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Breathwork is a powerful practice that we can use to enhance all areas of our lives. Our health, spirituality, and mental health become stronger through this technology.
As you start to tap into the innate force of pranayama, you will understand firsthand how it may transform your life. While you can — of course — utilize this technology with no understanding of its origin, learning more about the history may be a positive move.
Armed with this robust basis of knowledge, you can elevate your practice and gain more from each breathwork in which you engage. No matter where you are in your personal journey, there is yet more you can research and begin to learn here.
Within this chapter, we will look into the history of breathwork and how it has manifested in the modern world. This tool can be used by anyone around the globe to improve all aspects of their worldly existence. Here’s what you should know.
The Link Between Nature, the Body, the Psyche and the Spirit
Back in the ancient world, breathing was believed to be a magical and spiritual practice. Many religious people spoke about the immense healing powers that breathwork had. Believe it or not, breathing took center stage when it came to cosmology and mythology.
Since this period, breathwork has been held up as a vital tool for our wellness and spirituality as a whole. Breathing techniques are often used within the realms of spiritual circles. However, they do not have to be confined to formalized spirituality alone.
The comprehension of human nature has always been at the forefront of philosophers’ minds. If we look back to the earliest of times, we can see that the core psychospiritual systems looking to understand humanity have always seen breathing as a conduit or link. Put in the simplest way, it is what links nature, the body, the psyche, and the spirit.
Of course, over the years, the meaning of breathwork has become lost. Many people who are not practiced in the art of pranayama believe that breathing serves only a functional purpose. Nothing could be further from the truth — it is a profound and beautiful tool.
The Meaning of Breath in Different Languages
Before we go any further, it’s worth better understanding the meaning of the word for breath. If we look back at ancient Indian literature, we can see that the word ‘prana’ means breath and air — and also the very essence of life. The importance of breathing can be witnessed easily within many cultures across countries and continents.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, the word ‘chi’ means breath and air. This simple and stunning word also indicates the energy of life and the cosmic essence. To put that in basic English, we understand that the word can be used for either meaning.
Pneuma (Ancient Greek)
It doesn’t end there. Back in Ancient Greece, the similar word for breath was ‘pneuma’. The phrase could be used to mean the air that we breathe or even the spirit that is within us all. The Ancient people of the country believed that breath was closely linked to our psyches. If your breathing is out of balance for whatever reason, your mental state will be.
Heading over to Japan, the word ‘ki’ is at the center of many spiritual practices and also martial arts. You can use this term interchangeably when you are talking about breathing, breathwork, and also when discussing the lifelines and energy within each of us.
The Hebrew word ‘Ruach’ takes on a similar meaning. Loosely translating to spirit, wind, and breath, this spiritual word appears in the first chapter of Genesis: Genesis 1:2 within the bible. We can understand the term as breath but, more than that, the breath of God.
The History of Pranayama as a Quick Timeline
Now that you are well-versed in the significance of breathwork around the world, let’s delve into the historic purposes of this practice. It may surprise you to learn that this technology dates well back to around 700 BCE, according to trusted yogic literature.
While breathwork is commonly used in Kundalini Yoga today, it is wise to learn about its long-standing history in the yogic community. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the earliest mentions of pranayama and what they tell us about the technology itself.
Chandogya Upanishad – Around 700 BCE
The Chandogya Upanishad dates back to around 3,000 BCE and may include the first mention of the word ‘prana’. However, experts believe that the full term — which we now know as ‘pranayama’ — did not show up until thousands of years later in 700 BCE.
Either way, the hymn 1.5.23 of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is often attributed as the first mention of the full term. Within this particular hymn, the author links breathwork to the life force that is within us all. Take a look at the except here:
“When one would practice that [breathing], one should rather desire to thoroughly realize that [immortality]. It is rather through that [realization] that he wins a union with this divinity [breath], that is a sharing of worlds.”
These words are somewhat vague. If you read on in the yogic text, you will not find any more details of how the pranayama may be used. However, the important thing to note here is that the author links both breathwork and the gift of immortality. It is true that these themes are common when it comes to the most ancient of yogic texts we review.
The Bhagavad Gita — Around 400 BCE
Next up, the Bhagavad Gita mentions the art of pranayama in around 400 BCE. Keep in mind that it is difficult to date any of these yogic texts accurately. We can only go off what we know of the period and the language that is used. Within chapter four and verse 29 of this specific spiritual text, we find a mention of the power that breathwork holds.
