Mindful Breathing by Patanjali, Father of Yoga

While breathing is an automatic function of life, its conscious management has been used often from the simplest of emotional management techniques such as – ‘hold your breath’, ‘take a deep breath’ to advanced practices for yoga and the Buddhist techniques of mindful breathing. The revered Himalayan sage, Patanjali was an ancient sage who lived around 400 BC in Northern India. He is regarded as the father of Yoga. His treatise on yoga is the original and foremost text on the subject and he too has talked on the subject.

Patanjali has summarized yoga in extremely brief phrases called sutras. Their elaboration is left for later commentaries. As regards his work on Yoga, Patanjali has kept it free of any reference to religion, ritual, tradition etc. perhaps so that all may benefit from it. However he includes devotion to God as an essential element. While defining God he has not used existing nomenclature but defined Him in general terms as the supreme consciousness of Infinite knowledge and power. Since his time, many developments have taken place in various aspects of Yoga, some religious and others free of religion. The reference in this article is to a single practice called – mindful breathing that is free of religion but should be regarded simply as a technique for improving mind, body and soul, just as physical exercise is a technique for improving the body.

While Mindful Breathing is a popular practice amongst Buddhists (please see an older post and discussion on that in this blog) its interpretation differs in detail from what Patanjali prescribed in his text in a single phrase (Sutra 34, Chapter 1) illustrating that there is more than one technique to employ breathing for spiritual evolution.

By practice of breathing out repeatedly and stopping the breath also (the hindrances dissolve- added from context)

This brief phrase summarizes the essence of the mindful breathing practice due to Patanjali. It goes without saying that breathing out repeatedly is preceded by breathing in repeatedly. It is typical of Patanjali to use the fewest of words, leaving out that which can be deduced through common sense, reflection, practice and a study of his text as a whole. He has begun the text by stating that yoga is the stilling fluctuations of mind and permitting consciousness to return to its pure state. In a later part of the text, Patanjali has used a broader term for breath regulation called Pranayama as a part of an eightfold yoga system but the present one quoted here refers simply to mindful breathing independent of the eight fold yoga.

Since yoga is attended by stilling activities of the mind, this mindful breathing practice must be accompanied by stilling thought and its return to pure consciousness not trapped in thought.  It may be deduced that while practicing this form of mindful breathing there must be a gentle attempt to still thought while sitting in a relaxed position and merely observing the process of breathing inwards and outwards calmly. This is identical to mindful breathing as practiced by Buddhists however the difference is that in this practice a conscious attempt is made to stop the breathing process momentarily briefly after breathing out. It is something that can happen automatically too in the Buddhist method leading to identical results.

The entire process must be gentle since any forceful or stressful interruption defeats the very purpose of the exercise. If thoughts wander, bring them back gently. Gradually the breathing will become deeper, more relaxed and more rhythmic and a sense of peace shall prevail, rejuvenating mind, body and soul. A person may begin the practice with a few minutes a day gradually increasing it to half an hour a day, once, twice or thrice a day and then moving on to practicing it any time one is not engaged in any other designated activity. There was a time this author smoked and when many attempts to give it up failed, he tried this method and was able to give up smoking quite easily.

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