Is thinking the enemy of breathing?

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What’s the use of being in the Slow Lane (or any lane, for that matter) if you can’t breathe? When I started doing yoga (and I am one of the world’s stiffest and least competent practitioners of the ancient Indian art), I began to realise that most of the time I don’t breathe properly at all. Shallow, nervous breathing is a more or less constant affliction: it ambushes me while swimming, causing me to ingest quantities of sea and Hampstead pond water; it is connected with my tendency to panic and rush through certain passages of piano music with rapid semi-quavers.

Shallow breathing is certainly a bad habit of mine but it is also one of the curses of the age: according to some studies, we use on average only about 10 per cent of our lung capacity. That means we are subsisting on a bare minimum of oxygen and, according to the International Breath Institute of Colorado, not properly expelling the “70 per cent of the body’s many toxins which are released through exhalation”.

Looking further into this topic, I made an uncomfortable connection. According to one holistic yoga manual, “a normally sedentary person when confronted with a perplexing problem tends to lean forward, draw his arms together and bend his head down.” This sounds rather like the posture of Rodin’s “Le Penseur”, whom I had always admired as a heroic exemplar of lonely resistance to prevailing shallowness and superficiality. But it may turn out that thinking – or at least thinking too hard, or in the wrong way – is the enemy of breathing.

When faced with a problem, I think I can solve it by thinking but forget to breathe. This, if you think about it, is a curiously self-defeating move, because by locking myself into a pattern of shallow breathing I am depriving my brain of oxygen, which, if anything, is the food of thought. I might do better, the yogis would suggest, by trying the opposite method: just breathe, and see if the problem resolves itself.

Research on “Le Penseur” led me to the work of a maverick Dutch philosopher, Bert Hamminga, who edited a collection of essays entitled Knowledge Cultures: Comparative Western and African Epistemology before leaving his post at the university of Tilburg in the Netherlands for Uganda. Hamminga is illuminating on the differences between African and European approaches to thinking. For an African, writes Hamminga, Rodin’s Thinker is exhibiting “intolerable behaviour . . . Anyone who is going to sit like Rodin’s Penseur will be pulled off his rock immediately and face [accusations] of being possessed by evil forces.”

Food for thought there. I am pretty sure that the Thinker’s hunched posture would not be recommended in any yoga manual. True, by resting his right elbow on his left knee, he is causing his body to twist (twists are a big thing in Iyengar yoga, the type I practise), but it looks like an unconscious sort of twisting, more likely to cause back pain and injury than to lead to increased suppleness. And by hunching in that way, he is certainly not helping himself to breathe deeply and easily.

Rodin modelled “Le Penseur” for his great sculptural ensemble “The Gates of Hell”. It was in a place much closer to heaven, on my recent trip to India, that I learnt some of the rudiments of yogic pranayama or breath control from a yogacharya named Vettri.

Vettri was most insistent on the importance of breathing through the nose – not just that but the benefits of alternate nostril breathing (known as nadi shodan). One nostril, according to Vettri, is, at any particular time, more active than the other (you can test this by placing your fingers under your nose and breathing out). This in turn has profound implications for the way you should lead your life. You will only be able to do creative mental work when the left nostril is active. (Physical activity and sexual intercourse, by contrast, are only indicated when the right nostril is active.) As I always suspected, afternoons are not suited to mental exertion.

I have to admit that I find yoga incredibly difficult. Part of the difficulty concerns pride: I have never before (except in loathed PT lessons at school) found myself consistently at the bottom of the class. My hamstrings are so tight that for me touching my toes means touching my knees. I am terrified of doing a shoulder stand, let along standing on my head. But if the asanas or postures are difficult, breathing is surely something every human being should be able to learn.

If I am a beginner at breathing, perhaps there are advantages. It ties in with my theory that I am only just getting started at life. But one thing the yoga manuals tend not to talk about is the quality of the air we breathe. Surely, as we all get better at breathing, we will demand better air to breathe. Then at last we might take action against the pollution that is making the planet less and less habitable.


harry.eyres@ft.com


More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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