Breath, Biochemistry, Bliss...
4am Easter Sunday, my childhood home in Dublin. Little did I know that my mother, terminally ill with cancer, would be dead three weeks later. I’m in her bedroom trying to calm her down and get her to understand her tablet regimen. Every time I’d get to the end of explaining the sequence of pills she needed to take, she would become agitated and confused and ask me to explain again. I was exhausted and at my wits end. Eventually after quite some time, I realized that explanations wouldn’t help, she needed a practical tool to calm down, so I got her to focus on her breath. Really simple: inhale; exhale, repeat. It worked and after a little while she was settled enough for me to be able to go to bed and sleep.
At the time I wasn’t practicing yoga but I had read about breathing meditation in the books of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and teacher. After Mam died the black hole of grief sucked me into sleeplessness many nights and focusing on my breath (breathing in I am calm; breathing out I am safe) was one of the only ways I could stop the terror of loss and get some rest.
Later as a yoga student and teacher I came to understand that breathing deeply is a centering practice, that breath is alchemical and transformative. Not only does your breath have the capacity to shift your brain waves, it alters your nervous system to bring about quiescence and ease. Linking movement with breath is what differentiates yoga from exercise. Breath is the anchor for the practice, a place to harness the activity of the wayward mind and a regulatory device for the workings of the autonomic nervous system. But more on this shortly.
On a more esoteric level, the breath is the currency of mystics, portal to the divine realm. Says Kabir:
Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
You will not find me in stupas, not in Indian shrine rooms,
not in synagogues, nor in cathedrals:
not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs
winding around your own neck,
nor in eating nothing but vegetables
When you really look for me, you will see me instantly -
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath
The breath Inside the Breath. The Divine being resides inside you, as close as your inhale. When you get quiet and touch into your own essence, there it is: the undifferentiated source, a vast wellspring inside you. This is the elixir. This is the jewel at the heart of yoga. You don’t need a one- handed handstand for this, don’t need to hold a headstand for five minutes or do sixty chaturanga exhales. You can simply get quiet and go deep inside.
Expanding your field of awareness to include your breath causes your breath to slow down and your mind to feel a little more spacious. Soon you start to feel calmer and tuned in to your internal environment. More at home in your being. Our yogi ancestors understood that this feeling of integration and undifferentiated presence was the goal of all practice.
Whispers of the Divine…
But this Divine dancing ground is not something outside you, it’s your very nature. The place you come home to when you get quiet enough to differentiate the signal from the noise, to feel your own nature as abiding presence and joy. Not the joy of an emotional rush but the deeper equanimity that is always present beyond the ups and downs, the emotional maelstroms and daily dramas. This is the place that Patanjali’s dictum yogas chitta vritti nirodhah gestures toward.
Usually translated as ‘yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind,’ we can understand it as saying that yoga is happening when you get to experience yourself as abiding beyond the noise in your head, the constant stream of thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories and sensations that holds you captive and causes feelings of separation and alienation. This is not your true nature. Your true nature is expansive and part of the great cosmic tapestry that weaves us all into its magic carpet of delight.
Yogis of age understood that controlled breathing changes internal topography. They knew this through their own experimentation and over time they codified those practices whose effects were pleasing. These effects were physiological and psychological but also mystical and esoteric. Breathing techniques and meditation practice were considered portals to transcendent realms. As the very source of life itself breath was a gift from the Creator and a conduit to connection with that ultimate Source.
The non-dual teachings at the heart of yoga direct us to an understanding of ourselves as part of the one undivided reality that is the unmoved mover, the source of all. This undifferentiated substrate has no beginning and no end, no attributes and yet is the ground of all being. It is Sat Chit Ananda – being, consciousness, bliss. Breath is the portal to this sanctum santorum which resides within, so yogis have an all-access pass.
Biochemistry and Bliss…
You don’t have to sign up for belief in any god to experience this deliciousness. Yoga directs us to deep excavation of the layers of the self, we are given many pathways to navigate the terrain. But the breath is singular in that it affects the workings of the central nervous system [CNS], consisting of the brain and spinal cord and the autonomic system [ANS] comprised of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems [SNS, PNS]. The complex choreography of these systems results in hormonal changes that we experience as feelings of excitement, agitation, quiescence and calm (to name but a few). Our equanimity and feeling of abiding wellbeing is directly correlated with the workings of these physiological mechanisms. It turns out that systematic breathing is key.
Not only does controlled breathing lead to the metaphysical dancing ground, it yields a pharmacopeia of biochemical delights. The breath is the means by which we create neurobiological changes which affect our experience of ourselves and the world around us. These changes are physiological and objective but they can feel like the result of grace.
When your system if flooded with feel good hormones produced by your brain, the resultant euphoria and expansive ease feels like a gift, like God, or radiance or something sacred. You feel transported beyond the mundane. You are lifted out of your everyday reverie and that is precious. Like deliverance. You don’t have to sign up for any belief system for the alchemy of the breath to work. You just need to show up and breathe. Inhale; exhale. Repeat.
