That internal wind we rely on so heavily to survive is responsible for so much of the things we like in art.
Breath is the power propelling Bra Hugh’s notes, it carries the vocals of some of our favourite singers, soaring above crowds while burrowing through the souls of those who hear it.Think about some of your favourite rap verses and the breath control those flows required to execute correctly.
Dance places an incredible focus in its use to keep time as well as to feed the muscles for anything from head spins to ballet lifts. You might recall the chief from the famed Bad Boys movie franchise and his efforts to soothe himself, while breathing and saying “woosah”.
This got us thinking about breath and the string of celebs we see indulging in yoga, which also stresses control of your breathing. In these stressful times, any alleviation is welcome.
I reached out to The Art of Living Foundation, which was founded in 1981 and has teachers and volunteers in over 160 countries. More than 300 million people have been affected by their various programmes and techniques.
Their technique, abbreviated as SKY (Sudarshan Kriya), was cognised by Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of the foundation. I speak with Anand Jagdish Makan, who explains that all their sessions are now online and that The Art of Living is among the largest volunteer organisations in the world in which people who learn the techniques can eventually come to teach them.
He has been involved with learning and then teaching these calming methods for 25 years and he agrees to show me a few.
Makan – a manager of his own family business in the field of steel kitchen cabinet manufacturing – says, “The organisation is run by volunteers – people like you and me who have full time jobs, families, etcetera – but do volunteer work that involves teaching these methods. Because of the impact these techniques and knowledge had on our lives, we want to share them with others.”
As a result of homing in on the hidden powers of breathing, the 43-year-old from Pretoria claims, “I do the work of four people right now [at his family business] and I can’t imagine doing it without my techniques. Every day I do what has to be done without fail and I come home and I’m not tired or down.”
Finding your centre
Breathing is arguably one of the easiest things to do for most humans; it’s as effortless as blinking. Every breath in nourishes the body and every breath out cleanses the body. Around 80% of the toxins in the body are released through the breath and most of us use only 30% of our lung capacity.
The rather knowledgeable Makan adds, “The breath is the bridge between the internal world and the external world, between body and mind. The first act of life is to take a breath in, and the last act is to breathe out. The secret to living happily, calmly and positively lies in the simple function that happens from the time we are born – breathing.”
The idea of controlling your breathing and using it as a calming wind helps the mind to be present, an arb-sounding idea that deflects stress.
The first exercise is called Bellows breath.
He says, “This technique very quickly increases the prana, or subtle life force energy, in the body and mind.”
Makan instructs me to close my eyes and breathe calmly through my nose. I’m told to perform 20 repetitions of an exercise that is almost like doing a military press with weights (an exercise that involves heaving a barbell above your head from a seated position), but without the weights.
As my hands extend upwards, I breathe in and then drop them down as I exhale, my arms bent, and my elbows tucked into my abdominal region. I take a stolen peek to see what both he and I looked like. Completely ridiculous, but the effects were quite pacifying.
Makan later agreed with my thoughts, “Look, you should try to do these alone, as you do look quite silly, but you can feel the effects yourself.”
His tone is mellow as he tells me to keep my eyes closed between three sets of what is actually a tiring exercise. He says to focus on parts of my body, starting from the feet. After that he slowly pushes me to extend my awareness beyond my body and savour the distant sounds of my environment.
The next exercise is a technique used to balance both the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Alternate nostril breathing.
“Lightly touch your left index finger and thumb together,” he says, informing me that the light connection between the two digits represents the synapses in my brain.
I am told to place the middle finger and index finger of my other hand in the middle of my forehead, the third eye, or pineal gland, if you like. I then use my pinky and thumb to block one nostril as I take turns in breathing through one at a time.
He takes his time before allowing me to reopen my eyes and experience the moment for what it truly is. I am simply seated at a table and, for a long while after, not pressed about deadlines or my loud neighbours. My mind and body feel placid and centred in the moment.
“A centred mind has focus, clarity, awareness, attention to detail and, most importantly, is peaceful, happy and automatically sees the positive instead of a negative. A centred mind equals very little or no stress.”
The slightly mystical Makan only showed me two techniques and, when my eyes opened, 18 whole minutes had passed. It felt a lot shorter, which Makan said can happen. In his session, there was noticeably no use of affirmations which you might associate with meditation.
In this serene state, to me, Makan is now almost guru like.
He says, “There is no need for affirmation, to keep saying ‘I am happy, I am peace’ when you are feeling negative emotions. Use the breath to clear away the negativity and the joy and peace comes back. Prayer is asking the universe for something. Meditation is listening to the universe. Both have a role to play.”
Reach out to The Art of Living Foundation at artofliving.org/za-en