Breathing is the ﬁrst thing we do when we are born and the last thing we do before we die, but then how much importance we give to breathing in life is the question. Before the Western world started their research on breathing, our Vedic Rishis had not only observed breathing in its diﬀerent aspects and pronounced to the world i t s importance and profound signiﬁcance and how to beneﬁt both physically and mentally by performing ‘Pranayama’.
They found that a living being can live for weeks without food, without water but not without air more than 4-6 minutes. They said air is the very essence of life and an understanding of being an entity – body and soul – emerged.
They also found that of all body’s functions breathing is unique in that it is characterized by both automatic and conscious control. They also found that ‘holding breath’ was needed for several human physical actions such as lifting or moving heavy objects. That in a way made them practice ‘retention’ of breath and ‘Pranayama’ was advocated for better living and happiness besides spiritual development. In fact, ‘Prnayama’ was prescribed to be performed thrice a day during Sandhyavandana in order to help remove all the ailments and also stop the ageing process of the body.
As Patanjali rightly observed mind, consisting of thoughts and emotions, is closely related to breath. Pranayama improved agility, muscular co-ordination, breath holding capacity. Deep breathing helps to get rid of stress and tensions.
What Yogic Rishis had said thousands of years back was later conﬁrmed by western scientists. Every cell in our body inhales oxygen and exhales carbon-dioxide, a process called respiration. Breathing is constant and we breathe even while in sleep. Breathing is that important because our cells constantly need a new supply of oxygen so they can produce energy; without this vital oxygen cellular function gets impaired and damage or cell death is possible. Breathing thus results in supply of oxygen to our bodies and the various organs which are vital for our survival.
We all know that hundreds of children in U.P. and other States died for want of oxygen very recently. Oxygen cannot be stored in living bodies and needs to be replenished continuously and steadily, say scientists and they stress on importance of knowing how to breathe properly. In other words, they agree with the ﬁndings of Patanjali. Further it is the oxygen that allows the brain to work. As Patanjali observed, with our breathing we also get rid of waste products and toxins from the body.
Unfortunately most of us use only a third of the actual breathing capacity and therefore we are unable to breathe well. Our breathing is also the link between our body and mind; and for both to function well oxygen is necessary in abundance. If breathing is irregular the mind gets anxious and disturbed. If our breathing is deep, slow and regular then our mind will reach a state of tranquility and calm according to Patanjali. There is integral relationship between concentration and breathing. We breathe about 25,000 breaths a day.
And that is why in Yogic and Vedic tradition, ‘air’ is linked to “Prana”- the life force that ﬂows through all living creatures – plant and animal. Prana is the ‘life principle in action’ – a subtle form of energy. Prana literally means ‘breathing forth’ the universal life force. For breath is life, and if you breathe well, you will live long on earth, says a Sanskrit proverb. We all know the origins of Indian Kabbadi a game played between two teams on the ground and besides other things holding breath was the main attraction for a win. Now instead of holding breath, exhaling has been introduced. So breathing in one form or other keeps the game moving to this day and it has also become international.
Not only in Kabbadi but also in other popular games football, volley ball, cricket, hockey, athletics etc.; I mentioned these to illlustrate my point of ‘retention’; the breathing is main factor in success.
Holding or retaining it is important as needed while playing the game. A sixer cannot be hit just like that; it needs single- pointed holding of breath to hit the ball over the boundary and there lies the winning shot. Except for these sports and games, normally retention of breath is unknown to crores of Indians not to speak of its beneﬁts.
Ancient Indians made ‘retention’ as part of several rituals performed every day with the intention of beneﬁtting by it individually and collectively as Team, Village, City and Nation. It is also true that we Hindus have lost many wonderful eﬀective methods to lead a happy life by non-practice of the rituals. Pranayama could still be made a daily ritual in life by our youngsters and it will have a great eﬀect in all their lives. It is indeed part of Yoga, no doubt. Our forefathers gave it status of ritual to be practiced without fail. Like that there is another ritual called “Pariseshanam” before taking food and “Pranahuti” describing the ﬁve Pranas and oﬀering food (every act eventually becomes an act of worship)knowing breath is the vital force behind life.
A morsel of food (rice with ghee and dhall) is oﬀered to Breath Force consuming it with mantras prescribed for the purpose by our Rishis. The signiﬁcance of bodily functions is part of these mantras:
Pranaya Swaha – the principal breath; Apanaya Swaha – responsible for excretory activities;
Samanaya Swaha – responsible for digestive activities;
Vyanaya Swaha – responsible for circulatory activities;
Udanaya Swaha – responsible for respiratory activities and ﬁnally Brahmane Swaha – the Almighty to bless.
All these activities are taking place automatically inside our bodies without our knowledge or consent but our great Rishis thought it would be in the best interests of h u m a n i t y i f e v e r y h u m a n b e i n g acknowledges these facts with kindness and humbleness and looks at it in a prayerful attitude. Hindus consider ‘food’ is manifestation of Brahman, the supreme energy motivating the Universe. Food can engage all ﬁve senses at once. Eating is ritual and with mystical importance as can be seen in scriptures; three forces that inﬂuence food’s nutrition are said to be “Patra Suddhi” i.e. cleanliness of cooking vessels; “Paka Suddhi” the mental attitude and cleanliness of the cook and third is “Pachaka Suddhi” the quality of ingredients used for cooking. It is said, “You are what you eat”. So process of cooking, object (food) and the individual (cook) are all inextricably connected. If the cook has any breathing problems that may aﬀect the food cooked by him/her. In my book “Tamil Brahmins in Kerala” published in 2002 I have devoted a whole chapter on their culinary habits. Mention has also been made about signiﬁcance of ‘Anna Danam’. But these days nobody seems to care to observe these rituals and live a meaningful and purposeful life here and hereafter.
I write this article so that it may rekindle our traditions, customs and unique culture and heritage and enthuse our younger generation to follow these great traditions and culture as far as possible for their own beneﬁt and ultimate beneﬁt of our motherland. It is my fervent hope they will start breathing properly using the full potential at their command.