ISSUE #016 - Jul 09, 2019

Prāṇāyama as an Introspective and Proprioceptive Eco-Discipline

Ana Laura Funes Maderey

If you bring the back of the hand close to your nose and take a deep breath, you will feel the subtle tingling sensations that your outbreath produces as it touches your hand.  If your inhalation and exhalation are deep enough, you might be able to feel those sensations in the hand even when it is not that close to the nose.  The point where you cannot feel the touch of your vital breath efflux anymore might be as far down as the center of your chest, the yogis calculated it at a distance of about 12 fingers. Now, if you take another deep breath and hold it in for as long as you comfortably can, you will notice that the area where the inbreath seems to concentrate is precisely the center of the chest, the heart-lotus area, as the yogis called it.

Traditional haṭhayoga texts call recaka the flux of internal vital air that arises at the center of the heart and extends outwards on its own accord and without effort. Pūraka is the name that the yogis used to refer to the flow of breath that emerges from the distance of twelve fingers below the nostrils and passes in through the nostrils filling the inside of the chest down to the heart. When the upward motion of the vital air or prāṇa and the inward and downward motion of the air, called āpana, are suspended and caused to meet at the heart, is known as kumbhaka, because we become like a pot (kumbha) that retains the air within.

One of the main characteristics of haṭhayoga practice as described in the early texts of that tradition is the practice of observing and regulating the flow of our vital breath (prāṇāpanānusaraṇa or prāṇāyāma).  The haṭhayogis of medieval India thought that by meditating on the vital breath, knowing its natural rhythms, as well as how to restrain and control them through kumbhaka, one would be freed from grief.  By this they meant that we would not be doomed to be born into this earth ever again.

We might not need to follow the particular view that the world is an irremediable place of suffering, but there is indeed a deep truth to the cessation of grief by learning to observe and restrain our breathing.  There are, of course, effects of this practice that are beneficial for our nervous system—and our physiology in general— which are becoming ever more evident with current research in neuroscience, medicine and yoga.  But noticing and regulating the breath teaches us in a very direct and embodied way, through proprioceptive sensations, that the vital air that is held in the center of one’s heart, precisely at the place where we gather our feelings, our emotionality and, one could say, one’s individuality, is the same air as the cosmic impersonal air with which it merges at the analogous point 12 fingers down from the nose and outside one’s own chest.  It is through the breath that we can directly feel our own personal, individual life diffusing and merging into a universal, shareable, and complete otherness in a continuum that is constantly circulating and moving in and out through our bodies, becoming one with the other and re-emerging into one’s own difference, into one’s peculiar and personal breath.  I sustain that it is this dialectic embodied capacity to hold and honor one’s own affective stance before the world while still remaining flexible to make contact, merge, and even vanish with that which transcends us, that imbues the practice of prāṇāyama with the powerful potentiality to help us solve the constant struggle between universality and individuality, and thus, free us from grief.

We are born when we take our first breath.  After the first breath, life is infused to us through the inspiration and expiration of air.  Inhalation and exhalation are the most direct link we have to communicate with that force that sustains us, for it is through our ability to breathe freely that we directly feel we are alive. We know, for example, that we would die if we were choked, strangled, or gagged.

The immediate connection between breath, air, and life has been recognized across cultures.  The terms ruah, pneuma, prana, or ch’i were associated with the vital functions of the body as well as with a life infusing universal force that was thought to be present in the power of the wind or the cosmic element of air.  Both Hippocratic and Ayurvedic medicine understand diseases as imbalances of the winds within the body.   Within philosophy, the convergence between the materiality of an element and the principle of life gave to these terms (ruah, pneuma, prana, or ch’i) a mediating function for trying to understand the relation between the living and the non-living beings.

Our breath has a primary epistemological status by means of which we can come to know ourselves as both a physiological and affective organism, simultaneously.  Breathing has, thus, a dual character of embodiment, manifesting itself as a material, objective, external movement—what Luce Irigaray would call the natural breath— and as subjective, internal, sentient, a more subtle breath, one that can be cultivated and “spiritualized” (Irigaray 2013, 218).

