Nope, Pranayama is not for me. And it will not so for the foreseeable future. In a previous post, i mentioned yet another foray into the world of pranayama by way of Anulom-Vilom. This time I was fortified by Jala Neti. I practiced twice a day for a first two days. The idea was to carry on every session till I felt some mild discomfort. Bad idea. On the third day, i felt ill. I stopped. The reason this is a bad idea is that if you practice till you feel discomfort, however mild, are you not setting yourself up for greater discomfort later? These things after all have a momentum of their own. You may stop at the onset of discomfort, but the momentum has already been built and it will only get worse before it gets better.
So I took a day’s break and decided to change tack. I would the next day I practiced 5 rounds after neti. No disccomfort. Then I did 6 rounds the next day. No discomfort. Then on the very next day, I jumped the gun and did 9 rounds. No immediate discomfort, but 45 minutes later, the room started spinning. I started feeling dizzy and strangely tense. I am planning on a mountaineering course and so my medical for the course was on the same day. Bad timing. My blood pressure came in at 155/100. Normally it is 115/75
I immediately informed my Yoga teacher. I told him that Pranayamas are not for me. That even if I continued learning under him, I would not be able to keep a regular practice. Certainly I could not practice pranayamas while in the middle of mountaineering course. what if something happens and he will not be there for counseling. I certainly cannot practice when in the middle of a Vipassana course. Is there any use in practicing in the middle of such discontinuity. His answer was that it did not matter if there were breaks in the practice. That continuous practice while highly desirable is not necessary for seeing benefits. Even if you practice it once, you will see the benefits. That it would enhance my mountaineering experience, not make it worse. That he wanted to see me the next day and see exactly what I was doing wrong so he could correct me. He was not interested in a discussion on the phone. We would have to talk the next day
In the meanwhile I did some more investigation. My mother is a long time pranayama practitioner. Se too said that it really energizes her and that it had always done so from the very first day. This got me asking myself. Have I myself ever seen any benefits from a pranayama practice? The fact is that apart from concentrating my mind, I have never seen any benefits. Even on the days when it does not fuck me up, I never come out of a pranayama session feeling better that when I went in. At best, I come out of it exactly the same as I went in. Usually I come out of it feeling strangely tight. And at worst, it gets me bedridden. This itself was a warning sign to me that something about my body is not right. If I feel tight from the start, then why do I assume it will improve later. Perhaps because this sort of “no pain no gain” thinking is deeply ingrained in me
I then called the boys at Vipassana. They said that they are not against pranayamas per se. But they do not recommend it. Their contention is that Pranayamas concentrate the mind really quick, while anapana is quite slow. So there is a danger that one may get addicted to pranayamas in order to concentrate the mind instead of using Anapana. While anapana is slow to concentrate the mind, it has several advantages that Pranayamas cannot hope to match. These I will talk about later.
The person who finally clinched the deal for me was a conversation with my mother’s teacher. Apart from the boys at Vipassana, this is another person I have some respect for. A big part of this is that he does not charge any money from anyone. He lives on donations. He does not even mention. You have to ask him yourself if you desire to donate. It’s unfortunate that he does not teach Yogasanas or Pranayamas. He does not believe in them. He wants me to ditch all health concerns and go to pure spirituality. Sigh! anyway, he said that I was simply not ready to practice pranayamas. That I would have to do plenty of meditation to align and orient my mind-body in order to be able to practice it. That plenty of Yoga teachers have no idea about Yoga. That they just learn a few things and try to make cash out of it. That he has no time or patience for them or for what they have to say. His contention is that a real Pranayama teacher should be able to get into your mind and he must be able to tell exactly how you are taking every breath without you having to tell him. Then he can correct you. Then he can guide you. And if he cannot do that, he has no businesss teaching pranayamas. He asked me to describe how I practice meditation. I described anapana and Vipassana to him. To this technique, he was all praise. He said that I must have more confidence in this and keep at it. He also mentioned that energy (viriya) is needed to properly observe sensations and that my viriya fluctuates too much. Most of the time I am not in a position to observe sensations objectively. This, i told him was true. I spent the bulk of my time practicing Anapana.
A little background regarding my hostory with pranayama. I have experimented with several pranayamas in several ways. The first time in early 2009. The second time in early 2010 and the third time in mid 2010. And each time, without exception, I ended the practice because of extreme discomfort. The mildest ones screw me up. The time span does not matter. Even 3 minutes daily is enough to screw me up after a few days. And the teachers (my teacher’s so far have not been yoga teachers. They were merely enthusiasts who feel qualified to instruct) are then clueless. Those who recommend it to me are clueless. This happens time and again. They have no ready answers. All they say is that something must be wrong and that I must see a “real” yoga teacher. This usually requires a journey to a “real” ashram and time being spent there. I did various permutations of very simple and supposedly harmless pranayamas like deep breathing and anulom-vilom. Starting off with a minute and slowly ramping up. Various procedures. No avail. There seems to be something fundamentally wrong with consciously trying to control the breath.
