Monday, January 28, 2013

Guruji, Coffee, Prana, Light on Yoga

I just read Guy Donahaye's latest blog post, in which he discusses what he knows of Guruji as a person, and also says a few things about the infamous "No coffee, no prana" mantra that is so often attributed to Guruji. Guy begins by making some general observations about Guruji:

"...we have to recognize that Guruji was not a renunciate yogi sitting in a cave but a family man with his likes and dislikes and even pleasures. Guruji loved coffee as well as chocolate, gold, gems and many other material things. That is not to say he was overly attached, but though an extraordinary human being he was also an ordinary one.

I think this is one of the reasons we were attracted to him. He lived life and experienced pleasures and pain, ups and downs, but in all this he generally displayed equanimity...." 

Guy then says the following about the relationship between Guruji, coffee, and prana/apana:

"So Guruji did have some attachments and one of these was coffee, Sharath also loves coffee (and so do I). But if we look at what is designated as yogic food, coffee is definitely not considered to be sattvic - rather, we have to say coffee is rajasic in nature. It is completely antagonistic to meditation and the limbs of yoga and stimulates extroverted rather than introspective activity.

The word rajasic is often used pejoratively to describe someone who is unstable, passionate and unsavory in some way, but the word rajas simply means movement or action. To understand the meaning of yoga, some familiarity with the Gunas is required. The three Gunas are principally the qualities of mind, whereas the three doshas are the qualities of the body. Rajas, tamas and sattva - these are the qualities of mind - rajas means activity or disturbance, tamas means inertia or ignorance and sattva means tranquility and intelligence...

No coffee no Prana?

This was one of Gurui's humorous quips. It is a joke and not meaningful, but unfortunately has been taken up as one of his catch phrases.

There is a common misconception about Prana. Prana is not energy as we usually think about it. We do not absorb Prana from food or respiration as is commonly stated. In fact Prana is not even equated with inhalation, but rather governs exhalation. Physical energy absorbed from food is not Prana. Prana subsists on a different plane. Prana is the vehicle through which Purusa (spirit) animates the mental and bodily functions - it is the life force.

Prana enters the physical body at conception and leaves at death. It does not increase or decrease with respiration, eating or physical activity. It's actions in the body are facilitated by the qualities of the foods we eat or the actions we take but its quantity is not changed by or equivalent to the amount of food we eat or the air we breathe. Prana is subdivided according to its functions in the body and mind. The undifferentiated Prana can be equated to sattva - it's inclination is to move up or remain in the head region, whereas, when we are inclined towards extroverted activity it moves down, as does tamas - as it moves down it is called apana. Apana governs inhalation (which is a downward movement in the body) as well as elimination of waste products through urination, excretion and menstruation. For most yoga practitioners, coffee is used for the impact it has on going to the bathroom before practice. Hence rather that stimulating Prana, coffee changes Prana into apana."

I have to admit that I am one of those people who have the kind of misconception about prana that Guy mentions above. I've always thought of prana rather simplistically as life energy, and coffee as a substance that somehow creates more prana in the system.

But if Guy is correct (and if I understand him correctly), then each of us is born with a fixed amount of prana in this life. The difference lies in what we do with ourselves to facilitate its actions in the body and mind in a productive manner. When we move around and do things--as we surely must do in order to function in this world-- prana becomes apana, and apana is manifested, in turn, either as activity (rajas) or as inactivity (tamas). The key, as I understand it, is to find ways and means to move apana in such a way as to facilitate lightness and intelligence (sattva) in our being rather than ignorance and inertia (tamas).

I'm honestly not entirely sure that I really get all this: I'm still kind of thinking things through and trying to process stuff as I am writing all this (you could also say that I am trying to move whatever apana that is in my head in the direction of light and intelligence rather than in the direction of ignorance and inertia!). But I think at least one thing remains clear: Even if Guruji did not literally mean that coffee is prana, it may still be a good idea to drink it before practice, if doing so will help you to achieve lightness of bowel and body before you start practice :-) Perhaps in this way, coffee can literally help move apana in the direction of lightness, by helping you to overcome whatever inertia might be in the bowels and achieving that much-desired pre-practice bowel movement. Now, doesn't this give new meaning to Light On Yoga? :-)

[Image taken from here]

P.S. Note to Iyengar practitioners: Please do not be offended by my rather , uh, light treatment of this classic by Mr. Iyengar. I'd be happy to issue an apology and perhaps even remove that last line, if you so desire. But why take things more heavily than we need to? 

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