Breath control and conceptions of self:

Different Hindu and Buddhist approaches to the breath

Ashwin Ramaswami

March 26, 2021

Mindfulness of breathing, or ānāpānasati, is a typically Buddhist practice that is mentioned both in numerous suttas and guides to meditation. But Buddhism did not grow up in a vacuum; many of its practices were based on, or created in reaction to, prevailing currents of religion and spirituality at the time.[1] Where does ānāpānasati come from? In this paper, I examine how ānāpānasati compares to Brahmanic conceptions of the breath at the time, and how differences in conceptions of the breath serve to reflect fundamental differences in worldview between the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. While Hinduism encourages the control of breath, or prāṇa, through prāṇāyāma, reflecting a conception of breath as something that can be controlled and directly related to one’s self, Buddhist conceptions of the breath as non-self and inherently empty lead to a practice of merely observing, rather than controlling, the breath through ānāpānasati. Although these boundaries are not entirely rigid, even the examples that demonstrate overlap between control of breath and watchfulness of breath in Hinduism and Buddhism still reflect this fundamental distinction in the philosophy of breath of both traditions.

I. Hindu and Buddhist conceptions of breath

  1. Hindu conception of breath as prāṇa

In the Brahmanic tradition, breath is represented by the concept of prāṇa. The doctrine of prāṇa is well-elucidated in the Upaniṣads, where it represents not only the breath, but in addition, the very life force within all beings. Reflecting this fact, translators of the Upaniṣads often use the term “vital force” rather than “breath” to translate the word prāṇa.[2] The prāṇa is the controller of all the functions of the body: “[t]he vital force is called Ayāsya Āṅgirasa, for it is the essence of the members [of the body].”[3] It is described as not only being the “oldest and the best” among the mind and sense organs,[4] but also absolutely essential for them to function. A passage in the Chandogya Upaniṣad relates a story in which the prāṇa proves its primacy among the organs by deciding to leave the body. When it does so, it “carries the other organs away with him,” as a “good horse is able to uproot the pegs to which its feet are tied.”[5] This simile of the prāṇa being the ultimate support to which the bodily functions are “tied” to is elsewhere repeated in the Upaniṣad: just like “a bird tied by a string … settles down at the place it is fastened,” the mind “settles down at Prāṇa; because … the mind is fastened at Prāṇa.”[6] One can see how such a simile could naturally lead to the idea that controlling the breath can help control the mind and bodily functions.

Prāṇa is important not only as a factor that is vital to life, but even akin to a concept of self. The Taittirīya Upaniṣad makes this connection between prāṇa and self more explicit, describing “another self within, formed of Prāṇa” that pervades the self made of food-essence, in its description of the five sheaths or selves.[7] Finally, prāṇa is not only supreme among the bodily functions, but at the macrocosmic level, universal: it is described as “equal to an elephant, equal to these three worlds, equal to this universe.”[8] After all, it is the reason by which the “the Devas live … as also men and beasts,” being the “life-duration of all.”[9] The primacy and universality of prāṇa help characterize both its microcosmic and macrocosmic manifestations, as something far greater than merely the “breath.”

Other than the later Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, which mentions a brief practice of controlling the breath in one verse, the early Upaniṣads do not have much explicit instructions about practices that manipulate the prāṇa.[10] Rather, we can find more detailed descriptions of breath control in later texts, such as the Yoga Sūtras and the Bhagavad Gītā, where it is known as prāṇāyāma. Prāṇāyāma, the Yoga Sūtras declare, “is the stoppage of the inspiratory and expiratory movements (of breath) which follows.”[11] Prāṇāyāma is but an intermediate step in the Yoga Sūtras’ eightfold path that ultimately leads to samādhi.[12] In the Gītā’s description of prāṇāyāma, it describes yogis who “dedicate themselves to controlling the various life-airs” by prāṇāyāma as “offer[ing] the up-going breath (prāṇa) into the down-going breath (apāna) and conversely offer[ing] the down-going breath into the up-going breath.”[13] Elsewhere, the Gītā describes how prāṇāyāma can lead one to “control[] his senses, mind, and intelligence” on the path to liberation.[14]