The next day I went to the Yoga teacher with several misgivings. I felt he did not know either what was going on. When I first mentioned that pranayamas were not good for me, it seemed to irritate him a bit. Also he dismissed my concerns off hand and told me that it was impossible to hurt oneself doing anulom vilom in the manner he described. I wanted to mention to him that I had practiced Anulom-Vilom this was as well and this too had resulted in extreme discomfort. But I did not. And this highlights another character flaw which I will talk about later. My concern was he was clearly wrong the first time. He did not even listen to my concern. How can I expect him then to fix this issue? Also am I willing to allow myself to be experimented upon? And after the conversation with my mum’s teacher, I was determined to not continue with pranayams. Fortunately, my yoga teacher himself did not push the issue. He just let it slide saying that since I did not seem interested in pranayams, I must just move to yogasans. But he refused to accept that anulom-vilom could have caused my High BP. Then what could it have been? I did not raise this question as I was just thankful that I can move to yogasanas which was my whole reason to come to him in the first place.
My character Flaw: Why do I feel the need to justify myself to all and sundry?
For some reason I feel a need to justify why I will not practice pranayams. Why do I need to do this with all and sundry. Why did I need to do this with the yoga gentleman in the park. It’s not just pranayams. Even in dealings with my friends, I find myself doing this. What is it about me that I need some one else to approve of my choices? I wish I could say to myself that the reason I justify myself because i want to run my reasoning by someone else to catch flaws in my reasoning. This is true in some cases. But I know that in majority of the cases, it is my need for approval that causes me to justify myself. Even with people who i know are ignorant about the topic at hand. Why do i need the approval of fools? Why do I waste time arguing with ignorant people? What do I benefit from it? Have I ever benefited from it? Then why do i persist with this habit? There are plenty of fools who at first thought were wise men. But has the reverse ever happened? So why? It seems I fundamentally lack confidence and assurance. Always unsure of myself. afraid of confrontation. Afraid of unpleasantness. Addicted to pleasantness. With the yoga gentleman in the park, i held my ground of course, i refused to practice pranayama there. But I know that the reason i did that was not because of any sort of self confidence. It was because the past pranayama experiences were too painful and fresh in my memory. And why was i not more insistent with my teacher earlier. Why did I not see the signs earlier. It was because I did not want to argue with him. Why not? To keep things pleasant. Why? Because I wanted him to have a good opinion of me. Why? Does a sincere yoga student care any thing about anyone’s opinion of him? No, this is just a scared me protecting my ego.
In the future, if I decide to learn pranayama from anyone, i must have a few questions for the putative teacher.
Q1. I practice Anapana-sati. Please tell me what is it that Pranayama can do for me that anapana-sati cannot do. In my opinion Anapana-sati is way superior to pranayamas for several reasons
a. You simply cannot hurt yourself practicing Anapana. impossible.
b. It may be slow to concentrate the mind, but the effect lasts much longer than anapana
c. It brings out samskaras and purifies the mind. This pranayamas do not do in my opinion
d. You learn more about your mind-body continuum practicing Anapana than by practicing Pranayams
e. In Anapana, you allow the body’s native intelligence to take over. As expounded by U.G. krishnamurthi, the body’s native intelligence is far superior to human intellect which is subject to personal biases and prejudices. And for the vast majority of us, human intellect is the prime driving force behind the pranayama practice.
Q2. Please explain the rationale behind intentionally breathing slowly.
The usual belief is that breathing slower promotes longevity. This may be true. But it is not a reason to control your breath to breathe slowly intentionally. The slow breathing must come naturally, without effort. Not by intentional effort. That is attacking the symptom, not the cause. You breathe rapidly because you are a habitually anxious person. Not the other way round.
The argument that a slow breathing turtle lives longer than a rapid breathing canine is really a strawman. It does not prove anything. For one thing every species has it’s natural breathing rate. Secondly, this is not an apples to apples comparison. This is comparing apples to cauliflowers. Has anyone ever demonstrated that a dog will live longer by breathing more slowly intentionally?
Q3. please explain how kapalabhati or bhatrika cleanse the body of impurities?
These are violent pranayamas which are directly in opposition to pranayama practitioner’s claims that it is slow breathing that is good. Okay, accepting that these pranayamas are really cleansing pranayamas, could you please explain how they cleanse the system?
Q4. what is the rationale behind anulom Vilom?
Okay granted god has given us two nostrils and ideally one must breathe through both. Okay, granted it must happen at the same time. But my question again is, why force the issue by blocking them alternately. Why not let it happen naturally?
Q5. The pranayama mentioned in Patanjali’s yoga-sutras is actually closer to Anapana-Sati than any of the pranayamas you people are mentioning. Could you please mention the source/origin of this type of pranayama?
While it may seem that i am attacking pranayamas, this is not true. For one, i have seen myself the effect of them on my mum. For another, there are plenty of people who have benefited. What i am doing is attacking those folk who believe that pranayamas are beneficial to all people, in all situations, in all conditions without reservation. I am further accusing the majority of pranayama practitioners, even those who have benefited from it, of having no clue what the hell they are doing. This in itself is not bad. For the first 6 years of my vipassana practice, i too had no clue what i was doing. But these same pranayama practitioners pretend to be experts on the field and claim that pranayams are scientific without being able to explain themselves. This, in my opinion, is harmful and not good. While pranayams are beneficial to several people, there is a minority who must not practice them. I am one of them. I do not know why this is. But I do know my body. and I do know the difference between good discomfort (from vipassana) and bad discomfort (pranayams). And this to me clinches the deal. Whether anyone agrees with me or not.
Update July 20
July 18 was fine but a mild anxiety followed me around July 19th like a shadow. Even this morning there is some small anxiety. I am attending a satipatthana course. Hopefully, by then this thing will be done. But I have learnt my lesson. Be more assertive, learn to say no, do not blindly trust people’s competence no matter how highly recommended, and do not do pranayamas without approval from your mum’s teacher