Yoga Bites: Diet and Pranayama

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by Smt Smrithi Adinarayanan

Before we begin, the caveats:
1. Do not believe me … if you do so you are a fool.
2. Do not disbelieve me … if you do so you are a greater fool.
3. Just have an open mind and experiment.

Let me begin with a small story. There were four friends: a karma yogi, a bhakti yogi, a jnana yogi and a raja yogi. All the four set out on a journey looking for God on their own path. Each of them believed that his philosophy would take him to God. They worked for years on their path and finally landed up in a forest. They were surprised to see each other. They had discussions about how they had spent all these years on their path and unfortunately, none had seen God. There came a hunter who was actually overhearing their discussion. He came to them and said, “Have you people worked together?” Surprised at the hunter’s suggestion, all the four sat together in deep meditation.

All the four saw God in the hunter.

All of us are like the four friends. We know things, yet we need someone else to lead us on the right path. A Ravishankar or a Sai Baba or a Mohammed is here for the same reason. Though I am not here for that, it is just that I choose to learn better by sharing with others my views and experiences.

As one grows up, one reads a lot of books for self-improvement, philosophy and the like. One is never bored with such books as long as one tries putting them to practice. Such books state things like, “Drop your ego”, “View insults as mere words, they shouldn’t affect your mind”, “Be happy always”, “Treat everyone as your brother”, etc. I was inspired by one such book (The inspiration was so much, that I just don’t remember the book’s name). The first day I was happy receiving the insult of the bus conductor when I did not have the proper change, I was happy receiving scoldings from my mother when I forgot to do the work she had asked me to do. The world seemed very beautiful that day because my mind was saying to itself, “Insults are just words, you can be happy anyway”. But the fact is, I was not even conscious that these insults or the so called “mere words” were making an impact deep within. The very night I cursed the bus conductor, my mother and everyone who had talked to me that day. I understood to some extent that these books are just tools and not the end. I felt the need for self-reforming, all by myself. Trying, trying and trying wouldn’t help at all. There is a popular saying, “If you have to swim, do not try to swim, rather swim”.

Even with my articles it is the same. The words in themselves don’t mean anything unless you experiment and arrive at your own truth. All it needs is some time with yourself. That “some time” is hard to get, I know, but it is worth it, believe me. Let me share one more story with you. There was a man. He was really fed up with his shadow and footsteps. The only way to be free from them, he thought, was to run fast. The first step he took and he saw a footstep. The shadow too was there absolutely sticking to him. He thought that he wasn’t running faster. So he ran faster. The faster he ran, the faster the shadows came and faster were the footsteps. He was missing the point that if he sat quietly under the shade of the tree he can get rid of both the footsteps and the shadow. All we know is fight or flight. Let’s learn to drop both.

The articles that follow will help you spend some time with yourself, (again if you choose to), release stress that has been accumulated and develop a positive health and attitude.

I shall try my best to avoid confusing “philosophical” terminologies that can be found in any book. Something like “nirvikalpa samadhi”, the moment you hear it, the mind wanders in a thousand directions trying to make out what it is. There was this man, who heard of “nirvikalpa samadhi” from his guru. From then on he vowed to practice “nothing is right, nothing is wrong”. The first task he wanted to do, his mind said “Don’t do this!”, he wanted to help a poor man, and his mind said, ”Save the money for the future”, the next moment he put it back in his pocket, his mind said, “Sinful you are! Uncaring for the poor you are!” This continued for days. Frustrated, the man dropped the very practice and did what he wanted and THUS ATTAINED NIRVIKALPA SAMADHI.

Today we will talk a little bit about diet and a basic pranayama. Exercises follow at the end of each passage.

NOTE: You will encounter repetitions of certain basic stuff in this and further articles. This is intentional as it has been my experience that repetition of something makes it second nature and you start acting automatically that way.