Later texts further systematize and develop the concept of breath control. Vācaspati Miśra, in his 9th/10th-century gloss on the Yoga Sūtras, elaborates on the practices of Purak (inhalation), Rechaka (exhalation), and Kumbhaka (retention), showing that these practices must have been well-established at the time.[15] The Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā, a much later text from the 15th-century, further elaborates on various different types of breath control under the category of prāṇāyāma. This text describes practices such as “bellows” prāṇāyāma and “hissing” prāṇāyāma, developing the concept of breath control even further.[16] This text also draws an explicit connection from prāṇa to mind: “When prana moves, chitta (the mental force) moves. When prana is without movement, chitta is without movement.”[17] The idea that controlling the prāṇa can help control the mind draws on the Upaniṣadic simile of the prāṇa being the support to which the other bodily functions are tied to. These breath control practices, then, despite being from a much later age, clearly maintain continuity with the Upanishadic conception of the breath as self.

  1. Buddhist rejection of breath control

Early Buddhists, presented with this prevailing Brahmanic concept of the breath as self and the foundation of life, instead firmly rejected this concept and focused on watching the breath instead of consciously controlling it. Perhaps the best characterization of this difference would be to compare the descriptions of ānāpānasati and prāṇāyāma, which are strikingly similar but contain telling differences. The practitioner of ānāpānasati is described in the Ekottara Āgama as, “[w]ithout any other thoughts, he fastens his mind on the tip of his nose.”[18] Similarly, the practitioner in the Gītā “completely removes external sense objects … fixes his vision between his eyebrows.”[19] And the “mind of desires [being] set free” described as the result of ānāpānasati in the Ekottara Āgama is essentially the same as the state of being “free from desire, fear and anger” that results from breath control in the Gītā.[20] It is the technique of breathing itself that differs between the two traditions. The Ekottara Āgama describes the standard sequence of breath mindfulness – “[w]hen there is a long breath out, he is also aware of the long breath” – and continues with other variations such as the short breath, cold breath, and warm breath.[21] On the other hand, the sage in the Gītā begins to “suspend[] the movement of the inward and outward flowing life-airs, which move through the nostrils … thus controlling the senses, mind, and intelligence.”[22] The Gītā’s practice is evidently based on the Brahmaṇic idea that controlling the breath can control the bodily functions; but the Buddhists emphatically reject this notion in favor of sticking to mere observation of the breath.

Nowhere is the Buddhist aversion to control of the breath better illustrated than the Mahāsaccaka Sutta, where the Buddha describes his unsuccessful earlier practices prior to enlightenment. During these practices, he consciously tries to control his breath by “stop[ping] the in-breaths and out-breaths through my mouth and nose.”[23] Though the Buddha obtains “tireless energy” through this practice, he is still “exhausted by the painful striving,” perhaps because his energy is not directed toward the right purpose.[24] And the “unremitting mindfulness” that he obtains is not enough, either, because such mindfulness, being derived from breath control, only makes his body “overwrought and uncalm.”[25] This juxtaposition of opposites shows how while these breath control techniques may ironically seem to fulfill the very goals of a spiritual seeker – including mindfulness! – their results are not conducive to nibbana. Why?

Perhaps this is because the Brahmanic view of the breath is problematic, because espousing such a view lends itself to a concept of self and ātman that is against core Buddhist metaphysical principles. The Buddhist text Milinda Panha describes how “[t]here is no soul [neso jīvo] in the breath.”[26] This declaration stands in stark contrast with the Upaniṣadic idea of prāṇa being the “life-duration [āyuṣa] of all.”[27] The Milinda Panha continues deconstructing the breath: “inhalations and exhalations are merely constituent powers of the bodily frame.”[28] Controlling the breath may thus be counterproductive for the seeker, as it reinforces the mistaken conception of reality and selfhood in the concept of breath. The Dhatu Vibhaṅga Sutta also reinforces this conception: the “in-breaths and out-breaths” are included in the “air element,” which should be seen with “right understanding” as “[t]his is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.”[29] Rather, the seeker should aim to develop “proper wisdom” and become “disenchanted” and “dispassionate” towards the air element.[30] The goal of ānāpānasati is thus to cultivate detachment by understanding the impermanent nature of the breath, and through this, the true nature of one’s own body and the world. Merely observing the breath may help one to understand its true nature of unreality and nothingness. For one who cultivates mindfulness of breathing, “if they feel a pleasant feeling, they understand that it’s impermanent, that they’re not attached to it, and that they don’t take pleasure in it” – and one will have similar reactions of detachment towards negative feelings, neutral feelings, and death.[31]

