What is life? Simply defined, we might say life is movement. It is the Vital Life Force pulsating through us, the vibration of the Universe stirring creation into being. In the Yogic tradition, this Life Force is referred to as prana; for the Chinese, it is called chi or qi, and the Japanese name it ki. Prana, in Sanskrit, also translates to breath. The Greek word for breath is pneuma, which also means “soul” or “spirit,” and is referred to as spiritus in Latin.
One day, while peddling away on a bike at the gym, I was reading an interview with the actor Bradley Cooper, in a copy of Details Magazine. In the piece, he was discussing how his father’s death had impacted him, responding to the question had it made him more religious. I was struck by his answer. After paying homage to his father for planting the seeds of faith in him through his Catholic upbringing, he concluded by saying, “Am I a spiritual person today? Yes. I don't know how I could not be. It's like saying, "Do you breathe?"
We are all spiritual. Whether or not we know it or believe it, because we breathe, we are spiritual beings. The breath that fills our lungs, that nourishes our bodies is the breath of the Cosmos. You might say our inhalation is God’s exhalation. Through the breath we comingle with the Divine. Breath is sound vibration, the music or underlying soundtrack that accompanies the dance of life.
I’ll repeat Cooper’s question, “Do you breathe?” “Well, of course I breathe,” you would say. But, really, do you breathe? Do you breathe? What is it that breathes? Do you consciously say to yourself, “I am inhaling; now, I am exhaling.” That would be ridiculous and debilitating. Fortunately, the breathing, along with all the other functions of the body, is governed by the subconscious mind, one aspect of the Higher Self or Super-Conscious Mind. If we consciously had to think about breathing, we would not be able to do anything else. More importantly, if breathing were ruled by the conscious mind, when we went to sleep or lost consciousness, we would stop breathing and die in mere moments.
In essence, the breath breathes us; the Universe or God is breathing us. This Divine Life Force animates, supports and sustains us. We are, or rather this body is, simply a vessel, a container, the vital energy may flow through, for the purpose of experience in the material plane.
Now, this vessel must be in a condition suitable to house the Life Force, or prana. When there is contraction or constriction in the body, emotions or mind, the Life Force becomes obstructed. When this occurs chronically, the body moves into a state of imbalance, or disrepair. Should this continue unresolved, the Life Force can no longer be properly supported and will, eventually, leave. Once gone, it is not long before the body begins to decay. We refer to this process as death.
There is a Vedic story about prana found in the Upanishads. The five main faculties of our physical nature - mind, breath, speech, the ear and the eye - were all arguing over which was the best and most important. (This illustrates how these faculties, when not well integrated, compete for dominance of our attention.) To resolve their conflict, it was decided that each would leave the body and then it would be determined whose absence was most critical to the wellbeing of the whole.
First speech left, and the body continued to function, though mute. Then the eye left, and the body continued on blind. The ear left next, and the body kept on, though deaf. Subsequently, mind left, and the body carried on in unconsciousness. Finally, prana began to depart, and the body quickly began to die, so all of the other faculties started to lose their energy. Immediately, they all rushed to prana and begged it to stay, hailing it as supreme among them. Prana/Life Force provides the energy for all our physical, emotional, and mental faculties, without which they could not function. If we do not honor prana first, there is no energy with which to do anything else. Thus, Breath is Life.
Contrary to what many believe, it is not the lungs that breathe, but rather the cells. Every cell of the body breathes. Every cell requires food to function optimally. Oxygen is the primary food that nourishes every cell. Each cell cries out for oxygen. Like Audrey ii from Little Shop of Horrors, they shout, “Feed me! Feed me!”
Our ability to breathe is affected by the functionality and effort of every cell in the body. Generally speaking, we only allow a fraction of the cells in the body the oxygen they require; most are sorely neglected. For cells to function properly, they must be able to access their food, the oxygen, from the breath.
If the cells are not working, they are not hungry, and therefore do not draw in the requisite food or oxygen necessary for their vital function. If the cells do not eat or take in oxygen and then release their waste, such as carbon dioxide, they die. When the cells die, we die.
If we do not work, we are not hungry. Consider what happens when someone is depressed. They are likely, before long, to become lethargic, and very soon may follow a loss of appetite. If our cells are inactive, they too lose their appetite.
How do we encourage the cells to eat? We must encourage their appetite for oxygen, which means we must get them moving. Certainly exercise is one primary way to get all of the cells in the body moving - that is, functioning to their full capacity - firing on all pistons, you might say.
All the body’s cells engage in cellular respiration. They use oxygen and glucose, a sugar found in many foods we eat, and convert them to ATP (adenosine triphosphate), or cellular energy, and carbon dioxide. ATP transports chemical energy within cells to support the metabolic function.
