A Warning About Breathing Exercises

Reproduced from a section entitled “A Warning About Breathing Exercises” from the introduction to The Tao of Natural Breathing

The great spiritual pathfinder G. I. Gurdjieff once said that “without mastering breathing nothing can be mastered.” But he also warned that without complete knowledge of our organism, especially of the interrelationships of the rhythms of our various organs, breathing exercises can bring great harm. It is clear that work with breathing exercises, especially some of the advanced Yogic breathing exercises (pranayama) taught in the West through both classes and books, is fraught with many dangers.

In his book Hara: The Vital Center of Man, Karlfried Durckheim–a pioneer in the integration of body, mind, and spirit–discusses some of the dangers of teaching yogic breathing exercises to Westerners. He points out that most of these exercises, which “imply tension,” were designed for Indians, who suffer from “an inert letting-go.” Westerners, on the other hand, suffer from “too much upward pull … too much will.” Durckheim states that even though many yoga teachers try to help their students relax before giving them breathing exercises, they do not realize that the “letting-go” required for deep relaxation can be achieved “only after long practice.” At best, says Durckheim, giving breathing exercises prematurely grafts new tensions onto the already established ones, and brings about “an artificially induced vitality … followed by a condition of exhaustion and the aspirant discontinues his efforts, his practice.”

Based on my own personal work as well as on my observation of others, I believe that it is only after many months (or even years) of progressive practice rooted in self-observation and self-awareness that most Westerners can experience the deep inner relaxation, the freedom from willfulness, needed to benefit in a lasting way from advanced breathing exercises. Breathing exercises involving complicated counting schemes, alternate nostril breathing, reverse breathing, breath retention, hyperventilation, and so on make sense only for people who already breathe naturally, making use of their entire body in their breath. It is my experience that natural breathing is in itself a powerful form of self-healing. That is why my book The Tao of Natural Breathing explores this kind of breathing in so much depth, describing in detail some fundamental perspectives and practices that can, through increased inner awareness, help us see and transform our own personal obstacles to its manifestation in our lives. …

One could say, of course, as some masters and teachers have said, that since natural breathing is natural, any effort to breathe naturally through breathing exercises not only misses the point, but is also counterproductive. They maintain that when our mind becomes calm and empty, natural breathing will follow automatically. In spite of the fact that this assertion puts us in front of another mystery–how can we calm and empty our minds?–one cannot argue with its truth. Working with our breath is not just a matter of what we do but, perhaps even more importantly, of how we do it. If we approach the breathing exercises in my book as mere techniques to be manipulated by our so-called will, they will bring us nothing. If, however, we can approach them as natural vehicles to explore the physiological and psychological laws of our mind and body–through direct impressions coming from an inner clarity of awareness–we may in fact begin to learn what it means to calm and empty our minds. No matter how we live or what we do (or don’t do), we are always doing something; we are always practicing something–if only mechanically repeating and further entrenching the narrow, often unhealthy, habits of mind, body, and perception that shape our lives. To gain real benefit from the breathing exercises in my book, then, we must approach them as consciously as possible, taking care to understand their aim, feel their spirit, and sense their effect on our entire being.

Expanding Our Narrow Sense of Self

The real power of the breathing related ideas and exercises outlined in my book is to help us first experience and then free ourselves from the many narrow, unconscious attitudes we have about ourselves and the world–attitudes that create stress and other problems for us in almost every area of our life. It is often these very attitudes, deeply entrenched in our minds, hearts, and bodies, and manifested through and supported by our breath, that diminish our awareness, constrict our life force, and prevent us from living conscious, healthy lives in harmony with ourselves, with others, and with our environment.

Fortunately, we do not have to try to deal directly with all of these attitudes–an impossible task in one lifetime. Like spokes radiating out from the central axle of a wheel, our attitudes radiate out from the axle of our own particular self-image: the narrow, incomplete, yet strong image of self, of “I,” that permeates almost everything that we think, feel, and do. According to Lao Tzu, if we can somehow expand this narrow image we have of ourselves and live from our wholeness, then many of our problems will disappear on their own.

To see and free ourselves from our own “narrow sense of self” is to open ourselves to the tremendous healing forces and energies that create and maintain our lives–to experience for ourselves how the alchemical substances of matter and the magical ideas of mind are linked in the unified, transformative dance of yin and yang–the dynamic polarity of opposites from which all life springs. It is also to experience here and now the return to the primal, expansive emptiness and silence of “wu chi,” the all-inclusive wholeness that is the source of both our being and our well-being. It is our breathing, especially natural breathing, that can help guide us on this remarkable journey into ourselves.

Copyright 1997-2015 by Dennis Lewis

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