It’s a hard season in The VeganAsana world. The end of the semester means piles of grading. The end of the academic year means huge huge piles of recontracting documents, a commencement speech to write, and many banquets and ceremonies to attend or speak at. The end of YTT means figuring out what I’m doing next. The end of the fiscal year means working through copious huge budget issues. So, yeah, it’s a little rocky.
This week, I’ve noticed myself getting through a lot of things with pranayama. Of course, on Tuesday and Wednesday (sadly the only days this week I was able to go to a vinyasa class 🙁 ) I was doing pranayama as part of those classes. We did some dirga pranayama and a lot of ujjayi. But, I’ve also “caught” myself doing gentle dirga or quiet ujjayi during meetings where things were getting a little intense, while rushing from one obligation to another, prior to speaking publicly, in interactions that are a little tense, and even sitting in my office looking at the giant “to do” stack.
The focus for May at Yogawood, where I did my training and had the super privilege of teaching this week is:
When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the
breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life.
Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.
~Hatha Yoga Pradipika
This quote can be thought about in a number of ways. You could go with a relatively literal but spiritual understanding: we each have a set number of breaths allotted to us in a lifetime, to breath more calmly and slowly means a longer life and allows us more time to work through our karma. You could go with a very physiological explanation; calming the breath engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us to return to a state of calm after a period of stress. Thus, through using pranayama we spend more time physically in calm, which may be better on the body and extend the life. You could also just ignore the long life part and focus on the idea of a calm mind, which still sounds like a really good plan for life.
Or there is option D – all of the above. I believe that calming of the breath and of the mind may well function in all of these ways and more. It allows us to be more calm in our interactions with others, lowering our own stress and the stress of those around us, which chains out into a more healthy environment for everyone. It helps us to more “rationally” evaluate our choices, possibly leading to better and more healthy choices. It reduces the physical sensations of stress, which the body can experience in ways including relatively minor issues like a little indigestion and relatively major ways like triggering of autoimmune or other disease. I could go on.
The key here is that the utility isn’t just on the mat. In fact, it is more off the mat than on, because we spend only a small proportion of our lives on the mat. Pranayama can be practiced throughout our daily lives, in ways that can be helpful to us and not disruptive to anyone else (you don’t want to be that person whose ujjayi breath sounds like someone in the midst of a prolonged asthma attack). So, go for it. Breathe today.