Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Well-being : March 12, 2000
Relax with pranayama
The writer is the author of Raja Yoga Pranayama and has studied under the late Swami Poornananda.
The universe is vast: there are galaxies and microbes. The dimensions of time and space extend from the very small to the very large. There is the coming and going of stars, the collapse of galaxies, the whirling of planets around suns, the hum of dynamic periodicity. With the rotation of our planet we have seasons. With seasons, intricate patterns of birth and death and life. With every passing summer, the trees age and we age, water cycles from ocean to rain, from river to ocean. Dust turns to plant, to animal tissue, to dust again. With every cycle, time moves; there is a movement of age. Age takes us forward, one step with each cycle in this universal drama.
The annual need for clothes, the daily need for food, the need for air every second, the coursing of blood with every beat - the shorter the cycle the more critical the action. We can afford to skip a meal or a glass of water for a while, a long while. We can only delay a breath for a short while, and a heartbeat, not even that. We are tied through these cycles into the universal order. In balance we find stability, in cycles we find dynamism. Breath is one of our essential ties, a silken thread that holds the stuff of life together, the link between the terrestrial and the vast expanse of the cosmos.
Three things move all the time. Our breath - the continuous nourishment of the body, our heart - the continuous propelling of blood with life-giving substances, and our thoughts. Each organ does its bit in this fabulous orchestra, but the band collapses without nourishment. Food, both solid and liquid, we need daily, but air we need literally second by second, minute by minute. What air supplies to us is vital. Our lungs take in air and blow out air. In a very short time, an exchange takes place. Our lungs are special and so is the process of breathing.
Pranayama can be called an exploration in stillness, a subtle and dynamic exploration involving breathing. All around us and within, there is a continuous flow of energy. The wind blows and moves the trees, there is a movement of limbs and bodies, animals and people walk and work. Prana or life energy is seen in its expressions, not by itself. Amidst the continuous, tremendous movement one also sees stillness - a tree at the time of sunset when the breeze has suddenly stopped, a cat resting on the floor, a bird on a telegraph wire or on a branch. But man seems to be still only in sleep.
Movement is one of the essential functions of life. However still the cat, blood courses through its veins, propelled by the action of the heart muscles. However still the tree, sap rises in its core. Only the involuntary life sustaining processes are at work.
Can a man be like a tree or a quiet cat or a bird in the predawn?
A car or a bus over the years becomes rickety. Likewise, the human system develops persistent problems over the years. The analogy, however, stops there. The human system is regenerative while the machine is not. The machine's problems are due to friction, wear and tear and fatigue. Human problems are not so obvious.
All creatures go through the saga of life and death. While the hare runs to save himself from an eagle, the nesting chicken will stand up and give fight to a dog. When confronted with danger, animals and birds either stand and fight or take flight. Man in olden times, had the same, simple equation with life. With the onset of civilization, however a third option has emerged for man. At office one is late and is reprimanded. What does one do? A dare-devil driver on the road gives one a nasty shock. What can one do? In human interactions there is pressure, tension. What is it that one can do?
Modern man has the extra dimension of reason. He withholds action. I may see the inside with rage but will not give expression to it. I may feel like beating up the young speedster but cannot. Withholding action is the prerogative of the civilised.
We spoke about the body chemicals earlier. When danger is sensed the body changes its chemistry. But when action is withheld, nothing happens, no action flows. The great inner upheaval finds no outlet, no relief, no expression. The body's restorative forces, however, keep toiling. The system struggles to get back to normal, to homeostasis. And usually the body succeeds. By the time the sun sets and rises again the body has left behind the shocks and agonies of yesterday. In children, the restoration is much faster. A couple of hours are enough to forget a bruise or a fall. Science has established that the human body needs between 12 hours to 36 hours to regain equilibrium. This is a very important discovery. If my body forgets the pressures and tensions in 12 hours I am a new man every day. If my body manages to regain homeostasis in 24 hours, I am still fine. But as the sun sets and rises, if the chemicals have not returned to their natural levels, I have a problem. My system is unable to forget and renew. I carry a history of pain, anguish, sorrow, anger, disharmony into the next day. If this pattern continues over a period of time, the chemistry is permanently altered.
The personality undergoes a change. One may become irritable, sleepless, sour, depressed; one may develop a heart condition, diabetes, back pain, asthma, ulcers, piles, migraine.
In following the threads of disease, modern medicine has come with life-saving drugs and miraculous cures. This great progress has, however, not been without its pitfalls. While we have cures, it is not the quality of life which has improved.
Today, it is understood that 85 per cent of man's ailments are stress related. Stress may manifest itself through any condition ranging all the way from heart condition to simple allergies. Today, for stress related ailments, the identified remedy is "exercise" and "deep relaxation". Many of man's ailments seem to be caused by lack of adequate exercise and because he does not know how to relax.
Normally, when we refer to exercise, we mean jogging, playing tennis, free hand exercises. One perspires and gets tired in the process. The body expends energy during exercise. One might then ask how many adults would have the energy to spend on exercise at the end of a long working day. And as for deep relaxation, it is close to sleep for most of us.
This brings us to some important questions. Are there exercises which do not take away our energy? Is there a relaxation in which our consciousness is alert? We see glimmerings of a direction. Prana is the vital force that moves everything. Stress reduces vitality and makes the body prone to disease. Can we find vitality restoring processes in our crowded lives? Sensible food will be one part of the solution.
If we see the world of man we see rapid movements everywhere. The body and the brain make quick jerky movements. Yoga asks, "Can we find space in our lives for slow and sustained action? Can we find an opportunity to move and breathe in tune with the slower, longer rhythms of life?" Nature is replete with slow processes. Energy is conserved in slow action. By conserving energy, by enhancing energy, harmony is restored. Can man attempt to harmonise with Nature? Remarkable good health has been talked about by our ancients. Can we strive for disease-free health in this age when we understand so much about the body and the way diseases work?
The question at this stage transcends the body and we may ask, "Physical history is a fact but do I need to carry with me the anguish of yesterday, the anger of yesterday? Can I put an end to these processes in myself?" A healthy, resilient body is one which can somehow find ways of neutralising these changes. An intelligent body is also one which considers questions like, "Is there a way for me to live without psychological history?"
The practice of Pranayama, an ancient science and art, appears to have a sound answer to a very modern situation. The daily practice of Pranayama is a restoration, a daily restoration of the body's homeostasis. If not a complete restoration, it is at least a setting back of the shift in body chemistry. It has been my experience that the results are quick, far quicker than one can expect. Pranayama practice offers deep internal exercise and also deep relaxation to the practitioner, both remedies suggested by modern science for reducing stress. In fact, Pranayama offers exercise without expenditure of energy and relaxation without imagination or stimulation. Sitting without effort and breathing evenly, offers a way of tapping deep resources within ourselves.
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