The Power of Breathwork

B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Prānāyāma: The Yogic Art of Breathing. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1985.

Known as prāṇāyāma (control over life force), breathwork is popular among yoga practitioners because of its soothing qualities. However, few in the Western world are aware of prāṇāyāma’s power to induce altered states of consciousness. Practice it with dedication, and you will be granted extraordinary glimpses into your non-dual nature.

Long before becoming a fitness phenomenon, yoga pursued the highly respectable purpose of reuniting the individual soul with that of the Universe; this is when the importance of prāṇāyāma far outweighed that of asanas.  Fast forward to the 21st century, and most yoga schools in the US provide at best cursory instruction on breathwork. Of course, a little is better than nothing and motivated yogis can always deepen the understanding of this technique on their own. This is where B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Prānāyāma comes handy.

As a hatha yoga icon, Iyengar is still known for the detailed instruction he would lavish on his students, emphasizing the anatomical understanding of poses over the feel-good approach pursued by other postural yoga schools. Hence, as you read Iyengar’s book, do not expect a fluffy New Age feel from it: Light on Prānāyāma is written with painstaking attention to technical and anatomical details—an attention that, in a practice like prāṇāyāma, is both necessary and welcome. Furthermore, do not wait for Iyengar to describe the kind of exalted experiences you will have if you practice breathwork daily. His job is to tell you how to do the legwork and achieve technical perfection; what happens once you attain mastery of prāṇāyāma is between you and your Higher Self. Bottom line: there is much to be said for Iyengar’s conscientious approach. Read this book closely, practice its techniques, and you will obtain the best instruction on yogic breathwork currently available outside of India.

David Lee, Life Force: Sensed Energy in Breathwork, Psychedelia and Chaos Magic; Norwich: The Universe Machine, 2017.

Lee’s book is quite different from Iyengar’s. For one, it is not a manual; instead, it is mostly a collection of experiences, experiments, and opinions on breathwork and subtle energies. While Iyengar is methodical in his treatment of prāṇāyāma, Lee is chaotic. Some sections of his book can be perplexing: his history of western sexuality is based on nothing other than his opinions and a reading of Wilhelm Reich’s early 20th century treatise (Foucault beware!); his scientific elucubrations are of the unverifiable kind. Yet some of the experiential information in this book is both fascinating and of great relevance to breathwork practitioners.

What is of particular interest in Life Force is Lee’s discussion of the continuum of breathwork techniques ranging from basic prāṇāyāma as the kind of slow breathing that induces relaxation to disruptive deep-and-fast techniques like bhastrika, kapalabhati or Connected Breathwork. By pushing practitioners out of their comfort zone, the latter are more likely to expose them to deeper truths about themselves that can be reintegrated through slower breathing techniques. This kind of disruptive breathwork, however, is also the gateway to what Lee calls Extraordinary States of Consciousness or states of gnosis—the seeker’s ultimate pursuit. If this is what you are looking for, Lee suggests, you do not need psychedelics: breathwork will serve you well.

The second part of the book is a dizzying excursus through a series of topics. Lee is first and foremost an explorer and an experimenter who will go wherever his curiosity takes him; the range of his investigations into breathwork and subtle energies spans among others yoga; qi-gong; sex magic; Connected Breathwork; and chaos and dragon magic. Chapters follow his stream of consciousness as they include journal entries documenting his experiences. While this array of information can be confusing, it still provides a sense of the largely unexplored potential of breath- and energy work. On occasions, tidbits of information scattered in this part of the book may resonate with the lone practitioner’s experiences: raise your hand if your breathwork ever started “breathing you” before projecting you into cosmic awareness or if fast-and-deep connected breathing ever led you into witnessing an awe-inspiring mystery.

In conclusion: if you are new to breathwork, read Iyengar’s Light on Prānāyāma; follow its instruction closely and pay attention to how breathwork impacts your consciousness. Once you have some experience under your belt and are ready to start experimenting, turn to Lee’s book and explore the gems that are buried in it.

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