Pranayama: A Pathway Inward
By Michael Fry
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” ~Thích Nhất Hạnh
Modern life is stress-full. We are bombarded constantly by messages from the outer world via endless devices and platforms, many if not most of those messages are fear based, need based, want based and create anxiety and stress. We live a life of endless desire with no pathway to fulfillment but with countless obstacles to overcome to gain even the smallest level of satisfaction. As soon as we finish one task, we are presented with ten more. Our self-worth is often subject to the opinions of others who themselves have little self-worth without another’s opinion granting them thus.
Satisfaction gained from the outer world is always at risk of being lost. And thus our identity is dependent on the shifting currents of outer circumstances, the opinions of others and the conditions that enter our lives from the outside. We become but reactions to outer stimuli seeming to come at us from all directions. We are under attack. But where do we, as modern humans, go to find calm, to feel peace and to just be? The answer for me, less than a decade ago, was to ‘hell’, over and over, in my own mind. But hell is simply heaven inverted. By switching one’s focus or attention from a dependence on the outer or seen world, to the inner or unseen world via yoga and pranayama, controlled breathing, we gain a tool to begin to transform a personal hell into a personal heaven while instantly sharing this heaven-energy with all that is.
Prana means life force or breath sustaining the body; Ayama translates as “to extend or draw out.” Together, the two mean breath extension or control. Breath may be the most important tool in a yoga practice, a portal inward, a connection to the divinity and limitless source energy contained within us and within all life. Sounds good, right? In retrospect, these words have meaning but a little less than a decade ago, with failing health and a failing marriage and with two wonderfully innocent sons suddenly at risk, all I knew was that the mid-life crisis I had been trained to expect was crushing me.
It was the summer of 2011 and like karmic clock-work, at age 45, my marriage of 17 years was dissolving and amidst fear, blame, guilt, anger and resentment, my soon to be ex-wife had taken my two sons, 3 and 10, to the East Coast to visit her parents. For the first time in my adult life I was left completely alone. Alone to lament the life that now had suddenly, or not so suddenly, imploded.
Life for us as a family had sucked for a while but I hadn’t let myself know. I was viewing my life and the life of those around me through a prism of old beliefs founded on a series flawed premises such as; Men don’t cry or they’re weak, the harder you work the bigger the reward, black men cannot lead, money will make you happy, sex is love, competition drives progress, survival of the fittest, etc. This coupled with having given up my passion, television and film writing, for a safe teaching job had left me a shadow of my full potential and I knew it. The result of this belief system was fear, anxiety, low self-esteem, low energy, binge eating, arguments, defensiveness, lack, worry, doubt and shame. I was medically sick and depressed. I was overweight and suffering from both high blood pressure and high cholesterol. My diet was 80’s-90’s Americana consisting of burgers, chicken, cheese, bread, pizza, cookies and ice cream. I was depressed and having mild panic attacks. Multiple medications had been suggested by my physician.
Life was being done to me. I believed I was being punished for every so called ‘sin’ since childhood. That the Universe was against me and that perhaps, this would kill me and set me free. It was at this low point that a gift was given from an unlikely source. Before my ex-wife had gone she sent me a link to a YouTube video called “Yoga For Beginners Pt.1” by Yogatic. I was pissed. The nerve of her! After all, she didn’t do yoga or meditate or chant, why does she think I need it?
Blame, guilt, fear, loss, and silence can break you and that summer they were all on the attack. Sober already 8 years meant that diving into a bottle was no longer an option so, one afternoon, I began to watch the yoga videos and actually do the poses. Well, try to do the poses. And it was the fact that I could not do any of them that challenged me to keep trying. Why? Something inside me had already shifted.
That first morning of yoga-fails and falls had pushed me beyond anger into irritation. By trying to hold warrior one with macho-insecurity and false bravado had pushed me from irritation to pain and struggle. This had forced me to holding my breath. That only lasts so long. Then…by releasing my breath suddenly, cleanly and smoothly through my mouth, I felt my body stretch just a tiny bit deeper into the pose. Pain in my legs and arms had stolen my attention from outer concerns. My mind, for the first time ever except during sex, was not tossing fears and worries. As I held the pose…breathed…inhale…hold….exhale, lean in to the pose a little more. Time stood still. Breakthrough. Aha moment. Hell witnessed from the light of heaven.
You see, meditation had snuck up on me during the most basic of yoga poses because the pose encouraged my breathing to change. I credit Yogatic’s instructor, my ‘friend’ whom I have never met, a human-angel of sorts, Esther Eckhart, constantly reminding me to ‘breath’…in through my nose and out through my mouth. Somehow, I had been connected to a secret place where well-being and peace dwelled undisturbed by modern life.
In “The Power Of Now”, Eckhart Tolle, and suddenly the two Eckhart names hit me, as so much now after years of spiritual practice and yoga, as a synergetic pattern, in the book Tolle reminds us that it is always the eternal ‘now’. That the ‘past’ is just a memory and the future is just an imagined plan, one can never ‘be’ anywhere except the now. The gift is the present. The present moment is the now.
The Eternal Now is where we dwell during our deeper yoga practices. Pranayama, which BKS Iyengar defines as… “the three stages of breath in pranayama — inhalation, retention and exhalation — are the means by which we can abide in stillness in both body and mind and merge with the great mystery. During inhalation we invite prana into the house” The house is our body, our consciousness and our controlled breathing connects our mortal human consciousness to our innate Divine or spiritual consciousness. We realize, I not in words, our wholeness, Oneness, mindfulness. The God Principal or The All That Is within all life is simultaneously within us.
All that really happened that summer was that, in a time when I had only fear, sadness and doubt, through yoga and prana, for a split second at first and then longer experiences, I wasn’t sad or fearful or depressed while in the act of practicing yoga. While in 2011 I was struggling to hold and go deeper into simple poses created thousands of years ago in ancient India I had, for the first time since childhood, glimpsed a moment’s peace. And that glimpse has fueled my life since.
The peace that I discovered that first day had no words, no definition and there was no learned instructor to explain what was happening but I had experienced a part of myself that I had never known before. A place, inside of my body, where the outside world seemed to disappear and fear and loss did not invade. It came with the gift of a deep sense of silence and well-being.
I have grown to depend on the peace of pranayama. It is always there, just below the surface of the worldly storms, this divine and undefinable sense of ease, peace, safety and compassion coming from the inside. This inward movement, Pratyahara, or the turning inward of the senses, is one of the he keys to meditation, peace and healing the outer life. From the inside outward. By increasing our attention to internal phenomena like our breath, we can learn to tune out external phenomena and stimuli. Stress and chemicals like cortisol, secreted during times of stress, cause illness and over time, lead to several life threatening diseases.
Yoga and its benefits, including pranayama and pratyahara, saved my life. At the end of a wonder filled 2018 I am a full time writer, actor and television series creator being paid to pursue my passions. I have a perfect bill of health and ascribe this to yoga, Tai Chi, meditation and a change in diet to pescatarian, non-dairy. My sons are both characters, but both solidly grounded in the love and compassion modeled them by a father who used an ancient Indian form called yoga to transform a modern life.
Michael G., Fry is a single dad, writer, actor, advertising creative, world traveler and filmmaker living in Oak Park, Il. He practices yoga anywhere he wakes up and at Ahimsa yoga studios.