Book Review: Breath by James Nestor

Breath

A long time back, in the Indus-Sarasvati civilization, some people had mastered the secrets of breathing, says James Nestor in his book Breath. The evidence is the meditating man seal or what we call the Shiva seal. It is from here that the wisdom spread to the world. The Indus-Sarasvati people discovered that breathing with different patterns — really fast, very slow, or holding breath — can cure diseases without medicines, influence body weight, and affect overall health. By influencing the nervous system and controlling the immune response, these breathing patterns can help a person live longer and healthier.

While the Yoga Sutras are well known, there are other ancient texts as well.

Thirteen hundred years ago, an ancient Tantric text, the Shiva Swarodaya, described how one nostril will open to let breath in as the other will softly close throughout the day. Some days, the right nostril yawns awake to greet the sun; other days, the left awakens to the fullness of the moon. According to the text, these rhythms are the same throughout every month, and they’re shared by all humanity. It’s a method our bodies use to stay balanced and grounded to the rhythms of the cosmos, and each other

This knowledge then surfaced worldwide, like Japan, Africa, Hawaii, and Native America. They developed breathing techniques and benefitted from the calming effects.

Two things make the book interesting. The first is when the author acts as a human guinea pig, trying out various techniques with breathing experts worldwide. These are not yogic techniques, but activities like Holotropic breathing or the Wim Hoff method or taking a carbon dioxide shot.

The other is when he explains what happens inside our body when you do these practices. Breathing is more than just the physical act. Medically it’s known that breath affects every single internal organ affecting heart rate, digestion, and moods. Deep breathing influences the parasympathetic nerves, which signals the organs to rest.

Often you see remarks like what’s there to learn about breathing, after all, it’s just inhaling and exhaling. The modern age has caused us to pay little attention to breathing. This has resulted in diseases like asthma, anxiety, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Another aspect is that as we age, the lung capacity decreases, leading to high blood pressure and immune disorders.

The book acknowledges India as the source of all this knowledge. All the techniques the author tried, he says, comes from ancient Indian texts. The ancients people who did these experiments with breathing and discovered the possible miracles knew that breathing was not just inhaling and exhaling. They knew how to manipulate body functions by controlling their breath. They obviously knew a lot more than what Western science knows, like how the prana can control the mind.

When Buddhist monks chant their most popular mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, each spoken phrase lasts six seconds, with six seconds to inhale before the chant starts again. The traditional chant of Om, the “sacred sound of the universe” used in Jainism and other traditions, takes six seconds to sing, with a pause of about six seconds to inhale. The sa ta na ma chant, one of the best-known techniques in Kundalini yoga, also takes six seconds to vocalize, followed by six seconds to inhale. Then there were the ancient Hindu hand and tongue poses called mudras. A technique called khechari, intended to help boost physical and spiritual health and overcome disease, involves placing the tongue above the soft palate so that it’s pointed toward the nasal cavity. The deep, slow breaths taken during this khechari each take six seconds.

There are a couple of issues with the book. While the book mentions Indus-Sarasvati civilization by that name, it also mentions the Aryan Invasion Theory. It has a fascinating twist – the Aryans came from Iran and not Russia. Second, the author gives credit to Indians for discovering the secrets of breathing, but to talk to a yogi, he goes to Brazil. Why not go to the land where it started and where it’s a living, breathing tradition.

If you were one of those skeptical about yoga and pranayama, this book would change the way you think about breathing. By combing ancient wisdom with scientific evidence and first-hand experience, the book distills the knowledge in an easy-to-read narrative. In the end, it advocates breathing slow and less through the nose as it sends the maximum amount of oxygen to the maximum amount of tissues.

Swami Vivekananda wrote that the breath is the fly-wheel of the body. In a big machine, the fly-wheel is set in motion first. That motion is conveyed to finer machinery until the delicate and finest machinery is in motion. “The yogi’s life is not measured by the number of his days, but the number of his breaths,” wrote B. K. S. Iyengar. The fact that a sick child would live to the age of 95 is proof of the book’s secrets.

Upanishad Notes: How Advaita refutes Samkhya

6 darshanas in sanatana dharma

Though the six darshanas in Hinduism disagreed with each other, no one was excommunicated, put in house arrest, or burned at the stake. Instead, proponents of these darshanas would fight virulently but verbally. They would study the opponent’s position, debate and refute it. Let’s look at an example when an Advaitin refuted Samkhya 1300 years back.

If you observe our world, you will see creation and destruction happening. From the seed appears a tree. At some point, the tree dies but creating new seeds before that. Animals are born from few cells, and they die, but they create new animals as well. Mountains are formed from the earth and later they become part of the earth. Observing this pattern of cause and effect, a few millennia back, Kapila proposed the system of Samkhya.

