Part I ONTOLOGY explored the place of divinity and humanity in yogic and Christian philosophy.
Part II BREATH Yoga and Christian Spirituality Within Their Creation Narratives
In both Christian and yogic traditions, a divinity emerges from primordial dark and emptiness – or a watery void – and gets to work creating light and dark, establishing time, and creating living beings. Most creation stories start with God creating the human, but others do not. Following the establishment of beings, good and evil are introduced, animals are created, and the world is set in order. The sociological questions that arise in any group of people: questions of where I am, who is in charge, and who else is here, are answered in creation stories.
Similarities abound between the Christian narrative in Genesis from the Old Testament (what some call the prime covenant) and the stories of Judaism and Islam. But when Indigenous North American creation myths are included, like the Salina Creation Story, an (Eagle) makes a man and from that a woman. In a modern poetic and literary contribution, Joy Harjo from the Muskoke Nation tells the story of a lonely rabbit who created a man, and then blew air into its mouth, upon which the created man stood up. Breath as the genesis of creation across many creation narratives is one reason why I call yoga a “breathcentric” practice.
But the Divine-human connection in yogic and Christian spiritualities is an elusive subject because the “hidden God” (Deus absconditus) is not physically manifested. This is not the same as false, but divine essence remains elusive. To believe then is an act of faith.
Creation and Breath in Yoga Spirituality
In Western Christian spirituality, the creator is called God and in yogic creation narratives one can choose from a creator with different names and attributes (Vishnu, Brahman, Prajapaati); but the similarity is that they all form something out of nothing or being out of non-being.
It’s important for yogis to know that in some Eastern Indian creation stories, even before Brahman’s work of creating light or beings, the primordial vibration OM existed. OM is intoned by ancient and contemporary yogis and is sounded out as AHH-O-UM; it is the vibrational form of creation for this and all other universes.
In yoga chant, the vibrations and sounds of OM are intimately connected to yoga spirituality, and in effect, yoga spirituality holds that pranayama (vital life management in the breath) connects personal reality to the ultimate pre-existing reality in OM. This grounds the yogi’s breath to the cosmos as it was present even before creation.
Yogis hear a vocalized physical exhale (loud or soft) when the sound of air is pushed through the vocal diaphragm according to the position of the glottis and the force of the diaphragm. When a sound is added to this air, the yogi creates OM as a song that sings itself in time, into, and through all existence. OM is the primordial essence, and it lives in the yogi; OM has no language, no chorus, no time, no season, and no ending.
OM is beyond the yogi and all existence and at the same time within the yogi. David, one of my brilliant instructors says, “Your breath is your guru,” and he is correct on existential levels and the essential level. OM as breath is the sound of stars rushing across the sky, the sound of a bird chick cracking forth from its shell, the sound of wind, the sound of rain, the sound of galaxies, or of the yogis breath in exhale and its yoga song. In breath, in OM, yogis simultaneously exist as eternal and present; human and divine, cosmic and materially manifest.
Mircea Eliade summarizes this loaded idea of the cosmic eternal and the material present in the yogi, “In yoga . . . metaphysics becomes soteriology.” It means that when the yogi intones OM they are actualizing their own salvation while simultaneously participating in the primordial creation.
Most yogis do not practice yoga for the grand reason of attaining salvation, but their breath – and the vibration of OM – is not just biology and oxygen for the body; additionally, it is the key to yogic consciousness, yogic connection to creation, and the shape of life here and now. Yoga’s focus on breath is a major part of its spirituality and is the yogi’s connection to everything. Breath is the most regular function of the body; inhaling is how yogis come into this world (creation) and exhaling is how they leave this world (relinquishment).
The middle pause (madhya) is the place of balance here and now – where yogis exist between the beginning and the end. Breath (the vital life force) is intimately linked to spirit, mind, and body. As yogis practice pranayama (breath), meditation, and asana, they are fully the divine creation here and now. This is everything for the yogi, a spirituality connected to creation by the means of breath.
