Pranayama in The Time of COVID-19: Harvard and Beyond

COVID-19 has brought the focus right back to the Breath, where modern Science believes all things begin and end. Medical practitioners all over the world are finding ways to tackle the virus, which enters, stays and multiplies first in the upper respiratory system, and when fortified, attacks the lower respiratory system.

Scenario 1: Northumbria University Associate Professor Sterghios Moschos is leading research into a device to collect breath samples which could be tested in minutes. If trials show it can detect the virus, its results could be quicker and more reliable than current tests, he says.

His kit is simple. All that you will be asked to do is: 'Please breathe into this'. Current tests mostly use nose and throat swabs because chest samples are only available if the patient coughs up mucus. Data in papers released by Chinese researchers show that the swab method that is being used worldwide right now is not reliable, says Dr Moschos. He believes his device would work better because it tests the breath, which has circulated in the chest.

Scenario 2: A journalist of Mother Jones contacted Loren Rauch, a community ER doctor at Antelope Valley Hospital in Los Angeles, to check the veracity of the claim that “the new coronavirus may not show signs of infection for many days. By the time you have fever and/or cough and go to the hospital, the lung is usually 50 percent fibrosis.”

Rauch replied, “That doesn’t mean anything. Fibrosis is a late scarring process. You may have 50 percent of your lung affected by the virus, causing pneumonia or fluid in your lungs. If you can breathe fine, do not go to the doctor. Only go if you cannot breathe or are very ill.” [Italics mine].

Scenario 3: The anxiety and stress is mounting. Dr John Sharp is a board-certified psychiatrist on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He has been voted by his peers for inclusion in Best Doctors in America for the past 10 years. On March 12, he posted suggestions on how to beat stress during COVID-19, on the Harvard Medical School website (https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/coping-with-coronavirus-anxiety-2020031219183).

He says: “Here are some tried and true ways to relax: Yoga. Not a yoga person? No need to start now unless you’d like to try it. Sometimes trying new things and discovering new activities you can benefit from and enjoy can be a welcome, healthy distraction. Meditation. Regular meditation is very calming.”

And finally, controlled breathing. “One simple technique is called square breathing. Visualize your breath traveling along a square. As you follow the instructions to inhale, hold your breath, or exhale, count slowly to three on each side. Try it now. Inhale up the first side of the square. Slowly count one, two, three. Hold your breath across the top. One, two, three. Exhale down the other side of the square. One, two, three. Then hold your breath across the bottom. One, two, three. After a few minutes of this you should be feeling calmer and more centered.”

He is perhaps referring to the nasal expiration and control of breath, with which every single student of yoga is familiar with. To call it 'Square Breathing' is unacceptable. He is essentially talking about:

प्रच्छर्दनविधारणाभ्यां वा प्राणस्य॥३४॥

pracchardana-vidhāraṇa-ābhyāṁ vā prāṇasya 34

Yoga Sutra, Samadhi Pada, Sutra 1.34

It (Stability) can also be attained through the practice of gradual nasal expiration and control of breath (Translation by James Haughton Woods in his book The Yoga-System of Patanjali)

In India, the Sun’s energy is said to produce and preserve the conditions necessary for life in all living beings. SK Ramachandra Rao in his book Yoga and Tantra in India and Tibet says Yoga techniques emphasise that it is not “consciousness that should be sought to be corrected but the basic vital currents that should be handled in order that the consciousness spontaneously gets expanded, relaxed and deep.”

India has developed a deep and profound system of breathing. Dr Rao writes: “breath alternates during the course of the day between the left nostril (connected with the ida, representing moon, and in effect cooling) and the right nostril (connected with pingala, representing sun, and in effect heating). Normally, breathe passes through the arteries 960 times an hour…During our normal respiration, inhalation is an active process, and exhalation a passive one. Thoughts arise and cease in accordance with the respiratory rate.”

Further, “If breath does not alternate between the nostrils, but continues in one nostril beyond the normal period of an hour and fifty minutes, it is symptomatic of impairment of health, due to either excess of heat or of cold. If the breath moves in and out through single nostril for as long as 24 hours, the derangement of humours is serious; if the condition prevails for two or more days, the illness is grave enough.”

Yehudi Menuhin with BKS Iyengar

The American born son of Russian Jewish parents, world renowned  violinist Yehudi Menuhin became a serious student of BKS Iyengar, making Yoga a regular feature of his life. Because it was not practical for Menuhin to return constantly to India to have lessons, he took Iyengar with him to Britain, France and Switzerland. Iyengar met and taught some of the most famous artistes and musicians in the world including cellist Jacqueline du Pre. They, like Menuhin, discovered that yoga releases everything (Classic fM)

In his foreword to Iyengar's book Light on Pranayama Menuhin writes: “He (Iyengar) has placed in the hands of the layman…more information, more knowledge and more wisdom in an integrated way than is available to our most brilliant students of conventional medicine, for it is a medicine of health and not of sickness, it is an understanding of the spirit, body and mind that is as healing as it is invigorating.”

He continues: “He teaches us in line with ancient Indian philosophy that life is not only dust to dust, but air to air, that, as with the process of fire, matter is transformed into heat, light and radiation from which we may gather strength. But strength is more than the transformation of matter into other forms of matter, it is the transformation of the whole cycle of air and light into matter and back again. In fact, it (Pranayama) completes Einstein’s equation of matter and energy and translates it into the human, the living incarnation.”

“Ancient, classical Indian texts, will provide illuminating guidelines to the reconciliation of various practices of medicine from acupuncture to touch and sound therapy to the mutual and reciprocal benefit of them all. It will also teach us to respect those elements which we have treated with such contempt – air, water and light, without which life cannot survive.”

The Upanishads say that prana is the principle of life and consciousness. Prana is the breathe of life and of all living beings in the universe. They are born and live by it and when they die their individual breath dissolves into the Cosmic Breath. And does not bite the dust.