“Inhale, and God approaches you. Hold the inhalation, and God remains with you. Exhale, and you approach God. Hold the exhalation, and surrender to God.”
This quote from my teacher’s teacher, Sri T. Krishnamacharya, contains a profound insight into the religious nature of Hatha Yoga. The word religion comes from the Latin religare, which means to bind or join, a meaning shared by the root of the word Yoga, yuj.
Krishnamacharya’s poetic statement tells us in practical terms how this joining happens — through conscious breathing — and what we are uniting with when we engage in this process — namely, "God". This insight in hidden in the very language we use to describe the act of breathing, words like "inspiration", which has the root “spirit”, and used to mean “immediate influence of God or a god”. For the ancient Greeks, the word for breath and spirit or soul was the same, pneuma. The ancient Hebrew word ruach similarly means both breath and spirit, and is associated with the animating breath of Life.
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
— Genesis ii.7
The beautiful thing about Yoga is that it not only offers us a rich philosophy to help understand ourselves and the world, but it provides us with ways to engage with the mystery directly. Within the right context, the practice of pranayama (conscious breathing) becomes a religious practice, uniting one’s consciousness with the animating force of Life, the Breath of God.
The practices themselves have the practical effect of calming the nervous system and quieting the mind, which enables one to discover a deeper kind of awareness, one that is beyond the self-limiting small mind — the mind that keeps insisting that “I am me, separate from you” — and opens us to the bigger, "godmind" that sees the interconnectedness of all life on earth and beyond, the “oceanic experience” of which French writer, historian and mystic Romain Rolland challenged Sigmund Freud to explain in a letter to the prominent psychoanalyst:
“Mais j'aurais aimé à vous voir faire l'analyse du sentiment religieux spontané ou, plus exactement, de la sensation religieuse qui est (...) le fait simple et direct de la sensation de l'Eternel (qui peut très bien n'être pas éternel, mais simplement sans bornes perceptibles, et comme océanique).”
“But I would have liked to see you doing an analysis of spontaneous religious sentiment or, more exactly, of religious feeling, which is (...) the simple and direct fact of the feeling of the ‘eternal’ (which can very well not be eternal, but simply without perceptible limits, and like oceanic, as it were).”
Freud explained this phenomenon as being a “preserved ego-feeling” leftover from early infancy, when the child had no concept of herself separate from her mother. Freud’s rebuttal does nothing to discount the unity experience, as it merely offers a psychological theory for the yogic assertion that our belief that we are separate from each other (or God for that matter) is but an illusion of the conditioned Egoic mind, the “false self” that his contemporary Carl Jung spoke of.
The yogi is someone who wants to find out for himself if this is, in fact, true or not. A person who is called to the sincere practice of Yoga is someone who seeks to understand their mind — specifically the thoughts and beliefs about ourselves and the world that we construct early on as a survival strategy, but ultimately limit our experience of life, which causes us unnecessary suffering so much like the pain that a child feels when separated from its mother.
Thankfully, in a time when the religious traditions of the West have all but completely lost the techniques that once offered us a direct, personal experience of God, the living tradition of Yoga provides us with simple techniques to reconnect, to religare, with the nurturing, loving and mysterious force that gives us life — whether we call it God, Creator, Universe or Mother. And once we discover it for ourselves, we realize that the answer was right under our noses the whole time.
Artwork: Last Breath Collage by Steven Quinn