Strike a balance with Pranayama

By A. G. Mohan and Dr. Ganesh Mohan

Control the air for that right temperature

This is about the vital role that breath plays in maintaining and restoring our state of well-being and Inner Ecological Balance or Svastha. In the ancient texts, breath was given a special status because it was understood as the link between the body, mind and the external world. In fact, we know from modern Western medicine that breath is the meeting point between the autonomic and the voluntary nervous systems. Thus, most people can hold their breath at will, for example, to dive into a swimming pool. This conscious, willful control is a characteristic of the voluntary nervous system. But if someone does hold their breath too long, at that point, the autonomic nervous system will reassert itself and initiate breathing automatically.

In contrast, most of us cannot stop our heartbeat at will, because that is under the control of the autonomic nervous system. Thus, the conscious and voluntary meets the unconscious and involuntary in our every breath. The ancient yogic seers were the first to discover and explore this very important feature of breath, and they transmitted their discoveries through the Vedas, various Upanishads and, of course, Yogasutras.

Our state of the mind also affects our breathing as we can testify from our own experience. Fear or tension makes us breathe faster, while a calm mind is associated with slow and relaxed breathing. Since our breath alters with the fluctuations of our mind, it is possible to utilise this link and regulate the breath in order to change our state of mind.

The Vedas declare that life exists in this world because of the balance of heat and cold brought about by air. Ayurveda says that the sun (heat) and the moon (cold) sustain the world, with the air acting as the link. Yoga texts figuratively represent these same forces by the three most important nadis of the subtle human physiology, called ida, pingala and sushumna. Ida represents the moon (Kapha or cold), pingala represents the sun (Pitta or heat) and sushumna represents the air (Vata). Svastha, then, is the state of balance between these three forces, however they are named.

The strong similarity between these different views is quite striking. But this similarity is no accident. It is so because each system created by the ancient Vedic seers represents the same — the natural, universal laws governing both the macrocosm and the microcosm but using different terms. Just as heat and cold are balanced by air in the physical world, Vata balances Pitta and Kapha in the world of a human body. Therefore, the fundamental Ayurvedic texts say that Vata is mobile and balances Pitta and Kapha. Hence, the importance of proper breathing in the health of a person. In fact, since the balance between heat and cold in a physical or physiological system is maintained by air, Vata is generally considered to be the most important factor in Ayurveda as well as in Yoga.

It is interesting to note that, by itself, air does not have the characteristic of ‘hot’ or ‘cold.’ When Air is associated with heat it becomes hot air, and when it is associated with cold it becomes cold air. Thus air, though being neither ‘hot’ nor ‘cold’ in itself, can bring about a change of temperature. In the human body, Vata (or breath) can play a similar role and bring about changes in the heat and cold within our body. In fact, in the practice of Pranayama, we use this characteristic of Vata to our benefit. The balance between heat and cold in a human body is vital for its proper functioning. Bear in mind that decrease of heat is spoken of as “cold” and that the term, cold, is relative because it refers to a reduction of heat and not to any absolute value.

The human body needs to maintain different temperatures in different parts, both internal and external. This can be compared to the earth’s different temperature zones, from tropic to temperate and arctic, all of which must be in balance for a healthy world ecology. Likewise in the human body, these temperature zones must be maintained for health and to permit the normal functioning of the body. As you can see, Vata plays a major role in all of this. Therefore, the question is: Can we use this same vata, intelligently and to our own advantage, in order to balance heat (Pitta) and cold (Kapha) in our bodies?

This goal can indeed be achieved — through the right practice of pranayama.

This article appeared in The Hindu newspaper.