I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions. I’ve never felt the beginning of a calendar year was sufficient reason to commit to anything, so the fact that a particular resolve arose for me on that very day is a surprise, neither pleasant or unpleasant, but certainly unexpected.
Not that January 1st has no meaning for me. Despite my reticence to commit to resolutions, January 1st has long been a notable day among my family members. My father was born on January 1, 1921, a fitting day for the high-energy, forward-looking person he was.
My dad grew up in the inner city in Cincinnati in a family with very few resources. At the height of the Depression, when he was 11 years old, my father was one of the many children sent to live at an institution—a boys’ home—simply so that he could be adequately fed. Profoundly unhappy at the boys’ home, my father ran away and rode his bike to Chicago to find his father, which he succeeded in doing. This was only one of the huge obstacles of poverty that he overcame in the ensuing years. He became an accomplished gymnast, classical singer and clarinetist, and earned three degrees. He became a successful representative for several ultra-high-end furniture companies. He and my mother built the house we grew up in, and when my mother was pregnant with me, he dug a swimming pool, doing all the concrete work, plumbing and electrical himself.
Perseverance and self-discipline were my father’s hallmarks. In a way New Year’s Day symbolizes perseverance and self-discipline for me. But the bar my dad set in that category seems impossibly high. Maybe it’s the suspicion that I’m not capable of anything even close to my father’s self-discipline that has made me hesitant to commit to a New Year’s resolution until now. Perhaps the fact that a resolve arose on that particular day in 2011 is purely coincidental; I truly was not planning on it. At any rate, on January 1st this year, I resolved to practice pranayama every day.
The last few years have not been easy for me. My former daily yoga practice was eclipsed by the responsibilities of my life. Changing hormones interrupted my sleep patterns for eight long years, necessitating that I operate on an average of three to four hours of sleep. This paltry amount of sleep needed to fuel me for five classes a week, a half-time job, multiple evening rehearsals and gigs, and all the wood-chopping and water-carrying of daily life that I crammed into my weekends. For the past few years I’ve literally been dragging myself around from one appointment to the next.
It was on a rare day off—January 1st—that I decided to cast my responsibilities out the window in favor of a retreat of sorts. This would be a weekend retreat in my home, including long morning practices (3 hours) with asana, pranayama and meditation, a luxury I’d not afforded myself in a very long time. I would do only things I loved that weekend—yoga, cooking, playing with my cats, going to a film, reading a novel—rather than my usual frenzied errand running and home maintenance. It was in the glow of that first long practice that it occurred to me that daily pranayama practice might be a path out of the malaise. That this realization happened on January 1st, 2011, may or may not be coincidental.
Now I know that as a person who has practiced yoga for more than half my 55 years, committing to daily pranayama practice has come rather late in the game. I’d practiced pranayama sporadically since the late ’80s, but had never committed to a daily practice. I do get it that the breath affects absolutely everything, and that there’s a good reason that pranayama is listed fourth in the Eight Limbs of Yoga—between asana and pratyahara—making it the gateway to the meditative heart of yoga. But until now, I’ve never practiced with enough consistency to feel cumulative effects.
When I studied with Iyengar in India in 1989, we practiced daily pranayama for three weeks. It was far more difficult for me than the daily three-hour asana classes. In three weeks of one- to two-hour pranayama practice every afternoon, I enjoyed exactly one full, satisfying inhalation. One. This did not inspire me to explore pranayama further. In addition, I was a relative novice with only seven years of yoga and barely a year-and-a-half of insight meditation behind me. My ability to perceive the benefits of such a subtle practice was rough, unrefined and sporadic at best.
I began a slightly more regular pranayama practice about five years ago—two or three times a week for 10 long minutes—but only because my students have requested that I teach it. Chronic sleep deprivation and a crazy busy schedule, combined with my decidedly night owl constitution made any kind of regular home practice almost impossible. But the truth is, home practice is the most important part of the yogic path—far more important than all the classes, workshops and retreats combined. And the only way to generate more energy is to actually generate more energy—every single day.
So far this year I have gotten up every day and practiced at least an hour of pranayama and meditation. Most days I’m also practicing an hour of asana beforehand. This requires that I rise at the ungodly hour of 5:00 am. Not being a natural morning person, this is quite a challenge. Discipline, though fledgling, is coming.
Already, I’ve noticed inklings of change:
My sleep is deeper, uninterrupted. This alone is worth the 5:00 am alarm.
My mind is MUCH quieter in meditation.
Prana is holding me upright during sitting meditation, a very lovely feeling.
And here’s the dessert: moments of inexplicable happiness.
That’s a lot of change for slightly less than two weeks. As the year progresses, if insights worth sharing arise, I intend to share them. I won’t commit to a resolution on this, but I’m inviting the possibility of blogging about my pranayama experiences when the spirit arises.