Wanting to keep their son protected from the harsh realities of the outside world, the king and queen kept their young son prince Siddhartha sequestered within the peaceful and comfortable confines of the palace. One day, overcome with curiosity, Siddhartha ventured outside the palace walls to get a glimpse of the outside world. What he saw—disease, poverty, hunger, cruelty, etc.—left a lasting impression that changed the course of Siddhartha’s life. Eventually he became the Buddha, the “Awakened One”, and taught the doctrines of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. The first noble truth of the Buddha affirms the undeniable reality of Duhkha, a Sanskrit word usually translated as suffering which literally means “bad space.” Duhkha is particularly associated with a constricted feeling around the heart caused by physical, mental, or emotional pain. In sutra I.30 Patanjali says: Vyadhi styana samsaya pramada alasya avirati branthi darsana alabdhabhumikatva anavasthitvani citta viksepa antarayahah—“The obstacles that scatter the mind are illness, stagnation, doubt, carelessness, laziness, intemperance, illusions about one’s self, lack of perseverance, and instability.” Patanjali goes on to say in sutra I.31: Duhkha daurmanasya angamejayatva svasa prasvasa viksepa saha bhuvah—“These obstacles are accompanied by suffering, dejection, anxiety, and scattered inhalations and exhalations.” This is an interesting sutra because it implies an intrinsic connection between Psyche (mind) and Soma (body). When we are experiencing “bad space”, depression or anxiety one of the ways it shows up is in the scattering of the breath—the inhalations and exhalations are shallow and unsteady. If the Psyche affects the Soma, it seems logical that the Soma can also influence the Psyche, particularly through the vehicle of the breath. If we can make the breath less scattered, it seems to follow that this will have an indirect effect on our state of mind.
Krishnamacharya once said, “Thank God for duhkha, it is the unavoidable incentive for practice.” For myself, it was this feeling of “bad space” that first led me to yoga and continues to keep me coming back to practice. As the Buddha observed 2,500 years ago, duhkha is inherent in the human condition. There are ways of dispelling it, but it keeps trying to creep back in. The Ashtanga Yoga method, a breath-based system, seems particularly effective at dispersing duhkha. To bring our attention fully into the act of breathing, we breathe with sound (ujjayi) and link breath with movement (vinyasa). In the process we begin to breathe with more length (dirgha) and subtlety (suksma) and begin to dispel that feeling of constriction around the heart. In the practice of pranayama we take the practice of mindfulness of breath to a deeper level. Regarding the breath, Krishnamacharya had this to say, “Inhale, and God approaches you. Hold the inhalation, and God remains with you. Exhale, and you approach God. Hold the exhalation, and surrender to God.”