Śamanam and Śodhanam

In teaching yoga, including breathing, Mr Desikachar distinguished between two contrasting approaches. The first he called śamanam or a palliative approach, something that will give you an immediate benefit, even if it wouldn’t in the long-term. This would comfort you and aid motivation by providing you with some immediate relief. In contrast, practices that are given as śodhanam take time to show any benefits and may initially be rather challenging. Therefore, before he could give śodhanam practices, people had to built-up faith in him as their teacher and in the teachings.

Let’s turn to with a recent example I experienced in teaching. I’ve noticed for a while that shallow breathers tend to get neck and shoulder tension from over-used and over-activated muscles, I’ve noticed my tendency to want to fix this by identifying for people an appropriate pathway towards deeper breathing, but should this be my first approach? For some people, it would be better to start by giving them a palliative for example, Mr Desikachar’s shoulder release exercises.

Part of this is the danger of explaining to people how they’ve been breathing wrongly, rather than starting with simple breathing exercises that will help people feel better. Once that’s been established, an explanation of the whys and wherefores will be better appreciated. People need to feel empowered to take the next step. Knowledge is potentially śodhanam, since it can change one’s perspective. However, when clearing away misunderstanding, I must remember to provide something comforting, i.e., śamanam, alongside.

This is why, in Breath for Health, I alternate between practice and knowledge, step-by-step. In fact, my whole book has been described by Dr Timothy McCall as a Vinyasa, an intelligent step-by-step approach to improving one’s breathing. Challenge and comfort need to go hand-in-hand. It’s worth recalling that the original meaning of the verb to comfort was to strengthen, that is to strengthen resolve in the face of challenges.

Another example to look at is alternate nostril breathing. In its classical version, it is actually called a śodhanam. However, an initial śamanam practice is still a good idea. Alternate nostril exhalation can simply be used to slow a someone’s out-breath, when combined with free inhalations through both nostrils.

Actual nadi śodhanam, with full attention on “movement of the breath within”, retains the potential for śodhanam. But full attention isn’t possible until the basics, a longer breathing cycle and practice with alternate nostril closure have been accomplished.

Furthermore, time and again, we are not setting a fixed goal but a positive direction. Taking the example of nadi śodhanam, we might set a student off in that direction, but which prāṇāyāma actually works for that student long-term might be something a little different.

To summarise, śamanam and śodhanam, although contrasting approaches, go hand-in-hand in teaching and also in our own personal practice. In our busy lives, there is a temptation for daily practice to be no more than maintenance. We must always have a little resolve to go beyond that and maintain an element of challenge.

The syllables śa and śo are pronounced as in ‘sham’ and ‘show’

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