Some of you - battling with home-made tortelli and wrapping paper, missed the last class of the year, so this is above all, for you guys.
I hope you all had a wonderful christmas. I really, really do. But I am a realist. And so like me, you may have witnessed that christmas lunches are not all merriment and glee, and that the festive lunch table is not all panettone perfect and pandoro peaceful. Knowing this is sometimes the case, the pre-christmas class seemed the perfect time to tackle the thorny theme of PRANA (no!!! Don't worry! it's not about witchcraft, spiritualism, auras, cults nor clans, it's not about small humming nappied men in the lotus position, nor is it about meditation nor karma nor the smearing of fresh chicken blood onto a nearby virgin) in the hope that it may have been useful around the turkey and surly aunt Sally. Too late she cried? Fear not, easter is just around the corner.
The concept of prana is actually quite....mild. Not quite as entertaining as any of the above mentioned I'm afraid. Prana is simply anything that brings you nourishment. Or rather the vital energy (hate saying that as people's eyes tend to glaze over) produced from anything nourishing. So, it includes the air we breathe, the food we eat, the company we keep, it can be a walk in the countryside, a poem, a hug, music, a painting and beholding a beautiful piece of art or a smile. It GIVES. It fills. It replenishes.
For example when we (as a family) escape from the madness of Milan and head for the isolated hills of Val Sesia, in the mornings super early I go for a walk. When I turn around to start my journey back I'm facing a mountain - usually at that time the sun is rising up from behind it. It's quiet, the air cold and crisp and the sight is simply beautiful..This is incredibly nourishing, for my spirit? My soul? Who knows?! It just feels healthy and uplifting and the "feel good" echo it leaves behind remains in time. It could be described as a "Prana Pill". And I want lots of them please. Or at least I (we) SHOULD want lots of them, but in realty we rarely seek them out. I guess the ego and our addiction to "doing" rather than "living" gets in the way.
The problem with prana is that it can get depleted. Prana can be a little like dripping water from a tap. It's leaking and easily wasted. Three of the main Prana Poopers are our actions (for all you sinners out there - relax, I'm not here to tell you that your behavior is deplorable and that you will go to hell as, should it exist, I would meet you there - for being a hypocrite for one) our speech and our thoughts. So before you presume that actions to be prana positive necessitate behaving impeccably, or that speech indicates talking like an angel if at all, and our thoughts to be (for example) sex free - you are wrong.
ACTIONS - I like to think that as adults we already know and have already learnt that our actions have consequences. I know that if I stuff my face with tiramisu and down a bottle and a half of chianti before doing so, I'm not going to feel great the next day. I know (unfortunately) thanks to experience. So my behavior in time tends to go through a kind of "no harm" evolution. We already know what behavior nourishes and which simply does not. Some actions are Prana Pills others are more like recreational drugs. The latter may feel good at the time but leave us empty, depleted and or weak.
SPEECH - two main prana depletors are lying and gossip. May feel safe or fun at the time but again both at best leave us feeling empty and at worst wreak havoc.
THOUGHTS - Thoughts cause us to tense. They can speed up our heart beat, bring us out in a sweat, cause our shoulders to sneak up, our jaw and fists to clench, divert our attention and focus, mess with our digestion and sexual drive to name but a few. This causes an expenditure of energy, a depleting of prana. Thoughts can drain us. "Can" being the operative word. As in: we have a choice. And luckily it does not mean we have to stop thinking.
One definition of yoga comes from Patanjali 2000 years ago " the mastery of the fluctuations of the mind".I love this definition as it indicates two truths. One that it is the nature of the mind to move and to fluctuate. That's a relief. He does not say "mastery of the STILLNESS of the mind". Rather than "For God's sake just stop thinking won't you?!" he's saying "hey guys, thoughts are part and parcel and they don't have to be damaging". The other truth involves his use of the word "mastery". We don't pop out of the womb being able to ride a bike, knit a shawl or knock up a decent ragu. These things come with time, patience and practice. It took me years to produce a lasagna that an average Italian would be willing to eat, but I got there eventually. Mastery means ability, ability means it can be learnt. We have the possibility to learn to manage the effects of the passage of thoughts through our mind no matter how turbulent they may be.
Don't believe me? Try this.
When you are doing your next yoga asana, close your eyes and try to elongate and slow down your out breath and see if you are able to settle into the position a little further. If your muscles begin to "give" a little more. I like to accompany a long slow out breath with this sound "HA" (but long, so it becomes a "hhhhhhhaaaaaaaaaa") or another personal favorite is "rom" (that rhymes with bomb: "rrrrrooooommmmmm") but you may find one that your body "clicks" with better, that begets more comfort. You may find that physical tension (in so doing) co-exists perfectly with relaxation. Muscles can be contracted can work within a sensation of EASE. Muscular tension and EASE are not mutually exclusive.
The same can be said for mental tension. Try this.
- Sit comfortably with your legs crossed. If this is an contradiction in terms, sit in a chair. Close your eyes and choose your favorite worry of the moment. Think about it as completely and utterly as you can, and once you've run through it do so again. Live, it feel it, experience it, own it, repeat it mentally (it shouldn't be hard as this is what we do repetitively all day every day.) Observe.
- Open your eyes. You may have noticed that your shoulders sneaked up towards your ears, that you began to hold your breath, or to breathe more shallowly, you drew your stomach in, any movement of your thorax and chest was reduced, eyelids were clenched and your heart beat quickened.
This time with the same or another preoccupation, begin (eyes closed once more) to lengthen and slow down your out breath. If you don't feel silly doing so, try the "ha" or the "rom" sound with each out breath. Keep your worry in your mind and at the same time keep your out breath slow and long. Observe.
You may have found that your shoulders remained down, that physical tension was reduced and that you felt a sensation of space and calm (or at least CALMER) despite the fact that you had your current worry fixed in your mind. Proving that mental tension and relaxation can also co-exist. We can practice and learn to allow and enjoy relaxation with a turbulent mind. Ie. "we can master the fluctuations of the mind".
There is nothing wrong with tension - it is reaction to our tension that causes problems.
So when you are once more at a lunch or dinner table surrounded by your relatives, and worry, irritation, frustration starts to kick in, instead of chastising yourself for selfish negative thoughts, try the experiment above.
To yolk is another definition of yoga. To bring together, to CONNECT. Connecting not only body and mind (as we have done above) but also with the outside world and with others. So here's a little prana positive connection experiment that you can do around the christmas or at this point, around the easter or sunday table:
Take a moment (stop talking and keep your breathing slow and calm) to really observe the people, your friends/relatives around you. As you do so remind yourself that one day these people will no longer be here. They are all just “visitors” passing through. Once you remind yourself of their mortality, you may just find yourself feeling more connected with them. And being connected is of course yoga.
Buon anno a tutti!