The Gifted Generalist: Yogic Breathing and Pranayama

Over time, through specialization, life tends to move from simplicity towards complexity, from resilience towards fragility, and from seemingly infinite potential to diminished options. Bacteria are fairly simple and incredibly resilient. By contrast, a Cheetah is more complex but fragile.

This movement towards specialization seems to happen across levels and scales. At the microscopic scale, a stem cell has the potential to become any type of adult cell. But as the cell lines age and differentiate, they lose options. In becoming a heart cell, the cell loses the option of being a kidney cell, or a brain cell, or anything other than what it is, a heart cell. Overtime the fertilized ovum, through specialization, moves towards greater and greater complexity.

At the macroscopic scale, looking at societies over time, you see the same movement from simplicity to complexity. Within a troop of chimpanzees, you see little specialization. Each member is adept in a great variety of skills. Almost any member can fill in for another on short notice, if needed. As we evolved into hunter-gatherer cultures we began to see increasing specialization. Eventually we find some members excelling at tracking, others at hunting, while others become healers, or cooks. It is this specialization that gives rise to the modern state of cultural complexity that we take for granted – where one person spends their life performing music, so that another person can spend their life listening to music on a Ipod that other people spent their lives learning how to build. Again we see that through specialization we move towards greater complexity, but consequently to greater fragility. Never before has human civilization been more powerful and yet more vulnerable.

Practical Learning

Closer to home, we can observe the same phenomenon at work in our lives. Whether it is flexibility, heart rate, breathing patterns, emotions, or habits, the process of aging moves us to specialize, with the subsequent loss of options and increased fragility. Let us look at some specific examples of this phenomenon. When stretching, babies and small children have seemingly infinite flexibility and variety in their movements. As we get older we specialize in a limited subset of movements that we find useful in our particular specialized lifestyle, and thus our options for movement become increasingly restricted.

As we age, our heart-rate-variability decreases. Our breathing patterns and rhythms become simpler, fewer and more predictable. As for the endocrine system… if you have ever spent the day with a two year old, you probably noticed the variety and complexity of emotional states that they can cycle through, often in a matter of minutes, from laughing to anger to crying to confusion. As adults, this variety and complexity of emotions has somewhat stabilized and become more predictable. Towards the end of our lives many people are restricted to just a few, or even one emotion, like bitterness. Likewise, habits become increasingly set as we age, and thus the schedule of our lives becomes more specialized and more predictable.

I used to think that there was a right way to breath. I wanted to know what that way was so that I could practice it. I wanted to know the right posture so that I could mimic it. I want to know the right way to practice trikonasana (triangle pose), and how long to hold a stretch. When I believed that there was one right way of doing something, I chased perfection at the expense of variety and life became somewhat smaller and less free.

Although this process of losing options as we age seems universal, it is not inevitable. If we choose, we can slow down or even reverse this trend that we call aging. Rather than specialize, generalize! Break free from the tyranny of limiting patterns, choosing instead to cultivate greater variety and spontaneity.

Now I recognize that my body loves variety, complexity and spontaneity: in how I breath; my heart rate variability rhythms; my movements; postures; and habits. There is no one right way. There are ten thousand right ways to do anything, and the healthier I become the greater the variety of expressions emerge effortlessly and spontaneously.