Our breath carries with it our life force. Thoughts always flow with the breath,
indivisible. With fear, the heart races and breathe becomes shallow and quick. In triumph, we
raise our arms and take a grand, victorious breath, filling up our lungs with the air we confidently
claim as our own. In anger, our airways narrow and tighten, shooting breaths in defiance like fire
from a dragon’s nostrils. These expressions of inner states bring will through our bodies into the
physical realm. This manifestation of the mind begins deep in the core, at the solar plexus chakra
where our ego identity lives and where our breath transforms. Taking in what feeds us, letting go
of what no longer serves, this constant flux of life is so central to our being, yet so easy to take
for granted. However, the practices of yoga and meditation are ones of deep focus on the flow of
air and thoughts within us, using them as powerful tools of transformation.
Envisioned as an ideal preparation to extended meditation for children, Ashtanga yoga
incorporates acrobatics and high intensity poses to a greater extent than other practices. Every
movement flows with a precisely prescribed breath in a balance of tension and release that
“flosses out the body” (Cunningham-Ryan). Attention on the breath is universal to all yoga
practices. What distinguishes Ashtanga in my experience is the constant engagement of the core.
Consequently, it is an ideal practice for building an inner flame. As we will see, this flame is an
essential tool for releasing the ego and connecting with a higher self in deep, centered
Central to the Ashtanga practice is the activation of the Bandhas. By tensing the Mula
Bandha, located at the pelvic floor, and the Uddiyana Bandha, pulling the abdomen inwards and
up into the ribcage, breath is thought to be locked into the body, creating a powerful influx of air
(Cunningham-Ryan). One can imagine this air swirling in a frenzy as the body expands with
energetic potential. In concert with the Ujjayi breath, forcing the spine to lengthen, and using Jalandhara Bandha (tucking the chin into the chest), one might feel the potential. Ujjayi translates to “victorious breath.” With
its open airway and distinct “Hah” sound, focus is achieved, leading to a “victory over the mind”
With this fervent life force honed inside of us, we are primed for transformation. In the
language of the chakras, we have established our ground at the root chakra, bolstered through a
strong Mula Bandha, and mobilized our sacral chakra in attentive flow from pose to pose. With
vitalized breathing, our solar plexus chakra becomes the tempestuous breeding ground of
physical energy from these lower chakras and psychical energies from the upper chakras. In
other words, thoughts are bound to pop up. These may be events from the day, a fight still
brewing from last night, or even a childhood memory that seems entirely irrelevant to the
moment. It is tempting to shake off these ruminations in an effort to be more in the moment, but
in the spirit of mindfulness, thoughts should be attended to and released just like the breaths. In
the same way, this psychical material provides an opportunity for growth and release, allowing
us to change patterns that spin around in our heads throughout the day.
Judith Anodea sees the solar plexus chakra as not only the source of will and ego, but
where ideas can be rejected to the shadow of our personality (Anodea, p 175-180). By breathing
into this chakra, these ideas can be recovered, bubbling up from the unconscious, sometimes as
unpleasant mental imagery and unwanted thoughts. To repress such notions is to keep them alive as recurring feelings that influence our lives. Instead, we should seek to understand our thoughts,
find their roots in experience, and reincorporate the essential aspects of our ego that we wish to
keep alive. By breathing into feelings as they come up, we can integrate the unconscious
energies of the lower chakras with the spiritual vision of the upper chakras. This encourages a
conscious process of individuation, putting us in the driver’s seat of life (Anodea, p 175-180).
This was the goal of 17 th century alchemists. In tandem with their legendary efforts to
turn lead into gold, or more likely as a metaphorical equivalent, these proto psychologists
pursued the “sacrifice of the ego for a higher level of being” (Hauck, p. 175). Among their many
hermetical rituals, the exercise called “bellow’s breath” is identical to the breath of fire in yoga
practice. By inhaling and exhaling in a rhythmic, forceful fashion, a fire can be imagined, fanned
by the bellows in our belly. In addition to these breaths, dances and other aerobic exercises were
performed by alchemists in order to raise their metabolic rate. The focus of these acts was on the
“heat rising up within” (Hauck, p. 184-185). The goal of this process is “burning off the dross,”
or described without reference to chemistry procedures, doing away with the unnecessary
attachments of the ego. As feelings such as fear and anger appeared to them, alchemists would
imagine the fire of their essence engulfing them, casting away the failures of their ego to realize
a false self (Hauck, p 170-171).
In Hindu mythology, Shiva, the god of the physical realm, encompassing both order and
destruction, can be thought of as a downward force through the chakras (in balance with Shakti’s
creative, upward kundalini energy), that “destroys ignorance, attachment, and illusion” (Anodea,
p. 454-455). Similarly, in Buddhist mythology, Fudo, pictured below, is imagined trampling
“obstructions to an enlightened mind” under his fiery feet (University of Pennsylvania). The common thread here is that there are parts of the ego that need to be shed before meditative contemplation of the transpersonal can be achieved. Whether that is done by imagining feeding
an inner flame, praying for the aid of a wrathful higher entity, or even releasing in compassionate
surrender, is up to you. What Ashtanga yoga provides is a structured flow of energy that
facilitates such powerful transformation.
In the series of poses that creates tension and release while cultivating a fiery dragon’s
breath, we can watch as our mental and physical form moves in rhythm, listening as our soul
speaks to us, choosing what we wish to manifest and casting into the fire what no longer serves
us. At the end of our practice, we should find ourselves humbled (Cunningham-Ryan), having
“gained respect for the powerful hidden forces within us” (Hauck, p 186), ready to connect with
our spirit in meditation. That is why we thank those that have passed this practice down to us
(Cunningham-Ryan), grateful for the opportunity to strengthen the core that holds us upright
(Anodea, p 180), helping us breathe our will into manifestation, on and off of the mat.
Anodea, J. (1996). Eastern Body Western Mind: Psychology and the Chakra System as a Path to
the Self. New York, NY: Celestial Arts.
Brewer, J. M. (photograph). (2019, October). Photo from Fudo Exhibit. Philadelphia, PA:
University of Pennsylvania Museum of History.
Cunningham-Ryan, J. (2019, October). Ashtanga Modified Primary Series. PE 1428. Lecture at
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.
Hauck, D. W. (1999). The Emerald Tablet: Alchemy for Personal Transformation. New York,
NY: Penguin Arkana.