The natural breath is the one that remains largely unconscious throughout our lives. It is the breath perceptible through the bodily movements of the abdominal and thoracic area. It is the expelled air that can be felt by others through tactual sensation, and by the interoceptive mechanism that detects the CO2 rising in the blood, which signals the brain to send an impulse to the phrenic nerve to contract the diaphragm, causing the thoracic and abdominal shape to change, which induces the adequate pressure for the intake of more air.

There is also the breath by which we become aware not only of the fact that we are alive, but of the very quality of our lives.  We feel relief through a full, complete exhalation; anxiety or fear through an agitated, spasmodic breathing rhythm; hope, through a deep inhalation accompanied by a soft sigh; or frustrated, felt in the stoppage and forceful containment of the breath.  Studies in embodied cognition have recognized the ways in which emotions are “embodied” and the various neural loop feedbacks involved in the realization of affective bodily states, many of which happen also below the threshold of our awareness.  Our interaction with the environment requires such an automatism, because in the presence of an urgent situation, whether the emotion of fear is first and the bodily states that allow our body to run away are second or vice versa, does not really matter.  What is relevant about this mechanism, however, is that both aspects of the experience are mediated by the breath.  It is through the quality of the breath that we become aware of our own emotional states.  Moreover, it is through the breath that both the bodily state and the emotion can be changed.  Once one feels safe, one can take deeper breaths and feel calmer.

Unfortunately, in many ways we not only remain largely unaware of the quality of our lives, but also of the intimate connection between this and the quality of our breath.  For many people, the activity of breathing remains restricted to the level of the natural autonomic mechanism, the main purpose of which is maintenance and survival.  A practice of “cultivating” our breath as a way to forge self-awareness and nurture a healthy and harmonious life has been almost non-existent in the West, except for the Hesychast spiritual practices that included the “art of breathing” introduced in the 5th Century by Diadochus of Photice (Zolla 1968).  There has been knowledge of controlling the breath for practical purposes: singing, playing an instrument, swimming, free diving, speaking, but not as a practice of self-knowledge in and of itself.  For the most part, when the mechanisms of the body are understood under the framework of survival, bodily activities like breathing only tend to come to our awareness in moments when our biological life is threatened.   Awareness of the breath is reduced to moments when there is lack of breath, or to feelings of discomfort in the chest, unnatural effort to breathe or air hunger (the feeling of not enough oxygen).  In other words, we live in a culture that does not recognize the value of its breath and breathing until it is threatened and perhaps, until it is too late.

For philosopher Luce Irigaray, the forgetting of our own breath is equivalent to not taking charge of one’s life and manifests in a lack of interiority and self-awareness.  Not being aware of one’s own breath for example, prevents us from recognizing the self-regulating power of our own body.  Examples of this lack of awareness can be found when we are overcome by anger, or stress.  It may also manifest in the need to talk a lot and not listen, or in us becoming dependent on others by “stealing their breath” to the point of asphyxiation.  In a sense, this is contrary to the way in which original yogis thought about the purpose of prāṇāyama because I think, following Luce Irigaray, that becoming aware of one’s own breath represents the possibility of being truly born rather than of being liberated from being born again, as classical yoga philosophy states.  Awareness of one’s breathing happens by oneself and mostly as an act done in solitude (just as the first breath).  Breathing by oneself, as Luce Irigaray would say, means “cutting the umbilical cord” (Holmes 2013, 37), that is, symbolically, our emotional dependence upon others.  Self-aware breathing is respecting and cultivating life for oneself, and only when that happens can we start taking care of others and sharing our breath, like the mother does to her own child.  A conscious breath is a “spiritualized” autonomous breath, the obverse of which is the autonomic unconscious mechanism regulated by a chemical and neural system. We could say, like Elémire Zolla, that “a feeling is a rhythm imparted to the lungs;” and like Whitehead, that feeling is the basis of experience. Since we are always affectively dispositioned, learning to master the rhythm of our breath is to master the basis of our experience.

