Inhale, and God approaches you. Hold the inhalation, and God remains with you. Exhale, and you approach God. Hold the exhalation, and surrender to God.
— Sri Krishnamacharya
The Sanskrit word for breath is prana, which means not only the physical breath but also the life force itself. The physical breath can be a gateway to understanding this force that permeates everything. In fact, if we just pay attention to our breath, it can help us understand what life is about and how flowing with it can bring peace and happiness. Here are a few things that my breath has taught me:
- That life operates in cycles — inhale follows exhale and exhale follows inhale, night follows day, death follows life, the seasons follow each other. Linear time is a convenient construct that helps us operate in the world, but has no inherent substance. While it is important to respect time and operate according to it, taking the construct for reality is one of the main causes of our stress and worry, as we take all beginnings and endings to be final.
- That things change — just as we cannot hold on to our inhale or our exhale, we cannot hold on to anything in life. Whether we like it or not, things always change. In the larger scheme of things, our holding on makes no difference – we lose people and things no matter how tightly we may cling to them. Clinging to the breath is letting go of life itself. In the same way, grasping takes away what infuses us with life by making us rigid and not allowing space for anything new or different to flow in. Just as the body gracefully lets go of the inhale to make space for the exhale, we can allow things to move on and make space for our life to be filled with fresh experiences.
- That all opposites are inextricably linked and are, in fact, made possible because of each other. Inhalation brings renewal and exhalation symbolizes extinction. Life is made of dualities – birth and death, joy and sorrow, meetings and partings, gain and loss; each one is tied to the other and exists because of the other. Wanting one and thinking that we can keep the other at bay is wishful thinking, like thinking we could breathe in and never have to breathe out. Happiness doesn’t come from clinging to any one of these polarities, but rather from keeping the perspective that they are linked and having the groundedness to handle whatever comes.
- That we are part of something much larger than ourselves — The breath happens by itself. We only have limited control over it – we can manipulate it to an extent, but never control the process of breathing itself. Just so, we can work with the world and what life gives us, but cannot control what shows up. Things do not go according to our plans, but rather manifest in accordance with a greater plan, of which we are a small part. Recognising this is extremely liberating and empowers us to find happiness in any circumstances.
The more we pay attention to our breath, the more we learn from it. When we are in difficult times, listening to what the breath is telling us can often suggest a way out, or provide a different perspective.
Listen, are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?
— Mary Oliver
This article was published in the February 2018 issue of Namaskar, a regional yoga magazine for Asia-Pacific. Get your free copy at yoga studios around Singapore.