“When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered· the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls· bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory” -Marcel Proust “The Remembrance of Things Past”
With these words the French writer Proust captures the mysterious, yet often neglected importance of our sense of smell. In all other mammals the sense of smell is more developed than in humans. Other mammals navigate, hunt, mate and even communicate using their sense of smell, yet most people are ignorant to the importance of the olfactory mechanism to humans.
Proust in his writing, recognized the close intimacy between smell and deep memory, but by no means does it stop there. In recent research it was shown that women decide the sexual attractiveness of men in response to olfactory stimuli even before visual stimuli, meaning women were attracted to a man’s smell before she was attracted to his appearance. In language we can see the importance of smell to intuition in phrases such as ‘to smell a rat’ or ‘to smell danger’. And the power of incense and perfumes to stir the emotions is well documented. We can conclude that smell affects our behaviour on a level than we are mostly unaware of. None of this is surprising if we take into account the nature of the olfactory process.
A very important aspect of smell is that olfactory neurons make up the only sensory pathway that is in direct contact with the brain. Another important quality of the olfactory system is that information travels both to the limbic system and cortex. The limbic system is the mysterious, primitive part of the brain that includes areas related to emotions, such as fear or joy, sexual attraction, memory and behavior. On the other hand the cortex is the outer part of the brain that has to do with conscious thought.
Thus smell affects us both on a conscious level and on a deeper unconscious level. For example, it can affect us on a conscious level and remind us that the toast is burning and that we should turn off the grill. On a deeper, unconscious level it can also affect us depending on our previous associations, for example if there was a smell of burnt toast during our first sexual experience. This might mean that the smell of burnt toast might induce a strangely pleasurable emotional state, all the more mysterious if at the time the first sexual experience we were unaware of the smell of burnt toast. Though maybe an odd example, we see from this the ways that smell can affect our behaviour on a subtle, unconscious level.
Just as the technique of Anapanna can be considered a portal to awareness of the energetic body, the olfactory sense can be seen a portal to the unconscious mind and also a tool to develop awareness of the breath. Regarding the use of aromas to manipulate the unconscious mind much has been written elsewhere, here we are more interested in increasing our awareness by conscious use of our sense of smell.
Other animals, including monkeys, breath air the through the nostrils actively, flaring their nostrils. While you read this, you can stop a moment and practice what we’ll call for fun ‘monkey breathing’: with focused awareness, inhale slowly and deeply through the nose, flaring the nostrils as if you were trying to sniff every molecule of air that passes. If you do this repeatedly in a focused manner you will feel a noticeable change in your mental state. The sense of smell affects us on a deep unconscious level, if we begin to use our sense of smell consciously we bridge the gap between our conscious and unconscious minds and our everyday perception get subtly enlarged. If we develop the practice of taking a moment and breathing consciously through the nose, sniffing slowly the air while gently flaring the nostrils, on a daily basis, we will see increased subtlety of awareness and a heightened consciouness of our respiration. In the yoga tradition the nose is considered essential for the absorption of Prana or universal energy. Conscious use of the nose is the first step towards the practice of Prananyama and the science of Svara yoga*.
At Apneista.com, we see free-diving as a means of self exploration, a meditative tool for expansion of the human reality. Apnea training is essentially taking up tools of survival from our evolutionary history and in this context the conscious education of our sense of smell can be seen as another way of taking from our animal heritage to broaden our experience of the present moment. This is aside from its importance as a stepping stone towards Pranayama.
Regardless of its relevance to Pranayama and Free-diving, using our sense of smell actively is another way of experiencing life more fully. To prove this point, the next time you are the sea-shore on a clear and breezy day take a deep, slow breath of air through your mouth. Then take the same, slow deep breath through your nose, flaring the nostrils and inhaling as if the air carried messages. Try it, there is a world of difference.