Carl Jung on pranayama breathing

19 September, 2019
By Marco Levi

Of the many essays Carl Gustav Jung, psychoanalysis’ genius, renegade child, devoted to the world of eastern disciplines and philosophies, there is one of particular significance to us: Yoga and the West. First appearing in the late 1930s, coinciding with a trip to India, where the author was being honored by a number of local universities, the message it conveyed still feels vital to this day, especially with regard to spiritual growth.

If, on the one hand, Jung is skeptical about the possibility that a western individual, torn between science, faith and money, be actually able to “open up” to Yoga and really “practice” it, on the other, when referring to prana breathing (the way he witnessed it being practiced in India), he senses that words alone are not going to be enough to connect man to the Universe.

 

The East breathes

“Through exercise, yoga gets the body in touch with the wholeness of the spirit, as it appears from pranayama exercises, in which the prana is at once breath and universal dynamic of the cosmos.”

To the Swiss academic, it is on the ability to breathe that a true perspective of growth can be built, as well as the true sense of yogism. After all, it is hardly coincidental (albeit possibly unconscious) how the word “exercise” appears twice in the short segment, in reference to the cultivation of one’s own prana.

“With the word prana, the Yogi means a good deal more than simple breathing… It is the whole metaphysical component… He doesn’t know through intellect, but through his heart, and through his bowels.”

The vision of the Yogis is deeply unsettling for Jung: it’s as if he could “see” the very cells of their bodies breathe, opening and closing. And this living image he brings back to the West. And it is the silence of a quiet mind, the Aum, expression of an invisible yoga that does not speak, does not fragment, but invites everyone to reflect and ask themselves: can I breathe?

 

The West divides

Jung uses this image of a mystical, even quite ideal Indian way, to oppose the West, attacking it, showing how far away and deluded it can be, about knowing how to breathe, about being woke, being yogi. The West simply can’t grasp the notion of yoga practice.

“And so, from the start the split within the western spirit makes it impossible to properly achieve the purpose of yoga. It turns it into either a strictly religious phenomenon, or a kind of training for mnemonic techniques, respiratory gymnastics and so forth…”

Jung is basically telling us that, due to their nature, once Westerners were able to hold this new exotic toy called yoga in their hands, they dissected it and studied it one piece at a time, perhaps also so they could be able to better resell it?

Jung reminds us that such a mindset is formally opposed to the way of yoga, which encourages the cultivation of the field of unity: uniting the soul and the cosmos, into a deep breath.