The healing power of breath
Did you ever stop to think about your breath? The physiological mechanisms that make up a single breath could fill an entire book. And yet, for an event that recurs an average of 25,938 times a day, we generally pay very little attention to our breathing.
Did you know that…
- 60% of our metabolic and toxic waste is released from the breath in the form of carbon dioxide, 20% from sweat, and 10% from each of our eliminatory organs.
- Breathing circulates the lymph fluid.
- Breathing harmonizes the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system which slows down the aging process.
- We take 25,938 breaths per day / an average of 18 breaths per minute.
- Our lungs have a capacity of 6 liters but can only hold 5 liters of air.
How many breaths do you take in a day that fill your lungs?
The first function of the breath is physical. Once our physiological needs are met by our breathing, the breath can start to fulfill its functions on an emotional, mental, and spiritual level.
But what happens when we do not breathe deeply enough to meet our basic needs?
It’s simple. The eliminatory functions of the breath do not get met, and we find ourselves accumulating stress, tensions, and toxins. Once the toxins start to accumulate, the body goes into damage control mode, trying to address the overload and never getting to reach the full extent of what the breath was intended to do.
Traditional wisdom on the breath
Since time immemorial, traditional cultures have been aware of the importance and significance of the breath. A brief overview will offer knowledge into how universal and elemental it has been to all living beings and to the inseparable relationship between breath, state of mind, and evolution of consciousness.
Breath in ancient India
The understanding of breath in ancient India came from the concept of prana, which is a Sanskrit word that translates to breath, air, and ‘the sacred essence of life’, the vital energy that drives us. As some might know, breath is a very important part of Yoga and Pranayama, the art of breath control.
Ayurveda, a traditional philosophy from ancient India defines the root cause of all illness as an accumulation of toxins or debris. The physical toxins are cured with diet and herbs while the mental ones are cured by the breath. The yogis of India, since ancient times, have mastered this science of breath and have discovered that there are forty-nine types of breath; each type of breath corresponds to a state of mind.
There is a fiftieth state known as nirvikalpa samadhi, the ultimate state of transcendence and spiritual realization in which the realized yogi no longer has breath or pulse. It is fascinating to know that there are different types of breathing that occur when we experience anger, excitement, the various states of sleep and so on. Finally, both Ayurveda and Yoga see breath and mind as mirrors of each other.
Breath in Chinese Philosophy
Chinese philosophy denotes chi as the cosmic or vital essence related to our physical, emotional, and spiritual being. In Japan, breath plays a very important role in spiritual disciplines and martial arts.
Breath in the Ancient Greece
The understanding of breath in the West started, perhaps, in ancient Greece. The Greek word pneuma refers to air, breath, the spirit, and life essence. The Greeks understood the close relationship between the breath and the psyche. The Greek word phren refers both to the mind and to the diaphragm, the largest muscle involved in breathing.
The ancient Greeks understood that disturbances or imbalances in the breath both reflected and were the cause of both physical and emotional illness.
Breath in the Hebraic tradition
The Hebraic tradition uses the term ruach to denote both the creative spirit and the breath. In the Old Testament, the breath of God gives life to Adam. The Essenes taught that the gateway to the heavens was between the inhale and the exhale, this was also prevalent in the Indian Yogic tradition.
Around the time of Christ, there was a colony of healers called the Therapeutae. Their head, the famous healer and philosopher, Philo of Alexandria stated:
“All healing of the being is done through the breath. The breath allows us to become aware of the tensions, blockages, and resistances that prevent our breath from circulating freely. It is the path of fulfilling the soul in the body. Unblocking the breath means freeing ourselves of the blockages of the soul and opening ourselves to Creative Intelligence.”
Breath – the modern view
In spite of the infinite wealth of knowledge of our forebears, today in the scientific paradigm, the predominant view in the West, our conception of the breath has been stripped of traditional sacred notions and reduced to nothing more than a physiological function. Moreover, instead of understanding the meaning of variations and disorders of the breath as reflections of our inner state, we have labeled them as physical pathologies.
The prana or vital energy that we absorb through the air we breathe stimulates our vitality and our ideas. By breathing consciously, the prana becomes a source of nourishment for our spirit and our immaterial aspects, same as how we drink, eat and breathe the material elements to nourish our physical and energetic bodies. The breath, subsequently, contains in itself, the very essence of life.
Breathing into the present moment: a practical exercise
Here is a wonderful exercise using the breath to feel more centred and in the present moment.
- Find a quiet place and set aside 10-20 minutes for this exercise.
- Sit straight and relaxed.
- Gently and naturally settle down into yourself.
- Now bring your focus to the breath.
You will find that the breath naturally draws your attention inwards. Become aware of any tensions in the body and gently breathe into them. Let the breath guide you into letting go. Feel your tensions melting away.
In this same way, become aware of any thoughts or emotions and allow yourself to simply be present with them, give them some space. You will discover that although when we resist our states and reactions, they take energy and create discomfort, that learning to hold a space for them, while it might bring up an initial strong feeling, quickly leads to a surprising and refreshing feeling of being peaceful and open.
Now allow your attention to come to settle inside yourself. Allow yourself to feel your centre, your quiet, unchanging inner core.
Quietly breathe and enjoy this sense.
If any thoughts come, breathe into them until you come naturally back to settle into the centre.
To experience healing through breathwork, contact Margot Borden.
Margot Borden has been working internationally as a psychotherapist since 1986 and has a long-term dedication to personal and professional exploration of the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of human consciousness. Margot is also an author, international speaker and seminar facilitator, adjunct professor, and coach. She offers both in-person psychotherapy, as well as online counseling, in both English and French. Based in Mumbai, Paris, and Scottsdale, Margot works with clients in Europe, India, Australia and the United States.
For a deeper exploration of the power of breath and other psycho-spiritual healing techniques, check out Margot’s new book: Psychology in the Light of the East (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).