Artwork credit: Vinayak Varma

Breath is the Beginning Again

Susan Mathews

“We have quit tasting the breeze, stopped noticing the steady gift of our breath, and generally forgotten the air.”[1]

David Abrams, “The Commonwealth of Breath”

The title of this blog is inspired by Mark Strand’s brilliant poem Breath. I thought it was apt because I need constant reminding, two years after starting this magazine, that in our present breath lies the potential for renewal and to learn from the breath before.

To speak about breath, for me, is to first navigate the neglect of it, our “forgetting of air” as Luce Irigaray, the French feminist philosopher deftly put it while questioning older, white, and yes, male philosophical traditions. In Atmospheres of Breathing, Škof & Berndtson write that “Modern philosophy’s dualism is impossible if the starting principle of philosophising is the experience of breathing, as breathing perpetually intertwines the self, the body, and the world.” [2]

When I planned this blog, breath was not the initial object of inquiry. For the past year, I’ve been on an elemental quest on our podcast, the Subverse. The theme of season 2 was ‘water’, and in our current season, I explore ‘fire.’ The plan was to write a blog on fire, combining bits and pieces that would tie in some of the concepts covered in the podcast, with a nod to our second anniversary. However, as I studied fire, I could not resist exploring its relationship with respiration. As Stephen Pyne, a prolific writer, fire historian and my first podcast guest in this season writes, “Fire’s biological makeup is fundamental. It takes apart what photosynthesis puts together. When that occurs in cells, we term it respiration.”[3]

Breath is a slow combustion of respiration, complementing and competing with the fast combustion of fire holding the planet in a pyric balance. So as a species, we wield fire and we breathe fire, albeit very slowly. In this blog, I explore the symbolism, politics, and poetics of breath. I also speak of cosmic and biosphere breath, and how the burning of fossil biomass (what Pyne refers to as “third fire”) takes away our breath and lethally alters the air we breathe.

Breath is clearly connected to all elements — air, water, earth, fire, and, for the purpose of this piece, wind. Breath and wind have an interesting symbolic bond. As for water, life began in the oceans, and there began the assimilation of oxygen, without which we would not have a habitable atmosphere. So, without these watery beginnings, and the watery milieu of our cells, life would not catch fire. And as for air and earth, I will go into more detail later in this blog.

So here it is, my paean to breath. This is not a compendium of breath but a small jar of my favourite treats.

Life of Breath: ritual, ontology, and cosmology

“We breathe first at birth, and death is quite literally breath-taking.”[4]

John Durham Peters, “The Media of Breathing”

Breath accompanies us from cradle to grave. And as Mark Strand writes in Breath, “even the forced syllables of decline are breath, that if the body is a coffin it is also a closet of breath.”

Breath is an ongoing metabolic act that is vital, dynamic, energetic yet elusive, ephemeral, and shadowy; an absent yet constant presence. It is a hinge on the doors of perception, cognition, and ignition, acting “as an interface, a living nexus between voluntary and involuntary, visible and invisible, interior and exterior.”[5]

As Oxley & Russel write, “Breathing arguably signals the first independent and autonomous act of life. Yet, for many ontologies, breath is not only fundamental for individual life but can be the very basis of what comprises a more amorphous, yet frequently powerful, collective experience.” [6]

With bestsellers like Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor, published in 2020, followed by the Covid-19 outbreak, a disease fundamentally affecting the breath, breath is having quite a moment, “as a spiritual practice, as a medical urgency, as a record to be broken, as a biological need put into peril by climate change or industrial pollution.”[7] Given the oversaturation of breath devoted to health and wellness, I wanted to focus on some of the more abstract and ecological, social, cultural, and political concerns around breath.

First, we need to reconnect air and earth. Breath takes place in an airy and, for some, in a spirit realm. But breath also exists in a visceral realm; it animates flesh and as some Chinese thinkers point out “the true man breathes with his heels”,[8] which I read as a call to action, that breath should be actionable, not merely shallow and chest high. As a corollary, Tim Ingold writes that “Though it may not exactly melt into air, the body certainly walks, breathes, feels and knows in it.”[9]

Breath is an ongoing metabolic act that is vital, dynamic, energetic yet elusive, ephemeral, and shadowy; an absent yet constant presence. 

