The Mythic Breath
Renewing the World
Perhaps the most outstanding feature of us humans is our adaptive nature, which gives rise to our restless changing. We dont come with a ready-made identity and purpose in the world, but have to make these things up, to make ourselves up again and again, to decide what is real and what matters many times in our lives. On the one hand, we are driven by desire; on the other, by the need to make something of ourselves in the world of humanity. Our desires come into conflict with the inorganic inertia of what is, and the social inertia of what our society demands. As a result, we compromise again and again. This abrasion of the will produces an attrition, which, at worst is weakening and debilitating. As a result, from time to time we need renewing.
However, there is another side to this resistance. Modern culture values individual achievement, the attainment of our desires, so highly that it has long since been forgotten that anything other exists. We get the impression that life consists of the will and desires we carry within us, plus an external universe which is the dead, raw material for their fulfilment. The effects of such thinking on the long-term welfare of the planetary ecosystem, let alone its effects on human social relationships, hardly need pointing out to anyone likely to read this. Both as individuals and as a culture we need to rediscover what lies beyond the limits of the self, to look beyond the primal will to survive, to really appreciate that there is something out there. We need reminding that the world outside of us is neither dead nor human-hearted.
In the old Norse tales there is a myth about this attrition and renewal, in the image of the world-tree, Yggdrasil. This tree is the heart of the world, weaving from its three roots a triple skein of humans, giants and the dead. A fierce eagle crowns its branches, a hawk sitting between its piercing eyes. The tree suffers great hardships: The dragon Nidhogg gnaws at it from below, four stags devour its leaves, and the squirrel Ratatosk runs up and down the trunk bearing malicious messages between Nidhogg and the eagle. The Norns, the Wyrd sisters that live by the well, plaster its trunk each day with holy white mud, preserving it against these depredations.
Now might the eagle be the self surveying its world, bothered ceaselessly by the self-talk, the internal dialogue which is Ratatosk? And Nidhoggs unwelcome message, that Ratatosk bears to the Eagle, that gnaws at the root of identity, is the awareness of our own mortality, that our death is scripted in the flesh. And might the gnawing stags be the little losses and defeats, the little deaths that eat away at us in our daily lives?
Against this daily attrition we must work as best we can by daily communion with sacredness, with vital power, taking our cue from the Norns. We raise up sacred brightness from the deep resources of the Well, and from the sweetness of the flesh, to anoint our mundane lives with the white clay of ecstasy and renew our appetite for life.
The core of this renewal is often a letting-go, or opening-up, a loosening of the boundaries of the self. At best, the worlds resistance to our will reminds us to open up a crack in the shell of our identity. It enables us to experience, to behold that which is outside of ourselves — the Other. The Other as people is a familiar other, something we recognize as like to ourselves. The material world we behold as much more alien, because it has no human heart. It is this confrontation with the alien otherness of the world outside the self that gives us the opportunity to renew ourselves, to refresh our life-energy, our will to live. When we let go of the shards of will that revolve in the exhausted mind and open up to that unconditioned world, we leave behind the frustration and sadness of our compromises. We find that our perceptions of the world are washed clean by this confrontation, and the doors of our perception are opened to the infinity and eternity of each passing moment.
This opening-up is difficult and demands extraordinary effort. It is often only the major techniques, the big guns of personal change that have the power to catalyze such a shift of viewpoint. Psychedelic sacraments certainly can, and may be the most powerful of such agents, but they have drawbacks in many situations. In my experience the only other technique which consistently approaches that power for change is a form of breathwork.
Breathwork reaches right to the heart of our relationship with the world outside: When we breathe in, we draw a little of that world into our bodies, and we breathe out that which has been part of us. Breathwork techniques have been rediscovered, probably many times, so it is hardly surprising that they are ancient enough to have reflections in myth.
The Death of Breath and the Hanging God
I am using the term breathwork to refer to a whole range of practices which have one thing in common: the conscious use of breath to create different states of consciousness. People have probably been using some form of breath technology the world over for tens of thousands of years, but the best documented of the ancient traditions is the Indian science of pranayama. If you google pranayama you will find definitions such as the following:
Pranayama (Sanskrit): from prana (breath) and yama (control). Literally breath control, breath regulation.
Pranayama (Sanskrit): from prana, breath + ayama, restraining, stopping.
