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Some Potential Dangers for Westerners of Advanced Pranayama Exercises

March 9, 2014

People who don’t breathe naturally, who, for example, carry unnecessary tension in their chests, backs, and bellies, face potential dangers when doing advanced pranayama exercises. People who practice advanced yoga breathing exercises without good teachers or much experience can easily hurt their diaphragms and other breathing muscles. They can also cause imbalances in their internal chemistry.

For most people, one of the main keys to transforming one’s breathing in a safe and effective way has to do with gradually relaxing and opening up all the breathing structures of the body, with releasing unnecessary tension, so that the body is free to breathe in the way it was designed to breathe, with harmonious coordination of the various breathing muscles and tissues. In general, this process requires deep, dynamic relaxation, not willful effort. It also requires inner sensitivity and awareness, a more intimate contact with our sensations. Here is a quote about this issue from the introduction to my book The Tao of Natural Breathing.

“The great spiritual pathfinder G. I. Gurdjieff … warned that without complete knowledge of our organism, especially of the interrelationships of the rhythms of our various organs, efforts to change our breathing can bring great harm. It is clear that work with breathing, especially some of the advanced yogic breathing techniques (pranayama) taught in the West through both classes and books, is fraught with many dangers. In his book Hara: The Vital Center of Man, Karlfried Graf Dürckheim–a pioneer in the integration of body, mind, and spirit–discusses some of the dangers of teaching yogic breathing techniques to Westerners. He points out that most of these exercises, which ‘imply tension,’ were designed for Indians, who suffer from ‘an inert letting-go.’ Westerners, on the other hand, suffer from ‘too much upward pull … too much will.’ Dürckheim states that even though many yoga teachers try to help their students relax before giving them breathing exercises, they do not realize that the ‘letting-go’ required for deep relaxation can be achieved ‘only after long practice.’ At best, says Dürckheim, giving breathing exercises prematurely grafts new tensions onto the already established ones, and brings about ‘an artificially induced vitality … followed by a condition of exhaustion and the aspirant discontinues his efforts, his practice.'”

Copyright 1997 – 2014 by Dennis Lewis

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