This correlates with what we find in many traditions and cultures. Chinese, Indian, and Japanese philosophies focus on the breath of life, as qi, prana or ki. The Māori are one of several cultures where breathing goes beyond the simple act of inhaling and exhaling. The expression “Thei mauriora!” refers to their creation story when the first human was fashioned from clay in a first exchange of breath. There are many classifications of breath for the Māori, such as “hau”, “hauora” and “ha” and its related functions. But all speak of vitality of life, the environment, and connect to this first breath. Of course, we find the notion of humans being formed out of clay and dust in Judeo-Christian religions, but it does not always translate into a way of living or a constant remembrance.

As an example of the variety of cosmologies, and how breath is addressed in different languages and cultures,[10] the Khoisian peoples of Southern Africa refer to the wind as the breath of God that gives life. In Inuit and Yupik cosmologies, Sila is a mysterious breath-like power, or spiritual essence residing throughout nature, including in humans. For the Nilotic languages, the root for ‘breath’ and life are the same (wei in Shilluk and Dinka; we in LebLango). The Shipibo from Peru have a term ‘niwe’ that encompasses air, wind, smell, sound, aura, atmosphere, and breath in one. For the Kukajata people of the Australian Western desert, “to breathe and to live is to acknowledge a shared history with the environment as the ‘wind, both material and spiritual’, becomes breath as it penetrates the body’s opening.”[11]

Breath as a cultural meeting point

On breathing and craft, for the Dogon people from Mali, West Africa, “who are best known for their deeply symbolic sculptures and impressive masquerades”, breath is the “divine warp and weft”,[12] intrinsic to their mythologies in the art of weaving. When a weaver draws his shuttle across the warp threads on a loom, his actions “are likened to breath passing between teeth.”[13] One creation myth explains how a spirit ancestor took the form of a living loom on earth to transmit divine worlds into woven cloth. This symbolism is woven into all parts of their daily life.

Words and language are nothing but spoken breath. In languages such as Hebrew, the vowels were not originally written as they had to be spoken and enunciated, breathing life into language. Breath is as vitally important in singing, in theatre, dancing, calligraphy, playing music, and a range of artforms. Some of these artforms use synchronised, collective breathing to bring about trance-like ecstatic states, such as the Turkish Sufi brotherhoods through music, poetry, sama (dance) and dikhr or zikr (breath).[14] Sreenath Nair, in Restoration of Breath: Consciousness and Performance (2007), quoted by Oxley & Russell, speaks of the Rasa, or aesthetic flavour, where he correlated the expression of emotion with particular breathing patterns. For example, eroticism where the breath would be drawn from the lower abdomen and pushed slowly and gradually up till it reached the centre of the head.[15]

There is always this stillness in an arena or hall before a performance begins. It is an intermingling and a settling of the breath, an invisible accord, and then the performance begins. An overture of breath. 

In Chinese and Japanese traditions, breath is an aesthetic category where mutual resonance between actor and audience is achieved via the mutual exchange of breath.[16] Having done some amateur theatre acting in my youth and having watched so many concerts and plays, this makes sense. There is always this stillness in an arena or hall before a performance begins. It is an intermingling and a settling of the breath, an invisible accord, and then the performance begins. An overture of breath.

Breathing at scale: from biosphere to cetacean kin

“The biosphere’s breath is marked daily by increasing carbon dioxide concentrations on the dark side of the globe and decreasing concentrations on the lighted sides.”[17]

What is Life?, Margulis & Sagan

On breath, Alexis Pauline Gumbs notes in her book Undrowned, “All animals participate in this exchange of release for continued life… The plants in their inverse process, release what we need, take what we give without being asked. And the planet, wrapped in ocean breathing, breathing into sky.” [18]

In What is Life, the authors remind us that each breath connects us to the rest of the biosphere, all with unique respiratory signatures. As land animals, our lungs and breathing evolved such that we take easy access to oxygen for granted. Marine mammals who returned to the water, such as cetaceans, retained their lungs, and can only breathe directly from the air at the ocean’s surface. For them, breathing is a real art. The deep divers need to take particularly huge intakes, even hyperventilate, and then dive in. “A sperm whale can stay under for an hour on a single breath.”[19] As Durham Peters writes in this chapter, “Every cetacean seems to be a kind of yogi, a respiratory artist who puts breathing in the foreground of consciousness.”[20]