So, pranayama is a method of controlling prana or life force through the regulation of breathing. Nowadays, pranayama tends to have a more specific meaning of the kind of breathwork that you would be trained in by yoga practitioners. Pranayama in this sense is a form of breathwork where each of the four phases of the breath — inhale, hold in, exhale, hold out — is controlled, and the breath is usually held or stopped for increasing lengths of time in the training. Not all breathwork techniques involve stopping or holding the breath; some emphasize a free movement of breath, a point I will come back to.
Holding the breath whilst the lungs are empty relates to another sense of the word yama, which can also mean death. The Hindu god Yama was the first conscious being ever to die, and so knows all the secrets of death and cessation. He and his sister Yami are the original human twins, a myth-form which recurs across various Indo-European myth cycles, not to mention those of other traditions. One of Yamas titles is Antaka, he who ends life. So, pranayama can be read as the death of breath. The holding of the breath with the lungs empty, also known as kumbakham, in the course of breathwork can lead to a still, powerful altered state, what magical writer Pete Carroll has called an inhibitory gnosis, which can be used as the basis of magical power or mystical exploration. The power of Yama, to end life, is used to dissolve the stuck sense of self, to break through the hard shell of frustrated will, as a prelude to renewal of the life-force. The feeling of rebirth when the breath stops and starts, when there is finally a rest-point in the breath, followed by the breath spontaneously starting again, has to be experienced to be believed. All the stuff, all the mental processing, that was in the way of ecstatic consciousness just evaporates, and the new breath that then starts is drenched in ecstatic renewal.
Subjectively, this can be an enormously powerful experience. My record here is of an extraordinary breathwork session:
At the end of breath, where it is the same as thought, there lies the emptiness that has the potential of encounter with alien Other. I steer my attention moment to moment by fine-tuning the exact instant and fierceness / softness of breath to maximize a vivid sense of conscious-now. What tells me I am steering in the best direction, is a spectrum of pleasure / discomfort, and sometimes of more real / less real. I am steering along a swerving track of sensation, holding fast to the most real sensation at any given moment. I follow the stretch of a thought in any direction, follow it until the breath dies, ceases to be, and is reborn perfectly in that rightness. I follow it down to strangulation, to the rock-bottom of kumbakham, to the Death of Breath. I pick up every dropped stitch of tension along the way of each single breath. I uproot all the falsity from each breath, all the second-best, ad hoc, itll do-ness of each breath. All that is sacrificed to the Death of Breath. As breath dies, it reunites with consciousness. Let the breath remain dead until another breath HAS to be taken. At some point, the following breath fuses, becomes coextensive with, thought. The feeling of this pure, renewed breath is like a gesture which I fill with my entire aliveness. The continuity of consciousness is now inescapable, a recognition of the undying awareness that runs underneath the surface of the experience of the death of breath.
This cessation of normal breath followed by sudden ecstatic re-booting of the breathing sequence is reminiscent of Austin Osman Spares Death Posture exercise, where the magician overbreathes, restricts the breath then finally lets go, with the intention of wiping the mind of ordinary thoughts in preparation for magical work. Further, we are reminded of the hanged god, Odin. In Hvaml1 we read:
I know that I hung on a wind-tossed tree
Wounded by a spear, given to Odin, myself to myself
On that same tree of which no man knows
From what root it rises
They gave me no bread, nor drinking horn
I looked down
I took up the runes, roaring I took them
And fell back again
Here the god has called upon all that he is not, the Otherness of the mysterious universe, to give him the keys to consciousness, the runes. Although piercing with a spear is mentioned, the sequence starts by referring to hanging, and one of Odins many titles is Hangatyr, the hanged god, not the pierced god. Clearly, the hanging part of the experience is highly significant. By strangulation, the god cuts off his breath to the point where he stops breathing, where he reaches the edge of death. He has sacrificed himself to himself, confronting his death directly, and been filled with the wisdom of the Other. He surges back from the brink of death, bearing the runes.
Types of breathwork
Most courses of training in yoga, meditation and magic contain basic instruction in pranayama. If you study pranayama at this basic level, you will learn that modulating the flow of breath can be used to temporarily increase physical energy, create relaxation, reduce or increase the intensity of emotion and clarify the mind to the extent that you become very aware of the stream of your thoughts.
Another effect of breathwork is to increase awareness of bodily energy. Chi Kung and other disciplines which have both martial and healing elements utilize breathing exercises. Some shamanic-style techniques use overbreathing — intense breathing towards the edge of hyperventilation — which generates a state of highly active emotional and mental arousal that can be used for healing or other magical work. Overbreathing eventually leads to a kind of benign collapse, often into a deep trance state, which may involve out of body experiences.