Rhythmic breathing affects a part of the brain called the periaqueductal gray (PAG) which acts as a control valve for the release of the brain’s endogenous (homemade) opioids. Kapalabhati (a yogic breathing technique consisting of rapid rhythmic exhalations through the nose) and kumbhaka (retention of the breath at the top of an inhale or the bottom of an exhale) stimulate the PAG to release proteins called peptides, chemicals that affect your emotions and your threshold for pain. Some of these peptides are endorphins and serotonin, which make us feel blissed out and happy.
It may seem odd to think that biochemical changes could affect your emotional state but it turns out that the chemicals your brain produces act as messengers between the CNS and the rest of your body. This elegant communication network is modulated by the hypothalamus (part of the limbic system/emotional brain) via hormone release. These hormones interface with your ANS and their effects are felt in the familiar and opposite modes of ‘fight or flight’ and ‘rest and restore.’ The former is correlated with the sympathetic SNS, the latter with the PNS.
Together the SNS and PNS are responsible for maintaining your body’s homeostasis and regulate hunger, thirst, blood pressure, blood flow, heart rate, digestion and elimination. When you feel stressed, anxious and agitated you can attribute this to activation of the SNS. Conversely feelings of expansiveness, wellbeing and ease are linked to the PNS. Savasana leads us to the quiescent realm of the PNS. Anyone who has practiced yoga and enjoyed a restorative savasana knows firsthand how beneficial this is.
The CNS and ANS communicate via chemicals, neurotransmitters and hormones that have physiological effects, like causing your heart rate to speed up or digestion to slow down, and emotional signatures like feeling stressed or blissed out. Cortisol and ephinephrine are correlated with fight or flight mode, while acetylcholine is the main chemical associated with the quiescent and expansive mode of the PNS. We might say that acetylcholine is the key to a garden of wonder and delight, the abode of quiescence and expansiveness.
It turns out that acetylcholine is released by the vagus nerve which originates in the brain stem and cerebellum and travels down through the torso touching the major internal organs including the heart and stomach. Steady deep breath stimulates the vagus nerve to release acetylcholine whose relaxing effects counter the more active ‘fight or flight,’ activating mode of the SNS. Because of their facility with steady deep breathing seasoned yoga practitioners and meditators can access the PNS with relative ease which confers the benefit of being better able to deal with stress and the inevitable travails of life. This is no small thing.
In addition to stimulating the parasympathetic effects of the vagus nerve, consistent rhythmic breathing lessens activity in the emotional brain which is constantly monitoring the environment for threat signals. In high alert mode the amygdala signals the hypothalamus to release neurohormones which are associated with the ‘fight or flight’ stress response. This is why even a perceived threat to your emotional wellbeing can cause you to go into full-on anxiety with a dry mouth, increased heart rate and clammy palms, all effects of the SNS kicking into action. Knowing how to counter this via the calming effects of the PNS is crucial for cultivating equanimity and self-mastery, both desirable qualities for the yogi aspirant.
Dampening amygdala activity is good for your emotional and psychic wellbeing and also leaves more room for the workings of the prefrontal cortex, the most evolved part of your brain, responsible for faculties like imagining, hypothesizing, intention setting and problem solving. Cultivating pleasure and deep relaxation is essential for creativity and ingenuity.
Sat Chit Ananda
Deep, steady breathing also diverts information flow from the parietal occipital lobe, the part of your brain responsible for your sense of yourself as distinct from everyone and everything else. This explains why sometimes after a particular delicious practice and savasana, or meditation session it can feel like you are an integral part of the universal pulsation, inextricably woven into the fabric of the cosmos:
As the rivers flowing east and west
Merge in the sea and become one with it,
Forgetting they were ever separate rivers,
So do all creatures lose their separateness
When they merge at last into pure Being.
Such feelings of ecstatic oneness are caused by the elegant and sophisticated workings of your brain and nervous systems AND they are somehow more than that. They are exactly what it is that Sat Chit Ananda is referring to – being-consciousness-bliss. Grace and biochemistry inextricably linked. Physical and transcendent all at once. The jewels you seek are in side you.
Yogis throughout the ages have understood that the bliss we seek is not outside ourselves. It is ourselves. Modern science shows us that we are hardwired for bliss. But most of us don’t reach for words like ‘neurohormone’ or ‘acetylcholine’ when articulating experiences of sublime transcendence, integration and connection. Esoteric, metaphorical language lends itself much better to the realm of the spiritual: the pulsing terrain, of lovers, seekers and saints, the divine playground.
Knowing that peak spiritual experiences or even daily savasanas have physiological causes doesn’t diminish them in any way. And yet when attempting to gesture yet at the ineffable poetic language reigns supreme. I leave you this:
At the end of the exhale,
Breath surrenders to quietude.
For a moment you hang in the balance –
In the fertile spaciousness
That is the source of the breath.
At the end of the inhale,
Filled with the song of the breath,
There is a moment when you are simply
Holding the tender mystery.
In these interludes,
Experience opens into exquisite vastness
With no beginning and no end.
Embrace this infinity without reservation.
You are its vessel.
[Radiance Sutra #4]