The Breath of a Poet: Breathing as a spiritual tool

By Jenne Micale

Pause and be still. Take a moment simply to listen to the play of sounds around you, and then within you.

There is one sound always present: Your breath, swelling then ebbing like ocean waves, or the whisper of the wind through leaves. This gentle sound has been with you from your first emergence into the world; when its music finally ebbs into silence, you will die. Every inspiration is an echo of this first breath, this first emergence, the creation of yourself and the creation of the world. Every expiration is an echo of this last breath, your passage over the Sunless Sea into the Otherworld, the dissolution of the physical world, self and name.

When you breathe in, you write your name and your message on the sands of time. When you breathe out, the waves wash the words away.

Practicing pranayama in yoga. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Practicing pranayama in yoga. Image via Wikimedia Commons

In our day to day lives, we don't often notice our breath unless something disrupts it – whether a shocking moment that takes our breath away, fear that compresses our chest and makes it difficult to draw air in, or a medical issue such as an asthma attack. Breath control, however, has a long history in the mystical traditions of the world, and provide us with a Druidic tool for transformation and healing.

Of course, there are practical uses for breathwork as well. The Lamaze technique for childbirth famously uses breath as a way of dealing with and dissipating the pain of labor, and patients with pulmonary diseases such as COPD are often given tips on how to regulate their breath to maximize their airflow – and minimize the panic that comes from not being able to breathe freely. Breathing is also used to lower blood pressure, and there are handy apps as well as medical devices that teach you to do that.

Classically trained singers also learn to how to most efficiently draw in breath, modulate it so as to perform all manner of vocal techniques, and place each in-breath in the appropriate spot in the song so that it flows smoothly and without interruption. There is evidence that Celtic bards worked in much the same way. “(F)ive words are adjudged to be a breath of the poet,” the grammarian Longarad writes in the Auraicept na n-Éces, or scholar's primer, which reputedly dates back to seventh century Ireland (Jones). A professional fili, or poet, would have paced her breaths when reciting so as to preserve the rhythms of the work, augment its art and power, and draw attention to the intricate play of language.

Indian sadhu in meditation. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Indian sadhu in meditation. Image via Wikimedia Commons

There are hints, however, that the Druids may have used breath for more occult reasons, much as the Indian sadhus. One method that survived in the poet-training schools of Scotland and Ireland involved spending all day inside a shuttered room with eyes covered and a heavy stone on the belly while composing verses (Laurie 182, Colman 151). On the surface, the stone on the belly could be seen as a tool to force proper bardic breathing techniques for composition: the five words of the poet, as the traditional texts point out. But combined with the darkness and the shrouded eyes, this breath-control technique may also have led to a trance state that wouldn't be unfamiliar to the modern practitioners of yoga.

Breath and the Subtle Body

Unlike most asana, or modern postural yoga, breathwork has ancient roots in India. The Upanishads mention the use of breathing to control the mind with the earliest mention perhaps dating back to the third century BCE (Singleton 26). Breathwork, or pranayama, is a mainstay of hatha yoga, which is “concerned with the transmutation of the human body into a vessel immune from mortal decay” (Singleton 28). So, all those postures and breathing techniques you do in a yoga class aren't intended to just give you great abs or a sense of calm after a tough day at work; they're supposed to make you immortal! (Author's note: I have practiced yoga since graduate school and, sadly, I am not immortal – yet.)

How does breathwork make you immortal, so to speak? To answer that, we need to explore some of the “subtle body,” as it's often called. Prana, or breath, is the same as chi or ki in other parts of Asia. The Latin word for breath is spiritus, which has the same meaning and implications as the ancient Greek pneuma. Breath is connected with spirit itself – the animating force that keeps us alive when we are embodied, constitutes our substance after physical death, and allows us to perform physical, intellectual and spiritual feats. It's no coincidence that inspiration and expiration mean so much more than just breathing in English! Modern Paganism usually calls this force magick. As Druids, we may wish to call it awen (in Welsh) or imbas (in Gaelic).

