This week, there was a welcome lull in the game I was playing with the girls, “sisters on the caravan.” When we play, I’m either a sister, which requires much more active participation (key role, you know), or I get to be a trader (very much preferred). When I’m a trader, the sisters come visit my stall and then they go off to the other stalls along the silk-road for a little while, which means they are emptying my drawers into the bags and baskets that they carry, pretending that the t-shirts, office supplies and cosmetics are the items that they scored from the exotic traders. If I allow this, I have to do some sorting later, but it means that in that moment, I can sit in my stall/couch and catch a few pages of a book. This time, I picked up Yoga Anatomy.
Leslie Kaminoff wrote this Yoga Anatomy book and it’s great. There are drawings and detailed descriptions of the bones and muscles we use during a variety of asana and following the images are written descriptions of the spinal action, breath, lengthening and contraindications for each pose. At every stage of my yoga journey, I have returned to this book and I continue to learn more from these pages. So during my trader-coffee-break, I reread the introduction. Even the introduction contains really good information. In it, Kaminoff describes and defines the complementary forces of Prana and Apana as they relate to the functioning of a cell.
The cell membrane separates the inside of the cell from its external environment. The cell membrane must be stable enough to contain the cytoplasm and the nucleus, but it must also be permeable. It must allow nutrients in so they can be metabolized and turned into fuel for the cell and it must allow the waste that is generated back out. “Prana refers not only to what is brought in as nourishment but also to the action that brings it in.” The complementary force, apana is both what is eliminated and the action of elimination . “These two fundamental yogic terms – prana and apana – describe the essential activities of life.” (Well said, Senor Kaminoff).
There is a lot of talk of prana in yoga—probably because it is really important. Prana, often defined as “life force,” is the very stuff that nourishes our bodies, minds, and souls in a way nothing else can. It is both simple and profound, like breath itself. Prana is said to ride on the wave of the breath, bringing it in with each inhale. It is the nourishment that keeps us going and generally, we want more of it and we want to be able to contain it so that we can be vibrant and stimulated and really alive. I think the idea of prana way outshines its buddy apana, and we give much more attention and energy to taking in the “good” prana than eliminating the apana-waste.
In our culture, focusing on prana makes sense to us and it is the action we often emphasize. We take-in SO MUCH and then a little bit more. When we want to improve our lives, we add in another exercise routine, we take more supplements or we add another therapy appointment to our weekly schedule (maybe that’s just me). We plan another something with a friend who always helps us see the bright side, we go to an extra yoga class, or we set a resolution to do more and do it better. This notion of apana, the things we eliminate and the act of elimination, is often a last resort. When I think about letting something go or improving my life by “releasing” it usually involves delicious and not so healthy food, specifically sweets, coffee, and booze, and with that comes all this self-judgment and feelings of weakness or lack of discipline for eating unhealthy things in the first place. (Why are we so weird about food?) In general, I don’t want to think about “less.” Removing things from my life is really hard for a gal like me who operates with a lot of attachments and habits (we yogis call these samskara) so the apana-side of the prana/apana coin is usually in the shadows, neglected or left to do its business without any help from me. Elimination isn’t fully embraced and that is a problem. Without the elimination, toxicity builds up and the waste stagnates. We have to be stable enough to maintain our center and permeable enough to be able to eliminate what we need to release.
Sometimes, releasing and letting go is the most appropriate place to start making small and lasting changes. Removing something can lead to better self-care and healthier lives (and it isn’t only about food). Apana might allow us to simplify, to let go of an unhealthy relationship or watch a little less depressing television. (I had to give up my Sopranos habit when Tony Soprano and all those murdered prostitutes entered my dreamland, for example.) We might also let go of some of the negative self-talk that we feed ourselves, or even eliminate some of the physical things that clutter closets and shelves and cabinets. We might stop doing a behavior that is harming us. If we let our cell wall release those things not serving us, then we may find that there is room for the life-giving pranic activities, foods, practices and people that truly nourish us. Or maybe, we don’t even replace the thing we release and there is just more space to be. That nucleus is quite small, after all. Bottom line: We need to take in nourishment and release the waste. We need a balanced diet of prana and apana. They are both “the essential activities of life.”
p.s. Come to my Saturday morning yoga! It is so awesome. More info on sidebar!