Traditional Ayurvedic Center

Ayurveda and respiration

This is an essential introduction in order to enable readers to understand the multifold inter-connectedness between Ayurveda, yoga and meditation

A reader sent me this email: "For over a year, I have taken part in a very pleasant yoga class, enjoying the exercises and good atmosphere, just as I used to previously belong to a cycling group. I also wanted to acquire healthy nutrition practices and discovered your site on Ayurveda. I was surprised to read your statement that yoga is something more than what I had previously learnt and is connected to a general wellbeing that comprises several techniques, meditation and even a philosophy which attracts me although I do not yet fully understand it. Can you advise and guide me in this respect?"

First of all, your email delighted me and reminded me of two important concepts from ancient traditions:
- The first is this commentary by Rashi, the renowned 11th century Jewish commentator of the Torah and the Bible, on God's commandment to Abraham: " Lekh lekha…(Go towards yourself, Genesis, 12,1). Rashi elaborated on the commandment thus: "lehanaatekha uletovatekha, for your happiness and your wellbeing." It is indeed an immense pleasure to undergo such an experience and to know that the path you are following is good for you and will lead you to happiness. This means that a person is listening to his own voice and following his true path.

- The second is the marvelous verse 12 of Shiva Sutra by Vasugupta, the celebrated 8th century author of Kashmir Shavaism philosophy. "Vismayo yogabhumikah, the accomplishments of the yogi (he who masters true yoga) are extraordinary." This verse highlights the enthusiasm felt by a person who progresses according to this true nature and knows where to find the tools to do so.

Secondly, I appreciate the path you wish to follow and, to this end, I shall give you the precise references you need in order to continue your development.

There is one work which fully covers your question related to the indispensable complementary nature of the techniques (yoga, Ayurveda diet, and meditation) which I discuss on my site. This is the 15th century work, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, by Svatmarama. It is acknowledged as one of the four books which best describe the ancient tradition of Hatha Yoga. It highlights the errors committed by some yoga practitioners and offers advice in this respect. I shall quote only the first three verses of Chapter 2 which is devoted to breathing.

Few works express so clearly the total interdependence between food adapted to the body (Ayurveda), the psychology of passions, yoga postures, breathing, the relationship between student and master (guru), the goal of which is to achieve wellbeing between the different levels of a person and even personal development.

We shall now discover that this complementary interdependence between the different components is not related to techniques but characterizes our lives. The extent to which this is so is seen in the fact that ancient languages connected various meanings within one word.

In Hebrew, for instance, the interaction between letters and the meaning of each letter is essential for the full understanding of a word. In very graphic languages, such as Chinese, it is the interaction between partial graphic meanings which communicate meaning, etc. Like Hebrew, Sanskrit is an ancient language which is still alive today and involves awareness of inner composite meanings. This is in contrast to English, French and other modern Western languages where the origin of a word has often been forgotten by their speakers, even though these Western languages contain components of ancient languages (Sanskrit had a major influence on Western languages). For example, the word "comprehend" is used solely in the sense of "understanding" but the original Latin is a compound of two meanings: "com" meaning with/together and "prehendere" meaning to seize. Likewise, the word "religion" usually means, in the West, a belief in a divinity or associated rites, while the original Latin word indicated that religion is an intellectual activity which "binds" humans together. As a result of the more narrow interpretation of the work, the "religion versus secularism" debate has become very limited and even suggests that secularism is a form of religion.

We shall now try to understand how Sanskrit civilization, which gave birth to these complementary dimensions and techniques, maintains an openness of spirit among those who speak and read the language, and apply it in daily techniques of yoga, Ayurveda, and meditation.

This is seen in the importance of the composite word in Sanskrit

Sanskrit words (which therefore drive the lives of those who speak it or pray in it) are not just static entities: they often consist in two or several words which communicate different meanings or ideas. This phenomenon is called "samasa" - contraction of several meanings. Thus the word for tree, padapah, means "he drinks with his feet." This is neither a description or a concept but the definition of a living activity. Westerners find this difficult and unnatural because they are used to logical, abstract thinking (Descartes' "I think therefore I am," made the Sages of these traditions laugh since their thinking is much more existential!).