This is how a cell eats and then excretes its waste. If that is not happening in a balanced way, the cell becomes poisoned and dies. Imagine what would happen if we ate but were unable to properly eliminate the waste. Our body would toxify and we would become very ill and ultimately expire.
The cells receive their nutrients through a continuous interplay between the blood and lymph, which is a salty liquid that bathes the cells. The lymph carries toxins and waste away from the cells and transports infection fighting white blood cells through the body. In addition to the rhythmic contraction of the lymph cells, the abdominal muscles serve as a pump that helps move the lymph and blood into and out of the chest cavity to other parts of the body.
Cells are microscopic, tiny little living beings. We must feed them oxygen in increments they can handle. If we were to eat without chewing our food, we would choke, and if we were able to get the huge pieces down, the body would not be able to effectively absorb all the vital nutrients contained in it.
Similarly, if we were to drive a car, alternately flooring the accelerator and then jamming on the breaks, not only would we get really car-sick, but pretty soon the car would revolt and stop functioning.
This, in essence, is what occurs with our breathing when we are consumed by our emotions, stuck in a pattern of what might be called “negative” emotions, such as hate, anger, fear, anxiety, depression, or grief, to name a few. When in these states we are caught in a pattern of choking or interrupted breathing. Remember that poor car from a moment ago.
When we stop and start the breath in an arrhythmic pattern, we can vacillate between high and low blood pressure. Sometimes we hold the breath and the carbon dioxide too long in the body, causing an overly acidic environment, creating inflammation, which leads to dis-ease. And very often, the body is too tired to work, incapable of taking in the required oxygen. Regardless, one or all of these scenarios will eventually kill us. So, in order for our body to remain in optimal working order, we must move the body regularly, encouraging the cells to work, and we must breath mindfully, slowly and rhythmically, so the cells can readily absorb the oxygen that nourishes them.
An article in Time Magazine written by Clare Grodon posits, “when choir members sing together, it’s not just their voices that join in harmony.”According to a study published in the journal Frontiers of Neuroscience, when choir members sing together, their heart rates tend to synchronize and beat as one. A team of Swedish researchers discovered this synchronicity induces a sense of calm, consistent with the effects of the practice of yoga.
This is how it works: A long nerve called the vagus nerve — Latin for “wandering” — trails down from the brain stem into the body, where it enervates the heart along with other visceral organs. Exhaling activates the vagus nerve, which slows the heart’s pulse. So, if a group’s breathing is in sync, then it makes sense that the beating of their hearts will be too.
According to the study, the unified heart rate isn’t just a nice warm fuzzy — it has real, emotional effects. The vagus nerve conveys sensory information about the state of the body’s organs to the central nervous system. So this primary nerve that affects the heart plays a major role in a person’s sense of arousal or calmness.
The more slowly and rhythmically we breathe, the more easily it is for the cells to take in oxygen, so they can function maximally. The slower the heart rate, the easier it is to initiate the relaxation response, the opposite of the fight, flight or freeze reaction. It is a “physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress.”
In the Yogic Tradition, we have a practice known as pranayama. Prana, as previously stated, is the Vital Energy in the body. It is also the breath or the vehicle via which the Life Force circulates through the body. Yama means to control or to direct, in this case. Through many of these breath practices, we can initiate the relaxation response, which raises our quality of life immensely.
Practice the following simple breath pattern, to awaken your awareness of the Life Force, to amplify the Vital Energy, and then to begin to direct it through the body for purification and healing.
Allow the breath to fill the torso from the bottom up, moving through the pelvis into the abdominal region, and finally up into the chest cavity. Let the belly be soft, as you inhale richly and deeply, and then gently contract the abdominal muscles throughout the exhalation. Inhale smoothly and fluidly for a count of 4. Then hold the breath for 4 beats (less if you find you are straining). Finally, release the breath gradually and completely for 4 counts, or until you can exhale no further. Repeat for 4 cycles. Observe how you feel physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, after you complete the practice. Gradually, with more practice, lengthen the number of cycles and the duration you inhale/hold/exhale. Eventually, you will find the ease of breath to exhale about 1/3 longer than you inhale. This particular ratio really serves the relaxation response.
BREATHE. LIVE. BE.
Katrin Naumann worked for 20 years as a Theatre Artist, both behind the scenes as a Costume and Scenic Designer, and on stage, film and TV, as an Actor. She has been a lifelong adventurer on the path of Self discovery, which has led to her current role as Director of Inner Balance Life Works. Her holistic healing practice focuses on offering pathways toward (R)evolutionary Self Transformation. Katrin serves the community as an Energy Healer, Intuitive Spiritual Guide, Qigong & Yoga Instructor, Author, Public Speaker, and Workshop Creatrix.