Breath Is lifeBreath Is Life.

As the books, precepts, and doctrines of his religion are important to the follower of a religion, so the study of the breath is important to the mystic. We ordinarily think of the breath as that little air that we feel coming and going through our nostrils; but we do not think of it as that vast current that goes through everything, that current which comes from the consciousness and goes as far as the external being, the physical world.

 – Sufi sage Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927) 

From the first instants of life as a crying baby to the final cough or sigh of the dying there is one absolutely common factor: breath.

From ancient times, the act of breathing and the flow of the breath has been recognised, either consciously or unconsciously as a unique and vital component of all animate things. The songs of the Bushmen, the chants of the Tibetan lamas, the chorus of the Gregorian monks all embody a hidden power and energy: an inhaling of the invisible world and an exhalation of the energised breath into the visible world, finely changing the structure of reality. Watch your cloudy exhalations of warm breath molecules on a cold morning. Just this simple act demonstrates the physical change on an atomic level in our surroundings; the air temperature has increased slightly; there is a little more moisture in the air. On a microcosmic level, our breath has changed our surroundings. Let’s not even think about the germs expelled when we are suffering with a cold and cough or sneeze!

And with the exhalation and the sound created comes a vast range of emotions: the howling of grief, the roar of anger, the scream of pain, the merriment of laughter, the sobbing of depression. How many more emotions so easily expressed than the one which we need to cultivate most: merriment, joyfulness, bliss and loving warmth.

This the challenge of modern life in which the cultivation of the breath is a vital tool and which has become the most discussed and least understood. Free-divers hyperventilate, rugby place-kickers struggle to control their panting breath, karate fighters shout out as they punch and tennis players grunt as they hurl down a power serve.

All these are a condition of modern life: force, aggression, tension, extreme control. These are the antithesis of the breath of the mystic, the yogi and the t’ai chi player. For these people, breath is the endless flow of the subtle universal life-force which like the will’o the wisp seems to float in and out of sight.

In meditation, breath is the anchor to which we attach our practice. It is the cloud, the ocean wave, the breeze of which we are aware but which, like these is so hard to grasp. The other thing which is so hard to grasp is the mind and so with the breath as the modulating tool, we are able to gently explore the mind.

Breath, mind, ego and body should all be in harmony in the practice of yoga and t’ai chi, in the same way that the charioteer, the chariot, the reins and the horses must all be in harmony. In the Sufi teaching stories, the charioteer is the ego, the chariot the body, horses the mind and breath the reins. So in the race, the ego/charioteer should not become arrogant or it/he will make rash decisions; the chariot/body must be in good repair being well-serviced by craftsmen and well-maintained through the daily practice of yoga or t’ai chi; the horses/mind must be strong and disciplined through the practice of meditation and the reins/breath the channel by which directions are given and received.

When all of these are in balance, well-prepared and aware of their actions, the race is effortless and will be won. When the reins are erratic, the horses run wild, the chariot overturns and the ego is forever injured.

So it should be in our mediation practice and then used in our physical practice of yoga, t’ai chi and especially our daily lives. Allowing the breath to be uncontrolled results in anger, dissent and chaos. Calm, disciplined breath ensures we maintain our physical posture and our mental liveliness, protecting the ego from rushing in into argumentative and disruptive situations.

The wonderful thing is that the training is simple and something that anyone can do, taking up only a short time of our day. All we need to do is begin.

Robert De Vos,

Daily Zen.

Author Bio – Robert de Vos: teacher and practitioner of Iyengar-style yoga for some 35 years and Sifu (instructor) of Yang T’ai Chi. A member of the Inner School of the Sufi Movement in the West for many years, he is the author of eBook “Living in the Here and Now – a guide to walking the mystic path” and creator of www.mymoodkit.com.

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