In the second of five workshops we explored air, the second of the elements to manifest and inhabit the space previously created. When we talk of air, we are describing the mixture of gases that comprise our atmosphere and surrounds us, sustaining many life forms, ourselves included!
Symbiosis between humans and trees
At a macrocosmic level, air gives us an on-going relationship to the world around us, illustrating our dependence on the atmosphere we live in. If/when this is corrupted, we suffer. Atmospheric pollution affects ALL those who are dependent on the atmosphere.
This brings to mind a rather beautiful image given by Nrithya Jagannathan when she hosted TSYP’s Annual Event in 2018. Nrithya reminded us that we exhale carbon dioxide which the trees absorb, the trees exhale oxygen which we inhale and thus an eternal symbiosis is created between ourselves and the trees, so that we can harmoniously support each other if a balance is maintained.
Nrithya also suggested that the trees without their leaves in winter bear a striking resemblance to inverted lungs rooted in the earth – the lungs of the earth! We know this to be true: trees are nature’s diverse and beautiful air conditioning plants, tirelessly absorbing that which we exhale and supplying us with the oxygen vital to our well-being.
Breath and prāṇa
Then we come to our own personal relationship to air through the breath, which is the way we sustain ourselves energetically as humans. Reading from the Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā (HYP), chapter 2.3, “Life is said to exist only so long as there is breath in the body … so one should restrain the breath.” And Nathamuni’s Yoga Rahasya (YR), chapter 1.35, “As long as breath remains in the body, it is proclaimed that it (the body) is alive. This fact is known to everyone, and hence regulation of the breath is emphasised.” It does seem rather like stating the obvious but how often do we really, with gratitude, acknowledge this simple fact: that we are totally dependent on this nebulous breath to live?
In terms of yoga, breath is said to be the vehicle of prāṇa, the eternal life force that sustains everything. In The Heart of Yoga (page 54), TKV Desikachar describes prāṇa thus, “that which is infinitely everywhere” and, “With reference to us humans prāṇa can be described as something that flows continuously from somewhere inside us, filling us and keeping us alive.” Interesting to observe the similarities between this statement and the earlier classical references from the HYP and YR, especially the relationship between breath and life!
As individuals, it is through the breath that we can influence prāṇa. This is the essence of prāṇāyāma; using the breath to positively influence our energy, especially the energy of the mind. HYP, chapter2.2, “When the breath wanders (i.e. is irregular), the mind is unsteady, but when, (the breath is) still, so is (the mind) still and the yogin obtains the power of stillness.” YR, chapter 1.46, “One whose mind is stable, has happiness and tranquility. For him, everything is very easily achievable. For people who are agitated by objects of the senses, prāṇāyāma is the best solution.”
This is a reminder of the critical importance of prāṇāyāma in dealing with the mind, something that modern neuroscience is now acknowledging. Further on in YR, chapter 1.99, “Through prāṇāyāma, dhāranā and dhyānaṁ indeed happen. Thus, the regulation of breath is always known to be fruitful.”
Therefore, breath sustains life and its regulation can take us all the way to meditation, from the gross, sustaining the body, to the subtle, dhyānaṁ, the breath is the key. Perhaps this is why the teachings of Śrī Krishnamacharya and TKV Desikachar centre around the breath, that breath is the beginning of the yoga journey and that which can, with skilful practice, carry us all the way to journey’s end: the realisation of our highest potential.
Before closing I want to refer once again to TKV Desikachar and The Heart of Yoga (page 55), “Various sources call prāṇa the friend of puruṣa (consciousness) and see in the flow of prāṇa nothing but the working of the puruṣa.” Therefore, if we can develop an intimate relationship with the breath (and we can), it will carry us all the way from our prakṛti (mind, senses and body) to our most profound, eternal potential, puruṣa!
This article is the second in a series on the pañcabhūta. The first article on ākāśa (space) can be found here.