Harnessing the Breath to Fuel Body & Mind

Breath specialist Ceri Lee shines a light on the breath and how to turn it into a superpower.

“To master our breath is to be in control of our bodies and minds.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Breath is life, the energy system of the body. Without it, we wouldn’t be here. Yet in the western world, until now, little attention has been paid to good working of the breath, which according to ancient yogic scriptures, is the key to optimum health. 

“A person who knows how to breathe is a person who knows how to build up endless vitality; breath builds up the lungs, strengthens the blood and revitalises every organ in the body.”

Buddhist Tenet

Correct functioning of the diaphragm, the piston of the respiratory apparatus, enables the intercostal muscles to be used to their greatest effect and reduces any respiratory conditions like asthma or any diseases of the vocal organs. Whilst correct use of the abdominal muscles enables the lower organs to be stimulated and massaged, resulting in a glowing complexion due to improved circulation and increased flexibility.

Anatomical model of the lungs

Breathing draws in oxygen for the physical body and is also the energy generation system of the body. In many ancient eastern practises, it is widely accepted that the air we breathe also contains a vital energy called prana/chi/life-force which, when understood and applied with good breath function, can be used to harness energy. It is the bridge between the body and the mind. How we think we breathe, and importance of mastery of the breath cannot be underestimated, which yogi master Desikacher describes in his lectures, as being as vital as the steering wheel of a car. 

The movement of the breath is a mirror to the movement of the mind 

Have you noticed that when agitated the breath becomes shallow with short intake and out breath? In this situation, the movement of prana around the body is restricted because of tension in the muscles, resulting in energetic blockages due to unresolved tension.  In learning to breathe naturally again, the breath slows down, and the mind becomes calmer and more relaxed. Internal blockages can be dissolved when life force moves freely in the body, and the breath can function most effectively as an energy system for the body, on all levels. 

What is Prana?

Prana is a Sanskrit word that is best described as a ‘life force’ found in all living things. Within prana is a subtle, cosmic energy that connects the universe together and is, in essence, the tangible manifestation of the higher self.  It is an electro-magnetic force that can be likened to different kinds of radiation found in the universe.

Light, heat, x-ray, radio waves, gamma rays – are nothing more than electro-magnetic waves of varying length and frequency.

Lincoln Barnet ‘The Universe and Dr. Einstein’ (1966)

This energy can be taken in mainly through respiration, but also can be taken through water and natural foods, especially those grown under the sun.  It is this energy that charges the body both on the physical and subtle level and is understood to be the link between the conscious mind of a human being and its physical functioning. Respiration is the pumping system that channels this electro-energetic force around the body.

Looking up at trees against the blue sky

For centuries Prana has been accepted in the east as something real, transferred into the body essentially through the breath.

“I am Prana, the life breath, and the consciousness in all beings.”

Kaushitaki Upanishad 3:2

According to yogic thought, Prana is manifested as an electro-magnetic wave, and a new theory from Surrey University suggests that the brain’s rich electromagnetic field is the seat of consciousness. This theory is based on a scientific fact that that when neurons fire in the brain and nervous system, they also send a pulse of electro-magnetic energy into the surrounding tissue along with the flow of atoms through the nerves. 

Experiments have already been made in Birmingham University where light patterns were discovered in a total vacuum, leading to the indication that prana can exist as light waves. Not only this, but it’s also possible to photograph the auric sheath (vitality) of living matter through a specially devised camera. The auric light surrounding the matter fades or brightens according to the health of the living matter.  

My first yoga teacher, the late Howard Kent, writes in his book ‘Breathe Better Feel Better’ about his experience with Prana and the auric sheath. He describes suffering a fracture to his cheekbone that required surgery. Having access to this special camera, he photographed his cheek and identified that the auric light was faded around the area of the injury.  He reasoned that the injury was absorbing the energy in his auric field to heal the injury.  With this awareness he applied breathing and visualisation techniques to restore his cheek to good health, without surgery, but through activating and channelling prana to the source of the injury. 

Thus, Prana may be seen as the link between the conscious mind of a human being and the physical functioning of that human being. 

What is Pranayama and why is it important? 

Pranayama is the fourth limb in the 8 limbs of yoga, the structural framework of yoga theory and practice found in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the original texts of classical yoga philosophy. 

Pranayama is a series of breathing techniques said to stabilise the mind, developing powers of concentration and clarity of thought, deeper relaxation, and prerequisite to meditation.  It is a scientific method of controlling breath that helps in the following ways:

  • Increasing the mental and physical powers of endurance.
  • Providing complete relaxation to the nervous system. 
  • Bringing relief from pain caused by the compression of nerve endings. 
  • Increasing oxygen supply to the brain which in turn helps the mind. 
  • Developing and refining the principles of ratio, attention, timing, and the number of breaths.
  • Cultivating an experience of being filled with a subtle sense of stillness.

If breathing is the energy generation system of the body, pranayama works to enhance this system to its optimum capacity. Pranayama means ‘pranic capacity, or length’, and is not only breath control, but also a technique that taps into this cosmic energy, activates it to a higher frequency, resulting in mastery of life force. With simple mindful breath work and pranayama, we can link the breath to our body and thoughts, which connects life to consciousness.

“The consciousness of life is the breath of life, and the breath of life is the consciousness of life.”

Indra, the Vedas

When you follow the breath, the mind is drawn into activities of the breath and single -pointed focus, which improves concentration. Pranayama prepares us, in this manner for the stillness of meditation to come.