Grammatically "samasa" comprises many forms which are of interest to linguists (words that have the same basis i.e. dvandva, words with similar or different meanings, etc.) but it is the need to integrate life into thought and into language which incites Westerners to reintroduce it into their language.

This is seen in the importance of declination in Sanskrit

Another important aspect of Sanskrit is found in action, rather than in thought or definitions. In contrast to English or French, Sanskrit declines personal pronouns as well as many words. While we say in English "to me, for me, by me.." etc., Sanskrit modifies the word "me" according to the desired meaning. This creates a continuous sense of mobility, an awareness of change and an inter-connection with the environment and with numerous inner dimensions. Since the language itself is constantly inter-related, we understand why everything that contributes to personal development is also inter-related.
This is why Indians are so surprised by the fact that the Western world reduces yoga to simple techniques, something they consider as an aberration and sign of ignorance, even if these techniques cater to real needs.

In order to help you get accustomed to this phenomenon, I shall give examples from the Bhagavad Gita which feature the word "me."

The word "me"

- In Sanskrit, the word for "me" or "I" is "asmad" when not in action but given as an example in a dictionary or glossary. When it serves as the subject of an action (predicate: prathama) it becomes "aham" as in this example from Bhagavad Gita 4, 7: " I manifest myself (srjamu aham) every time there is decline in the moral level of the world."

- When the word "me" or "I" serves as a direct object (objective case: dvitiya) it becomes "ma" or "mam" as in this example from Bhagavad Gita 18.55: "only devotion enables me (mam) to know myself.."

- When the word "me" or "I" is in action (instrumental case: trtiya) it becomes "maya" as in this example from Bhagavad Gita 4.10: "deprived of attachment, fear, anger, being fully within Me (maya), there were many who attained absolute love 'for Me' (mat)."

- "for Me" (mat) is another case called the ablative or pancami.

- When the word "me" or "I" indicates belonging (dative case, caturthi) it becomes "mahyam" or "me" as in this example from Bhagavad Gita 4.6: "He who knows the transcendental nature which is Mine "me" in My appearance and in My activities will not need, when he dies, to be reborn into this material world, but will attain my eternal kingdom."

- When the word "me" or "I" indicates possession (genitive case, sasthi) it becomes "mama" or "me" as in this example from Bhagavade Gita 4.6: "the form which you saw which is of Me (mama)."

- When the word "me" or "I" indicates direction (saptami) it becomes "mayi" as in this example from Bhagavad Gita 3.30: "It is to Me (mayi) that you devote all you actions."

Combination of several words together

We progress in the certitude that all these elements are inter-related just as everything is part of this human civilization, as expressed by Indian tradition.
There is another, even more striking, phenomenon of this absolute existential necessity: it is the combination of several words together or even of all the words of one sentence together in order to communicate the complementary nature of each and all of these inseparable terms.

Here is an example where the words of one sentence are joined, with no space between them. It is from Yoga Sutra 2.29.

Here is the sentence as it is always written, with its complete inter-connectedness

Here is the sentence written in a European style, where the meaning of each word is separate from the other:
"yama (self control) niyama (laws) asana (posture) pranayama (regulation of breathing) pratyahara (retreat of the senses) dharana (concentration) dhyana (meditation) samadhaya (extreme consciousness) stav (8) anagani (limbs)."
It is evident that this list of words, on its own, has no meaning. The meaning derives from the reciprocal inter-connection of all the terms, just like the limbs of one's body are all reciprocally inter-connected.

So, regarding your initial question about the connection between yoga, Ayurveda and meditation. If viewed as a list of terms, they have no meaning according to the Indian concept of these activities. They only have meaning when inter-connected.


We see to what extent this world and Indian texts emphasize inter-relationship (with oneself, with the other, with the ever present Creator). This is the civilization which has succeeded most in preserving and transmitting its ancient traditions. So it is important to work with people who have mastered the tradition, not just with those who have studied posture and diet.

In Judaism, the specific gift which each nation was given in the act of Creation and which should be appreciated by everyone, is called "kabim" (Talmud Kiddushin 46b).

