Breath is Life

Wednesday 24 August, 14:30–16:00
Sibelius Museum

“Breath is Life” – The Internal Wind in Yoga, Spirituality and Science

Måns Broo, Venerable Thich Hanh Bao, Janne Kontala, Viveka Lyberg Åhlander, Markku Penttonen

Breath, the internal wind or internal air can of course be theorised and operationalised in many different ways. This explorative session brings together a number of exciting perspectives from science and spirituality, theory and practice. After an introductory blessing from venerable Thich Hanh Bao, abbot of the Liên Tâm Buddhist Monastery in Turku, Dr. Måns Broo from Åbo Akademi University will say a few words on how this topic has been understood in Indian systems of thought. Dr. Janne Kontala, also from Åbo Akademi University, will then lead us in a practical exploration of our breath, after which professor Viveka Lyberg Åhlander, also of Åbo Akademi University, will enlighten us to the interface of breath and speech. Dr. Markku Penttonen, University of Jyväskylä, will then help us understand how breathing improves learning and regulates the interaction of neural circuits in the brain during sleep. Finally, venerable Thich Hanh Bao will guide us through a breath-centred meditation, closing the session.

Dr. Måns Broo is a lecturer at the Department of the Study of Religions at Åbo Akademi University and a research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. His research interests focus on Hinduism both in history and in the contemporary world. At present, he is engaged in compiling a text-critical edition and annotated translation of a 16th century Sanskrit ritual text called the Hari-bhakti-vilāsa. He lives in Åbo, Finland, with his wife, daughter and dog.

Venerable Thich Hanh Bao, a 42nd generation master of the Lâm Tế Zen School, is the abbot of Liên Tâm Buddhist Monastery in Turku, Finland. He received full ordination as a monk in 1994 at Phap Hoa Pagoda, Marseille, France. He has been teaching Buddha Dharma for nearly 30 years. Since 2002, he has been an elected member of the executive committee of The World Buddhist Sangha Council (WBSC). In addition, he served as the abbot of Van Hanh Pagoda, Denmark, for 10 years, and besides Liên Tâm Monastery, he is also the abbot of the Vien Y Pagoda in Italy.

Viveka Lyberg Åhlander is a certified speech therapist. She is Professor of Logopedics at Åbo Akademi University. Lyberg Åhlander has extensive experience of clinical work with patients with voice disorders. Lyberg Åhlander’s research focuses on voice and voice problems, and on how the speaker’s voice quality and communication affect the listener’s understanding of the message. Air is the medium that carries the sound signal all the way from the vocal folds into the listener’s ear. Breath and air are the keys to our possibility to communicate orally in our interactions. The individual’s experience of breath giving a functioning voice in speech and singing is a corner stone in wellbeing.

Janne Kontala: Stilling the mind by pranayama
I examine the interconnectedness of mind and prana as theorised in two well-known yoga texts. Yoga-sutra and its commentarial tradition (from ca 400 CE) discuss the means by which breathing in a particular way leads to the ability to concentrate. Hatha-yoga Pradipika develops this idea comparing the connection between mind and prana with the mixture of milk and water. The two are simultaneously either in a state of movement or stillness. I argue these insights are indirectly utilised in modern yoga, despite the relatively minor importance given to pranayama.

With background from both traditional and contemporary studies in yoga, Janne Kontala holds the highest teacher certification granted by Yoga Alliance (E-RYT® 500, YACEP®). His PhD is in religious studies from Åbo Akademi University, where he worked between 2011–2020 in two research projects financed by the Academy of Finland. He trains yoga-teachers in Scandinavia, Belgium and Malaysia, and has authored two books on yoga.

Markku Penttonen is a senior researcher and an adjunct professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Jyväskylä, Department of Psychology. He has studied brain in health (brain circuits at Rutgers University) and disease (ischemia and epilepsy at the University of Kuopio).  His current research focuses on the role of rhythmic activity of the body and brain in learning and human interaction.  He is especially interested in how the different phases of breathing and heartbeat affect learning and memory. Another current research focus is embodiment in psychological therapy, more specifically, how bodily functions including movements, breathing, heartbeat and electrodermal activity contribute to the therapeutic processes of an individual and a couple.

Our recent studies show that the memory trace of the almost simultaneous occurrence of two events is better when we experience them during the expiration phase of breathing than during the inspiration phase. Furthermore, the diastolic phase of heartbeat is more favorable for memory formation than the systolic phase. Together, learning is more efficient when the events to be linked together as a memory occur during the resting state of the lungs and heart than during the working phase.  Furthermore, the neuronal response of the cerebral cortex is larger to the first event when it occurs during expiration of breathing and diastole of heartbeat. Thus, at the behavioural and neuronal level the phase of respiratory and cardiovascular system activation importantly contributes to learning. To further highlight the importance of breathing for memory formation, other studies show that during sleep breathing controls the brain neuronal activations important for the formation of permanent memories.