Those practicing yoga don’t need to be persuaded of the benefits of a regular practice: whatever the style of yoga you’re into, the combination of physical, vocal and respiratory exercises (if they are to be distinguished) restores physical and mental balance in no time. Very regular or indeed daily practice, as in Mysore style Ashtanga yoga, provides even more striking results. As I tried a Jivamukti class for the first time a few weeks ago, I was reminded of some aspects of the practice that sometimes get downplayed in other classes, such as chanting – but the use of vocal organs in yoga stretches further than that, with a large array of meditation-related ‘sounds’ (such as the ‘humming bee’) to relax the nervous system, especially around the head. More obvious is the use of pranayama, or controlled breathing, in most yoga classes, from restorative to more dynamic styles. In Iyengar classes, pranayama is a particularly serious affair.

I promised a post about Galen and Yoga quite a long time ago, because it struck me that ancient medical texts hint at ‘similar’ exercises around the breath and even the voice. I delayed the writing of this post because the thought of endless caveats I ought to make. As I do not read sanskrit and have very limited knowledge of ancient vedic texts, I don’t see how I could possibly produce a proper comparison between early Indian and Greek thoughts in this respect. More importantly, the ‘similarity’ between what is after all a modern version of ancient practice (yoga as we learn it nowadays) and ancient Greek medical texts can only be very distant. This is not a research article, after all, only a blog post. So it is not forbidden to reflect on how ancient Greek medicine, too, used respiratory and vocal techniques for hygienic and therapeutic purposes. Moreover, the problematic connections between early India and Greece are under increased scrutiny.

The focus on medicine here is partly misleading: in fact, while doctors could prescribe respiratory and vocal exercises to their patients, such techniques were more widely in use, for example in rhetoric. The exercises that Demosthenes had to go through to correct his elocution problems, such as speaking along the roaring sea, or with stones in his mouth, are well-known. Historical figures struggling with stammering have recently got a lot of public attention, such as King George V. Actors, not just rhetors and doctors, were experts in voice training. They practised a lot, sometimes with props to restrict some respiratory muscles in order to make other muscle groups work (i.e. abdominal vs. thoracic muscles). In antiquity, exercising one’s voice as regularly as possible was seen as a healthy practice, both for social and public life (where speaking was essential), and for hygienic reasons: various vocal exercises (‘vocal exercise’ generally translates anaphonèsis, ) were recommended, from modulated chanting (from the lower tones to the higher, but not too high), to reading aloud and declamation. Such routine exercises of a mild nature, along with simple walks or massages, could protect you from disease, especially as they were thought to remove moisture from the body. Excessive or unsound practice could, in turn, have devastating consequences for health (so does poorly conducted pranayama practice!). Medical treatises dealt with such exercises in detail; a famous example is a piece by Antyllus, preserved in Oribasius VI, 8-10. Antyllus was particularly concerned with the benefits of increased pneuma circulation inside the body, helping purify the body whilst also energising it. Different steps could be taken to control this salutary breathing movement, and doctors were keen to explain them and integrate them in their prescriptions. This will certainly make some think of the role of prana and of respiratory exercises in yoga (effects of increased prana intake, slower exhalation,…). Vocal exercises were part of a more general respiratory routine that could benefit certain kinds of patients even more than others: Caelius Aurelianus, a 5th c. AD physician, especially recommends such pleasing exercises for maniacs.

What was Galen’s role in all this is? Well, Galen devoted a whole 6-book treatise to hygiene or how to remain healthy (De sanitate tuenda, commonly known as ‘Hygiene’). Many aspects of daily life are taken into account, from food and sleep to various types of exercise, but breathing techniques appear in book III (esp. ch. 2, see pp. 103-106 of Green’s translation, 1951). For Galen, these are part of the process of recuperation that is recommended after strenuous physical exercise (which may include sex), which Galen calls ‘apotherapy’. Massage of a certain kind (not too strong) is recommended, but so is abdominal breathing, obtained by controlling various muscle groups – the role of the diaphragm is emphasised here, as everything below (especially internal organs) can be efficiently pressured and purged by adequate respiratory action. Galen refers to ‘breath retention’ as a step towards pushing the diaphragm downwards, in order to compress the abdominal cavity. This pause, where the breath is momentarily suspended, is crucial. So is it in yoga, where it allows more control of the exhalation. This will certainly ring a bell with those familiar with restorative yoga – and, since Galen even recommends wrapping oneself with blankets (especially in the thoracic region) during the practice, the similarity is even more striking.

Galen’s approach here is purely physical. This ‘apotherapy’ routine is best designed for those who may face more strenuous types of exercise or work, but ‘restorative yoga’ is also known to work better following a fair bit of physical activity (asana practice), isn’t it? The emphasis on the physical benefits of breathing techniques, combined with massage and a good warming blanket, is a feature of ancient hygiene that does not entirely fit modern yoga practice, where the benefits of such actions are aimed at the spiritual, too. A spiritual motive is not mentioned in the aforementioned medical texts. Ancient rhetors and doctors, as well as actors and all those who made great use of their voices, were only explicitly concerned with the good functioning of their physical body, and with practical life. But while boundaries between rhetorical and hygienic exercises may look a bit blurred here, it is worth remembering that the focus on breath, life and voice in ancient Greek thought was once of a more spiritual nature. Original exercises of breath retention were probably techniques to approach death and thus meditate on the limits of human life. Early Greek philosophers saw the contraction of the diaphragm (phrenes, or prapides were indeed the centre of thinking and of all emotional life) as the quintessential purificatory action for the soul. Debru rightly points out that doctors have ‘rationalised’ some early stories of breath retention and apparent death as pathological cases (as in ‘hysterical suffocation’), though they were probably early examples of spiritual practices imitating death. Those were perhaps not recognised as such any more, but the practice remained in a milder form in common hygiene. Thus the common breathing techniques used in everyday Rome in Galen’s time to achieve a better health may not be entirely unrelated with yoga-style practices.

I don’t need Galen to enjoy savasana (quite the opposite!), but I like to think he was a bit yogic. After all, his name means ‘calm’, ‘serene’.

Suggested reading:

Galen, Hygiene, tr. R. M. Green, 1951

A. Debru, Le corps respirant. La pensée physiologique chez Galien, Leiden, Brill, 1996 (see esp. ch. 8: “Hygiène et exercices respiratoires”)

M. Gleason, Making Men. Sophists and self-presentation in ancient Rome, Princeton University Press, 1995 (ch. 4, “Aerating the flesh: voice training and the calisthenics of gender”)

A. Rousselle, “Parole et inspiration: Le travail de la voix dans le monde romain”, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 1983, 129-157