With this post we begin a series on a topic central to Sufi studies, the breath. In this first instalment, Hazrat Inayat Khan speaks in general about the breath, and about its importance to our physical being. In the third paragraph, he mentions ‘Sandow’, referring to Eugene Sandow, a Prussian body-builder and teacher of physical culture who was active at the time. In the final paragraph of this section, Hazrat Inayat refers to the gaining of weight, which was seen at the time as an indication of health and strength.
To a mystic, the subject of breath is the deepest of all the subjects with which mysticism or philosophy is concerned, because breath is the most important thing in life. The very life of man is breath. He lives in the presence of breath, and in the absence of breath man is called a corpse. After death the organs of the body are just the same as before; the only thing that is lacking is breath.
Breath is that within ourselves which keeps all the parts of the body in connection with one another, working together, depending upon one another; it is that which enables man to move, to put his muscles into action, to keep the whole mechanism of the body always at work. There is no other force or power concerned in all this than the power of breath.
Mystics know that it is regularity of breath that brings good health, that irregularity of breath is the cause of all illness. Many teachers and students of physical culture know that it is not the exercises and practices of this culture that cause the muscles to develop, that impart strength and vigor to the body; they know, as did the ancient mystics in India, that it is a matter of the breath. To practice for one moment with the help of the breath will do more than a whole day’s exercises carried on without considering the help of the breath. In the latter case, the muscles cannot be developed, whereas in the former case the physical body is easily developed with very little physical practice. That this is true is easily shown by looking at the porters at railway-stations in India. If physical labor were the only thing needed to develop muscles, would they not all be veritable Sandows?
In India, we can study particularly well how men work with heavy things. Sometimes a man will carry on his shoulder a burden that it would ordinarily be impossible for a man of his physique to carry. Yet such a man can not only lift it, but he will walk with it. And when one watches him, one will find that the secret lies in his way of breathing. If he did not breathe correctly, he could not possibly carry such a weight over the shortest distance. There was in India a man called Rama Muti. He could lift elephants and stop motor-cars running at speed. When this man, who was not extraordinary in build, was asked where he got this gigantic strength, for he looked like an ordinary human being, not like a monster, he said, ‘You know, and yet you do not know. The secret lies in the breath, which is all power.’
As man cannot see it, he does not believe in the possibility of breath giving power. He attaches importance only to the things he can see and hear and touch. He is so material that he cannot see anything beyond what his physical eyes are able to see. He is like a blind person, who can only feel and not see. He cannot see that strength is something greater than a rock. How difficult it is for a man to perceive the truth of the Bible saying, which says that faith will remove mountains. He thinks mountains are stronger than faith. He wonders how faith can be stronger than the rocks and the mountains. Man cannot lift the mass of a mountain; surely the mountain is stronger than faith! The idea is too subtle, too fine for him to understand.
And it is the same with all other fine and subtle things in life. So much more importance is given to the study of the material sciences, while the spiritual, the higher knowledge, is neglected. More importance is always given to the development of bodily strength. Therefore, when a man goes to the seaside, often the first thing he does is to weigh himself, so that he can find out how many pounds he has gained during his holiday. He never thinks how little time it will take to lose all those pounds again. The weight he has gained at the seaside he will lose again. He does not understand that it is energy that makes a person move and feel active and in good health, not the bodily weight. Is it not true that the addition of weight to the body makes him lazy and comfort-seeking, and often results in illness? And yet how pleased many people are when they have gained in weight!
To be continued…