The joy of ‘pranayam’

There can be far more to ‘pranayam’ than just nimbler muscles, better breathing or weight loss


Yoga can help develop a sense of mindfulness. Photo: Shankar Mourya/Hindustan Times
Yoga can help develop a sense of mindfulness. Photo: Shankar Mourya/Hindustan Times

Many years ago, I used to live in a small terrace flat on top of a squat little building in Mandaveli in Chennai. I shared the flat with more than one roommate, and people kept moving in and out, but we all had a good time. One day, one of my roommates decided to join a month-long pranayam course at Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev’s Isha Foundation. Till today, I do not recall why he decided to do this. He had never shown a proclivity for yoga, pranayam or any related activity. And he had never shown any sign of religiosity or spirituality in all the years I had known him. He was very fit, thanks to many years spent as a competition-level powerlifter. But then he hadn’t been to a gym in years.

However he was, and still is, an intensely thoughtful and reflective person. And he liked to explore ways of getting to know himself better. Perhaps that is what led to him giving pranayam a shot. And, like most things we did those days, we decided to do it together.

So early one Mandaveli morning, we piled on to our battered old Bajaj Sunny scooter and rattled and rumbled our way to our first pranayam class. Both of us, I think, approached the whole thing with a fair amount of scepticism. Not that we thought yoga was some kind of snake-oil quackery or anything. Of course not. We had a healthy, if highly under-informed, regard for yoga and pranayam. However, we both went in with our bullshit radars turned up to 7.

Yet, just a few sessions later, we were having tremendous fun. More so than we had ever expected. Each session comprised two halves. In the first, we were taught a number of pranayam exercises that got progressively harder. And in the second, the trainer, a soft-spoken Isha Yoga ninja always dressed in white, gave pleasant lectures on peace, stress management, diet control, states of mind—all within the Isha framework.

Over time, the attendants—a strikingly diverse group of Chennai residents of all professions, creeds and genders—began to open up to each other and to the group. A warm bonhomie began to develop, culminating in a couple of special sessions. One was on the Marina Beach, where we played games after our pranayam session (I abhor such human resources-training type events. But this was genuinely enjoyable). The second, one of the final sessions, was an all-day group event where we practised yoga, sang songs and prepared a lavish vegan, no-cook buffet of fruits, nuts and vegetables.

There were some sessions that set off the sceptic in me. I recall one such, in which we spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the mystic powers of things like rudrakshams, special metals, talismans and the like.

At the end of the course, however, I was genuinely sad. First of all, there were the physical benefits. The pranayam exercises seemed to improve my ragged respiratory system. For the first time, perhaps ever, I felt my lungs fill up to the brim with cold morning air. The exercises also helped me with my posture and flexibility. I also became more aware of my diet and stress levels.

But more important, I think, were the other benefits. The mere act of waking up early in the morning and spending a few minutes in silent pranayam seemed to fill me up with energy for the day ahead. I also found that the course made me engage with my feelings better and not be afraid, or ashamed, of analysing what I felt and why I felt. This is something that is often considered a “weak” thing for people, especially for men to do. My yoga classes helped me put that misconception to rest.

The sessions also put me on a path of mindfulness, if you will, that culminated, years later, in another intense series of group therapy sessions organized at business school. More recently, I have been trying to set aside a few minutes every other day for reflection. And I use all kinds of triggers to help me with this: apps, music, even a journal. Even if I rarely accomplish mindfulness on a regular, satisfying basis, my failed attempts leave me feeling a bit better.

So if you’ve been shying away from yoga or pranayam for whatever reason—scepticism perhaps—I encourage you to give it a shot. There can be far more to these experiences than just nimbler muscles, better breathing or weight loss.

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