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Whether it is calm or agitated, silent or noisy, manifesting itself as a yawn, a sigh, or a vibrant expression of voice and song, the breath constitutes the deepest connection of man with life. Today we know that through the breath every cell of the body is supplied with the energy necessary to carry out its metabolic functions and freed from waste products, but the ancient sages understood that the breath carries something more and that there is a close relationship between breath and states of consciousness.

It is therefore not surprising that Yoga, understood in its most exquisitely evolutionary matrix, has identified in the breath the elective tool to understand oneself and the relationship with the Absolute and in the course of its history has developed breathing techniques. very refined, aimed at psycho-physical well-being and spiritual progress.

How is the subject of breath addressed in the classic reference texts of Hatha Yoga?

Everyone, of course, talks about it and, while underlining different aspects, from the most technical to the most esoteric, the basic idea that emerges is that of the breath as an element that acts on the mind and allows you to orient yourself towards your own inner dimension.  

Here are the most representative examples.  

The  Yoga Sūtra, text that  for excellence  he codified the Yoga discipline, sanctions the mind-breath link identifying "in the emission and retention of the breath the means to overcome the condition of agitation of the mind" (II.34). But Patañjali, author of the YS, goes further and places the theme of breath (prāṇāyāma) in a crucial point of the path towards realization: the  prāṇāyāma  precedes and leads to  pratyāhāra, that is, a level of consciousness in which the mind is no longer subject to the solicitations coming from the external world and is finally free to observe itself. How do you get to this particular dimension of consciousness? In II.49 Patañjali describes the  prāṇāyāma  as "destruction of the natural flow of inhalation and exhalation" suggesting both the idea of voluntary stopping of the breath and the possibility of managing the respiratory cycle by modifying its 4 phases, namely inhalation, suspension with full lungs, exhalation, suspension with empty lungs. It is also interesting to note, in Patañjali, the ambivalent use of the word  prāṇāyāma: on the one hand the term coincides with "arrest, block, interruption of the breath", a concept that in later texts will be indicated as  kumbhaka  (literally vase, jug), on the other hand,  prāṇāyāma  indicates the set of techniques on which the breathing control exercises are based. Although the author does not mention any specific exercise (the text systematizes ascetic practices on a theoretical level), the  sūtra  II.50 reveals that numerous breathing techniques were well known. Patañjali exposes in a single aphorism the directions through which all the exercises that will be illustrated in subsequent texts and eras and which will be handed down from master to disciple to the present day are articulated. In fact, breathing exercises are based on "apnea with full lungs or empty lungs and orientation of the breath in different parts of the body by regulating its duration and number of repetitions" (II.50). The breath, skilfully managed, becomes itself an object of observation and manifests itself in an increasingly prolonged way, inducing calm and progressive detachment from the sensory world. "Once the breath has become subtle, almost rarefied, a level of consciousness emerges where the distinction between the external and internal environment of the body is dissolved (II.51), one enjoys greater clarity (II.52), the mind has the faculty to concentrate (II.53) and is ready for the next stages of concentration (dhāraṇā, dhyāna, samādhi) ".  

Breath is the central topic of  Yoga-Yajnavalkya, which provides "detailed explanations of the spiritual and therapeutic applications of the  prāṇāyāma "(translated from Yoga-Yajnavalkya AG Mohan Ed. Ganesh & Co. Madras). In the text there is a detailed description of the position and functions of the elements of subtle physiology related to pranic flows  (NĀḌĪ,   CAKRA, VAYU)  and a very precise definition is given:  the  prāṇāyāma  it is the union, the balance of  prāṇā  And  apāṇā  (the two main currents, one positive, the other negative).  

In the fifteenth century. Svatmarama, nel  Hatha Yoga Pradipika, deals extensively with the breath especially in the second lesson which opens by emphasizing the importance of learning  prāṇāyāma  under the guidance of the teacher after having acquired the mastery of  āsana. Also in this treatise the impact of the breath on the mind is reiterated: "when the breath is unstable, the mind is unstable, when the breath is stable, the mind is stable and the yogi reaches stasis: therefore it is necessary to control the breath" (II.2). The text describes in detail many of the best known  prāṇāyāma: śītalī, bhastrikā, bhramāri *  to name a few, and, similarly to what Patañjali asserted about that condition of spontaneous and prolonged suspension of the breath which is a prelude to subsequent and deeper states of consciousness, the author clearly states that all voluntary suspensions of breath ( sahita-khumbaka) are aimed at the  kevala kumbhaka  that is, arrests that flow naturally, out of any intention of the practitioner, which are indicated in the text as the true one  prāṇāyāma; and it is true  prāṇāyāma  to lead to  rāja-yoga  (with  rāja-yoga, literally royal yoga, refers to the more meditative aspect of yoga and the states of consciousness related to it).

The collection that in greater detail deals with the technical aspects of physical and breathing practices aimed at samadhi (self-realization), the  Gheranda Saṃhitā  (17th century), opens the chapter on the breath stating that through the  prāṇāyāma  the practitioner acquires a luminous body as it is thanks to the management of the breath that "the thin tissues, the brain, the nerves and the blood are purified and when all the impurities are expelled from the body [...] it becomes bright, the mind clear and excellent health ". And so, as already observed in the other texts, the constancy in the practice of the many breathing exercises leads to very long and spontaneous apneas (kevala khumbhaka), the starting point for the practice of meditation.  

It is also useful to mention the  Śiva Saṃhitā, the most recent text, dating back to the eighteenth century, which in addition to exhibiting different techniques of  prāṇāyāma  (first of all  nadi shodana, the cleaning of the ducts of the  prāṇa), asserts that the first effects of prāṇāyāma are manifested on a physical level. "The body becomes harmonious, emanates perfume and becomes beautiful (III.29)" and indicates in the breath the instrument of spiritual emancipation: "through the  prāṇāyāma  the practitioner destroys the effects of  karman  of past and present lives "(III.49).  

To conclude, I would like to point out the lack of an exact match between the words  prāṇa  and I breathe by quoting two sentences: the first of an illustrious Indian master, Swami Shivananda, the second of one of his authoritative Western students, André Van Lysebeth.

"The  prāṇa  is the sum of all the energies of the universe "

"The  prāṇa  it is universal undifferentiated energy. Magnetism is a manifestation of prana, just like electricity and gravitation. "

The  prāṇa  it is therefore much more than the air that reaches our lungs and the breath is only its privileged vehicle. Looking at the breath with new eyes, with the awareness that it conveys all the forces that make life possible, we can perceive every inhale and every exhale for what they really are, tools that accompany man in earthly existence and great opportunities for spiritual evolution.

* breathing techniques whose translation is:  cooling breathing, bellows breathing, bee breathing.

by Rossana Dall'Armellina

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