I've been thinking about a recent post concerning the benefits/hazards of prescribed breath (pranayama) in yoga. There is a claim that a certain form of controlled breath can help to calm the nervous system. These sorts of claims are found throughout yoga practice: claims of increased awareness, increased compassion and...you've heard it all before.
It dawned on me that even if a claim such as "breathing in a certain way will calm your nervous system" is actually true, and had no down-side, it is still, in the main, misguided.
All animals express discomfort in the face of anxiety-provoking circumstances. You don't see antelopes developing tools to calm themselves down in the presence of leopards. Humans are confronted with both real and imagined stressors, and our bodies react to these impacts by producing indicators of stress. These indicators are signals that a change in physical/mental environment is needed (get away from the leopard, is there really a leopard?).
If learning to reduce or eliminate indicators of stress were actually possible, we would still have no idea what the long-term impact of that would be. Would the stress go "underground" and appear later as a form of disease? There is no data that I'm aware of on this and I am making no claims here, just pushing back on prior claims.
Is the hope that a certain breath practice or a certain ritual action will produce a beneficial effect just anxiety being expressed in a different form?
The late British philosopher Alan Watts made a statement that has always stuck with me regarding the practice of meditation, when accused of not taking it seriously enough: "A cat sits until it moves". The same spontaneous regulatory approach can be applied to any yoga practice - the one who knows best whether it is working is you, the teachings are information, not prescriptions