It’s Not Just Breath – It’s PRANA !!!
We have come to the reading conclusion of our Summer Book Club, BREATH by James Nestor, but I want to encourage some participation and practice for the rest of August until our discussion scheduled for Wed evening, August 31st (ZOOM and in-studio options). In the Appendix of breathing methods after the Acknowledgments, Nestor gives us descriptions and links to try some of his mentioned techniques, and I for one am curious. So, stay tuned for the next couple of blogs throughout August as I turn myself into a “pulmonaut”, but I also look forward to you sharing experiences you might have had with your breath and breathing as you explored this book or any other practices!
But, on to the last couple of chapters, where Nestor really brings the true power of the breath to light. He visits a yogi named Alvares DeRose who lives in Brazil and teaches what could arguably be seen as a very foundational practice, “developed before yoga was even called yoga, before it was an aerobic exercise or had spiritual connotations…at a time when it was a technology of breathing and thinking.” (Chapter 10 – BREATH)
Nestor visits DeRose as he continues to wonder WHY all of the amazing results of breathing practices actually happen. We can measure our heart, our blood pressure, our temperature, and even our sensations to some degree, but to explain WHY goes beyond all measuring devices Western Medicine currently employs. The thing is, many ancient cultures knew exactly what this was…the energy that runs through all of existence…prana (Sanskrit), ch’i (Chinese), ki (Japanese), pneuma (Greek), ruah (Hebrew), and orenda (Iroquois), to name a few…
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a codification of yogic techniques, are very clear on the power of prana. Prana lives in all and all lives in prana. To diminish prana is to diminish life, and if we can hold it and increase it, we can harness the full power of life itself. So, how do we access this prana?? Well, through the breath of course.
As Nestor looks deeper at prana, as energy at the molecular level, he introduces the work of a Hungarian scientist (Albert Szent-Gyorgyi) that investigated the role of “cellular respiration” and “how life gained energy from air”. Oxygen just happens to be a great receptor for electrons, so an increase in our ability to intake, keep, and utilize our oxygen means more energy. “Breathing slow, less, and through the nose balances the levels of respiratory gases in the body and sends the maximum amount of oxygen to the maximum amount of tissues so that our cells have the maximum amount of electron reactivity.” (BREATHE – Chapter 10)
Which brings us to Pranayama, the ancient practice of regulation of prana, within the yogic system that we more commonly know as “breath practices”. Nestor reminds us of the reference to asana in the Yoga Sutras as more the “seat” or the “posture” used for “sitting still and building prana through breathing”.
I even was reminded of a class I did in Bangalore the last time I visited India in 2018. At the studio of a well known Iyengar Yoga teacher, a friend and I were challenged by a yoga class I would similarly describe as DeRose does to Nestor about a class he took in Rishikesh. “Poses were done once and held for an excruciatingly long time. These long postures allowed students to focus entirely on their breathing. The class was difficult, and at the end of it DeRose was sweaty and sore. ‘Nothing like yoga today’.” (BREATHE – Chapter 10)
To capture prana and utilize it well takes time and effort and practice, and in many cases guidance. In the world of “instant gratification” and “short attention spans” this can be a difficult prospect. But, we can do it! It is possible! That is the beauty of Pranayama, along with all the rest of yoga’s ancient practices, which when known traditionally, have more to do with the mind and consciousness than the movement of body alone.
Nestor reminds us over and over again that none of this knowledge is new. Names change over the years and our interest or abilities wax and wane around the subject. But, truly the tools that may keep us the most healthy over the long-stretch of life lie right within our own powers.
BREATH – “gives us the means to stretch our lungs and straighten our bodies, boost blood flow, balance our minds and moods, and excite the electrons in our molecules. To sleep better, run faster, swim deeper, live longer, and evolve further.”
How are YOU breathing???