Connected Breathwork is the technique underlying the Rebirthing and Holotropic breathwork techniques. Rediscovered in the last few decades, it involves simply breathing continuously, without holding the breath and without the stops and pauses which are part of a normal breathing pattern. In connected breathing the breath becomes cyclical. Without beginning or end, the Ourobouros of breath, the Midgard Serpent coiled around the universe, bites its own tail for all eternity. Continual breathing is maintained for up to an hour, or even longer in some circumstances. That is one reason it is called connected breathwork; the other is that it generates a sense of reconnection to suppressed feelings, which in turn results in reconnection to deep sources of inner energy. With a few refinements, this is the basis of a range of extremely powerful techniques for integrating troublesome, uncomfortable and painful emotions and sensation into full-blown bliss. Connected breathwork is often taught with the purpose of bringing the practitioner into ecstasy in present time.
You are sitting here, reading this page. How many other activities are going on in your awareness? Take a moment to sit quietly and observe the flow of your thoughts, sensations and feelings. Notice the rhythm of your breath.
Did you find, after a few moments, that you felt like doing something, the beginnings of a desire for some kind of activity? Your active mind may have told you that you are becoming bored, that you need more stimulation. You may want to eat or drink something, to talk to someone, to go out, to read a book, to watch TV, to play on a computer, to pick up the phone and call someone, to get on with some task that needs doing. If you refuse the impulse to act, and instead just sit and do nothing, what happens in your awareness? Again, observe the flow of thoughts, sensations, feelings and desires, and notice the rhythm of your breath.
Did you find, after a few more minutes of stillness, that it was difficult to focus on the rhythm of your breath? That your mind insisted on flooding your attention with thoughts? You may have noticed what some people call the internal monologue — the almost-incessant flow of verbal thoughts, the inner sound of you talking to yourself.
If you have not practised any form of breathwork before, you may also have noticed that your breath cycle is frequently interrupted — especially when you think!
Now sit quietly again for a few moments, and focus on what is pleasant about your present state. Make up your mind to enjoy the present moment to the utmost.
Did you find, after a few moments, that you got distracted by your thoughts? That stream of thoughts, that internal monologue, is enormously powerful, if it can distract you from enjoying yourself!
Wouldnt it be good if, when you had nothing much to do or think about, you could just go into a bliss state, just feel really good?
And what is stopping you from doing just that? Your little experiment just now suggests that it is the unregulated stream of largely irrelevant and uninteresting thoughts that stands in the way of ecstasy. However, that is just a part of it: in order to feel ecstatic, you have to be in the present moment, really here, now. If you wanted to be somewhere else, or doing something else, you wouldnt be ecstatic now. The only way to feel ecstatic in present time is to be in your body in present time. The boredom of pointless mental activity is a screen which covers our present-time awareness and distracts us from the amazing range of sensations and emotions that flow through us all the time. Connected breathwork teaches us how to let go into the flow of sensation and thereby achieve bliss.
The Connected Breathwork process and the Eye of the Hawk
Because you have to be in immediate sensation to experience ecstasy, and because you have no control over the content of the experience, the only material you have to work with — the only kind of experience you have — is the flow of sensations, whatever they are. Some of these feelings and sensations will initially seem uncomfortable, unpleasant or even threatening — but one of the things you will learn in this breathwork is that you can view any sensation you feel in any way you want. Sensations that seemed to be in the way of your achieving ecstasy in the present will be reframed as: interesting; awe-inspiring; full of energy; full of power; beautiful and, eventually, perfect for this moment. The work you do is: stay relaxed, modulate your breathing as taught, pay attention to the strongest immediate sensation, and change your attitude to that sensation if it seems like its in the way of your achieving bliss.
Because of this reframing of intense sensations, the process of learning connected breathwork is inevitably a healing journey. You will re-experience blocked or suppressed emotions, maybe as emotions, maybe as energy patterns. As you progressively reframe an unpleasant sensation, feeling it again and again until you start to perceive it as interesting, then positive in some way, a permanent change in the way you relate to that sensation occurs. You may experience this as a kind of click — the sensation has integrated. Integration, in this context, means that a sensation that was once unpleasant will never bother you again; it hasnt gone away, but your attitude to it has changed forever.
