Breathing for Healing – A Historical View

Majid Ali, M.D.

In the oldest extant texts—inscribed on stones or other materials—the notion of the breath of life appears in different contexts as the central quality of living beings. I present this subject at length in my book The History and Philosophy of Integrative Medicine, the second volume of The Principles and Practice of Integrative Medicine (1998).8 One of the earliest and most succinct statements to that effect appears in the Sumerian creation mythology dated at about 3,000 B.C. It reads as follows: For the sake of the good things in their pure sheepfolds Man was given breath.9 A stone monument to Prince Gudéa (dated at about 2,200 B.C.) bears the following inscription: …generously endowed with the breath of life.9

The early Egyptians had rich imagination and were preoccupied with the occult. In the context of breathing and death, for reasons that escape me, they focused on ears rather than on nostrils. The Physician’s Secret: Knowledge of the Heart’s Movements and Knowledge of the Heart (1,600 to 1,500 B.C.) introduced the notion of two separate forms of breath and pronounced that: The breath of life enters into the right ear, and the breath of death enters into the left ear.9

Pharaoh Akhenaton (about 1,350 B.C.) was among the earliest monotheists of history. He housed his God in the sun. For the priests and commoners of his time, his hymn writers wrote the following words: ….[the sun] Who giveth breath to animate every one that he maketh. The theme of the breath of life continues into the Old Testament (Genesis, chapter 2, verse 7) as: God Yahweh formed man from clouds in the soil and blew into his nostrils the breath of life. Thus man became a living being. The Greek Anaximenses (494 B.C.), the third philosopher of Miletus, also weighed in on the subject with the following words: The fundamental substance is air. The soul is air, fire is rarified air, when condensed, air becomes water, then if further condensed, earth, and finally stone. Consequently all differences between different substances are quantitative, depending entirely upon the degree of condensation.10

Qi, Ka, Pneuma, Mana, and Rûahh

All creations in the universe are energy beings. The earlier peoples seemed to have grasped this truth a long time before the modern physicists did. Indeed, the concepts of body energetics dominated the theory and practice of medicine in nearly all ancient healing philosophies. For instance, Qi (chi, energy) is a central concept in Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).11 Egyptians used the term ka for the same meaning. The Greeks, Polynesians, and the Jews called it pneuma, mana, and rûahh respectively. The expression “life-force” is the commonly employed Western equivalent.

The concept of healing energy is eminently displayed in both TCM and Indian Ayurvedic models. TCM is a syncretic blend of Confucian, Taoist, wushu (Chinese martial art), Buddhist, and other schools of knowledge and thought concerning human health. Huang Di Nei Jing (The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, circa 475-221 B.C.) is widely regarded as the best compendium of TCM philosophy and therapeutics.12 Chinese Qi, Indian prana, and Egyptian ka, in reality, are three words for the same energetic phenomenon. Indeed, the literal translation of qigong is breathing exercise, while that of prana is energy of breath. Both Qi and prana are intended to facilitate regulation of respiration (as well as other bodily functions), posture, and mind. That is precisely what Westerners would consider homeostasis, in its broadest sense.

The Western expedience often translates the words qi, prana, and ka as energy. However, it seems that the ancient Chinese, Indians, and Egyptians preceded Einstein’s concept of energy-matter dynamics by nearly three thousand years. They pronounced that energy and matter could not be separated. Qi in the Chinese writings stood neither for energy nor for matter. Similarly, the Indian prana and the Egyptian ka, in my view, are also properly seen in the same light. The common theme in all those traditions was the linkages between breath, energy, and life.

The ancient Indic healing traditions—Ayurvedic, Buddhists, and others—focused sharply on the value of specific breathing methods in their healing arts. Growing up in Islamic Pakistan, I was unaware of any of those methods. That did not change during my years of medical education in Pakistan and during surgical training in England. During most of my years in hospital pathology, I became aware of the “New Age” movement and its preoccupation with self-healing. However, I remained essentially sequestered from that. In the mid-1980s, I became interested in the exploration of the true potential of self-regulation in integrative medicine. I made a conscious decision not to study the ancient literature on the subject so I could experience the reality personally and to see it through the eyes of my patients. About five years later when I read ancient texts on the subject, I was much gratified to recognize that what I had experienced personally with limbic breathing and what my patients told me about it was essentially the same as I found in the ancient books. In all, I taught auto-regulation to my patients in three-hour training sessions every Wednesday for thirteen years.

For Illustration, Graphs, and Tables

For a full chapter on Limbic Breathing with case histories, photographs, illustration, graphs, and tables, please consider my book “The Cortical Monkey and Healing” available at

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