Welcome to the last and final post of our three part series Breathwork Explained! Part One showed you who can benefit from beginning a breathwork practice. Part Two explained the mechanics. Now we want to dive into the cultural and spiritual side a little more, to show you how the idea of controlled breath has been important across cultures and history, and how it gained popularity in the modern world.
In Hebrew, the word ruach referred to the breath and the creative spirit as one. In Greece, pneuma meant breath, soul, and the spirit of life. However, the variation of breathwork most Westerners are familiar with is called Pranayama. As mentioned in the previous article, this is a Sanskrit word meaning to extend the spirit or life force (prana) beyond the physical body. A Hindu author named Patanjali scribed the first written record of pranayama in the year 400 CE, as a component of the Yoga Sutra. The Yoga Sutra was the first written attempt to standardize the practice of classical yoga for spiritual and physical benefit. In this text, Pranayama is one of the eight tenets of yoga, each of which plays an integral role in spiritual and emotional development of the practitioner. Another root practice of modern breathwork is Qigong, the Chinese Buddhist practice of integrating posture, intention, and breath to heal the mind and body. (Most people are more familiar with the subset of Qigong called Tai Chi.)
In each of these cultures, there is vital essence that is connected to our breath, and controlling it can help a person to reach the highest planes of Enlightenment. It’s fascinating to ponder the idea that so many different people, isolated from each other by geography and time, could form the same idea about the intrinsic importance of connecting to your breath. They must have been on to something!
So how did we end up doing breathwork in America? Simply put, the counter culture movement of the 1960’s brought Eastern philosophy to Western living rooms. New Age philosophy is the term for this shift from traditional thinking to a new interest in spirituality, mysticism, holism, and environmentalism. Yoga and meditation were some of the most appealing aspects of eastern health and spirituality, and grew swiftly in popularity. As opposed to traditional Christian dogma, Eastern practices allowed for self-determination and individualism, which went hand in hand with the changes occurring in the socio-political sphere.
The next few decades saw practices like Tai Chi and Yoga grow steadily in prominence, and today you can find yoga studios on almost every block, as well as many variations and subsets of eastern philosophy to explore in person and online. This also means that breathwork instructions, classes, and mentors are more and more accessible. Which brings us to today, a time when more people than ever before are recognizing the importance of their breath! Here’s hoping this series has started you on the journey to connecting you with your own, and eventually, with Enlightenment. Lili Pettit does private breathwork sessions and often can be found leading classes at Yoga Space LA, Unplug Meditation and Sweat Yoga. Check out her calendar for upcoming classes. Namaste!