This change is permanent because it happens at the level of feeling. It is not necessary to understand where the sensation originally came from, which era of your life, which childhood experience: connected breathwork is not a cognitive technique and is not based on personal history, but on direct sensation and emotion. A sensation may represent unfinished business from earlier today, last week, or 30 years ago, and it doesnt matter. You make no attempt to control which sensations you are experiencing; you work with whatever presents itself to your attention.
The meditational core of this technique is awareness of the present moment, in detail. Your attention is on the intensest sensation you feel, whether its an itching in your scalp, a numbness in your left thumb, a desire to laugh, an urge to curl up — or something weird like the sense that your right eye is full of pink gas. Your way of perceiving it will be non-judgmental — you cannot but accept this sensation if you are to guide yourself towards feeling ecstatic in present time.
That part of you that perceives without judging, that observes but cannot act, is cultivated by such meditation. You will find yourself becoming more aware of the self-behind-the-self, just watching. It has names in many traditions and practices. Meditators often call it the observing self or choiceless witness. Austin Osman Spare glyphed it as the Kia, the atmospheric I that sits behind the eyes, that hovers like a vulture above the feast of life and death. We find it too in the Yggdrasil myth that I alluded to at the start of this essay — the Hawk sitting between the eyes of the Eagle atop the tree of life. That Hawk is the ever-present Witness. Further, the falcon or hawk is the beast-vehicle of the goddesses Freya and Frigg in their mode as seeresses. The vision of the entranced priestess is glyphed as the eye of the bird of prey, the eye behind the self, soaring across the vistas of the future to select a prophecy.
Try Twenty Connected Breaths: This consists of four fairly deep breaths, followed by one really long breath, as deep as you can get it. Then repeat this cycle four times, giving you twenty breaths altogether. This brings you into present time in your body. You can do it many times a day. Dont do it whilst driving until you are experienced in feeling the shift in sensation.
Schools of Breathwork
Rebirthing was discovered (or maybe rediscovered) by a small number of practitioners in the USA in the 1970s. Leonard Orr associated this work with the restimulation of birth trauma memories, and coined the term Rebirthing for his form of connected breathwork. This is a very leading belief, and most clients in Rebirthing sessions will eventually experience birth memories. His students Jim Leonard and Phil Laut reinvented the whole process and called it Vivation. Whilst this may be a clumsy neologism, it does the job of de-coupling connected breathwork from the loaded linguistics of rebirthing. Laut and Leonard emphasized instead the ecstatic features of the experience, rather than programming their students for trauma and breakthrough. As far as they were concerned, what matters is not that people break through traumas, but that they achieve bliss.
In the same period a similar breath technology was devised by Stanislav Grof, the brilliant pioneer in the use of psychedelic medicines in psychiatric healing. When his license for entheogens was withdrawn, Grof developed what he called Holotropic Breathwork to be able to get his clients into ecstatic consciousness and do the healing with them.
Other schools of connected breathwork have since been developed. Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks created Radiance Breathwork, and Integrative Breathwork was developed by Jacqueline Small out of holotropic breathwork.
- Lee, David,Life Force:Sensed Energy in Breathwork, Psychedelia and Chaos Magic. The Universe Machine, Norwich, 2017. My latest, greatest treatment of breathwork and other energetic modalities.
- Dowling, Catherine, Rebirthing and Breathwork. Piatkus, London, 2000. Very good general introduction to Rebirthing.
- Grof, Stanislav & Bennett, Hal Zina, The Holotropic Mind. Harper Collins, San Francisco, 1992. All Grofs books are very interesting and highly recommended for those pursuing deep personal development. They do not, however, tell you how to actually do breathwork.
- Laut, Phil & Leonard, Jim, Vivation: The Science of Enjoying All of Your Life. Vivation Publishing, 1990. Originally published as Rebirthing: The Science of Enjoying All of Your Life.
- Ramacharaka, Yogi, Science of Breath. London, L.N. Fowler & Co., Ltd., Ludgate Circus. [Pre-war]. Pranayama.
- Taylor, Kylea, The Breathwork Experience. Hanford Mead, Santa Cruz, 1994. Very readable and practical introduction to Holotropic Breathwork.
In order to master connected breathwork, you will need a coach. Your coach is there to provoke mindfulness, thats all. Connected breathwork is very safe, and always produces beneficial effects, but it is difficult to maintain the unusual breathing pattern for more than a few minutes without someone there to remind you to breath deeper, faster or whatever is required. After a few hours of coached sessions, you should have enough experience to do a full session without a coach. Most coaches in this discipline aim to equip the student with enough experience to be able to work alone indefinitely if desired.
Header art by Amodali.
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