Different cultures provide different anatomies of the subtle body and how prana, chi or spirit runs through it. Because the techniques I will explore below are yogic in origin, I will focus on how the subtle body is viewed in India.

There are two main channels of energy in the body: Ida, on the left, associated with the moon; Pingala, on the right, associated with the sun. In between, along the column of the spine, is a hollow tube called Sushumna. The seven chakras – you may have heard of those! – lie along the path of Sushumna, and are the nexus where Ida and Pingala flows meet. Of course, there are a lot of smaller channels that course through the body, similar to veins and arteries; these are called nadis, and they traditionally number anywhere from 72,000 to 300,000 (Singleton 29).

The seven chakra in the body. Nepalese painting, 18th century. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The seven chakra in the body. Nepalese painting, 18th century. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Once it's absorbed from the larger universe, prana flows in the body in five great winds, which are in some ways similar to the “organ systems” of Chinese medicine. Prana-vayu, the forward wind, is seated in the heart and deals with inhalation, and the “rising energy of reaching out and taking in,” as Richard Rosen puts it (24). Apana-vayu, the downward wind, is seated in the pelvis and deals with exhalation, elimination, and energy that falls, gives out or gives away. Samana-vayu, the middle wind, is situated in the belly behind the navel and deals with processes of digestion, assimilation and incorporation, whether of food or experience. Vyana-vayu, the circulating wind, circulates energy throughout the body and, in Rosen's words, “is the glue that holds us together.” Upana-vayu, the upward wind, is seated in the throat and represents the energy of expression, speech and the mind.

Some traditions of yoga speak of kundalini, or the serpent-like cosmic energy, that sits at the seat of the nadis, usually at the first or second chakra. Spiritual disciplines such as meditation and pranayama cause the kundalini energy to rise to the crown chakra, leading to a state known as samadhi, when you are completely merged with all-that-is and the mind becomes completely still. The raising of kundalini energy also heightens magical and “psychic” abilities, which can be profoundly destabilizing and leads to all manners of warnings in yogic texts. Here is an example from B.K.S. Iyengar in his seminal text, Light on Yoga:

Pneumatic tools can cut through the hardest rock. In Prāņāyāmā the yogi uses his lungs as pneumatic tools. If they are not used properly, they destroy both the tool and the person using it. The same is true of prāņāyāmā (431).

If the warnings seem over the top, it's because they are not based in physical reality. For most healthy people – without, say, asthma or COPD – it's difficult to injure yourself with breathwork. If you hold your breath too long or hyperventilate, you may pass out – and then, the body will begin breathing again normally on its own. However, if you channel kundalini energy improperly, you can wreak all sorts of magical havoc on yourself and others; at least, that's how the thinking seems to go. You don't want to screw up the process of becoming immortal, if that is your aim.

Iyengar yoga in particular takes an especially cautionary approach to pranayama, encouraging students to learn it only from a teacher, practice at certain points of the day and only at least 15 minutes after physical exercise, etc. Other traditions of yoga – such as the type I practice – have a much less timid approach, and encourage practitioners to try it out. In fact, the rules that are hard and fast in one tradition – no yoga before postural practice in Iyengar yoga, for example – are often completely different in another. (In Sivananda Yoga, you do breathwork before the physical practice, not after.) So, go with whatever works for you, or is part of a tradition you follow.

The practice: Breathing techniques

There are many, many different types of breath in yoga, and the names vary depending on tradition. I'll go into some of the more common kinds based on my own experiences. My very first teacher was trained in Sivananda Yoga, so those are the basis of the techniques I have learned; they are also common to most traditions of hatha, or physical, yoga. Iyengar Yoga has its own extremely detailed take on pranayama, which you can consider the Ph.D. progam of breathwork; like actual Ph.D. programs, a lot of people just don't have the patience for it. Kundalini Yoga offers similar techniques when it comes to pranayama, but they're used in different ways.