The chapter looks at how we can use breathwork to reach a trance-like state of mind. Within this writing, you will find interesting techniques that the author has highlighted. It is plain to see that there is a connection between breathing and spirit.
Aside from focusing on the notion that breathwork is an energy force, the text also states that it can be used to take control over your physiological state. The author says that you may want to use pranayama to gain mastery over your senses.
The Maitrayaniya Upanishad — Around 400 BCE
Before the Maitrayaniya Upanishad was published in around 400 BCE, the pranayama technology appeared to be one-dimensional. However, with this historic publication, yogic students around the world better understand the multifaceted nature of breathwork.
The spiritual text contains one of the earliest references to pranayama. Rather than merely speaking about its functionality, the text also describes it as a complex system that can be used in a myriad of ways. It may have been the key to understanding it. The author speaks of the six-step process each of us may use to become yogic masters within our own rights.
These steps are breath work (i.e. pranayama), sensory withdrawal (pratyahara), introspection (tarka), complete focus (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and union or liberation (samadhi). As we gain an understanding of each of these, we can conquer them in turn.
The first reference to pranayama comes in chapter six of the Maitrayaniya Upanishad within verse 21. At this point, the author speaks of how breath retention practices and focus can be used to access your higher power. There is also an introduction to how prana can be redirected into the body’s energy channel using the power of ‘Om’.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras — 100 – 400 CE
Fast forward to the Yoga Sutras, and we start to learn more about the world of pranayama. Experts tend to believe that this combined text is a comprehensive guide to the earliest of yoga traditions. However, the system is continually developing with time.
While there were originally six steps in the yogic process — according to the Maitrayaniya Upanishad — the authors of the Yoga Sutras built upon this foundation. Within this new text, we can see that there are eight steps in the entire process. The inclusion of asana (poses) yama and niyama (social and ethical precepts) are all new within this book.
Skip ahead to verses 2.29 right through to 2.53, and you can find the initial mentions of pranayama in the Yoga Sutras. There is not an in-depth explanation of the power of breathwork here. However, you can gain some detailed information and guidance on the core aspects of breathing, which include inhalation, exhalation, and retention.
The authors of the Yoga Sutras delve into the countless benefits of pranayama within these texts. As we already know, using breathwork can help you to concentrate and improve your overall mental wellness. The ancient text also suggests that you may use this practice to rid yourself of the external veil that hides your inner illumination.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika — Around 1500 CE
Hatha Yoga is typically believed to have its roots in the God Shiva. We can also look to some of the famous scholars who spread the word of this practice. Most experts agree that the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is one of the original ancient texts on this type of yogic art.
Maha Siddha Goraksha Nath is often attributed as founding Hatha yoga and creating a movement that would sweep across the globe. Written by Goraksha Nath’s student, Swami Svatmarama, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is at once insightful and bold. And so, we can look to the text to better understand the role that pranayama plays in this practice.
The text covers a wide selection of topics, but is widely concerned with maintaining your health and reaching your spiritual realization. Of course, there are many ways that you can achieve these two goals. Within the text, the author focuses on the practices of using physical poses, breathwork, and meditation to work toward both of these targets.
Unlike the ancient texts we have already mentioned, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika has one thing that sets it aside. It goes into detail about how you can start using pranayama. Within this text, you can learn about nostril-breathing patterns and how you may suspend your breath. Learning these actionable techniques will help you when engaging in breathwork.
Needless to say, this was not the last reference to pranayama. Since the Hatha Yoga Pradipika came to be, the practice has been mentioned in medieval manuscripts and more recent documents. For example, both the Gheranda Samhita (late 1600s) and Shiva Samhita (1600 or 1700s) delve into the benefits and uses of pranayama.
Pranayama (Breathwork) in the Modern World
While there are many words for the energy that yogis call prana, there’s one common thread here. No matter the culture or the part of the world we focus on, many experts state that breath has an immense power within it. Since the beginning of history as we know it, we can see that the human breath has been closely tied to spirit and immortality.
Within the realms of yoga too, breathwork has been continuously mentioned in ancient texts. With each new edition, we can see that yogic masters had a clearer vision of breathwork. Building upon the knowledge that already existed, each author added something new and critical to the amassing information on pranayama. We now have the blessing to be able to reflect back on these works and use them in our practice.
Now in the modern world, we are plagued by countless distractions. Often enough, these can prevent us from grounding ourselves completely. Fortunately, as you move through your Kundalini Yoga journey, you can start to use pranayama in your practice. The more time you spend learning what breathwork can offer you, the better tool it will become.