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December 12, 2003

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The Art of Living

Neeman A Sobhan

Breath: 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, more alive.

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).

The 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.

I 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.

Basically, 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.

The 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.

Having 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…


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