Accepted paper:

Reaching higher and looping forward: exploring prāṇāyāma as a skilled being in the world


Krzysztof Bierski (Durham University)

Paper short abstract:

Advanced practitioners of prāṇāyāma explore different possibilities for being alive by bringing attention to their breath. While they often refer to ‘reaching higher’, I draw on phenomenological perspectives on movement to suggest that prāṇāyāma also entails looping action with perception.

Paper long abstract:

Alongside āsana and meditation, prāṇāyāma, that is, guiding life force energy (prāṇā) through breath work is one of the core techniques, or limbs, of classical aṣṭānga yoga. Recently, biomedical researchers have concluded that yogic breathing can be helpful in alleviating symptoms of numerous cardiovascular and psychiatric conditions, improving pulmonary functions and reducing nicotine craving as an example. Whilst both biomedical research and yoga teachers tend to focus on correct breathing, Kaminoff (2006) explains that breath depends on past experiences, current circumstances and individual aims and is therefore contextual. This suggestion resonates with the accounts of students who pursue the intense prāṇāyāma training in a well-established secular yoga institute in central India. They describe their practice as a contemplative being in the world and report 'reaching higher levels of experience'. Drawing on Ingold's outlook on dwelling and movement (2000, 2011), I suggest that prāṇāyāma could also be interpreted as a way of looping forward in and as part of the environment. Looping, in this case, entails conscious steering and sequencing of the breath in a drive to unite action (breathing) and perception (emotional response). As yoga has been associated with religious dogma in order to meet nationalistic agenda in India, and to dissuade potential practitioners in the Occident, I discuss prāṇāyāma as a skill of being alive. I do so by exploring how yogis develop their sādhana (personal practice), overcome obstacles and account for the transformations they experience. By focusing on prāṇāyāma as a form of life aptitude this paper considers how breath awareness could become a public health concern.

panel P01
Exposure: interdisciplinary perspectives on breath, air and atmospheres