Sometimes, breathing techniques are performed in accord with three muscular locks, located in the perineum, the abdominals and the neck/throat. These locks are called bandhas. Other techniques involve the use of specific nostrils, which control the energy flow through the Ida or Pingala channels. That's beyond the current scope of this article, but you're more than welcome to read up on them.

Unless otherwise specified, breathing is done using the nose. Sometimes, you may breath in or out of your mouth to regulate temperature, but that is usually specified in the technique. If you're prone to congestion, blow your nose or use a neti pot to clear your nasal passages before practice.

Preliminary cautions: If you have respiratory problems, be cautious with breathwork for obvious reasons. Even if you're otherwise healthy, stop if you feel lightheaded, dizzy or otherwise unwell, and begin breathing normally again. You don't need to worry about destroying yourself with pneumatic tools, but respect your body and your limits.

The four-part breath

Let's start with the basic four-part breath. Breathe in slowly, filling first your lower abdomen, middle abdomen, your sides and back, and upper chest and clavicle area. Then, just as slowly, breathe out, starting with your upper chest and shoulders, your middle chest and back, and lower abdomen.

When you're ready, you can add the pauses. Breath in fully, from the lower to the middle to the upper abdomen. Pause, when you're full of air, the height of the flow of life-energy. Breathe out, from the top of your lungs, your middle chest, your lower abdomen. Then pause again, once you are empty. Repeat, with the pauses both after full inhalation and after full exhalation.

The four-part breath, usually called the yogic breath, is a good way to get in tune with the basic flow of energy. Do you feel the energetic difference between full inhalation and full exhalation?

This breath is calming, and helps your lungs function at full capacity. If you want to explore, you can adjust the length of the inspiration, the expiration and the pauses. Generally speaking, inspiration enlivens and exhalation calms and relaxes. The retentions allow the prana to circulate through your body. Feel free to explore different ratios of breath, always keeping your health and safety in mind.

The victory breath

You'll commonly encounter Ujjayi breathing in yoga classes; some teachers ask you to do this throughout your postural practice. Ujjayi means “victorious,” and this breath is used to relieve tension and slow the heart rate, as well as address insomnia (Redmond). If you have heart disease, don't combine Ujjayi or other breath techniques with breath retention or the use of the bandhas as this can create issues with internal pressure.

In Ujjayi, you will contract the muscles in the back of your throat – the glottis – slightly, creating a sound like ocean waves. You'll do this both during the inhale and the exhale. Breathe long and evenly, just as you did with the four-part breath.

'Skull-shining' and the Bellows Breath

Now let's explore two less-calming forms of breathwork. Kapalabhati and Bhastrika are both heating and energizing. They raise energy in the body, warm you up and sharpen your mind. They can also lead to hyperventilation in excess, so be mindful.

Kapalabhati means “skull shining” and it's also used as a purification process in Sivananda Yoga. One of my former teachers called it Kapala-snotty because it's really good at clearing gunked-up nostrils, so practice with a box of tissues handy! In Kundalini Yoga, it's usually called the Breath of Fire, which can give you some indication of its more occult uses.

To perform Kapalabhati, take a full breath in, and then breath in and out in tiny inhales and exhales. Pump your abdominals on the exhales; you'll sound a bit like an oncoming train. Start with practicing three rounds of 20 Kapalabhati-breaths, and you can eventually work up to 60 (Sivananda 72). After each round, take a few deep, full breaths to re-balance yourself.

Bhastrika, the Bellows Breath, is similar but even more focused on the forceful nature of the exhale. It's performed in a variety of ways, but I like the version that uses the arms.

Here's how to do my version: Take a deep breath in and put your arms at your sides, bent in right angles. Then, do a short, forceful exhale, bringing your elbows down into your ribs to get even more air out. Inhales are short and silent; exhales, assisted by your arms, are short and hard. Unlike Kapalabhati, the breath pattern is a hair longer; keep a steady rhythm and don't speed up. Start with three rounds of 10 Bhastrika breaths, and work your way up to longer sessions.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

A_style_of_nadi_suddhi

If you have a pranayama practice, it's good to follow Kapalabhati with alternate-nostril breathing, as the former clears out those clogged nasal passages. Alternate nostril breathing is usually called Nadi Shodhana or Anuloma Viloma, and sometimes involves breath retention or the use of a mudra on the hand that's pinching your nose.