As is written in Chandogyopanishad, one of the most ancient Upanishads, a human being can survive without eyes, ears, legs etc. but he cannot do so without breathing and without food, for life derives on these two elements and completely depends on them. This is the vital energy (prana) or vital force within them.
The distribution of "prana" takes place in every part of our body and being and in all the circuits (nadis), directions and cycles. This is called ayama. The process of consciously improving and refining "prana" is called "pranayama" - a composite word as we have seen - and means much more than just learning breathing postures (asana). It is essential to learn these postures, but they can only attain the goal of tranquility and fluidity under the guidance of a true master who knows the stages and objectives of this process in order to achieve holistic stability.

Breathing and Ayurveda are intrinsically linked at this stage because optimal breathing and exercises or asanas must take into account the individual constitution of each person. This is identified during the diagnosis carried out by an Ayurveda master or guru and covers numerous aspects (rhythms of life, activities, sleep, foods, tension, pulse, eyes, tongue, imbalances or kleshas between the different forms of prana such as tejas and ojas, weaknesses, regulations, pathologies, etc.). Only after such a diagnosis has been made and after weaknesses have been regulated, can a person begin to practice the various yogi breathing exercises without risk. The texts are very clear and categorical about this. They call this stage the preliminary purification of the body:Hatha Yoga Pradipika 2.4: "when the nadis or multiple internal canals are blocked with impurities, air cannot penetrate and so how can the objective be attained" Chapter 2.15-16: "as one trains a tiger or lion, control is achieved step by step, otherwise the trainer will die: a correct pranayama weakness all illnesses but a faulty practice of yoga strengthens every illness." See also Gerunda Samhita 5.35: Goraksha Paddati 1.95; Shiva Samhita 3.27. Patanjali, in Yoga Sutra 2.5, also warns against the destructive effects of lack of true knowledge. In contrast he considers the sure, calm and steady attention from the physical to other levels as true yoga and he calls this approach "dharana." This is knowledge (jnana) which flows appropriately and is described as jnanaswarupa, Brahman, akasa, amritha, samadhi and represents the fundamental basis of Ayurveda. In Yoga Sutra 4.1, Patanjali defines this as: "janma, aushadhi (medicinal plants, herbs, etc), mantra, tapah, samadhijah, siddhaya" and associates it with the state of siddhi, close to perfection.

It is only after this that one can achieve the benefits of the techniques that improve breathing and free it of tension. Pranic activity has then been regulated. This is far removed from the execution of a group of yoga postures. For each posture has its good and bad effect for an individual and his stage of development. It is important to reach this stage in Ayurveda treatment but only after the diagnosis and parallel to the regulation of foods, the ultimate goal being the attainment of health in every aspect. You can see this in our logo.

But let's see how Bhagavad Gita 5.16 defines this ideal objective:
"When, through true consciousness (djanena), the darkness of ignorance (ajnanam) is destroyed (nashinam) in all the being, it reveals the best (prakashayati tat param) just as the sun illuminates everything when day arrives (aditya-vat)."

We can now discover and understand the vocabulary of the terms which characterize the complementary process of yogic and Ayurveda breathing

The four stages of breathing

- puraka: aspiration, inhalation
- abhyantara Kumbhaka: pause after inhaling
- rechaka: exhalation
- bahya Kumbhaka: pause after exhaling

Glossary of positive effects experienced during and after the exercises

- anusaswami: discipline
- ayama: distribution and expansion of energy
- dharana: concentration
- ekatanata: concentration
- kaivala: liberated expansion
- kundalini: divine expansion in our bodies
- niruddha: control of the mind
- prakriti shakti: natural energy
- prana: vital force
- pranayama: control of energy through breathing
- purusha shakti: energy of the soul
- Samadhi: calm sense of fulfillment
- samayana: integration of the different dimensions and components
- santosha: contentment
- satya: reality
- shakti: vital energy

and negative effects may also be experienced

- kalabati: rapid breathing
- klesha: sadness
- ksipta: distraction
- shvasa-prashhvasa: instability

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