The human body is like a musical concert. The concert will be a grand success only if each of the instruments is played not only with mastery but also in sync with the other instruments. The instruments here are the various parts of the body. Only if all the parts are maintained in perfect condition can the body sustain itself. If one has keenly observed in a musical concert, the tanpura is the instrument that is most necessary but can be heard only when the observer directs his focus upon it forgetting the other instruments. The subtler aspects of the human body are like the tanpura. They need sound health and keen focus to actually be noticed.
Let’s begin the process in a slow fashion. Let’s take each aspect one at a time. Let’s not hurry. This reminds me of a story.
There was this man. He went to the doctor to get his legs operated.
The doctor said, “Here everything’s fast, time bound. The first day we expect you to walk for half an hour inside this room. Next day, outside, in the garden for an hour and the third day on the streets for four hours. Time is like money, it cannot be wasted”.
The man, after patiently listening to this, asked politely, “Would you mind if I lie down for the operation”.
We are all like this doctor: time bound, wanting quick results and immediate freedom from stress. Let’s be patient and start.
Speaking of patience, that reminds me of something – it is my observation that people get unnecessarily excited over anything and everything, but as things proceed, they lose steam. You might have noticed a kid who gets his new pair of shoes. That’s it! That’s heaven to him. He doesn’t want to remove the shoes ever, even while going to the toilet! Days go by. One day. Two days. Three days. And he has lost the initial enthusiasm. Then the poor shoes find themselves totally neglected and uncared for while the kid is busy getting excited over the next newest acquisition! I find that many “grown-up” people have the same attitude. Not that anything is wrong with that. Just that if you can maintain that attitude for anything you take up from the beginning right till the end, it is very good. If not, having a balanced and non-excited view of things is better, to not lose the enthusiasm and sustain any work till the end.

Lets us focus on diet first. The purpose of a balanced diet is often misunderstood as,”obtaining a slim and beautiful body”. A balanced and nutritious diet is needed to maintain the body well so that the body cooperates with you in achieving whatever goal(s) you have in mind. One needs a balanced diet before one can begin any sort of exercise or practice. As one practices efficiently, one can naturally notice that his body is rejecting the foods he used to take with much pleasure and convenience.
One starts seeing that one has a natural preference for non-oily and non-spicy food. One starts preferring wholesome vegetarian food. Again nothing is right or wrong, you just need to take notice of what works and what doesn’t for you. One must learn to respect the stomach. After all, it’s been serving you for years.

From now on, when you eat, please make sure you reduce your eating speed just to see what reaction the food brings in you. Just feel the food getting inside your stomach. Take as much time as possible. Do this once in a while. This will automatically create an awareness of your eating habits. You will notice that your stomach needs something better, not pizzas, chaats and samosas. It would be harsh to start eating shrubs and herbs all of a sudden, but it’s worth thinking before you gulp anything. I am not going to suggest any particular type of food that’s best for health because everyone has his own system and there is nothing like being your own dietician. My aim is just to bring a little more awareness.

Pranayama practice 1 (Nadi shodana)
This is a very simple yet very beautiful pranayama (breathing) technique.
Sit in a quiet place free from external noise (I know it’s the toughest part of the practice if you’re in a city). Sit in a cross-legged posture.
You can also sit in vajrasana (legs folded at the knees and the buttocks resting on the ankles with the big toes touching each other). If this is too difficult then you can sit on a straight-backed chair with the feet resting on the ground. Just that from now if you gradually start practising sitting in padmasana or vajrasana, then the later asanas will become easier. It is just about training your body. Initially it will seem difficult, but as you keep practising you will start noticing the ease with which you are able to assume any asana. Keep your hands on your knee caps, spine and neck should be straight, shoulders relaxed.

Now just observe your breath for a few seconds. You will notice that your breathing is very shallow. A shallow breathing inhales less amount of oxygen and hence blood purification is not as efficient as it ought to be. Blood flow to the brain is also limited. Your mind will wander away from your breath. So please bring it back to the breath. Do not force your breath.

Now hold your right hand such that the palm is directly in front of your face.
Place the right thumb on the right nostril. Keep the index finger and middle finger between the eyebrows. Now take a deep breath counting 3 (slowly) and then close the left nostril with the ring and little fingers. Hold the breath for a count of 3. Exhale slowly to a count of 3 through the right nostril. Now inhale through right nostril, hold the breath and exhale through left nostril. There should be no sound while breathing. (In fact, it is said that even a feather placed below the nostrils should remain unmoved during pranayama) So do it as smoothly as possible. Practice this entire sequence for 3 rounds.

This is best done in the morning. In the mornings the breath is somewhat balanced already. So do not force your breath. Also empty your stomach and bowels before doing this. This can also be done in the evenings as soon as one returns from work.

This pranayama is good for stress relief. It releases blocks both physical and emotional. It is good for sinus troubles. The mind becomes calmer. It is good for the lungs. People who are not able to get rid of smoking, but wish to, can practice this. In time, they will understand the wonderful capacity of the respiratory system and the harms of damaging it.

The number of rounds can be increased. Also one can use the left hand to support the right hand in case one practises for a longer time. Breathing ratio – inhale: hold: exhale can be increased from 3:3:3 to 3:12:6 or 8:8:8.