Here's the simplified version: Pinch your left nostril shut. Breathe in slowly through your right nostril, a full deep breath. Pinch both nostrils shut, and then open your left, breathing out slowly. Once you have fully exhaled, breath in your left nostril slowly and fully, pinch both nostrils shut, and then open your right nostril, breathing out fully. That's one round. Sivananda Yoga recommends starting with three rounds and building up to 20.

Remember Ida and Pingala, the two main channels of energy? Anuloma Viloma balances these channels.

The cooling breath

While Kapalabhati and Bhastrika heat us up, Sitkari and Sithali cool us down. In these techniques, you will inhale through the mouth and exhale out the nose.

To prepare for Sitkari, touch the tip of your tongue to your palate. Take a full breath in through your mouth, keeping your tongue planted. Close your mouth and hold your breath as long as you can, and exhale slowly through the nose. Repeat five to 10 times.

Not everyone can do the next breath, Sithali, for genetic reasons. Instead of touching your tongue to the roof of your mouth, you will instead roll your tongue and breathe in slowly through the “straw,” close your mouth and hold, and exhale slowly out your nose. If you're not one of the genetically blessed, you can simply stick your tongue out and breathe over your tongue instead, or just practice Sitkari. As in Sitkari, repeat five to 10 times.

Interestingly, Sitkari is supposed to give you a beautiful face. These techniques are also used to relieve hunger and thirst and cool the body (Sivananda 74).

Bee Breath

Bhramari, the bee breath, is one of my personal favorites; the name actually means “she who roams” (Budilovsky and Adamson 189). It's soothing and calming, and can induce trance states and psychic sensitivities; Layne Redmond recommends it early in the morning or just before bed.

It's done in a number of different ways, but I prefer Redmond's method. As a preparation, make a gutteral, clicking aaaahhhh or groan in the back of your throat; you've likely done this as a kid. Breathe in, close your mouth and begin the back-of-the-throat groan, then send air and sound through that groan. This creates a clear, humming buzz that sounds a lot like a Theramin; it's essentially throat-singing. Start with five to 10 rounds of this, taking a full, deep breath and doing the buzz on the exhale.

When you're done, I guarantee that you'll feel the buzz!

Uses of breath of Druidic work

Add the above techniques to your Druidic toolbox; they have a variety of uses. Ujjayi, alternate-nostril breathing and the four-part breath can be done prior to ritual to calm the chatter of the mind and get you in a meditative state. They and Brahmari can also be done just prior to trance-work. Kapalabhati and Bhastrika are good tools to raise energy, while Sitkari and Sithali can follow energy-raising as cooling and grounding techniques.

Celtic reconstructionist Erynn Rowan Laurie uses breathwork in much of her spiritual work. In one particular exercise, called “Sparking the Cauldrons,” she uses breath – combined with simple hand-gestures similar to mudras – to raise energy in the Cauldron of Warming, the Cauldron of Motion and the Cauldron of Wisdom, which are essentially the Celtic version of chakras (Laurie 183-6). These cauldrons and the energies they represent are described in the Cauldron of Poesy, an Irish text dating back to the medieval era.

Laurie describes using deep, even breathing to spark the cauldrons in a series of nine breaths each. In my own exploration, you can use different types of breathing techniques to imbue the cauldrons with energy. Kapalabhati and Bhastrika, for example, would fill the cauldrons with spiritual fire, while Ujjayi would lead to a calmer, more watery and reflective character.

See where your experimentations take you! This spiritual tool is always available for your use, as long as you are alive and breathing.

Bibliography and suggested resources.

Budilovsky, Joan and Eve Adamson. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Yoga, Third Edition. New York: Alpha, 2003.

