Riding the Wild Breath

Dr Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati, MB, BS (Syd.)

"Having repressed his breath in the body, and having checked his movements, one should breathe through the nostrils with diminished breath. Like that chariot yoked with vicious horses, the wise man should undistractedly restrain his mind."

Shvetashvatara Upanishad (II. 9)

The breath pulsates in the body like a piston in an engine, 15 times per minute, 21,600 times per day, but we are not aware of it. It is driven by prana, the energy of life, and is responsible for the rate of all the chemical processes in the body - from the burning of oxygen and glucose to every muscular contraction, glandular secretion and thought.

Of all the body's automatic processes, the breath is the easiest to become aware of because it lies at the interface of the conscious and subconscious mind. We can easily take control of it whenever we want, though at most times it goes on by itself controlled only by the autonomic nervous system. It is, therefore, a subtle mirror of underlying neural and mental activity. When we are happy it is rhythmic, deep and slow, and when we are unhappy or tense it is gasping, sighing, shallow, fast and uneven.

Regular breathing induces relaxation, regularity and integration of the body's rhythms and processes so that they work together in harmony. Irregular breathing can be caused by and lead to dangerous mental frameworks, chaotic thinking patterns, and a disordered lifestyle, as well as physical, emotional and mental blocks, conflicts, impulsiveness and disease. It disrupts the rhythms of the brain resulting in a vicious circle.

The breath and mind in most people are like a team of wild horses whose driver has lost the reins and who are running in whichever direction they please. Without awareness of breath or mind, we can easily slip into unstable brain and thought patterns, neurosis and disease. William Reich, the German psychiatrist, highlighted the need for controlled breathing when he stated: "There is no neurotic individual who is capable of exhaling in one breath, deeply and evenly."

This insight into the link of breath and mind points out that mental tension creates uneven breathing. Yogis used this insight to devise techniques which enhance and balance awareness and breathing patterns so as to induce a calm mind and to reorder the chaotic internal cycles of brain and mind.

Pranayama and meditation allow us to consciously control the brain centres which regulate the breath so as to achieve deeper insight and control of all the subconscious processes, cycles and energies of the body. This liberates the energy trapped in neurotic patterns for more creative and more joyful activity, and allows the internal rhythms to resume their natural order. We take the reins of the breath and mind into our own hands and allow the chemical changes and neural patterns to fall into their proper place and to work efficiently for good health.

Pranayama leads to the realisation that there is a great force within powering our inner world, one that does not need our conscious supervision or attention. When we learn to relax and be aware of this, the cycles begin to work optimally, unimpeded by tensions. At the same time, we can learn to consciously control them if we want to.


Modern science is researching the effects of the breath on our body and mind and is thus returning to the ancient wisdom of India, China, Greece, Egypt and Persia, where science was based on the infinite inter-meshing of cosmic cycles and the interaction of consciousness and energy, ida and pingala.

At the end of the fifth century BC, Hippocrates, whose school on the Greek island of Cos was to become the foundation stone of medical science, taught a system of medicine that was integrated into the natural cycles and laws. Therapies were devised to restore regularity and balance to the diseased body cycles and to bring their function back into correct alignment with the rest of the body. Slowly over a period of time, man and science forgot this interrelationship and became increasingly more and more compartmentalised.

In the late nineteenth century, Dr Herman Swoboda, professor of psychology at the University of Vienna, and Dr Wilhelm Fliess, colleague and close friend of Sigmund Freud, after performing meticulous and systematic analysis and calculations, found that man seems to possess two major cycles. One is a 23 day cycle of strength, endurance and courage - the 'male' component. The other is a 28 day 'female' cycle of sensitivity, intuition and emotion. Both cycles are divided into a positive, ascending or discharge period in the first half, and a recharge or recovery period in the second half when our energies are low. They are both said to be present in every man and woman and in every cell of the human body. There are obvious parallels here with the ida and pingala symbology of yogic physiology. Fliess also linked the 23 and 28 day cycles with changes in the mucosal lining of the nose.

Alfred Teltacher, a doctor and mechanical engineer teaching in Innsbruck, Austria, added a 33 day cycle of intellectual activity to the list after observing his students.

This makes a more complete, but obviously simplistic picture of the mechanisms of the inner personality, because it does not take into account the external or the other internal cycles. For example, scientists are finding that the full moon exerts a dramatic accentuating effect on the inner rhythms, especially on the unstable 'crucial' days (which occur on the first and middle days of each cycle). On crucial days we are at maximal instability and fallibility. Not in full control of our inner faculties, we are more open to accidents, misunderstandings in our interpersonal relationships and life problems in general.

These researchers have accidentally, or intuitively, rediscovered the ancient knowledge of the yogis who saw the interrelation between the flow of breath in the nostrils and the cycles of the brain and mind. Yet they were far from the sophistication of swara yoga, a complete science of rhythm in relation to the inner and outer cycles, and had no conception of the fact that the cycles could be controlled by regulating the flow of breath thereby neutralising and stabilising unstable and chaotic rhythms and crucial days.

For most of us, a better understanding of internal rhythms is expected to have many advantages. For example, Tass News Agency, in Russia, reports that taxi drivers in Leningrad have reduced road accidents by 66% by taking a holiday on crucial days. Some doctors are calculating their biorhythms so as to discover the best days for performing surgery and report a reduction of mishaps and complications.