Compare, again, this Buddhist goal of understanding the ultimate impermanence of the breath to the Upaniṣadic ideal of knowing prāṇa. In the Praśna Upanishad, it is said that one attains immortality by “[k]nowing the birth, the coming, the staying, and the five-fold sovereignty of Prana and its stay in the body.”[32] The Brahmanic conception of immortality through understanding prāṇa thus comes from understanding both its supremacy and universality, reinforcing its selfness – in diametric opposition to the Buddhist conception of breath as impermanent and self-less.

II. Crossing the boundary

However, this boundary between breath control and breath observation is more fluid than it may appear at first, as would perhaps be expected with two traditions that have mutually influenced each other for such a long time. There exist Hindu practices and schools that seem to deemphasize the centrality of the breath or espouse the observation of the breath; conversely, some Buddhist traditions may discuss conceptions and techniques of breath control. Although there are many examples of such traditions, I examine two of these examples in this section: the Buddhist cessation of breathing in the fourth jhāna and the espousal of mindfulness of breathing in the Hindu Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra. When looking closer at these examples, one finds that they are still rooted in the fundamental distinction between the concepts of Hindu breath-as-self and Buddhist breath-as-not-self. Rather than undermining this distinction, the context in which these practices are introduced rather reinforces it.

  1. Cessation of breathing in the fourth jhāna

Buddhist scriptures often mention the fact that breathing completely stops when one reaches a certain stage in their contemplation, the fourth jhāna. Says the Rahogatta Sutta: “For one who has attained the fourth jhana, in-breathing and out-breathing have ceased.”[33] Moreover, the Chinese Nāgasena Bhikṣu Sūtra says that those who learn the Dharma can “control their body and speech” and “obtain one-pointedness of the mind,” thus being able to “attain the fourth dhyana state” and “stop their breathing.”[34] At face value, this stance may seem to be a contradiction of the idea of de-emphasis on breath control for Buddhists. If mindfulness of breath is emphasized, why would the ultimate goal of the fourth jhāna be to reach a (seemingly deliberate) cessation of it?

Such statements, however, have been interpreted within the Buddhist tradition not to reflect a deliberate concept of breath control, but rather a natural process that does not implicate breath control in the Hindu fashion. On this topic of breath cessation, the Visuddhimagga gives an analogy in which a man who “stands still after running … putting down a big load from his head,” begins breathing in and out heavily; but “when he has rid himself of his fatigue and has bathed and drunk and put a wet cloth on his heart … then his in-breaths and out-breaths eventually occur so subtly that he has to investigate whether they exist or not.”[35] The process of the breath becoming subtler is thus characterized as a natural, not volitional, process. The Visuddhimagga also raises and answers another crucial question: how can one continue to practice ānāpānasati once the breath has stopped and there is no more breath to focus on? The text analogizes ānāpānasati to listening carefully when a gong is struck: first, one hears gross sounds, then subtler faint sounds, and finally, “consciousness occurs because it has the sign of the faint sounds as its object.”[36] Similarly, during mindfulness of breathing, the gross breaths are perceived first, then fainter and subtler breaths. Finally, when the breaths cease, one continues the core practice of ānāpānasati – observing the breath – by focusing on the “sign of the faint in-breaths and out-breaths” as the object of consciousness.[37] The state of breath cessation is thus stripped of its ordinary association with being a result of intentional breath control through the meditator’s continual emphasis on mindfulness of breathing. This goal is accomplished by maintaining focus on the “sign” of the breaths even after they have stopped.

