Breathing and Nothingness

Our existence depends on air but our culture is oblivious, argues design researcher and yoga teacher Lucy Sabin.


We have a first breath and a last breath. When a newborn baby inflates her lungs for the first time, this moment signals the beginning of a life-long relationship with air. The sudden rush of air flooding into her body leaves a trace of residual air. From then on, she is engaged in regulating a flow of air between inside and outside her body. Most of the time this regulation is involuntary and unconscious.

Breathing is an intra-action in air. We humans do not live in water, nor fire, nor earth. We live in air. We are immersed in the stuff. It is our only habitable element. This simple yet profound observation was made by French philosopher Luce Irigaray. She criticised Martin Heidegger’s metaphysics which conflated solidity with existence without taking air into account (1983). Of course, air is the very precondition for our existence in the first place. There is no being-in-the-world, to quote Heidegger, without air recycling through our bodies (Dreyfus 1990). We may as well speak of being-in-air.  

The title of Irigaray’s book L’oubli de l’air chez Martin Heidegger has been translated into English as The forgetting of air […] (1999). While it is correct to translate ‘oubli’ as ‘forgetting’, the French word can also signify ‘oblivion’. While ‘forgetting’ could be described as a slippage of consciousness that happens from time to time, ‘oblivion’ denotes a state of total unawareness towards surroundings. It is a complete disconnect.

‘In memory of air’. Installation with sounds of 50 breathing techniques by Lucy Sabin. Royal College of Art 2019. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Could Western society’s obliviousness towards air have something to do with the air pollution and global climate change we face today? Perhaps. These human-made disasters imbalance the atmosphere, impacting the interdependent health of our species. In the words of Geographer Marijn Nieuwenhuis, we are ‘falling in the dangerous trap of underestimating our indebtedness and dependency on the air’ (2018, 79).

Yet all is not lost. Attitudes to air are culturally rooted and culture evolves. In contrast with Western philosophies, other cultures that may be identified as ‘Eastern’, ‘ancient’ or ‘folk’ have regarded air as a fundamental force in metaphysics and cosmology as well as holistic health practices.

Taoist sources, such as Laozi’s Dao de Jing, hold that air is infused with ‘qi’, a quality which ‘connects all existing beings […] that are endowed with life (Rosker 2018, 128). In Japanese, mood (ki-bun) and atmosphere (fun-i-ki) are types of qi (ki), also understood as ‘wind and vitality, or life energy’ (Ogawa 2018, 145). Conscious breathing is therefore perceived as a gateway to understanding our ‘elementary nature’ and ‘inseparable unity with the universe’ (Rosker 2018, 133).

Furthermore, in Buddhism, mindful breathing is an integral stage in self-actualisation (Ditrich 2018). Patanjali’s Yogasutra, a Buddhist-inspired text from 400 BCE, reiterates that conscious breathing, known as ‘pranayama’ (lit. control or extension of the life force), is a stage in the path to enlightenment (Feuerstein 1989, II.49-52).

As a self-actualising practice, pranayama suggests that direct experience of air contributes to knowledge about the individual’s place in the universe. Indeed, psychologist James Morley compares pranayama with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s account of subjectivity,[1]stating that ‘his use of the metaphor of breathing to explain the self-world relation applies precisely to the direct experience of pranayama’ (2001, 77-78).

As a yoga teacher, I am practically aware of conscious breathing as a form of self-world relation that is only available through direct experience. After a one-hour breathing workshop, my students left the following anonymous reflections: (a) ‘I learned to trust my breath which helped me to release deeper’;  (b) ‘the breath can bring me back to myself’; and (c) ’the slowness of breathing is such a contradiction to the outside world’ (Anon. 2019, personal communications, 15 March).

These comments may not carry much meaning until you practice pranayama yourself. Perhaps you could take a moment now? Do nothing but watch the flow of your breath for one minute. Then read the comments again.


‘In memory of air’. Installation with sounds of 50 breathing techniques by Lucy Sabin, seen through Sofie Layton’s excavated heart. Royal College of Art 2019. Photo: Sabin.

If the breath can bring us back to ourselves, it follows that breathlessness has the opposite effect. Philosopher Havi Carel states that the experience of breathlessness leads to ‘bodily doubt’ and ‘loss of certainty’ (2018, 238-9). Breathlessness problematises our relationship with air and, by extension, it problematises our ongoing existence. We are reminded of our dependence on air when access to breathable air is jeopardised by interrelated factors inside or outside the body, like illness and air pollution respectively. The absence of air — of breath — is nothingness.

Lucy Sabin is a design researcher and yoga teacher. This article has been adapted from her RCA thesis ‘Atmospheric Cartography: Articulating Ecological Connectivity in Air’, which is available online at:

Sabin’s work is on display at the RCA MRes ‘Making Public’ Exhibition from 9th to 13th September 2019. 

Works Cited

Carel, H. (2018). Invisible Suffering: The Experience of Breathlessness. In: L. Škof, and P. Berndtson,  eds. Atmospheres of Breathing. Albany: State University of New York Press, 233-246.

Ditrich, T. (2018). Mindfulness of Breathing in Early Buddhism. In: L. Škof, and P. Berndtson,  eds. Atmospheres of Breathing. Albany: State University of New York Press, 99-114.

Dreyfus, H. L. (1990). Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Feuerstein, G. (1989). The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation and Commentary. Vermont: Inner Traditions International.

Irigaray, L. (1983). L’oubli de l’air chez Martin Heidegger. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit. 

Irigaray, L. (1999). The forgetting of air in Martin Heidegger (M.B. Mader, Trans.). London: Athlone Press.

Morley, J. (2001). Inspiration and Expiration: Yoga Practice through Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of the Body. Philosophy East and West, 51(1), 73-82.

Nieuwenhuis, M. (2018). Atmospheric governance: Gassing as law for the protection and killing of life. Environment and Planning D, Society and Space, 36(1), 78–95.

Ogawa, T. (2018). Phenomenology of the Wind and the Possibility of Preventive Medicine: A Discussion of Ki (Wind) Following Kaibara Ekiken (1630-1713). In: L. Škof and P. Berndtson,eds. Atmospheres of Breathing. Albany: State University of New York Press, 141-152.

Rosker, J.S. (2018). The Concept of Qi in Chinese Philosophy: A Vital Force of Cosmic and Human Breath. In: L.Škof and P.Berndtson, eds. Atmospheres of Breathing. Albany: State University of New York Press, 127-140.


[1]  ‘Building on Heidegger’s revision of subjectivity as a self-world relation rather than a consciousness apart from the world’ (Morley 2001, 75).

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