Experiments have also shown that there are optimum hours for learning. We learn best at our most active times. Some of us are night owls and some are early morning risers. Those who perform best at night are penalised by school hours which are mostly during the day. Knowledge of our internal rhythms allows us to adjust optimum learning times so that we can attend to school lessons and studies with full attention and concentration. We can also learn more about the universal cosmic laws that guide our lives and the world around us.

Biorhythm charts are initially beneficial to induce enhanced awareness so that we can plan for maximum advantage. For example, when the intellectual cycle is low it is time to put aside work that requires deep thought and to forgo making major decisions which may affect our life. When the emotional cycle is high, it is time to cultivate friendships or participate in family gatherings. However, with pranayama and yogic disciplines it is possible to alter the cycles of the brain, thereby modifying our perception, understanding and interactions in the world in order to avoid the effects of low cycles, stress and tension.

In time, we become so sensitive to the internal and external rhythms that we no longer need external charts to guide us, though they are initially useful until we become more sensitive. We become more aware of the effects of the sun and moon; the sattwic, rajasic and tamasic times of day, of ida and pingala and their interactions. Some yogis know all this solely by watching the changes in their nostril breathing patterns.

Yoga states that when the right nostril is in excess (and the left hemisphere of the brain is more active than the right), the mind becomes dissipated and man becomes aggressive. When the left nostril is excessive, the body feels dullness, indolence, drowsiness and lethargy. This imbalanced state is predominant in the world today where we are constantly under excessive stress and tensions.

Through pranayama, however, we eradicate the tensions of the brain and mind, balance the flow of breath, unify and quieten the hemispheres of the brain, achieve one-pointedness of mind and bliss. The positive and negative biorhythm cycles are smoothed out so that we conserve and redistribute energies rather than remain at the mercy of the wild horses of an untamed breath and mind which throw us about.

Taming the wild horses

It is possible to totally change the structure of the brain, the pattern of thinking and the whole inner personality through a systematic and guided approach to yoga and pranayama. Pranayama is a discipline of body and mind, not just a means of oxygenating the physical structure. Breath is the doorway into the mind and pranayama is the ticket to the realms within.

Of course, the improved oxygenation of the brain achieved by certain practices of pranayama is beneficial. For example, a few years ago a study performed by clinical psychologists at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Buffalo, USA, demonstrated that senile patients administered pure oxygen in a pressurised chamber improved on a standard memory test by as much as 25%. However, pranayama does much more than this for it also controls, regulates and channels the mento-emotional being of man. It allows us to redistribute prana to all the dormant faculties of our being and thereby to awaken our fullest potential. We gain much more than just good health and concentration of mind.

There are nine basic types of pranayama: nadi shodhana, sheetali, sheetkari, brahmari, bhastrika, kapalbhati, ujjayi, surya bheda, and moorcha. Some speed up the cycles, increase heat at the physical and psychic levels, and purify, while others are soothing and cooling. It requires a master to prescribe the correct practice for your needs. There are two main approaches to pranayama:

  1. Therapeutic - for those who are seeking relief from the emotional, mental and physical tensions which cause so much disease and suffering. A few practices must be done regularly over a period of time to push the affected part back into, its proper position and function. Regular practice leads to a permanent change in the structure of the body and personality, not just temporary relief or cure.
  2. Spiritual - For those sincere aspirants who wish to evolve their consciousness to higher levels and are prepared to spend time and energy every day in pursuing their goal. One or two practices performed for many years are all that is required to purify and prepare for higher experience.

Progress on the path

Shaking of the body, visions of any kind or psychic experiences are all distractions and disturbances leading us away from the goal. Pleasurable and blissful experiences are easy to come by. It is possible to induce them by inserting an electrode into a certain part of the brain or by the correct sequence of yogic sadhana. However, these experiences do not lead to any permanent alteration in the structure of the brain or in the deepest inner recesses of our personality. To achieve this, we need along period of regular, simple pranayama in conjunction with karma, bhakti and gyana yoga.

As we perfect ourselves and our sadhana we move further and further inside, removing accumulated layers of dirt and impurities in the form of karma and samskaras. At the same time we reveal more and more facets of our hidden inner potential and personality. These new facets are better than the old because they are deeper, truer and more in rhythm with the outer cosmos. The chaotic bio-mental activity is transformed into a more universal awareness. When the old, chaotic patterns are erased we can more easily contact the subtle, universal cosmic force - prana.

By becoming master of the breath we also become master of the cycles of the brain and it is this mastery which must proceed slowly or we will miss certain vital steps. A great deal of preparation is required to learn how to control and slow the breath and brain, and to make the connection between breath and consciousness. The process is at once cumulative and progressive, resulting in inner stability, so that when the true spiritual experiences finally come, we are strong enough to withstand and maintain them.

As the breath slows, the developed and unbroken awareness penetrates states of consciousness normally accessible only in dreams, deep sleep and beyond. Eventually a point is reached when we merge into a state of satchidanandam, blissful consciousness of the true reality, beyond the limitations of brain cycles and environmental effects. In the Maitri Upanishad it says: "The oneness of the breath and mind, and likewise of the senses, and the relinquishment of all conditions of existence is called yoga." (VI.25)