March 13, 2012

A Beautiful Belly Means a Beautiful Mind: How Pranayama Works. ~ Eric Shaw

What if the muscles in your abdomen controlled your life?

Many people want to avoid pot bellies and want steel abs because it looks great, but yoga suggests other reasons for a washboard stomach.

In the Gheranda Samhita, a medieval text of yoga, it calls our practice Ghata Yoga, meaning the yoga of the pot. A key to this and all the old physical yogas was kumbhaka—holding the breath—and kumbhaka means pot too. As we know, yoga keeps us fit in mind, belly and spirit, but its big, big focus in the old, old days was pot yoga, which meant making a smart, toned belly—not because it looked fabulous, but because it allowed practitioners to move energy in the body and mind. The belly, yogis learned, was intimately connected to mind control—and therefore life control.


The belly bone is connected to the mind bone, which is connected to the life bone?

Ghata and kumbhaka refer to is the body’s working core—the ribcage and belly—and their enveloping muscles. The belly “pot” (ghata) has all the subtle muscles that guide the breath and, when they are well-trained, they allow us to hold the breath in very specific ways (kumbhaka). This training can go on for a very long time, and when it advances, we find that manipulating the belly in stressful situations directs the breath and keeps the mind cool under pressure. We find that, anticipating difficulty, a side session of alternate nostril breathing can steady our nerves. Pranayama is a simple science, but it has far-reaching effects.

Today’s workout-influenced yoga trains our “pots” because those muscles look great, but these do more than tease the thoughts of onlookers—they belong to a system of nerve, lung and muscle that train our minds and help our lives.

The practice goes very deep.

Yoga teachers say “breathe!” because it gets rid of tension, focuses attention and develops concentration. But many yoga teachers do not know that the ancient aim of yoga was to stop breathing entirely! I know that sounds absurd, but working toward this aim is said to be key to long life and a steely mental focus. We have heard of ‘breatharians’ who gave up food and live off air. There are also said to be Swamis who have given up air and live off prana—life force. They exchange it with their surroundings like common folk do with 02. Swami Kripalu—the teacher of Amrit Desai (who founded Massachusetts’ Kripalu Center and who invented Kripalu Yoga)—breathed only forty times a day. (Swami Kripalu lived under a vow of silence.  Sometimes, in the middle of a “talk,” he would write on his little, hand-held chalkboard: “I feel a breath coming . ..”).

Swami K. was calm because he breathed so little. Calm breath equals calm mind. And, incidentally, less breath equals long life.

Ancient lore says we get a limited number of breaths when we are born (a few gazillion, probably). When they are finished, we are finished. Modern science tells us oxygen creates “free-radicals” in the system, i.e. oxidation. It eventually leads to the systemic breakdown we call old age. Think of the USS Arizona sitting on the seafloor of Pearl Harbor. Think of rust. Even if have abs of steel, your body will rust from all the glorious breathing you do.

If you want to optimize your years, use those abs to guide breath.

The old yogis taught themselves this, and passed it down though their lineages.

They invented pranayama, the science of breath. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras was composed near the year 200 of our era (1800 years later, it became the “Bible” of modern yoga) and it makes breath science the third of eight steps in yoga mastery. But even in the very oldest Indian scriptures from three thousand years ago, we get references to yogi-like characters “mounting” and “churning” the wind (wind is a euphemism for breath).

So we know breath-practice goes way back. Later yogis learned that breath practice helped them attain hard poses and hold them longer, but they also explored how breath and mind move like lovers in happy union. It is said that breath moves the mind and the mind moves the breath. And maybe on a good day, it even leads to a yogi power (or siddhi) like mindreading, water-walking or walking on air (before we had airplanes to help us with this!). Sure, controlling the breath can make you live longer but, more importantly, your whole life is improved if you learn to control your breath because of the miraculous and quasi-miraculous benefits it brings.  

Pranayama is the ancient practice of breath control from the yoga traditionNot every yoga teacher offers it, but the ancient tradition qualified it as higher practice than mere posing. The ancient guidebook to yoga—The Yoga Sutras—plus lots of traditionally-schooled marquee teachers, like T. K. V. Desikachar, Rod Stryker and Gary Kraftsow, direct our primary attention to developing pranayama. There are exciting reasons for this.

What if mind-control was a really a simple, practical affair? Like, what if a beautiful belly meant a beautiful mind? If the mind is controlled by the breath and the breath is controlled by all those sweet stomach muscles then, ispo facto, a beautiful bellies make the brain beautiful!

The belly rules the brain.  

This is much more than “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”  What we learn through pranayama is that the breath can remain steady no matter what. We also work (in the very long run) toward stopping the breath entirely.

This has long-term effects, of course. One main reason cardiovascular exercise is good is that hard breathing in the workout leads to calmer and slower breaths outside of the workout. When the lungs learn to work well, they work less when we rest. Less breath = longer living.

Pranayama science is huge. The above-mentioned Swami Kripalu claimed to know over two hundred breath exercises (about the same number of poses the famous yogi B. K. S. Iyengar put in his “Bible” of poses, Light on Yoga). To give you an idea about how slowed breath lengthens life from Nature, this story from British India helps:  Clive of India was a great winner of Indian battles and he retired to a wealthy UK estate and stocked a zoo in 1769.  In 2006, I read that one of Clive’s tenants—a slow-breathing sea turtle—had just died.   He was said to be two hundred and fifty years old—about twenty years older than Iyengar’s paramaguru, the great ghata yogi, Brahmamohana Brahmachari.

But long life is no good if you have got a lousy life. Pranayama helps us get a handle on health and longevity—through our mind, breath and belly—but more importantly it makes a steady mind that is better-equipped to make itself happy. Steady minds more readily make wise choices. That leads to better things for everyone in the vicinity.

So work the belly, dear readers! It is more than just an accessory to your bikini or boxer shorts. Learn breath science! Because, ipso facto: a beautiful belly (rightly trained!) means a beautiful mind and life.

Eric Shaw, E-RYT-500, MA Education, MA Asian Studies, MA Religious Studies, teaches the history, philosophy and practice of Yoga. You could enjoy this video of his insight into the philosophy behind Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and check out his website.



Prepared by Soumyajeet Chattaraj/Edited by Tanya L. Markul

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