Yoga and the Breath
by Doug Keller

Much is made of the breath in yoga practice. We're taught how to breathe and when to breathe, and even something of why it's important, whether for calming the mind or for taking us deeper into a pose. But there's far more to it than that; the breath can bring a genuine and lasting sense of peace.

The experience of peace doesn't just come automatically at the end of a yoga practice. Peace comes with focus and intention, and with the attitude or quality of the mind that is classically called dispassion or (in Sanskrit) vairagya. This in yoga is the key to real peace.

The word 'dispassion' may sound unappealing. It sounds like cold indifference, or callous otherworldly detachment. Yet true vairagy

in its classic sense is not heartless or escapist. It's a refined wisdom of the mind and heart that is essential to leading a happy, free and responsible life. A life of vairagya is mature, awake and aware, and continues to be fulfilling throughout its ups and downs. The question is, of course, how to arrive at that state?

Yoga is ever a practical art, which most often brings us to a state of being through a practice of doing. And in yoga, vairagya can be learned through the simple practice of breathing. The breath is, in yoga, the way to peace.

This isn't entirely a surprise. Breathing, as most of us already know, is the key to being at ease (i.e. not stressed out) in a situation. The point of a practice of breathing, however, is not just to use the breath to calm  down when you're upset. The goal is to make being at ease your accustomed state of being -- through practice.

'Practice' has a very particular meaning. According to the yogic sage Patanjali, practice is effort intended to acquire a tranquil state of mind through focus and concentration. Simple focus on the breath -- i.e. paying close attention to its movements -- is an easy and natural way to begin this kind of practice.

The first thing that my practice of breathing taught me is that the point is to achieve focus -- not control. I mention this because the technical word for this practice in hatha yoga is pranayama, which is commonly translated as 'control' of the breath. This translation is misleading because most of our problems with the breath stem from our own issues about control. The breath cannot ultimately be 'controlled,' if by control we mean suppression or subjugation. Real pranayama is very different -- it's the full flowering of the breath, not its suppression.

Why would this be an issue? Breathing seems simple -- you breathe in and you breathe out. But there are patterns to our breathing that are of our own creation, and these patterns are often artificial strategies for dealing with events in our lives.

For instance, I've found that in the midst of my efforts to concentrate -- whether in my work or study, in doing a hatha yoga pose or trying to meditate -- I hold my breath. This is an unconscious strategy, not just for controlling my own mind, but for controlling the situation. I'm trying to make everything stop so that I can get a handle on it. Many of us even have the experience that when we see something fall, we gasp or hold our breath, as if that would somehow stop the object from falling! Holding the breath is a way of stopping time, of stopping change. The discomfort and agitation this brings is a lesson that if I am to 'breathe freely', I have to let go and let be -- starting with the breath itself.

Pranayama begins with awareness of the breath. This means witnessing the breath both as it is and as it inherently wants to be, while setting aside any and all efforts to control it. It is being absolutely attentive to all the movements and sensations subtly associated with the breath.

By relaxing and focusing on the inner feeling of the breath, you first become aware of any areas of hardness, tension, or unconsciousness in the body. By your very attention to the fullness of the breath you can bring softness, fluidity and awareness to those regions. In other words, you breathe and let the breath relax you. This becomes the focus of your practice until you feel that the entire body, from the surfaces of the skin to the space within the bones, participates in and responds to the process of the natural breath.

Try it and see how this isn't a matter of control; rather, it is a process of focusing our attention that dissolves artificial limitations. This is in itself an exercise of vairagya, since it involves letting go or detaching ourselves from our accustomed ways of doing and of being. Through focus and relaxation, we become passive and receptive to the breath, directing our attention toward its natural and independent movement. We turn our attention inward toward an experience, not of breathing, but of being breathed.

This practice involves being aware of any tendency to hurry or pull at the breath, or to control the breath in ways that suppress its natural movement. We do this by listening to the sound of the breath, keeping it absolutely smooth and even, like the sound of silk being slowly drawn through our fingers -- no faltering, interruption or jerking of the breath. The sound of the breath is our guide; and subtle sensations give us feedback. A feeling of hardness or tension, whether in the eyes, ears, throat or elsewhere, is usually an indication that we’re pushing or pulling at the breath. Other signs of striving can be a feeling of tightness or contraction in the skin, or coarseness in the breath. Recognize that these are the fruits of trying to control the breath and let that go, returning instead to the practice of focus on the softness and fullness of the breath.

As I learned to participate in the natural movement of the prana, I began to appreciate its fullness and independence. It’s like a quiet breeze that passes so gently through the trees that it barely disturbs a leaf. When I become absolutely quiet and receptive, I experience the prana as an intelligent force, an energy that permeates the atmosphere, binding all things to life through the process of breathing. It's neither my personal possession nor something entirely separate from me; it's both 'mine' and more than 'mine.' That awareness is in itself the beginning of vairagya, for attachment -- and anxiety -- feeds on the sense of 'mine and mine alone.' Vairagya is the opposite of the limitations of 'my-ness.' This awareness opens out instead into a pure sense of plenitude, as tiny as the inbreath, and as vast as the sky.

Dispassion is often interpreted as the negation of feeling; yet the idea that passion or feeling can be controlled and even negated is as wrong-headed as the idea that the breath is something to be controlled. Dispassion rests in a feeling for the true and natural perfection of the Infinite, and the breath can give us an experience of that. Through pranayama we can experience the breath, the prana or life-force, as infinite and undivided. Through this practice of focus, of joining our awareness to the breath, we experience ourselves as being that infinity too. And far from being devoid of feeling -- dis-passionate -- that state is full of pure feeling, of the exuberance of life.

A yogi is not one who is without feeling, for he or she knows the true purity of feeling that, like the breath, is the experience of wholeness ever fulfilling itself. That sense of inner perfection is the essence of the yogi's vairagya, which saves him or her from the pain of clinging and holding on to particular things only, and losing the larger experience of life.

So this is the practice, and a worthy goal. In my practice, thoughts and feelings do come and go, but they become forms of my own breathing, forming and dissolving on my inner horizon like clouds. As long as I focus on the natural movement of the breath and on how it breathes me, thought and feeling become less of a worry and aggravation. Instead they become like stones on the beach polished by waves of the breath, to be picked up and examined, even admired and pocketed with the freedom of a child at play. For truly speaking, we are free.

-- Doug Keller