These descriptions and analogies in the Visuddhimagga show how the cessation of breath in the fourth jhāna is far from a deliberate process of breath control; rather, it is but a natural process that occurs when one concentrates on the breath’s ever-increasing subtlety. Even if entering into the fourth jhāna may be deliberately induced, the actual change in subtlety of the in-breaths and out-breaths is still entirely conceptualized by the meditator in terms of spontaneity, rather than control. Throughout the entire practice of the breath becoming subtler, the meditator is focused on watching and observing the breath as it changes, as opposed to deliberately trying to change its subtlety themselves.

  1. Mindfulness of breathing in the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra

The Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra, a Hindu Tantric text considered as an important text of Kashmir Shaivism, contains verses that can be interpreted as referring to the mindfulness of breathing. One verse discusses how by “fixing the mind at the two points of generation (of prana and apana), the state of fullness results.”[38] Additionally, the text describes how the “breath is exhaled with the sound 'Ha' and inhaled again with the sound 'Sa.’”[39] Modern practitioners, drawing on this text, have even emphasized the mindful nature of this text’s practice by describing it as “simply [watching] the breath, being aware that it is coming in and going out with the sounds ham and sa.”[40] What do such statements mean for the Hindu (or at least Kashmir Shaivite) conception of breath?

Just because the text discusses the practice of watching the breath, though, does not mean that it does not conform to the Hindu conception of breath as self and something to be controlled. Right before the verse describing the “ha” and “sa” components of the breath, the text states that “prana and apana” are “moved swiftly in a distinct direction, by the wish of kundalini.”[41] In this light, the “ha” and “sa” breath-observation instruction can be interpreted to just involve the conscious awareness and manipulation of the breath, but keeping in mind the “distinct direction” that the breath moves in “by the wish of the kundalini” – and, ultimately, the fact that the breath can be controlled. This is far different from the aversion to breath control that is characteristic of Buddhist texts. Moreover, it is clear that the breath was understood in this way by at least some (contemporary) practitioners of Kashmir Shaivism. In her commentary on this verse, Swami Satyasangananda Saraswati writes that “the sound of the breath is an intimate aspect of your being, and is thus a natural and spontaneous way to turn the awareness towards the inner self.”[42] We see here a direct connection between breath and self that echoes the Upaniṣadic descriptions of the concept of prāṇa earlier – and with it, the concomitant idea that the breath can indeed be controlled.

The Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra contains even clearer espousals of breath control: it states that “the essence of bhairava … manifests” when the “ingoing pranic air and outgoing pranic air are both restrained in their space from their (respective points of) return.”[43] Such a description echoes the Yoga Sūtras’ definition of prāṇāyāma discussed earlier. Finally, the very verse in the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra that describes the mindfulness-like practice of “fixing the mind” at prāṇa and apāṇa also contains the following sentence: “Paradevi, whose nature is visarga, or creation, manifests as the upward prana and the downward apana.”[44] Thus, taken in context, the practice enjoined by this verse still emphasizes the power and strength of the breath as prāṇa, far from marginalizing the breath as merely an impermanent illusion.

This conception of breath in the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra is thus far more in line with the Upaniṣadic tendencies of breath as self than the Buddhist idea of breath reflected in ānāpānasati; even the aspects of the text that describe watching the breath can be more easily interpreted in that way. Espousing a mindful practice does not detract from the text’s overall doctrine of what the nature of the breath truly is.

III. Conclusion

This paper has shown that there is a fundamental difference in the conception of the breath between Hindu and Buddhist thought. While the Hindus conceptualized the breath as prāṇa, emphasizing its connection to the self and the value of controlling it, Buddhists rejected breath control in favor of merely watching the breath, which had a status not nearly as powerful as the Hindu conception of prāṇa.

Although there are examples of overlap in regard to this dichotomy, they serve to show how even though certain practices may have been shared or transferred between Hinduism and Buddhism, the fundamental idea of breath in both traditions can still be discerned even in these particular areas of overlap. Each tradition’s remarkable durability in their philosophy of breath perhaps owes to the great importance that both Hinduism and Buddhism place on the breath as a factor in one’s spiritual journey.

