An Irishwoman’s Diary

Posted on August 11, 2010



BREATHING. Most of the time we don’t think about it: we just do it. You probably weren’t thinking about it as you started to read this paragraph. If you’ve ever tried to practise meditation, on the other hand – or yoga, or even certain sports such as shooting or archery – you begin to suspect that you’ve been breathing incorrectly all your life.

Now focus on your breath, your tutor will say. Simple, right? But when you get into it a bit more deeply, you’ll find yourself struggling to deepen (without friction), to lengthen (without choking) and to make your abdomen go up and down in the correct sequence – depending, of course, on whether you’re doing abdominal breathing or reverse abdominal breathing. Eventually you end up in a tangled, gasping, self-conscious, nerve-racked knot. Which is not, to put it mildly, the aim of the exercise.

So the opening sentence of Louis Hughes’s book The Art of Allowing: the Breath in Meditation and in Life is as welcome as – well, as a breath of fresh air. “I gave up breathing,” he writes, “about 20 years ago.” A Dominican priest who studied yoga when he was stationed at Nagpur in India, Father Hughes has been giving yoga and guided meditation retreats in Ireland and the UK since the 1970s. As the years go by he has, he says, become more and more convinced that breath is a key element in personal and spiritual transformation. “Over the past 20 years the idea has been growing on me all the time that breathing is a gift. That ‘my’ breath’ is actually ‘the’ breath. That somehow, it’s bigger than we are.”

Much of the current literature on the topic is, he suggests, overly complicated and inflexible. “They say ‘breathe this way’ and ‘breathe that way’. Instead, he believes, it’s a matter of letting go. In our control-freak culture, however, that’s not easy either.

“The driven-ness of society today – the sense of being in control – makes it very difficult to let go in any meaningful way. People have great difficulty with the apparently simple message of this book. But that’s what the exercises are there for – to help people recognise the difficulties around control, and work through them.”

In the summer of 2007, by a sort of happy accident rather than some carefully worked-out spiritual plan, I signed up for one of Father Hughes’s week-long retreats. He arrived in a tracksuit. He exuded efficiency and kindliness in equal measures.

He began by teaching us a practical 20-minute stretching routine; and he never once told us how to breathe. Nevertheless, after just one session I realised I had actually been holding my breath for years – probably, I’m guessing in retrospect, in an attempt to impose order on my life following the catastrophe of bereavement and the chaos of grief and loss.

Such a strategy comes as no surprise to Father Hughes. “The breath is like a map of our spiritual state,” he says. “An agitated spirit means agitated breathing; a controlling spirit won’t let go of the breath.” This link between breath and spirit is not a new idea, he adds, but a very old one.

“Ancient languages – Sanskrit, Chinese, Hebrew, even Greek – do not have separate words for breath, on the one hand, and soul, or spirit, on the other. You have prana in Sanskrit, chi in the Chinese tradition, pneuma in Greek. And in Hebrew, ruach. It’s obvious that in the culture of those societies the notions of breath and spirit are inseparable.”

Father Hughes does not subscribe to the notion that the body is primarily a kind of elaborate nuisance, or a source of sin which needs to be tamed and overcome. That’s an approach which is beloved of certain strands of Christianity, he says – but not all of them. On the other hand, for Westerners to assume that other world religious – such as Hinduism – take a more holistic approach to the body-mind question is, he says, somewhat naive.

“One of the paradoxes of Hinduism is that despite the physicality of yoga postures, and the attention to breath and so on, the theology within which this evolved is very often dualistic and exclusively spirit-centred. There are, of course, many different philosophies within Hinduism – far more than within Christianity – but what’s common to them all is that the body is of little account. With the yoga postures you begin with the body in order to forget all about the body.”

For Father Hughes integration, not separation, is the name of the spiritual game. He works from within a Christian perspective, but his message is valid for people of all faiths and none; and a day in his company is always a joy.

His next week-long retreat will be at Myross Wood near Leap, in west Cork, from August 18th to 25th; he’ll be giving one-day courses at The Sanctuary in Stanhope Street, Dublin on October 16th and on March 5th, 2011. He’ll also be at The Integritas Centre in Kilkenny on a regular basis. He can be contacted at the Black Abbey in Kilkenny or through his website,

The Art of Allowing , by Louis Hughes, is published by Columba Press

Posted in: Yoga