Samkhya is one of the oldest darshanas with its main premise being the concept of pre-existence and transformation. For example, a tree comes from a seed, and thus you can say that the tree pre-existed in the seed. The effect (tree) pre-existed in the cause( seed) in an unmanifest form. With the birth of the tree, the cause transformed into the effect with a new name and properties similar to curd manifesting from milk. All the colors that later appear on the plumes of a peacock, pre-existed in the egg of the peahen. Extrapolating this, we can say that the entire universe pre-existed in cause from which it manifested.

The tree or curd are not something new coming into existence, but a change in the seed or milk. In Samkhya, each one of us, the Purusha, came from Prakriti. Prakriti is eternal unborn and undying. The Purusha which was unmanifest manifests with separate pure consciousness with a difference.

Compared to Samkhya, the Advaita advocated by Gaudapada (Adi Shankara’s guru’s guru) is quite radical. According to him, the entire experience we have is a projection. Think of a movie screen showing Uri: A surgical strike. In the movie, there is cause and effect and karma, but the screen is unaffected by the movie. Today it could be Uri, tomorrow it could be Bahubali. Now think of your dream world. You manifest a brand new world during sleep and this world disappears when you wake up. Gaudapada argues that even your waking world is similar to the dream world – a projection of the ultimate reality — Brahman.

In this darshana, there is no unmanifest manifesting. It is not like Brahman is the cause and the universe is the effect. Instead, think of it this way. You see a snake on the road, but on closer examination, you find that it was a rope. You see some water in the desert, but on closer examination, you find that it was a mirage. The assumed reality is found to be an error. Similarly, the world is a projection that we take to be real.

If everything is a projection, then what is real? Think of a necklace and a ring which are two separate things, both made of gold. The gold does not disappear when the necklace appears like how the seed disappears when the tree appears. Instead, the necklace is just a name and form imposed on the gold. Nothing new is born.

To show the superiority of Advaita, Gaudapada uses two techniques to refute Samkhya. The first one is a logical argument and the second one, a technical one.

According to Samkhya, the cause is transformed into effect. Prakriti is eternal and is neither born nor destroyed. The effect, Purusha (think humans), is born and dies. If the effect is created from an unborn, immortal cause, then the effect should also be unborn and immortal. Instead, the final fate of every Purusha is a foregone conclusion. From planets to stars, solar systems to galaxies, black holes to swirling nebulae, amoeba to homo sapiens, nothing is everlasting. According to Gaudapada, the immortal Prakriti transforming into a mortal Purusha is illogical.

The second refutation is done using nyāya. In nyāya, the logic has to be illustrated with an example. According to Samkhya, there is a cause and an effect. Gaudapada argues that if Samkhyans say that Purusha came from Prakriti, one can ask where the Prakriti itself came from? If that Prakriti came from another cause, it can go backward endlessly (recursion without a terminating condition or anavastha dosha). Or if you argue that Prakriti is a causeless cause, he says that won’t work as well, as there is no udāhārana of a causeless cause. See this article for more details.

Even though these debates happened and victories were claimed, none of these darshanas disappeared. Samkhyans never were forced to accept Advaita as supreme. No committee met and decided what is kosher and what is not. No one was declared as a heretic and excommunicated. Just open the Gita and check the name of the second chapter.

References

Upanishad Notes: Difference between Greek logic and Nyāya

A simplified example of Greek logic is as follows

  • All men die
  • Socrates is a man
  • Socrates will die

Compared to this, Hindu Nyāya has some additional steps. The most common example used is that of the fire in the mountain. The steps are as follows

QuestionNyāya statementNyāya term
StatementThere is fire in the hillPratijñā
WhyThere is smokeHetu
So what?If there is smoke, there is fire, like in the kitchenUdāhārana
And?There is smoke in the hillUpanaya
So?Hence there is fire in the hillNigamana

One important step in Nyāya is udāhārana and just because one could not be provided an entire darshana can be refuted. An example of that would be Gaudapada (Adi Shankara’s teacher’s teacher) refuting Samkhya.

According to Samkya, the effect pre-exists in the cause, similar to how a tree pre-exists in the seed. Like how the tree is born from the seed, purusha manifests from prakriti. Gaudapada disagrees with this and among the many tactics he deploys to refute Samkhya, one of them is the lack of udāhārana.

He argues that if Samkhyans say that purusha came from prakriti, one can ask where the prakriti itself came from? If that prakriti came from another cause, it can go backward endlessly (recursion without a terminating condition or anavastha dosha). Or if you argue that prakriti is a causeless cause, he says that won’t work as well, as there is no udāhārana of a causeless cause.

