The Art of Living
oxygen: existence. Man's first and last breath: the bookends
of his life. The interlude, for most of us, is filled with volumes
of air, indrawn and expelled by us without conscious thought.
Breathing, that almost subliminal act of constantly refuelling
ourselves with the essence of life, is something we least concern
ourselves with; and the next breath that we draw is a gift that
we take for granted and hold cheaply, until we are choked and
gasping for it.
If someone asked me how I normally breathe,
I would not know how to answer. It's a bit like the mechanism
of walking: which foot goes up first, and how far before the
other one starts to come down? But recently, I found myself
facing the mystery and variety of my own breathing at a special
class I was attending which was going to teach a group of us,
normally breathing human beings, how to use our respiratory
equipment in the optimum way, to be more in touch with ourselves,
I found myself, along with the others, listening
to the intricacies of my lung's language, the whispering voice
of my nostrils inflating and deflating, and deciphering the
internal rhymes and rhythms of my heaving chest. It was an education
in fine-tuning the art of breathing, the basic art of living.
Actually, the course was called just that, 'the Art of Living',
and it purported to put us in touch with our breaths, and use
breathing and meditation for a wide range of physical, psychological,
spiritual and medical benefits.
I am basically a spiritually aware human being
and my interest in this course did not lie in its spiritual
aspect. It was the physical and medical sides, which aroused
my curiosity. Although, luckily, I have no medical problems
(so far, touch wood, or whatever my cheap Ikea desk is made
of) and neither am I a stress-prone person, I do know many people
who are; and this course claimed to have many positive effects
on stress-related ailments like, blood pressure, cholesterol,
heart attacks, gastrointestinal ulcers, asthma and migraine.
I wanted to see how the course dealt with this.
However, the part that inclined me favourably
towards the course was the statement that the practice of its
yogic breathing techniques not only sharpened mental faculties
(I could certainly use this every now and then, well, maybe
even oftener) but that it improved memory (really?) and improved
memory (did I already say this? Can't remember. See what I mean?).
But what made me actually sign up was the clincher that it not
only makes you feel and look younger (aw, forget 'feel', 'look'
younger is even better) but might even reverse the aging process!
I had signed the check by then, and at least my bank balance,
if not my face, already felt younger, as if I were back in my
impoverished student days. (At least here in Rome, the course
is not cheap: 160 Euros for a standard 6-day course).
main thrust of the course is that stress is at the core of all
malaise. Learning how to manage stress helps us acquire the
ability to keep ourselves free of the negative energies that
can cause us to suffer physically, mentally, medically. The
founding principle of this course is a package of breathing
techniques based on traditional practice of yoga, meditation
and pranayama. A spiritually gifted person named Sri
Sri Ravishankar devised a system called Sudarshan kriya
(SK). This is a process of rhythmic breathing, (three different
rhythms in a cyclical fashion), which like ancient pranayama
helps harmonise many biological rhythms including brain rhythm,
heartbeat, enzyme rhythm and mental, emotional rhythm.
Research is revealing that with regular practice
of SK one experiences a flow of positive emotions replacing
anger and frustration. EEG, blood cortical (stress hormone)
and blood lactate levels reflect a state of relaxation, yet
alertness. It has cured depression in 70% of cases. Increase
in NK cells (surveillance cells of the immune system) and anti-oxidant
enzymes suggest that regular practice might prevent many diseases
including infections and possibly even cancer. Fall in cholesterol
may prevent cardiac diseases, and generally, the body feels
younger, healthier and calmer.
Sri Sri Ravishankar says: “Breath and mind are
linked like body and mind. Breath sorts out the imbalances in
the mind and the body. It is the secret of life we have forgotten.”
And it is by regular practice of SK that one can get to this
secret core, which is the source of pure consciousness. There
are two states of consciousness, one flowing outwards, connecting
our minds, senses and emotions to the outside world, and the
other flowing inwards. It is only when consciousness is turned
in-wards, when senses, thoughts and emotions are harmonised
with consciousness that we experience the 'state of pure consciousness'
where there is no stress, only joy.
am not unfamiliar with the art of meditative stillness during
or after prayer, and with the centred and calm feeling one gets.
But I must admit that practicing the sudarshan kriya's
prescribed cycle of breathing left me so relaxed that I almost
fell asleep during it. At the end of each session of just a
few minutes of the kriya, I felt an amazing sense of
having woken up from a long and restful sleep.
what we were taught, (apart from lectures on techniques for
letting go of anxiety and saying 'its okay' to every situation,
which is something I practise anyway) was a series of deep-lung
or ujjay breathing exercises (with mouth closed and
the inhalation and exhalation both noisily scraping the throat),
followed by 3 sets of normal but rapid bellow-like pumping breathing
called bhashtrika punctuated by meditation and the
last and most important cycle of rhythmic and diversely-paced
breathing which is the Sudarshan kriya itself. It is
advisable to do it under supervision of trained teachers so
one knows the right way to do it.
sudarshan kriya is done in any relaxed position. The
breathing is normal and is done in a cycle of 3 sets, starting
with a slow in-take of breath to the rhythm of SOW-HUM (20)
then sohum at a moderately faster pace (40), then sohum-sohum-sohum
at a fast/panting pace(40). This reminded me of the tradition
of zikr in sufi prayers, with Allah Hu! said
in slow, moderate and then rapid pace. The flow of oxygen to
the brain is both exhilarating and calming.
taken the course, I feel like recommending it to everybody.
It's a great life-enhancing experience. One feels sharper, more
focussed, and energised, yet calm and detached. Feeling wonderful,
in turn, helps one look better, and to cope better with life's
little mishaps, makes you tolerant of others (and laugh at their
inane jokes), which makes you better loved, which makes you
happier, which makes you relaxed, which makes you look younger,
which makes your life easier and better (wait just a minute,
you say, if you suddenly start to look all happy and young,
shouldn't that make others murderously envious and nasty with
you, raising your stress levels and making your life miserable?)
Oh! For God's sake, just try it out for yourself and find out.
I am already in the vajrasan kneeling position, about
to start my breathing exercises, so peace be on you as I leave
you feeling, if not looking, 'breath-takingly' wonderful. So-hum…