Don't let the title put you off! This is a very accessible and thorough book on all aspects of yoga.

Iyengar, B.K.S. Light on Yoga. New York: Schocken Books, 1966.

The yoga classic. Iyengar also has another book, “Light on Pranayama,” which is specifically about breathing practices.

Laurie, Erynn Rowan. Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom. Stafford, England: Megalithica, 2007.

A must-have book on ogham and Celtic reconstructionism.

McColman, Carl and Kathryn Hinds. Magic of the Celtic Gods and Goddesses. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Press Books, 2005.

Redmond, Layne. Heart Chakra Meditations. Sounds True, 2005. CD.

A wonderful CD by the late drummer Layne Redmond, who leads you through a variety of meditation and breathing practices.

Rosen, Richard. The Yoga of Breath: A Step-By-Step Guide to Pranayama. Boston: Shambala, 2002.

The “gold standard” of books on pranayama in the Iyengar tradition. Rosen's practice is very cautious and slow-going, however, and may not appeal to the types who prefer to dive in.

The Sivananda Yoga Center. The Sivananda Companion to Yoga. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983.

My first yoga book. The Cirque du Soleil positions they demonstrate may scare you off from the practice, however. It's a period piece, as they say.

Singleton, Mark. Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. New York: Oxford Univesity Press, 2010.

Not a “yoga book” per se, but an actual scholarly history that shows you the origin – sometimes ancient, more often modern – of the yoga practices common today.

Teixeira, Nubia. Pranayama: May Our Breath Be Our Prayer. Sounds True, 2005.

Another great two-CD set with a variety of breathwork practices.

The Scholar's Primer.” Celtic Literature Collective & Jones's Celtic Encyclopedia. http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/scholar_primer.html

A translation of the Auraicept na n-Éces.

One thought on “The Breath of a Poet: Breathing as a spiritual tool

  1. There are three reasons to have a stone on one’s belly when meditating to imbas. The first is to act as an anchor for consciousness while one is going through a series of changes in consciousness. Meditating can cause one to slip into sleep and dream. While this is good for your overall health it completely shuts down most conscious control of one’s thoughts and intentions. The second reason for the stone is to server as a memory retainer and a bridge to knowledge. Attaining a higher state of consciousness means leaving one’s body behind so that one’s mind can journey upon one’s spirit to greater spirit. It is in this unlimited state that one can know where before one could only think or reason. Having unlimited (from physical confines like the brain and the body) means that one can touch all knowledge. Indeed, this ability to expand mind and consciousness is one’s ticket into the universal mind and memory. Such a state of mind is filled with ecstasy but the sobering reality is that one cannot retain all of this knowledge upon a return to normal or usual awareness. A size infinite knowledge footprint will simply not fit into a size 11 human brain shoe. The stone is therefore also a memory device for storing the knowledge gained in such journeys while it also keeps the door open to a focus of consciousness and the return journey home to one’s body. The third purpose of the stone is protection since travelling without the usual guarding characteristics of being hard cats in personality and a sense of who one is is obliterated when the mind is freed from all that. The stone is the doorkeeper, the memory retainer and the strong beacon showing ones pathway back to this world and its usualness. It is a reminder that we have chosen before our births to come here to experience the limited and we have usually come from the self same unlimited times and spaces. The temptation to escape the ordinary and to rejoin with one’s spirits is great at such times. It is best to have a reminder that we have things yet to do and that our purposes are not complete until the present life is also complete. Within this stone is the root basis of our nine Dúile and it is where we begin again and gain in all things, even in a return. After such experiences one can use the stone as a reminder of the knowledge that is captured and a pointer towards the expanding places while the doorway is still open through a key(stone). On stone we make the marks of sound and matter. In the strokes and scores upon stone we are reminded of the greater knowledge and wisdom that spirit knows. Within stone we can find the connections to spirit that we have made before and through which our ancestors still speak to us even in modern society and especially in the ancient stones.

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