best book on hahayoga is B. K. S. Iyengar's Light on Yoga (Yoga Dipika) (New York, 1966). It has an excellent introduction and detailed yet accessible sections on prāāyāma. Svami Kuvalayānanda's Prāāyāma, 4th ed. (Bombay, 1966), is a comprehensive handbook on the breathing process and respiratory technique in Hinduism. Kuva-layānanda's work also appears in the quarterly journal Yoga-Mīmāsā (Lonavla, Poona District, India, 1924), which contains vast scientific information on actual laboratory and clinical experiments done on yogic breathing. Hans-Ulrich Rieker's excellent translation of the Hahayogapradīpikā called The Yoga of Light, translated from the German by Elsy Becherer (New York, 1971), describes the combination of the two yogic paths haha and rāja, and makes special reference to the arousal and control of the kualinī. Mircea Eliade's Patañjali and Yoga (New York, 1969) and Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, 2d ed. (Princeton, N. J., 1969), contain excellent summaries of respiratory techniques in various traditions, as well as abundant bibliographic references. Finally, for those who may wish to go directly to the source, Georg Feuerstein's recent translation of The Yoga-Sūtras of Patañjali (Folkestone, U.K., 1979) has an exceedingly helpful commentary.

A good introduction to breathing and mindfulness meditation in Buddhism is Bhikkhu Khantipālo's Calm and Insight: A Buddhist Manual for Meditators (London, 1981). For a basic sourcebook on breathing in Daoist yoga, see Daoist Yoga, Alchemy, and Immortality, translated by Charles Luk (Kuan Yulu) (London, 1970); the classic article on the topic is, of course, Henri Maspero's "Les procédés de ʿnourrir le principe vital' dans la religion taoïste ancienne," Journal asiatique 229 (1937): 177252, 353430.

Ellison Banks Findly (1987 and 2005)