Reference:

अजाद्वै जायते यस्य दृष्टान्तस्तस्य नास्ति वै ।
जाताच्च जायामानस्य न व्यवस्था प्रसज्यते ॥ १३ ॥

There is no illustration to support the view of him who says that the effect is born from the unborn cause. Again, if it be said that the effect is produced from a cause which is itself born then it leads to a regressus ad infinitum.

Sanskrit Notes: Order of Words

Rudraksha by Kinshuk Sunil (flickr
Rudraksha by Kinshuk Sunil (flickr)

One of the interesting features of Sanskrit is that, in a sentence, the order of the words don’t matter. You can switch them around and the meaning remains the same.
Take for example a sentence like, Rama is going to the forest. You can’t say, “Rama going forest.” You need the “is” and “to the” to make sense of the sentence. The “is going” indicates that it is one person who is doing the action. Now, “to the forest” indicates that the forest is the object of the action.
In simple Sanskrit, you would write it like this
रामः वानमं गाच्छति
It reads, “Ramah vanam gachati”,  When you say “Ramah”, it indicates one Rama. A forest is “vana”, but in the sentence, we wrote it as “vanam”. That indicates, it is the object of Rama’s destination. The “ti” at the end of “gacchati” indicates that it is one Rama who is going (not two)”. If there were many Ramas, it would have become “gacchanti”. Thus the “is going” and “to the” are built into the words themselves.
This makes it interesting. Now you can write

  • गाच्छति रामः वानमं
  • गाच्छति वानमं रामः
  • वानमं गाच्छति रामः

All these sentences mean the same even though the order of words are switched around. Since each word has the part which maintains its relationship to the verb, the order does not matter. Due to this, in poetry, you can switch words around to fit the meter. In Hindu tradition, almost everything is written in poetry form and this made it easier for an oral society to remember anything forever.
Here is a complicated sentence
भारत ! यदा यदा धर्मस्य ग्लानिः अधर्मस्य अब्युधानं च भवति तदा अहम् आत्मानं सृजामि
Take those words and resequence them and apply the sandhi rules, and you get the following verse from chapter 4 of Gita

यदा यदा हि धर्मस्य ग्लानिर्भवति भारत ।
अभ्युत्थानमधर्मस्य तदात्मानं सृजाम्यहम् ॥४-७॥

Here is an exercise. Try the “Rama is going to the forest” in your mother tongue and see how it behaves. Does it work the same in Dravidian languages and Indo-European languages? In Malayalam, it behaves exactly the same as in Sanskrit. In Hindi, it does not.
PS:

  • Based on the lectures of Varun Khanna at Chinmaya International Foundation
  • Gitapravesha by Samskrita Bharati

Neuroplasticity of Vedic Pandits

Panjal athirathram by Asokan. R Raman (flickr)
Panjal athirathram by Asokan. R Raman (flickr)

It is not easy to be a Vedic Pandit.

Professional Vedic Pandits undergo rigorous training in exact pronunciation and invariant content of these oral texts for 7 or more years, with 8–10 h of daily practice (totaling ~10,080 h over the course of the initial training), starting in their childhood, and mastering multiple 40,000 to 100,000 word oral texts (compared to ~ 38,000 in the book of Genesis). The training methods strongly emphasize traditional face- to-face oral learning, and the Yajurveda recitation practice includes right hand and arm gestures to mark prosodic elements.

There are special exercises to ensure that the Vedas are chanted without mistakes. Now a new study shows that such intensive study changes the brain both in the white matter and gray matter. Extensive memorization and verbal recital practice resulted in the following changes

We found massive gray matter density and cortical thickness increases in Pandit brains in language, memory and visual systems, including i) bilateral lateral temporal cortices and ii) the anterior cingulate cortex and the hippocampus, regions associated with long and short-term memory. Differences in hippocampal morphometry matched those previously documented for expert spatial navigators and individuals with good verbal working memory. The findings provide unique insight into the brain organization implementing formalized oral knowledge systems.

There are few other interesting points from the paper

  1. The Pandits were highly competent in Sanskrit. They memorized large volumes of Sanskrit text and understood its complex morphology. They were multi-lingual as well. That was a contributing factor for the increased gray matter density.
  2. Another reason was the way of learning, using gestures and articulation. The result of using hand and arm movement could be seen in the brain. Indian classical  music students too use that extensively, especially hand movements.

Sharon Begley has written about the effect mindfulness has on the brain. The brain has the ability to grow new neurons and rewire itself. Now for those who wonder if learning a “dead” or communal language like Sanskrit is worth it, read the paper.
Reference:

  1. Hartzell, J.F., et al., Brains of verbal memory specialists show anatomical differences in language, memory and visual systems, NeuroImage (2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.07.027