Written by Petri Berndtson, Phd


Review by Gunnel Minett

The aim of this book is to investigate the connection between breathing and philosophy and the connection between respiration and thinking. Breathing is described here as: “a juncture of the physiological, psychological, existential, spiritual and cultural.” (p1). To analyse this further, the author suggests looking at the non-physiological dimensions of breathing that are our ‘lived experience’. To achieve this he sets out to write a systematic philosophical investigation of breathing. “This means that my study will be a bold overture to thinking of breathing as a philosophical question within the contexts of bodily phenomenology and phenomenological ontology and as such it will be a deepening and expansion of the fields of bodily phenomenological and phenomenologico-ontological research on dimensions of the respiratory body’s being-in-the-world and relations to Being.” (p3)

The author frequently returns to a quote by Merleau-Ponty: “there is really and truly inspiration and expiration of Being, respiration within Being” (p100). He uses this as an in-depth analysis in the book. This indicates a ‘deeper’ experience  of breathing than the common understanding of a biological necessity to supply the body with oxygen. Breathing is unique in that it is both automatic and beyond our immediate control but can also be ‘switched to manual control’ at any time. In that sense it is both a biological, physiological necessity to maintain life, but also a way to a deeper understanding of the  meaning of life.

To quote Alfred North Whitehead, “nature has no departments”. So to focus entirely on a philosophical analysis is to ignore the fact that the different functions of breathing require a proper clarification to be thoroughly understood. Not all breathing has the same intention and outcome, which is assumed to be the case in this book. The philosophical discussion throughout the book deals mainly with the outcome of deliberate changes to the normal breathing pattern, as in various breathing techniques. (These are often referred to as Breathwork.) So the physiological aspects of breathing are largely ignored. These breathing techniques usually make a clear distinction between the mechanical intake of air and ‘breathing’ in the sense of inhaling ‘Life Energy’, in the form of Prana, Chi or Atman. It is this ‘enriched’ air that has the capacity to alter the mind.

Although the book has a clear focus on this ‘enriching’ aspect of breathing, it fails to expand on, or explain the differences. Instead, in one of the few references to the biological aspect of breathing the he author states that: “Traditionally, breathing has been understood physiologically as a mechanistic-materialistic process of gas exchange and cellular respiration.” (p1) But by failing to make a distinction between this ‘physiological’ breathing and purposeful breathing, it’s left unclear as to how the latter can lead a person to a deeper level of awareness. Without purpose, even a marked increase in the rate of breathing will not bring ‘Respiratory Primacy of Being’. The outcome is much more likely to be plain hyperventilation, which has neither physical nor psychological benefits. 

So it would have greatly helped the understanding of the phenomenological discussion in the book if it contained a more extensive description of the differences. This is particularly the case in the chapter dealing with breathing and sleep: in this chapter the words ‘breathing’ and ‘air’ are used without further elaboration. It would have greatly expanded the scope of this book if it had presented the phenomena that can occur as a consequence of deliberately changing the breathing pattern, as in various Breathwork techniques. Such accounts often describe an opening up to non-ordinary states of consciousness, in which a much wider understanding of the world is experienced, compared with our ordinary states of consciousness.

The book has a clear focus on analysing the writings of a number of philosophers, in particular Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Martin Heidegger. As such the book offers a thorough analysis of their understanding of the ontology of breath. From this point of view the book will, doubtless, make a significant contribution to this highly specialised field of philosophy. However, there is no explanation as to why only these philosophers are analysed: why are others not included? For example; Stanislav Grof, John Buchanan, Alfred North Whitehead and Carl Jung, all of whose whose writings offer many insights into the effects of breathing on a deeper level. Another lacuna in the book’s bibliography is the dearth of works on the actual practice of Breathwork techniques. Only one book on this subject seems to be included and this one is written by Dan Brulé, who by his own admission has failed to grasp even the most basic principles of the client-therapist relationship and has had to withdraw from Breathwork to get help with his own psychological problems.

I also find it somewhat surprising that the mainly focus of the book seems to be an analysis of words and their meaning in connection with breathing, given that a common theme in the experiences of people practicing some form of Breathwork is that such experiences are very difficult to express in words. A person may have been taken to a ‘primordial realm’ far beyond words and deep into the unconscious, or even into a collective ‘universal consciousness’. Some say that to try to describe this is equivalent to having to ‘force the experiences through the eye of a needle’. Words are not the right tool. Experiences of this kind are ineffable. Words are simply not enough. As soon as you try to put the experiences into words, they are by definition reduced to something lesser and smaller than the initial experience. Having these kinds of ‘expanded-consciousness’ experience is a well-known phenomena among therapists, who have consequently developed ways to deal with them at the end of a session. The founder of Holotropic Breathwork, Stan Grof, for instance, uses mandala drawings for this purpose. Others use some form of free drawing or alternative forms of wordless expression to help with the transition between such experiences and everyday life. Similarly, in earlier cultures shamans and medicine men, guiding people through these kinds of experiences, often used symbols in the form of animals and spirits to manage this transition. Words are not the right medium for this purpose.

The book is described as the first of its kind to investigate the phenomenological ontology of breathing. As such it will most likely be a valuable contribution to this field of research, with its a decisive and insightful treatment of breath. (It is published as part of Routledge’s series on Critical Perspectives of Breath and Breathing.)

Published by Informa Law, Routledge, 2023, 169PP, Hardcover, ISBN 9781032428802