The rhythmic spatiality of our breath is intimately connected with the sensory-motor and homeostatic systems in a way that affects the body’s relation with the environment, sometimes even before the motor systems of position, limbs, and extremities get involved in the action, especially when the body turns to pay attention to its breathing state.  One can, for example, contain one’s breath to prevent oneself from saying (and even thinking) something harmful, or restrain it forcefully to stop a burst of anger being expelled through the fists, or taking a deep breath to feel courageous and calm before speaking in public.  When attention to the breath is cultivated, the intimate, intentional breath of the lived body emerges as that which can be transformed and voluntarily controlled.

“Mastery” over one’s experience and one’s body does not necessarily mean that we could deliberately and magically exert desired changes over the world, or over our limbs and organs (even though there are plenty of examples where the limits of the will over our own physiology are not clearly delineated, like those imposed by extreme athletes or cases about yogis going under the earth for days). We can understand mastery over our experience and body like the knowledge and emotional affectivity that an inhabitant has over the place she occupies (even more than an owner), and it is in this sense that I consider yoga an “eco-discipline.”  “Self-mastery” could also be interpreted as the result of cultivating introspective proprioception, whereby the habit of bringing awareness to one’s bodily functions and movements builds up interiority and maturity of attention, which inevitably brings to one’s consciousness the bodily sensations and behaviors that were previously covered, ignored, and thus, not taken care of.  The practice of kumbhaka as a proprioceptive moment of one’s own respiratory movements can be, at the same time, an introspective moment to discover one’s own affective states.  Attentive holding of the breath represents the possibility to clear and open cluttered spaces in our body-house, in our minds, in our behaviors, in our life, allowing with it the creation of new directionalities. The space in-between breaths is thus, the contemplation of that very subtle, special quality of being attentive, intelligent, and reflective beings.

Traditional haṭhayoga texts state that before practicing prāṇāyama, the yogi should find a proper place to do it.  According to the Hathayogapradipika (I.12) the yogi should live in a secluded hut, free of stones, fire, and dampness, to a distance of four cubits, in a country that is properly governed, virtuous, prosperous, and peaceful.  If this is the case, where would the yogis in the contemporary world go? Where could we find such a well governed country free from conflict?  There are no more righteous kingdoms, if there ever was one to begin with.  And contrary to the traditional teaching, it seems that it is in the cities, the dirty, polluted, and chaotic cities, where we need to practice prāṇāyama the most.  As Luce Irigaray says: “Awareness of the breath is essential for an embodied ethics of difference in our globalized ecological age, for it is a cultivation of breath that can modulate passion more than the intervention of discourse. “She notices that the significance of observing one’s breath is not limited to guaranteeing good physical health and increasing out performance in work.  It aims towards gaining an “autonomous interiority,” what we often call in the West, a soul of our own (Irigaray 2013, 224). Contemporary yogis cannot wait or look for the proper location, or the righteous kingdom, anymore. In today’s world, they have to help create it.  But before we go out into that world, with a task as enormous as that of building a different non-greedy, non-asphyxiating world, we need to inhale deeply and learn to hold the breath within in a conscious, eco-kumbhaka.


2013. Holmes. Emily A. “The Gift of Breath: Towards a Maternal Pneumatology”, in Breathing with Luce Irigaray (Skof and Holmes, eds.). London: Bloomsbury Publishing Co. pp. 37 – 49.

2013. Irigaray, Luce. “To Begin with Breathing Anew”, in Breathing with Luce Irigaray (Skof and Holmes, eds.). London: Bloomsbury Publishing Co. pp. 217-226.

1968. Zolla, Elémire. “The Art of Breathing in the West”, in Studies in Comparative Religion. Vol.2, No.3. (Summer), World Wisdom, Inc.



ISSUE #016

On Prāṇa & Prāṇāyāma
Image: On Prāṇa & Prāṇāyāma

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