The Origins of Breathwork

The light of Breakthrough Breathwork Meditation for peace, stress relief, breath therapy

In ancient and pre-industrial societies, breath and breathing have played a very important role in cosmology, mythology, and philosophy, as well as an important tool in ritual and spiritual practice. Various breathing techniques have been used since time immemorial for religious and healing purposes. Since earliest times, virtually every major psychospiritual system seeking to comprehend human nature has viewed breath as a crucial link between nature, the human body, the psyche, and the spirit. This is clearly reflected in the words many languages use for breath.

In the ancient Indian literature, the term prana meant not only physical breath and air, but also the sacred essence of life. Similarly, in traditional Chinese medicine, the word chi refers to the cosmic essence and the energy of life, as well as the natural air we breathe by our lungs. In Japan, the corresponding word is ki. Ki plays an extremely important role in Japanese spiritual practices and martial arts. In ancient Greece, the word pneuma meant both air or breath and spirit or the essence of life. The Greeks also saw breath as being closely related to the psyche. The term phren was used both for the diaphragm, the largest muscle involved in breathing, and mind (as we see in the term schizophrenia = literally split mind).

In the old Hebrew tradition, the same word, ruach, denoted both breath and creative spirit, which were seen as identical. The following quote from Genesis shows the close relationship between God, breath, and life: “Then the Lord God formed man {Hebrew adam} from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” In Latin the same name was used for breath and spirit – spiritus. Similarly, in Slavic languages, spirit and breath have the same linguistic root.

In the native Hawaiian tradition and medicine (kanaka maoli lapaʼau), the word ha means the divine spirit, wind, air, and breath. It is contained in the popular Hawaiian aloha, expression that is used in many different contexts. It is usually translated as presence (alo) of the Divine Breath (ha). Its opposite, haʼole, meaning literally without breath or without life, is a term that native Hawaiians have applied to white-skinned foreigners since the arrival of the infamous British sea captain James Cook in 1778. The kahunas, “Keepers of Secret Knowledge,” have used breathing exercises to generate spiritual energy (mana).

It has been known for centuries that it is possible to influence consciousness by techniques that involve breathing. The procedures that have been used for this purpose by various ancient and non-Western cultures cover a very wide range from drastic interference with breathing to subtle and sophisticated exercises of various spiritual traditions. Thus the original form of baptism practiced by the Essenes involved forced submersion of the initiate under water for an extended period of time. This resulted in a powerful experience of death and rebirth. In some other groups, the neophytes were half-choked by smoke, by strangulation, or by compression of the carotid arteries.

Profound changes in consciousness can be induced by both extremes in the breathing rate, hyperventilation and prolonged withholding of breath, as well as by using them in an alternating fashion. Very sophisticated and advanced methods of this kind can be found in the ancient Indian science of breath, or pranayama. William Walker Atkinson, American writer, who was influential in the turn-of-the-century (1890s-1900s) spiritual/philosophical movement wrote under the pseudonym Yogi Ramacharaka a comprehensive treatise on the Hindu science of breath (Ramacharaka 1903).

Specific techniques involving intense breathing or withholding of breath are also part of various exercises in Kundalini Yoga, Siddha Yoga, the Tibetan Vajrayana, Sufi practice, Burmese Buddhist and Taoist meditation, and many others. Indirectly, the depth and rhythm of breathing gets profoundly influenced by such ritual artistic performances, as the Balinese monkey chant or Ketjak, the Inuit Eskimo throat music, Tibetan and Mongolian multivocal chanting, and singing of kirtans, bhajans, or Sufi chants.

More subtle techniques, which emphasize special awareness in relation to breathing rather than changes of the respiratory dynamics, have a prominent place in Buddhism. Anāpānasati is a basic form of meditation taught by the Buddha; it means literally “mindfulness of breathing” (from the Pali anāpāna = inhalation and exhalation and sati = mindfulness). Buddhaʼs teaching of anāpāna was based on his experience in using it as a means of achieving his own enlightenment. He emphasized the importance of not being mindful only of oneʼs breath, but using the breath to become aware of oneʼs entire body and of all of oneʼs experience. According to the Anāpānasati Sutta (sutra), practicing this form of meditation leads to the removal of all defilements (kilesa). The Buddha taught that systematic practice of anāpānasati would lead to the final release (nirv āna or nibāna).

Anāpānasati is practiced in connection with Vipassanā (insight meditation) and Zen meditation (shikantaza, literally “just sitting”). The essence of anāpānasati as the core meditation practice in Buddhism, especially the Theravada school, is to be merely a passive observer of the natural involuntary breathing process. This is in sharp contrast with the yogic pranayama practices, which employ breathing techniques that aim for rigorous control of breath. However, anāpānasati is not the only Buddhist form of breathing meditation. In the Buddhist spiritual practices used in Tibet, Mongolia, and Japan, the control of breathing plays an important role. Cultivation of special attention to breathing represents also an essential part of certain Taoist and Christian practices.

The healing potential of breath is particularly strongly emphasized in Kundalini yoga. There episodes of faster breathing are used in the course of meditative practice (bastrika) or occur spontaneously as part of the emotional and physical manifestations known as kriyas. This is consistent with my own view that similar spontaneous episodes occurring in psychiatric patients and referred to as the hyperventilation syndrome, are attempts at self-healing. They should be encouraged and supported rather than routinely suppressed, which is the common medical practice.

In materialistic science, breathing lost its sacred meaning and was stripped of its connection to the psyche and spirit. Western medicine reduced it to an important physiological function. The physical and psychological manifestations that accompany various respiratory maneuvers, have all been pathologized. The psychosomatic response to faster breathing, the so-called hyperventilation syndrome, is considered a pathological condition, rather than what it really is, a process that has an enormous healing potential. When hyperventilation occurs spontaneously, it is routinely suppressed by administration of tranquilizers, injections of intravenous calcium, and application of a paperbag over the face to increase the concentration of carbon dioxide and combat the alkalosis caused by faster breathing.

In the last few decades, Western therapists rediscovered the healing potential of breath and developed techniques that utilize it. We have ourselves experimented in the context of our monthlong seminars at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, with various approaches involving breathing. These included both breathing exercises from ancient spiritual traditions under the guidance of Indian and Tibetan teachers and techniques developed by Western therapists. Each of these approaches has a specific emphasis and uses breath in a different way. In our own search for an effective method of using the healing potential of breath, we tried to simplify this process as much as possible.

Stan Grof