How are you breathing right now?
Does it feel spacious? Restricted?
Do you breathe from the diaphragm, or from the chest?
How do you feel now that you're focused on your breath?
What emotions arise?
On Thursday, 11 April it is World Breathing Day, which is an opportunity for people all over the world to bring awareness to and celebrate the healing nature and spiritual importance of conscious breathing. For many people, this may seem a little odd. The idea of breathwork, or breath related therapy practices, remains somewhat unknown; however, this is changing. It is now common to find reference to the use of breathing techniques to regulate emotions even in the most mainstream of therapy or counselling practices.
My introduction to conscious breathing (breathwork) was during my first Vipassana retreat in Burma. Vipassana retreats commence with a breathing awareness meditation, known as Anapanasati. For three days, between 4am and 9pm, you are encouraged to focus your attention on the sensation of the breath coming in and out of your nose. Over time, you become increasingly aware of the gentle, subtle movements, temperatures and sensations of your breath. It was during this experience that I learnt the significance of the breath (and the lungs) as a means to physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing and exploration.
That Vipassana retreat gave me the understanding that our lungs, unlike other organs, can function both consciously and unconsciously. For example, our heart pumps blood throughout our body, but our conscious mind plays no part in this process. Indeed, for the most part, we are entirely unaware of our heart, its sensations and movement; it is largely independent of our mind. On the other hand, our lungs (and breath) exist both within our conscious and unconscious mind. People are typically not aware of their breath for large portions of their day; however, when focusing your attention on your breath and lungs, you can control your breath, make it longer, shorter or hold it. For this reason, the lungs and the breath act as a bridge or portal between our conscious and unconscious world.
This understanding that the breath is a conduit between worlds is recognised by different cultures, religions and spiritual practices. Vipassana has taught breath awareness for over 2500 years, and as previously noted, Anapanasati meditation brings mindful focus to the breath, the entire body and one’s experience, and through regular practice, the meditator removes defilements (kilesa), which according to this philosophy, ultimately leads to the final release, or enlightenment (nirvana or nibbana).
Similarly, Taoist philosophy uses the work Qi, which translates to breath, air or gas, as well as ‘life-force’. At its core, if a person or environment has balanced and free-flowing Qi then good health is achieved, whilst stagnant or imbalanced Qi leads to disease.
In traditional Hindu texts, such as the Yajur-Veda, the Atharva-Veda, the Brahmanas and the Sutras, reference is made to the manipulation of ‘the breath’, or Prana. With specific frequency during a ritual practice, it enables an experience of ‘Spirit’. Prana itself has many meanings, ranging from the physical act of breathing to the energy of consciousness. It is translated as ‘primary energy’, ‘breath’ or as ‘vital/life force’. Hindu understanding of breath is that:
…the purusha, or higher Self, can be said to be unmanifest prana, the energy of consciousness itself…From the unmanifest prana of pure awareness comes the manifest prana of creation, through which the entire universe comes into being.
Pranayama is the practice of controlling the prana (breath) within the body using various breathing techniques with meditation. A typical form of this breathwork is alternate nostril breathing. According to Kriya yogic practices, this technique withdraws the meditator’s senses from the outside world, increases prana in the body and balances the flow of that energy. The regular practice of this form of breathwork is said to raise one’s prana along the spine, which balances the physical body and facilitates the free flow of energy. This flow of energy along the spine connects the breather with Spirit, and to ultimately achieve enlightenment.
Here in Australia, Indigenous spiritual philosophies reference the connection between the breath, spirit and health. Kim Mahood’s essay The Man in the log: Tjukurpa wati minyma kutjaratjara details the Uti Kulintjaku project, which brings traditional Indigenous healing into the Western health system. Mahood explains:
In the early stages, the ngangkari [traditional healers] were astonished to learn that Western doctors can’t see or feel the spirits that are essential to human balance and health. How could they treat sick people if they couldn’t see if the spirit was out of alignment? The spirit is intrinsic in the breath, and must be in its proper place for a person to remain healthy.
Native American spiritual philosophy also makes this connection. For example, Tony Redhouse from the Navajo Nation speaks of the healing that can take place when the breath and the heart align:
…the breath is our individual soul, while the heartbeat is the life force in everything. When we connect the breath with the heartbeat—our soul with the life force—we become one, and experience a healing. This is often why we feel so peaceful when we practice yoga; we are bringing our movement and heartbeat in line with the breath.
Linkages between breath, health and spiritual beliefs can be found in the West. The Greek Stoic philosophers used the term pneuma to describe the breath and the soul, as does the Hebrew term rûah. In Latin, the word for breath is spiritus, which is the root word for both spirit and respiration.  Of course, at a purely biological perspective, this makes sense: to breathe is to live. Yet, as an extension to this, how we breathe is a reflection of how we live, and the better we breathe, the better we can live.
The relationship between our breath and life is symbolically demonstrated in a breathwork session through our inhale and exhale. Our inhale is how we take life in. Is it shallow? Is it held? Is it full? Whilst our exhale is symbolic for how to respond to life. Is it controlled? Is it forced? Is it surrendered? For me, I became acutely aware of this relationship (and how it plays out during my breathwork sessions) whilst at work. The more aware I became of my breath, the more I came to realise I was holding my breath whilst at work, which subsequently manifested as extreme anxiety and an inability to act. Through my own breathwork practice I have been able to remain conscious of my breath, and re-pattern this behaviour, reduce my anxiety and respond more effectively to the stresses of my work environment.
Conscious breathing helps us understand our unconscious reactivity to life. The breath brings the unconscious into consciousness, and during a breathwork session, you cross the bridge that connects the known world into the unknown. By doing this, you bring awareness and understanding to those unconscious parts of yourself so that you can integrate the unknown into your conscious mind. This integration happens at a physical, biographical and transpersonal (beyond-self) level, and in time, enables you to live life fully, authentically and consciously.
About the author:
Joshua is a qualified breathwork practitioner and researcher. His contemplative practices include breathwork, nature-based therapeutic practices, yoga and meditation. Joshua is driven by a passion for not only his own inner-world exploration but also helping others do the same. Joshua is a member of the Australian Breathwork Association and the International Breathwork Foundation.
 Dr Stanislave Grof, Holotropic Breathwork, 2010, p. 31.
 Arthur Ewing, The Hindu conception of the functions of breath, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 22, 1901, p. 249.
 Dr David Frawley, Understanding Prana, Yoga International, https://yogainternational.com/article/view/understanding-prana
 Dr Frawley, Understanding Prana, Yoga International, https://yogainternational.com/article/view/understanding-prana
 Prana, meaning ‘life-force’ or ‘vital energy’ with yama, meaning ‘restraint’ or ‘control’. See Gaia, A breath history of pranayama, https://www.gaia.com/article/what-pranayama-history
 Kim Mahood, ‘The man in the log: Tjukurpa wati minyma kutjaratjara’, The Monthly, December 2019-January 2019, p. 51.
 Helen Avery, ‘Tips and truths from a Navajo Yogi’, Wonderlust, https://wanderlust.com/journal/tips-and-truths-from-a-navajo-yogi/; also see: https://www.tonyredhouse.net/
 See: Oxford Dictionary, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/spiritus