The word calm is not adequate to describe the physiological, psychological, and mental benefits happening with breath practice, but will suffice to describe the mental and emotional effects produced when all yoga aspects work together (postures, meditations, pranayama, directives for living and breathing).
Eminent yoga teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar wrote of his mission as a yoga teacher in Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom, “I teach spiritual practice in action.” His teaching helped others adapt to difficult postures much the way physical therapy works in our clinics today, but this teaching went beyond physical therapy as he spoke of the yogi’s intention. “By intention . . . not for ego or to impress but for the Self and to move closer to God. In this way asana is a sacred offering.”
Asana is a sacred offering, yes, but it’s also a sacred receiving. A yoga spirituality unpacks the meaning of self-realization by linking the experience of conscious breath with creation and other aspects of yoga. The yogi’s breath is their guru; it is in the yogi, and it has been there from before the beginning and will continue to the end and beyond.
Creation and Breath in Christian Spirituality
In the Christian story, God puts breath into something that is created in God’s image, and this comes to life. Reflection on the idea of God seeing its own image (imago Dei) is a profound thought in and of itself. To even think this means that the human is participating in the same consciousness that God had when God created.
In a yoga room, yogis see their image in a mirror. Is this God’s consciousness? Yes, for it is what God saw before the act of creation (if we accept the simile in assigning a physical human attribute – like the ability to see – to God). Consciousness, or self-awareness, a vital component of yogic spirituality, is not so important for Christian spirituality. A conscience, by way of contrast, is highly important.
In the Christian creation story, breath is known in Hebrew as ruah. In Sanskrit, the word for breath is prana, and breath is pneuma in Greek. Pneuma is a word used in stories from the New Testament when the spirit of God moves into humans. It’s easy to speak aloud all these words ending with aahh and to hear the same sound as in a deep exhale. The ah, in exhale, is intimately connected to OM, sounded out as AHH-UM-M, the sound of creation.
In the creation of Genesis, there was no pre-existing OM or vibrational world. “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep,” Genesis 1.
In contrast to Eastern creation myths, Genesis puts the human as the last creation and Christian spirituality handles breath in creation by connecting it to the (Holy) Spirit which makes the human a new being in Christ. While it’s not a direct language connection, the crucifixion narrative from the Gospel of Luke states that after Jesus had committed his spirit to God, “he breathed his last.” It’s worth noting that the Greek verb pneusen is used and means to blow or breathe as the wind.
The breath is intimately connected to the creation of a human in the Christian creation narrative from the Old Testament, but this close essential connection between breath and creation becomes obfuscated in New Testament writings when the breath is moved into the realm of spirit. Spirit is seen as positive and flesh is not seen in the same way, so Christian spirituality loses its intimate connective link to body and breath as part of its spirituality, rather the Christian’s new being in Christ is the place of emphasis for spirituality.
New Testament writings have been boxed in by this dualistic framework and the antagonism of opposites. Certain words like flesh (sarx) and spirit (pneuma) are examples of this duality and they are loaded, unfortunately, with moral notions of good and bad. Yoga attempts to find the balance of polarities in the West even as it faces the limiting cultural materialism of material v spiritual.
Both yoga and Christian spiritualities emphasize the act of creation in concert with the giving of breath. Christian spirituality after creation includes guidelines from The 10 Commandments, The Beatitudes, The Golden Rule, and the expression of love as the New Covenant. Christian spirituality is lived by faith and connected to the community by the good news of the Gospel. It is focused on moral conscience but does not have a corresponding physical practice or breath practice and the physical self is involved only to the degree that the Christian is the hands and feet of the Gospel on Earth here and now.
Yoga spirituality – post creation – is directed by many of the same moral precepts in its yamas and niyamas. It does not hold the same value for faith that Christian spirituality does; rather, its focus passes on to consciousness of life in the now which is developed by awareness of their dharma discovered in practice.
Eliade, Mircea. 1968. Yoga Immortality and Freedom. 2nd ed. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey: W.W. Norton & Co.
Harjo, Joy. 2019. When the Light of the World Was Subdued Our Song Came Through. W.W. Norton & Co.
Iyengar, BKS. 2005. Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom.