Friday, December 16, 2011

Book Response - The Science of Pranayama

Hmmm...She doesn't look like a scientist.
         When I chose The Science of Pranayama to read for this essay, I had hopes that it would teach me how to increase lung capacity by practicing Pranayama, or about the effects Pranayama has on brain function. I did not expect a graphic colon cleansing lesson involving Vaseline and a “small bamboo tube 6 fingers long” in the excerpt on Basti, nor did I anticipate the lesson that the mind will control itself, “without emission of even a single drop of semen for 12 years” but those are exactly the lessons I learned. It seems that the science of Pranayama according to Sri Swami Sivananda, is very much an art.
         The first section of this book is dedicated to the “Shat-Karmas” or “Six Purificatory Processes.” During our yoga training, we’ve come to learn them as Kriyas. According to Sivananda, it is imperative that these processes be executed and mastered by “Those who are of a flabby and phlegmatic constitution only” in order to prepare for the practice of Pranayama. How an overly flabby person would execute Basti the way it is described in the book is a mystery to me, but apparently it is just such a person who would benefit most. The book contains an interesting full page black and white photo of a man wrapped in a cloth performing Dhauti. In the photo, about a yard of the gauzy fabric needed for Dhauti is being pulled from his mouth into a dish of tepid water laid at his feet. In the book, all six Shat-Karmas are said to cure asthma, however Dhauti is also said to cure fever and leprosy. This would be an excellent time for the science portion to back up these ancient practices as there must be some anatomical, scientific root to the claims of alleged cure for such specific ailments. Disappointingly however, not even a slight explanation is given.
         In Sivananda’s explanation of Neti, it is performed with a thin thread dipped in glue and not with the more commonly adhered to Neti Pot. This practice replaces the stream of saline water with the thread for purifying the skull and curing rhinitis. Trataka, Nauli and Kapalabhati are explained very minimally compared to the first three processes in this section of the book, though Kapalabhati is explored in depth later. Trataka is claimed to induce clairvoyance in the practitioner, while Nauli “destroys all intestinal disorders” and Kapalabhati “destroys all the disorders of phlegm.”
         In the second section of The Science of Pranayama the “Five Essentials” needed for proper meditation and Pranayama practice are discussed. When these essentials are met, then eventually the practitioner will be able to “retain the breath for 3 Ghatikas (one hour and a half) at a time,” when this is achieved the “Yogi gets many psychic powers.” Once again, I would be fascinated to learn if holding the breath for ninety minutes is humanly possible, and if so, what physical effects is has on the body and brain, but there is no science offered. Some time is spent discussing the proper location for practicing Pranayama, along with the best time of day, and what kind of person is best qualified for the practice. The “Dietetic Discipline” is described with the most detail, offering promises of levitation for those that consume the proper food and drink at the appropriate times during practice. Sivananda also explains which foods are forbidden (salt, sour foods, mustard and oil are some examples) with no explanation as to why they are harmful to the practitioner.
         Ideal postures for practicing Pranayama are then discussed including Padmasana,Svastikasana, and Samasana. Siddhasana, or “The Perfect Pose” however, should be noted as “not suitable for ladies” for some unexplained reason. Ironically, the bikini clad women on both the front and back covers of the book are sitting in this pose.
Back Cover. This is an ancient don't, ladies!
During the portion on the three Bandhas the reader learns that the entire purpose of the practice of Pranayama is to awaken the sleeping Kundalini and eventually achieve Samadhi, as “the goal of life is self realization.” According to the author, Kundalini is “the source for all occult powers” and is awakened by inhalations and exhalations which are measured by various units of duration including “Matras” and“Angulas.” Some other benefits of Pranayama include “the power of thought reading…levitation…psychometry, clairaudience…moving about unseen by anybody in the world…the power of entering the body of another man…the power to remain always young.” It seems the Pure Yoga Teacher Training is holding some knowledge back from its humble students. It is fascinating to read such claims, and it is interesting that the author also states that one who achieves any of these outrageous powers must never reveal them to any living person. These achievements must always stay within the yogi so they are not perverted by those only seeking entertainment. I hope my love of David Blaine is acceptable, I don’t believe he wants to pervert any ancient knowledge.
There are sixteen different types of Pranayama exercises explained in this book. Included are all of the practices we’ve discussed in class. The explanations of each are very instructional, with no scientific reasoning or offering given. My favorite Pranayama explanation is that for “Murchha.” The practitioner is instructed to “Retain the breath till you expect fainting then exhale slowly…this makes the mind senseless and gives happiness. But it is not suitable for many.” Indeed. The title of this book is at best misleading, though it was still an interesting and sometimes unintentionally comical read.

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