The Importance of Breath in Yoga Practice

Shiva Blessing Devotees

by Jayaram V

The third Brahmana in the first chapter of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad refers to a conflict between gods and demons and how the gods managed to overpower the demons with the help of breath. In the early Upanishads breath is equated with the soul. Breath is the highest deity in the body because it is incorruptible, indestructible and impervious to desire and attachment.

You use your senses and organs in the body because of desires. Desires motivate your actions and in the process you use your organs of action and perception. If your desires are not pure, very likely you put your senses for wrong use. When you do not speak truth, for example, you corrupt your speech. When you watch a sensuous image, you corrupt your eyes. In case of breath it is different. You breathe autonomously, not because you want to breathe or not to breathe. You breathe without any motivation, just to stay alive and the act of breathing is not under your direct control. Hence, you cannot corrupt your breathing.

This peculiar nature of breath is well illustrated in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad as a conflict between the gods and the demons. Both are children of Brahma, the creator god. So are we. The gods are pure. The demons are evil. The gods are younger and the demons are elder. We have qualities of both. Therefore, for both of them, our minds and bodies are the battlefield.

The gods and demons fight both in the microcosm and the macrocosm of the universe. A constant power struggle of epic proportions goes on during the two within the bodies of the beings and in the world outside. Who gains victory in the end depends upon how much support they can gain from the environment in which they fight. For example, if our minds and bodies are pure, we let the gods win and vice verse. If we use our senses for wrong purposes, we let the demons win and make our bodies their homes. As human beings, endowed with free will, we have a choice either to pursue the path of the gods and do good or that of the demons and indulge in evil.

According to the story, both gods and demons were struggling to gain control of the triple worlds, namely the earth, the mid-region, the heaven. The gods wanted to defeat the demons by performing a sacrifice, in which they have an expertise. They wanted to perform the sacrifice with Udgita, a specific Saman (prayer) which was sung loudly for purification. First, they approached the speech (vac) and requested it to sing the Saman for them. Now, speech had a weakness. It is susceptible to selfishness. Therefore, whatever enjoyment was there in singing, it passed on to the gods and whatever good came out of it, it kept itself. The demons saw this vulnerability of speech and therefore they pierced it with evil. From then, speech learned to speak evil, untruth and falsehood, and became impure.

The gods then approached nose and requested it to chant the Udgita. The nose obliged and began singing. The nose had the same weakness as the speech. It thought selfishly and passed on to gods only the enjoyment that came out of smelling, while the good that came out of it, it kept to itself. The demons pierced the nose also with evil, whereby evil became susceptible to evil actions. From then on, nose learned to smell foul things

Next gods requested Eye (chakshu) to chant the holy Udgitha. The Eye obliged and began chanting the mantra. Since it was also vulnerable to selfishness, it passed on the enjoyment in seeing to gods while kept the good that came out of the singing to itself. The demons saw it and pierced the eye also with evil. From then on, eyes became susceptible to evil and learned to see evil things.;

The gods then approached the ears and asked it to sing the Udgita. The ear agreed to chant the Udgita and as in case of the other two, passed on the enjoyment arising from hearing to gods while it kept the good that came out of it to itself. The demons pierced the ear also with evil, whereby the ear became susceptible to evil and began hearing evil things. Then the gods tried to do the same with the mind and the demons intervened again. As a result, the mind also became impure and began thinking evil thoughts

Finally, the gods approached the breath in the mouth and requested it to chant the Udgita. As we already discussed, breath is incorruptible. You may use your sense organs willfully because of your desires, but in case of breath you breathe involuntarily without any particular desire. Therefore, when the gods requested the breath to chant the Udgita for them and when the breath began singing, the demons had no recourse. They tried to corrupt it but breath struck them and shattered them. Thus, gods who failed in all their efforts before in stopping the demons from gaining victory, at last succeeded in driving them out. In breath they found a sanctuary, and protection from evil.

The moral of this story is that your mind and body are imperfect and susceptible to evil thoughts and actions. If you engage in selfish and desire-ridden actions, you will be vulnerable to evil and you let evil gain control your mind and body and keep you chained to the cycle of births and deaths. Therefore, in the sacrifice of life, you must keep yourself free from selfishness and perform your actions selflessly without desiring their fruit. You should not only offer the enjoyment in your life to gods but also the good and bad that arise from it. Whenever you are disturbed by evil and impure thoughts, you should stabilize your mind with the help of breathing. Through the practice of pranayama, breath control, you can keep your mind and body pure and free from evil. When you are pure, you let the gods work for you and help you to increase sattva and establish ideal conditions for achieving liberation.

Stories such as this establish beyond doubt that the roots of yoga, and practices such as austerities, self-purification, meditation and breath control can be traced to the Upanishads and those who argue to the contrary need to revisit the Upanishad and look for evidence again.

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