In another wonderful illustration, David Abrams looks at animal migrations and wonders “whether this seasonal reciprocity is a kind of breathing”, as an exhalation of millions of young salmon smolts or “is it the broad-bellied ocean that is breathing, sucking these finned nutrients down from the shaded slopes”. He asks, “What is this dynamic alliance between an animal and the animate orb that gives it breath”?[21]

If only we humans could learn from this biosphere breath and our cetacean kin. It would make for an evolved awareness for our species, making more conscious, reflective decisions, not just individually but collectively as a species, and with other species, a planetary breathing protocol, in step with the earth’s rhythms.

The great chokehold: the politics of breath and enacting freedom

“Breathing in unbreathable circumstances is what we do every day in the chokehold of racial gendered ableist capital.”[22]

Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Undrowned

To understand the politics of breath, we need only look to the histories of slave ships and the Middle Passage, indentured labour, coal mines and industrialisation, which in turn affected the pathways to disease and poor health and cruel economic and social injustices in different geographies. These histories inform present day racial, gender, caste, class and ableist narratives around what is a breathable life, who has the freedom to breathe, and who is denied breath, along with the governing and policing of bodies and breath.

With growing pollution, deforestation, development injustices, discrimination, and gross histories, we directly affect the functioning of our biosphere’s lungs — the ocean and our rainforests. The terms of breathing are differently framed for and experienced by different people and species. Diseases that affect the breath, torture such as water boarding, and police violence and chokeholds — these are not givens or natural but mediated through capitalism, industrialisation and carceral regimes. We humans also affect how other animals and plants breathe, through our manipulations of the environment leading to existential threats such as extinction, or through constraining and compromising breath.

Mbembe states, “There is no doubt that the skies are closing in. Caught in the stranglehold of injustice and inequality, much of humanity is threatened by a great chokehold…”[23] He challenges hierarchies of breath as he writes, “As that which is both ungrounded and our common ground, the universal right to breath is unquantifiable and cannot be appropriated.”[24]

On how bodies enact politics through breathing, I want to highlight the work of Magdalena Górska.[25] Górska understands breathing as a force that enables social and environmental transformation by engaging with oppressive structures and enabling individuals to achieve their freedom to breathe.

So how do we break these politics down? Acknowledging the extent of the scale of breathing and that we share this process across human and non-human life forms is an important first move. We need to strive towards an ethical circulation of planetary air. Breath is shared but not homogenous in terms of how it is processed, understood, practised, compartmentalised, and constrained. So, it is simultaneously common but different. With this knowledge, we can begin to see the traces of resistance and arrive at a different kind of knowing. Górska relies on the work of Karen Barad, feminist physicist, and theorist on intra-action to understand this common and differential breath. Rather than being a pre-existing phenomenon, breath is constituted through how it relates to different bodies, how it transpires in soil and plants, and how the lungs of different humans work differently. Breath in this way becomes a relational enactment.

Through understanding that breath is mediated through difference, breathing can become a force for resistance. 

Through understanding that breath is mediated through difference, breathing can become a force for resistance. This is even more powerful as breath, by its very existence, also challenges concepts such as “inside” and “outside”, and complicates notions of self, other, and environment. It also counters the separate notions of spirit and matter and “problematizes human exceptionalism by embedding humans in the intra-actively constitutive atmospheric, material, and social dynamics of living.”[26]

However, the problem of politics is not just this lack of breathing space or taking air for granted or constraints to and differential impacts on breathing but “a general and more profound loss of the meaning of the breathing itself.”[27] So, this is where the politics and poetics of breath meet in a passage of reclaiming the capaciousness of breath, respecting and remembering the air and experiencing breath as this relational enactment.

For me this goes back to respiration as slow combustion. We need to return to this internal combustion minus the engine. The internal combustion engine, Pyne’s “third fire”, has run amok. Locomotive breath, to borrow from the band Jethro Tull, has overtaken and overrun all other breath.