Texts Cited

BAU: Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad. From: The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (with the Commentary of Śaṅkarācārya), translated by Swāmī Mādhavānanda (1850).

BG: Bhagavad Gītā. From: Srimad Bhagavad-Gita, translated by Sri Narayana Gosvami Maharaja (2015).

CU: Chāndogya Upaniṣad. From: Chandogya Upanisad: Following Sankara's Commentary (With Sanskrit Text, Transliteration, Translation and Notes), translated by Swami Lokeswarananda (1998).

EA: Ekottara Āgama. From: translation originally published by Lapis Lazuli Texts (2010-16), translated by J. Pierquet from Chinese to English. 

Mil: Milinda Panha. From: The Questions of King Milinda as part of “The Sacred Books of the East,” translated by T. W. Rhys Davids (1890). 

MN: Majjhima Nikāya. From: The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, translated by Bhikku Bodhi (2009). 

HYP: Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā. From: Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Translated by Swami Muktibodhananda (1985). 

PU: Praśna Upaniṣad. From: Prashna Upanishad with Shankara’s Commentary, translated by S. Sitarama Sastri (1928). 

SN: Samyutta Nikaya. From: Linked Discourses: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, translated by Bhikku Sujato (2018); The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, translated by Bhikku Bodhi (2000).

SU: Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad. From: Śvetāśvataropaniṣad, translated by Swāmi Tyāgīsānanda (1949).

T1670b: Nāgasena Bhikṣu Sūtra. From: Nāgasena Bhikṣu Sūtra in Buddha’s Light Edition English Sutra Translation Series, translated by Guang Xing (2008). From: 

TU: Taittirīya Upaniṣad. From: The Taittiriya Upanishad: With the Commentaries of Sri Sankaracarya, Sri Suresvaracarya and Sri Vidyaranya, translated by Sri Alladi Mahadeva Sastry (1903). 

VBT: Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra. From: Sri Vijnana Bhairava Tantra: The Ascent. Translated by Swami Satyasangananda Saraswati (2003). 

Vsm: Visuddhimagga. From: The Path to Purification. Translated by Bhikku Ñāṇamoli (2011).

YS: Yoga Sūtra. From: From: Pātañjali’s Yoga Sūtras with the commentary of Vyāsa and the gloss of Vāchaspati Misra. Translated by Rāma Prasāda (1912).

[1] See, for example: Richard Gombrich (2008). What the Buddha Thought, Equinox Publishing Limited, at p. 77.

[2] See, for example: BAU 1.3.19 (translated by Swami Mādhavānanda).

[3] BAU 1.3.19.

[4] CU 5.1.1.

[5] CU 5.1.12.

[6] CU 6.8.2.

[7] TU 2.2.2.

[8] BAU 1.3.21.

[9] TU 2.3.1.

[10] SU 2.9. Also see: Bhikku Sujato (2012). A History of Mindfulness, Santipada, at p. 259.

[11] YS 2.49.

[12] YS 2.29.

[13] BG 4.29.

[14] BG 5.27-28.

[15] YS 2.49 (see Vācaspati’s gloss).

[16] HYP 2.62; HYP 2.54.

[17] HYP 2.2.

[18] EA 17.1.

[19] BG 5.27-28.

[20] EA 17.1, BG 5.27-28.

[21] EA 17.1.

[22] BG 5.27-28.

[23] MN 36.

[24] MN 36.

[25] MN 36.

[26] Mil 3.1.14.

[27] TU 2.3.1.

[28] Mil 3.1.14.

[29] MN 140.

[30] MN 140.

[31] SN 54.8 (translation by Bhikku Sujato).

[32] PU 3.12.

[33] SN 36.11 (translation by Bhikku Bodhi).

[34] T1670b 2.71.

[35] Vsm 8.176.

[36] Vsm 8.184.

[37] Vsm 8.184.

[38] VBT 24.

[39] VBT 155b.

[40] See: Swami Muktananda (2015). I Am That, Siddha Yoga Publications, at p. 36.

[41] VBT 154.

[42] VBT 155b (see Swami Satyasangananda Saraswati’s commentary).

[43] VBT 25.

[44] VBT 24.