Is there something more universal and secular than the atmosphere? Whether you are a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jain, you are breathing the same air – in fact, you are sharing the same life force. And this is exactly what pranayama teaches us: that all life is breath – from the moment you are born and start crying, which is effectively your first breath, till your last exhalation when you leave this world. And in between, you breathe a billion times – it has been calculated that we take approximately 10 thousand inhalations and exhalations a day! But how many of us are conscious of them ? And how many of us do think of harnessing this extraordinary free energy that is all around us? Only when you are out of breath or when we grow old and the respiration becomes labored…
Ancient Indians seers discovered that by breathing in certain patterns, with certain repetitions, one could produce different effects on the body and enhance one’s health and longevity. Not only that, they also realized, though it is very difficult to control one’s emotions, whether anger or depression by the mind (have you noticed that when you resist something, it persists even more?), by regulating your breath and paying attention to it, anger or depression would slowly dissipate and eventually disappear.
My experience with pranayama is quite extraordinary. Because of an accident as a kid, I have had a deviated septum & I could never properly breathe trough the right nostril, in spite of two operations. Furthermore, I noticed, as a journalist, that sitting in front of my computer or laptop for hours, my respiration would become so shallow, that it seemed that I stopped nearly breathing. Hello, have you not observed this phenomenon my journalist brothers and sisters? I also remarked, that when I get angry, my breathing becomes faster and sometimes even labored, whereas, while listening to a stirring music, or watching a lovely sunset, or in a moment of sacredness in a temple or a church, my breath would become very even and steady. Why is that, I thought?
Then, one day, a friend told about an ashram near Bangalore, where one could learn pranayama, the ancient science of breathing. I was then the correspondent in South Asia for Le Figaro, the leading French political daily and I sought an interview with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the head of this Ashram. He advised me to do his ‘basic course’, two hours a day for five days. It is there that I learned the techniques of pranayama which I have been practicing for more than twenty years and which have changed my life. At that point of time, I was covering different ‘wars’: the Tamils versus the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, the turmoil in Afghanistan, the Kargil war in Kashmir, or the royal upheavals in Nepal. But wherever I was, come what may, every morning I would practice half an hour of ujayi (yogic) breath, bhastrika (bellows) and the short version of the sudarshan kriya which is the repetition of different patterns of breath at different rhythms. Then I would finish by a few minutes of observing my respiration in the nostrils – and every time experience how steady my breath had become and how peaceful my mind was. Whatever happened in the day, happened, but this stayed with me.
As a journalist, it gave me courage, endurance and above all intuition, because the best reporters are those who are able to perceive a situation, to feel a human being, to assess an atmosphere – with intuition – as the mind is a little more silent than usual. As a human being, it gave me more self-confidence, more drive, more enthusiasm for life, a valuable thing when you age (especially, journalists who tend to become quickly cynical). It also brought me an understanding of what Indian spirituality is, an identification and compassion for other people’s suffering and a sense of sacredness. As a sports person, it gave me endurance, an increased pulmonary capacity and an energy that is younger than my age.
Unfortunately, in 1947, Nehru turned India’s back on all its ancient yogic disciplines, pranayama being one of them. Today Mr. Narendra Modi is caught up in this Nehruvian web: if he tries to reintroduce, pranayama, hata-yoga and meditation in schools, he will be again taxed as a Hindu fundamentalist. Yet, would not all children, whatever their religion, benefit so much in life from an early practice of pranayama, taught in a correct secular manner? Sri Sri Ravi Shankar himself has not only countless Christian and Muslim disciples, but also many Muslim teachers, whether in Pakistan, Bosnia, or even Iraq. It would produce adolescents and adults who would not only excel in sports (and do better than the one or two bronze medals in the Olympics, which got the Indian Media raving), because of the extra energy that pranayama confers, but would later possess, as businessmen or in liberal professions, the balance of mind, the satwa and the right vision that are indispensable to excel in life…
Are you listening Mr. Prime Minister?