The Science of Respiration and the Doctrine of the Bodily Winds in Ancient India

By Zysk, Kenneth G. | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, April-June 1993 | Go to article overview

The Science of Respiration and the Doctrine of the Bodily Winds in Ancient India


Zysk, Kenneth G., The Journal of the American Oriental Society


Ancient Indians paid particular attention to respiration and the function of wind in the body by making the breathing process a focus of religious concern and practice. In the minds of the early Indians, respiration was the principal indicator of life; and what humans breathed was the motivating force of both the cosmos and human existence. This cosmic wind was mankind's vital breath (prana), the principal manifestation of a person's immortal soul.

The word prana is a derivative noun, originally meaning "the breath in front," or the inhaled air. When prana is combined with its opposite, apana, "the breath away," i.e., exhaled air, the process of respiration is indicated. Observation of the vital function of these complementary aspects of respiration, combined with intuitions about the function of wind after it entered the body, eventually led Indians to conceptualize and codify the bodily winds and their operations in the human organism. Prana assumed the character of vital breath, inhaled air in the process of respiration, and was the principal wind in the upper part of the body, on which all other breaths depended. Apana was the exhaled air, and the essential wind in the lower part of the body.

Ancient Indians identified organs resembling lungs (pupphusa, kloman) as part of human and animal anatomy, but they never understood their function in respiration. They conceived the lungs to be the locus of phlegm, and usually the heart to be the seat of vital breath. Respiration was simply the intake and expulsion of vital air from the body. Once in the body, it was carried throughout the organism by a series of vessels and stimulated the vital functions of the various bodily organs and parts. Each bodily function or locus of bodily functions had a wind or breath that acted as its motivator, giving rise to innumerable vital breaths, which eventually became codified into five basic bodily winds: prana, apana, vyana, udana and samana.

In addition to scrutinizing afresh certain Vedic sources on respiration, this study surveys classical ayurvedic treatises and yogic texts in order to trace more precisely the evolution of ancient Indian ideas about respiration and the bodily winds.(1) The analysis that follows indicates that a central theory uniting respiration and the bodily winds appeared in the Vedic literature. Thereafter the two components split and developed in two distinct directions: medical circles focused on the physiology of bodily winds, and practitioners of Yoga advanced doctrines of respiration and techniques of arresting the breathing process. Gradually Yoga began to assimilate and adopt theories about the bodily winds developed by physicians. The result was a harmonious blending of medicine and Yoga.

Asceticism is the common thread running through and stitching together the science of respiration and the doctrine of the bodily winds. Focusing on the ultimate principle and its manifestation in the human body, ascetics strove to understand completely the operation of atmospheric wind when it entered the human body, then systematically codified and gradually recorded in Indian technical and scriptural literature a comprehensive theory of bodily wind and respiration.

1. RESPIRATION AND THE BODILY WINDS IN THE EARLY VEDA

In the Rgveda, prana has a threefold association. It is associated with life; it is the representation of atmospheric wind (vata, vayu) in mankind;(2) and it is connected with the process of respiration. Indicating the beginnings of a physiological understanding of the body, the Vedic theory of prana's relationship to respiration is our principal concern.

Rgveda 10.189.1-2 illustrates by way of analogy that respiration was rhythmic, involving an inbreath and an outbreath:

The spotted steer approached [and] rested on Mother [Earth] in the east; and going ahead to his Father Heaven,

He wanders between shining ones, breathing out after his inbreath. …

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