Published in Cunning Folk Magazine: The Air Issue May 2022. A story from the Upāṇiṣads about the importance of prāṇa, and a metaphor about the cyclical nature of breath.

PART 1: Story

There is an intimate connection between breath and spirit; it is implicit in the term respiration. The Greek word for ‘spirit’, pneuma, also means ‘wind’. The Latin words animus (spirit), and anima (soul), come from the Greek anemos, meaning ‘wind’. The wind is that which animates. 

In Sanskrit, prāṇa is the animating principle. It is not the same as the breath but is influenced and carried by the breath. Prāṇa is ‘evidence’ of spirit (puruṣa) – as sunlight is evidence of the sun. Prāṇa connects spirit to the material world; it is a go-between. When prāṇa leaves the body, nothing can hold spirit to matter and the body becomes lifeless.

The Chāndogya Upanishad, composed nearly 3,000 years ago, tells a story of prāṇa’s importance. Once, the five senses were arguing about who was the most important. In turn, each one left the body to see how much they were missed. Of course, the loss of each was an inconvenience – but the body survived. It was only when prāṇa itself left and the whole body began to disintegrate, that the five senses bowed down to acknowledge that prāṇa – that which animates and integrates – was indeed supreme.

PART 2: How to Connect with the Element Air?

The breath is intimate with all the functions of our form: ingestion, digestion, elimination, speech, circulation and even mental activity all are coloured by the breath’s numerous patterns. The breath might be smooth, ragged, deep, slow, fast, rapid, forced, or barely tangible.  The link between breathing patterns and our mental states was well known by the yogis – one ancient text states: “as the breath moves, so too does the mind; stilling the breath stills the mind”. The yogis of old used breath as a way of soothing the mind’s fluctuations. The breath is more easily controlled than the mind, but because of their intimacy with each other, affecting one effects the other. This is why the practice of prāṇāyāma – the conscious control of the breath in a seated position – is fundamental to yoga.

Each single breath is a microcosm of a year, divided into its four parts. The inhalation, like spring, is an opening to the new, characterised by freshness, potential and growth. As we inhale, there is movement: the chest and abdomen expand and the breath travels in. At its peak, when we have completed the inhalation, there is a pause – like the fullness and fruition of summer. Think of a lazy mid summer’s day: still, silent, replete. The exhalation is like autumn; once again there is movement as the breath departs. This ‘letting go’ is seen in nature too: the trees shed their leaves and fruit, and there is a return to essence. Finally, if we pause after the exhalation, we can experience a profound sense of stillness like that of mid-winter. This indeed is the silence between incarnations, before form, prior to a performance or a dance. If the inhalation represents opening and growth, the subsequent pause is fulfilment, and the exhalation is letting go, then the stillness after the exhalation represents surrender. And it is here that you will find profound peace.