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Reviewed by:
  • Restoration of Breath: Consciousness and Performance
  • Kathy Foley
Restoration of Breath: Consciousness and Performance. Consciousness, Literature, and the Arts 9. By Sreenath Nair. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007. Paper $60.00.

The aspiration of this work—a detailed look at the concept and use of the breath in performance practice West and East—is breathtaking. The strength of the work is its clear discussion of breath in yogic texts and performance traditions of South India (Tamil Nadu and Kerala): a topic that dominates the second half of chapter 2 ("In Search of Breath" [pp. 63–114], which describes various Indian textual sources associated with singing and yogic practice) and the opening of chapter 3 (in which the author addresses the Natyasastra's brief discussion of breath, Kerala's Sanskrit theatre kuttiyattam's breath use in relation to the portrayal of rasa, and svara-vayu, a practice whereby music (svara or sound) is brought into breathing (vayu) [pp. 119–135]). Svara-vayu, the author asserts, was still taught in kuttiyatam by a former king of Kodungallor, Guru Kunjunny Tampuran, to performers until a generation ago and provides a missing link that helps explain aspects of South Indian theatre practice.

The material on South India is rich and will be of interest to anyone who has worked in Indian or Southeast Asian performance and wondered about its relation to yoga. The short section that deals with Tao is discussing chi and chi-kung (drawing on the work of practioners in England) and lays out clear equivalences in Chinese theory and practice (pp. 58–61). The section on , which draws on interviews with Brook collaborator Oida Yoshi, is cursory—though interesting in its speculation.

Extensive material on Western theory precedes this discussion of Asian ideas. Nair gives attention to Aristotle, Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Artaud, Heidegger, and Irigaray in chapter 1, "The Location of Breath". Breath practices in Western actor training techniques takes up most of chapter 3, "Breath Training and Performance." Nair includes discussion of Copeau, Stanislavski, Grotowski, Lecoq, John Martin, and Phillip Zarrilli along with a few others. [End Page 374] The material on Western theory and performance is clearly written, but serves largely to show that Western theatre, in both theory and practical training, gives only modest attention to breath. Nor does the Western model normally see breath as a crucial link to the eternal as espoused in tantric-influenced performance traditions. Passages on the Western thinkers ease the Western-trained reader into the Indian material, but, given the rather rudimentary concept of breath displayed, less space on Western material and greater depth on other Asian traditions might better serve Nair's arguments.

The opening of the work contrasts the Aristotelian concept of mimesis (replication of the real and therefore a kind of "lie") with the Indian concept of lila (play). In India, creation as the lila of the gods results in the material world, which relates back to the eternal center, but is itself illusory (maya). What the West considers as real—that which appears in the nexus of space and time—this Indian notion posits as contingent. The eternal source (unseen and out of time) from which the material world emanates for Indian thought is "true" and the material world is merely to lead us back from the space-time continuum and toward that first principle. Nair notes that this philosophical difference gives performance practice (which emulates the lila of the divine) more significance in India than is possible in a Western frame that sees theatre as an unreal replication qua Plato. Nair opens up the concept of yoga, which uses breath as a point of relation between the immaterial and the manifest. Breath manifests time in the body, but it can be manipulated. He notes that in yogic practice, when breath can be turned back on itself (the restoration of breathe in the title), the possibility of union between the transcendent and contingent exists—the desired alteration of consciousness occurs. He notes this is a physical practice found in breath yoga. Indian performance traditions pose a solution to the West's mind-body divisiveness and posit breath is the link. Performance is more than mimesis, but a...