Monday, December 2, 2013

Breath as Beloved: Pranayama

Breathing is about as intimate as it gets.  Every cell of the body requires breath for what is called cellular respiration – taking in oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide.  We take in air - our atmosphere – into our cells.  The pathway is a bit complex if you stop to notice it:  from the nose to the pharynx to the larynx to the trachea and into the lungs to the pulmonary capillaries to the heart to the aorta and finally to the individual cells.  And of course, it is reversed for the carbon dioxide.  All of this we do all the time without necessarily noticing.  In pranayama we practice noticing. 

A poem by Jane Kenyon:

In and Out

The dog searches until he finds me
upstairs, lies down with a clatter
of elbows, puts his head on my foot.

Sometimes the sound of his breathing
saves my life – in and out, in
and out; a pause, a long sigh…

Recently, I shared a room with someone.  At 4:30am as I lay awake I listened to my roommate breathing.  The sound of breath, another’s breath, my own breath, in the quiet of the early morning, felt as if I was listening to the earth breathing, or perhaps the universe.

The yogis have paid a lot of attention to breathing. Breath and consciousness, they said, are two sides of the same coin.  Changing our breath through pranayama will inevitably change who we are.[1] To state the obvious, breath is life.  The yogis however, went farther in their investigations.  Breathing, they suggest, is our vehicle to touching prana, the “subtle energy that pervades every corner of the universe.”[2] The old yoga guides said that: “just as each of us breathes along and so lives in and through prana, so, too, does the entire universe.”[3]  This is undifferentiated cosmic prana or first prana.  This prana is intelligence and creativity.  Cosmic prana is also considered by some of the old guides as the source of everything.  It links us to the essence of our lives. 

After watching a cosmology course with my brain group I have been asking myself how one might tap into the amazing energy that is clearly present in the universe.  Scientists have been attempting this for a long time, of course, with technology and we consequently have nuclear energy and nuclear weapons that could destroy us all.  My musings have been much more modest and low tech.  I have wondered if the yogis might not have been on to something about tapping into the energy of the universe with the practice of pranayama.    

Thanks initially to Rodney Yee, who taught early morning pranayama at all of the five week long teacher trainings I attended very soon after I began practicing asana, I have always included some pranayama in my morning practice.  At times however, it has felt laborious and boring.  Over the last few years as I dropped increasingly into a place of feeling depleted in energy, I have been drawn back to a curiosity around pranayama, like a wounded animal searching for some kind of solace when I could not continue the vigorous asana practice I had been accustomed to.  The two times I have now attended Patricia Walden in Durango, CO, the highlight of the week has been the afternoon pranayama practice.  This last year she told me clearly that it is my energy body rather than my physical body that is depleted and I need to spend more time with pranayama – confirming the direction I was already going.  

And so I have spent more time in this most mysterious of practices – pranayama. 
And so I have fallen in love. 
And so my breath has become my beloved. 
And so my breath has become an opening to what the yogis call cosmic breath.
And so there have been times when I have tasted sweetness of something there are not words for. 
Ah but one must be careful:  “Just as lions, elephants and tigers are gradually controlled, so the prana is controlled through practice.  Otherwise the practitioner is destroyed.  By proper practice of pranayama, all diseases are eradicated.  Through improper practice, all diseases can arise.”[4]

Breath is air and air is wind.  There is a grandfather Medicine Man in a movie I quite love, Thunderhart.  The grandfather says, “Listen to the wind.”  I listen to the wind when I remember to do so.  Yesterday I could hear winter in the mountains when the wind was blowing.  It has a distinct sound.  When I hear winter in the mountains riding on the wind I remember sitting beside Pear Lake at 10,000ft in August and I am glad there are places in the mountains that close their doors to humans for part of the year. 

Listen to the wind. 
Listen to your breath. 
“Watch the wind to handle the sail.”[5]

Breathing is about as intimate as it gets.  Breath has the potential to open us to the Beloved.  The Beloved is the mystery in the ordinary – what we do all the time unconsciously.  The ordinary becomes the Sacred when we notice.    

In the name of the air,
The breeze
And the wind,
May our souls
Stay in rhythm
With eternal
       -- excerpted from “In Praise of Air” by John O’Donohue

[1] Rosen, Richard, The Yoga of Breath, (Shambala: 2002) p. 20.
[2] Ibid p. 18.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Svatmarama, Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika, quoted in Rosen, Richard, p. 1.
[5] Chan Sayings, from Prajna Yoga Immersion at Esalen, 2013 with Tias Little, Brenda Proudfoot and Djuna Mascall.