As Alexis Pauline Gumbs writes, “this is an offering towards our evolution, towards the possibility that instead of continuing the trajectory of slavery, entrapment, separation, and domination and making our atmosphere unbreathable, we might instead practice another way to breathe.”[28] In this manner breathing becomes a new way of knowing and being, it allows for an active, respiratory politics and is a ‘breathing through the heels’ form of resistance against power and hegemonic structures and social and environmental hierarchies.

Breathe and begin anew

Škof & Berndtson ask, “could we learn to see the world anew with eyes that breathe?”[29] Vision should consult with the breath, to see the world in a respiratory way, with our atmosphere no longer rendered invisible. And with this openness, a curious and conscious openness, as Alexis Pauline Gumbs puts it, “We could change the entire story with what we know. That this is not the bottom, this is life. This is not the floor, this is not even a wall, this is our air.”[30]

This new knowing allows for a different kind of relating, one that takes us out of the realm of individualistic breath. As Ted Chiang writes in his short story, “It cheers me to imagine that the air that once powered me could power others, to believe that the breath that enables me to engrave these words could one day flow through someone else’s body.”[31]

In this way we reach an ‘other’ space, a cosmology of common and differential breathing and an understanding of air and an intra-active relational breathing, where our breathing finds resonance with the breathing of the biosphere and we engage with its poetics and politics, where we adjust our tempo, deepen our breath, rethink everything, hold when we need to and let go what has to be let go.

In this enactment, we return to the breath, how it alerts us to the present and reminds us that it is not just a habitual thing or background noise. It is also a choice, a reflection, a pause, an ethical obligation. It is learning from our animal kin that we can be respiratory artists, and from our biosphere the laws of respiratory exchange. It is learning that we can change, that each breath is a fresh start. We remember that every time we breathe, we light a fire. Every time we exhale, we send out sparks of our imagination, pieces of ourselves, our inner light, air bubbles as love letters. That with each breath comes another chance.

[1] See chapter in Lenart Škof & Petri Berndtson, Atmospheres of Breathing, SUNY Press: New York, 2018
[2] Ibid
[3] The Pyrocene: How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next, Stephen J. Pyne, University of California Press, 2021
[4] Atmospheres of Breathing, 2018
[5] Drew Leder, “Breath as the Hinge of Disease and Healing”, in Atmospheres of Breath, 2018
[6] Editorial, Rebecca Oxley & Andrew Russell, “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Breath, Body and World”, Body & Society, 2020 Vol 26 (2) 3-29
[7] John Durham Peters, “The Media of Breathing”, in Atmospheres of Breathing, 2018
[8] Škof & Berndtson, Introduction, Atmospheres of Breathing, 2018
[9] Tim Ingold, “Footprints through the weather-world: walking, breathing, knowing”, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 2010, S121-S139
[10] These cosmologies are referenced from Atmospheres of Breathing, 2018 and “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Breath, Body and World”, Body & Society, 2020; see details above
[11] “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Breath, Body and World”, Body & Society, 2020
[12] Madhuvanti Ghose, Annelise K. Madsen, Carl Fuldner and Janet M. Purdy, Air as Sustenance: Four Artworks that Celebrate Breath, 2021,
[13] Ibid
[14] “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Breath, Body and World”, Body & Society, 2020
[15] Ibid
[16] Ibid
[17] What is Life?, Lynn Margulis & Dorion Sagan, University of California Press, 2000
[18] Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, AK Press, 2020
[19] John Durham Peters, “The Media of Breathing”, in Atmospheres of Breathing, 2018
[20] Ibid
[21] David Abram, “Creaturely Migrations on a Breathing Planet”, Emergence Magazine, June 2023
[22] Undrowned, 2020
[23] Achille Mbembe, The Universal Right to Breathe, Translated by Carolyn Shead,, 2020
[24] Ibid
[25] Magdalena Górska., “Feminist Politics of Breathing”, in Atmospheres of Breathing, 2018
[26] Ibid
[27] Marijn Niewenhius, “The Politics of Breathing: Knowledge on Air and Respiration”, in Atmospheres of Breathing, 2018
[28] Undrowned, 2020
[29] Introduction, Atmospheres of Breathing, 2018
[30] Undrowned, 2020
[31] Ted Chiang, “Exhalation”, in Exhalation:Stories, Alfred A. Knopf, 2019