And, how Pranayama can help Smokers to Quit Smoking—and Keep Breathing.
Last year, the medical center of the university where I work recently instituted a “no-smoking-on-the-grounds” policy, which had the effect of pushing all the smokers to a public sidewalk on the edge of a main thoroughfare.
At any time of day, a drive-by reveals the collective stress of the medical center lined up in stunning array—people whose loved ones are in the hospital or in examination and therefore the shape of whose lives are up in the air; patients who were somehow able to steal away; nurses and techs who have been negotiating life and death for hours; and even an occasional doctor, like a god among mortals.
There they all assemble, pressed out to stand alone in a quiet little vacuole of spacetime, where they can breathe deeply, where for the approximately seven minutes it usually takes to smoke one cigarette, nothing can accost them.
They are doing their breathing practice.
Like more healthy and accepted forms of breathing practice, a smoke break is set aside from the usual run of time, designated for a particular form of enhanced breathing that puts the practitioner (here, the smoker) into a more relaxed and centered state, and by doing so relieves stress.
Smoking is a pranayama practice. I am not going to condition or weaken that by saying “It is like a pranayama practice.” It is a pranayama practice—although the prana is corrupt and poisoned and, yes, will help eventually kill you.
Pranayama is a yogic practice which, depending on how you break the word down, can either mean controlling the life force within the breath (prana = life force, breath of life; yama = to control, to restrict, to restrain), or expanding it. Tantrikas such as Anusara yogis who are greedy for life in all its forms love to define the word the latter way (pran’ = life force; ayama = without restriction). Either way, there is a deliberate dance with the breath that is more purposeful and deeper than breathing is when you are not paying attention to it.
Just as there are many poses within the practice of hatha yoga, all productive of different physical and mental effects, so there are also many different forms of pranayama—all with different physiological, neurological effects. One of these is antara kumbhaka pranayama, a breath of interior retention. A kumbhaka is a pot, a big container with a lid. When the practitioner inhales, she pops her lungs open like a big cookie jar or crock and then closes her glottis to retain the breath inside—sort of like putting the lid on—before exhaling. She takes a big hit of prana and holds it, going deep into the space between inhale and exhale and absorbing the energy of it….ah…before letting it go.
Antara kumbhaka has a stimulating but also a relaxing effect. Does that sound familiar? If you have ever smoked, or even remember smoking ad copy (see bottom of this post ~ed.), it should. Think of what pranayama is, and you will realize that this is what a smoker is doing: taking a long, slow, controlled inhalation, holding it, absorbing the additives and ‘whatevers’ but also receiving the relaxation response of having his lungs opened up like an umbrella for the duration of a retention. Just the way that action works on the brain in clean pranayama—reacting to that holding open of the lungs while they are sealed off—why would it not work the same way in smoking? The mechanism is the same. I suspect the relaxation response antara kumbhaka elicits in the pranayama practitioner is the same physiologically, minus the rich oxygenation, as the one elicited by smoking.
I think that one reason smokers have such a hard time quitting smoking, that they stress out and go a little nuts, is not just because of nicotine withdrawal or a deprival of orality. They freak out because all of a sudden they are deprived of a breathing practice that was part of coming back to who they are, that may have been central to their life for years, and they probably practiced more regularly and with greater commitment than that with which many of us approach our pranayama practices!
If the relaxation/stress-relieving effect that takes place when the lungs are filled and expanded in pranayama also takes place during the act of smoking, then no matter whether a smoker quits cold turkey, with a patch or with gum, there is nothing to substitute the physiological act of breathing deeply, no matter how toxic it might be.
The addiction to smoking is the addiction to breath itself, to a deep inhalation that you open your whole lungs for, that you hold them open for, the dear intake of mammalian landed life.
Maybe in thinking of smoking this way, we can be more compassionate toward our fellow humans who smoke, or more understanding of our own smoking habit if we have one. If we are teachers working with students who are trying to quit smoking, or if we are trying to quit ourselves, we can realize that when somebody has been addicted to breathing, it is not enough to slap a patch on them and give them a lecture. We can employ the resources of our tradition to help others and help ourselves, to substitute a clean practice for a dirty one. We can swap breath with breath.
But most importantly we can recognize the kinship between something poisonous and something healthy. If you are someone who prides herself on clean-living ways, that recognition can be humbling…and ultimately sweetening. The smokers outside the medical center are not essentially polluters or suicidal: it is the same impulse toward a contented life that we all feel that drives them.
The world gets a hit of bigness, of expansion, when we realize that in all of us. Beneath all of what might seem corrupt or legitimate, dirty or clean, is an embodied life that wants to be peaceful and happy.
Laura Marjorie Miller is an Anusara Yoga teacher living in Nashville, Tennessee.
Bonus: a few old timey ads: