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Breathwork Across Continents: A Journey Through Time and Cultures

Nature scene with rocks reflecting into the water and beautiful green trees

From the high-altitude monasteries of Asia to the dense forests of the Amazon, breathwork has been a healing gift and tool of human spiritual practice and existence. It’s the bridge that has connected tribes to developed cultures, transcending borders and time. Explore the historical context further with some inspirational start points from Asia, Europe, and North America.

1. Asia: Kundalini Yoga & Tantra

In the ancient valleys of India and the high plateaus of Tibet, breathing wasn’t just about sustaining life; it was about enhancing it and connection with a higher awareness and existence.

Kundalini Yoga: A sacred practice that dates back to the Upanishads, Kundalini Yoga seeks to awaken the dormant energy at the base of the spine. As Yogi Bhajan, the master of Kundalini Yoga in the West, stated, “The process of growth through Kundalini Yoga is a natural unfolding of your own nature.”1 The breath, in this practice, activates and moves the Kundalini energy, paving the path to enlightenment.

Tantra: Often misunderstood in the West, Tantra is a vast and ancient body of practices and beliefs. It uses breath to align with the universal energy and achieve a state of oneness. The great philosopher, Osho, said, “Tantra is the science of transforming ordinary lovers into soul mates.”2 And this transformation is catalyzed through conscious breathwork.

2. Europe: Shamanic Studies

From the dense forests of Northern Europe to the vast steppes of Siberia, shamans have used breath as a vessel to journey into other realms.

Shamanic Breathing: This form of breathwork was used by European shamans to enter altered states of consciousness, bridging the mundane and spiritual worlds. Historian Mircea Eliade in his seminal work “Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy” wrote, “Shamans…describe a form of ascent to the sky by means of the breath.”3 It’s a testimony to how breath acted as a spiritual vehicle.

Although materialistic sciences of the 20th and 21st century dismiss shamans and shamanic practices, they continue to resurface as a necessity for healing and there is an unprecedented interest, particularly, in the Western world in the mystery and healing potential of journeying and being supported by alternative methods, offered by shamanism. Such interest is not a fad, but a cry for help, as more and more people have existential crises, unexplained illnesses, and uncontrollable anxieties. The available healing in the form of pharmaceuticals has lost its appeal to provide the deeper soothing and healing people need.

3. North America: Indigenous Practices

In the vast expanse of North America, the indigenous tribes had their unique ways of using breath to connect with nature and spirit.

Spiritual Breathing: Native American tribes incorporated breathwork into their rituals and ceremonies. Whether it was in preparation for a hunt, a rite of passage, or a healing ceremony, controlled breathing helped in attaining clarity, strength, and communion with the spiritual realm.

4. South America: Amazon’s Peruvian Practices

Deep within the lungs of the earth – the Amazon – the tribes had their unique dance with breath.

Peruvian Shamanic Breathwork: The shamans of the Amazon rainforest used breath combined with plant medicines to heal and to receive visions. This practice, rooted in the belief in the interconnectedness of all life, allowed the shamans to channel energies and spirits for guidance and healing. The respect and love for Pacha Mama was deeply connected through the power of breath, elements and all the magic the natives saw around them. A connection many of us are missing, due to the disconnect created by the individualistic way of life. Breath is ultimately the connecting piece that not only provides healing and calmness, but a pathway to what it means to be a human.

In Conclusion

Breathing, in its myriad forms, has been an intrinsic part of human civilization. It’s the thread that connects us to our ancestors, to nature, and to the divine. As the philosopher Lao Tzu once mused, “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth. The named is the mother of ten thousand things.”4 And perhaps, in the silent spaces between our breaths, we can catch a glimpse of that eternal Tao.

Please note: This blog post is a synthesis of research and citations from well-known sources and may not capture the entirety and complexity of the mentioned practices.

Footnotes

  1. Kundalini Yoga: The Flow of Eternal Power by Shakti Parwha Kaur Khalsa
  2. The Book of Secrets by Osho
  3. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade
  4. Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu

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