Ceri Lee practising breathing surrounded by nature

How does prana move through the body?

In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a medieval scripture written in 1350 by Yogi Svatmarama, there are 3 main channels of energy.  The man channel, the sushuma, runs alongside the spine which is entwinned with 2 further channels ida and pingala. From these primary channels finer channels branch out called the nadis, of which there are said to be 72,000 and may be likened on an energetic level to the physical layout of the nerves. 

Pingala, apparent in right nostril, is the dynamic, male principle associated with the sun and warmth.  The left brain operates on the same principle as Pingala. It processes information logically, sequentially, and according to the pattern of time.  

Ida, apparent in the left nostril, is the passive, female principle associated with the moon and coolness. The right brain operates on the same principle as Ida and is concerned with intuition, mental creativity, and orientation in space.

Nadi Shodana (Alternate nostril breathing) is an important practice that works to harmonise the dualistic attributes of Ida and Pingala through a variety of techniques, to create a sodhana (clearing of blockages) of the nadis (channels), for the free movement of prana. Energy is transferred from one hemisphere to another throughout the day, and the practice of Nadi Shodhana helps to unite the energies together to maintain balance and harmony.

“When prana moves, chitta (mental force) moves.  When prana is without movement, chitta is without movement. By this steadiness of prana, the yogi attains steadiness and should thus restrain the air (vayu).”

Hatha Yoga Pradipika 2:2

Vayu translates to mean ‘wind’ or direction of air.  Whilst ultimately directing the practitioner towards a restraint of movement, by consciously connecting to and exploring the directions in movement of the vayus, the practitioner can become adept in directing the air and prana to specific places within the body to accelerate healing. 

A note on Kumbhaka – Breath Retention

In breath retention the mind becomes steady with opportunity to rest from vritti (mind chatter) and become connected to pure consciousness.  Consequentially it is given higher importance for the cessation of the mind in all of yoga practice. 

  • Antar kumbhaka = after inhalation
  • Bahya kumbhaka = after exhalation

“The emptying the mind of the whole of its illusion is the true rechaka (exhalation).  The realisation that “I am Atma (spirit)” is the true puraka (inhalation).  And the steady sustenance of the mind on this conviction is the true kumbhaka (retention).”

Adi Shankaracharya
A man breathing surrounded by nature

How Pranayama Benefits the physical body

Breathing correctly builds up the entire energy of the body. On a physical level, this is because the correct functioning of the diaphragm, which is the piston of the breathing mechanism, enables the intercostal muscles to be used to their greatest effect. Full movement of the diaphragm, with correct use of the abdominal muscles also enables the lower organs to be stimulated and massaged. The rest of the respiratory apparatus is also used and maintained in full working order, thus reducing any respiratory conditions like asthma or any diseases of the vocal organs. Such cleansing exercises as kapalibhati are excellent for the sinuses and other bronchial complaints. 

Physical control of the breath also has an immediate and distinct effect on the nervous system of the body.  Holding the breath in is good for low blood pressure and lethargy, whereas suspending the breath is good for high blood pressure or people who suffer with nervous tension.

“By practising breathing exercises one can reach to the motion of the heart, and by means of the motion of the heart one can control the motion of every tissue, cell, molecule and atom in the body.  By controlling all physiological motions and by transforming physiological multiplicity into psychological unity, and psychological unity into physiological multiplicity, one establishes harmony and unity between individual existence and cosmic existence.”

Dr. Rammurti Mishra ‘Yoga Sutras’ Anchor 19

How else can pranayama help me?

The body is an electro-dynamic organism that is sensitive to environmental, emotional, and mental conditions. The breathing pattern can be transformed in the short term due to certain stresses. It is then that bad habits can form, and blockages occur through the loss of ability to breathe naturally.  Expenditure of the emotions, tension and stress all use up large amounts of prana. Learning to temper the emotions and relax through hatha yoga and pranayama enables pranic energy to be used more effectively.  In learning to breathe correctly prana can be distributed evenly through the energy channels (nadis) around the subtle body and be on call when needed. 

Having mastered the body through the yogic teachings so that it becomes a fit habitation for the soul; having the senses, emotions and mind under control, the wise person discards the worn-out sheaths of desire, fear and confusion and passes into the state of enlightenment and freedom.

The Bhagavad Gita
Letters saying inhale, exhale and repeat

As the quality of energy increases in the body, so too does the level of consciousness, until pure consciousness becomes the true ruler of the inhabitant of the body. 

In other words, an individual’s level of perception will become so heightened that the validity of intuition as an aspect of consciousness becomes apparent as a daily reality. As real as what we perceive on a basic level to be conscious, rational thought. 

When we learn to accept life, and the breath of life as coming from a real source, and able to apply techniques to harness this energy, we are better mentally prepared to face life’s challenges. Often, in simply learning to calm down and using simple breathing techniques as an aid, clarity comes more quickly than when the mind is agitated. By practising mindful breathwork and pranayama every day the physical and subtle nervous systems and wiring become stronger. We fill up with pranic energy, comparable to increasing the capacity of a wire inside a light bulb, to handle more wattage. And literally becoming ‘enlightened,’ which is, ultimately, the purpose of yoga!

Ceri Lee BA (hons) is a senior yoga teacher, midlife mentor and owner of the Yoga Light Centre, an independent yoga studio with guest accommodation in North Wales. From here she teaches weekly yoga classes and records her specialist online series including the 21-day Breathing Series. She offers midlife mentorship programs, 1-1 yoga tuition, and regularly runs yoga retreats around the world.