सर्वे भवन्तु सुखिनः SARVE BHAVANTU SUKHINAH – 6
A guest wellness series based on ancient Indian dharmic wisdom, by Amritavarshini.
(Continued from the previous post)
You would be aware of the custom of elders asking those who are sneezing to leave the place during gatherings like weddings or other auspicious functions. Did they do it because it was inauspicious to sneeze?
Certainly not! This is a health-related custom, which our ancestors had instituted in their wisdom as a part of the rituals. While sneezing, the condensed and impure air in the body gushes out – often accompanied by saliva, phlegm and microscopic bacteria that pollute the air. An explosive sneeze no doubt serves to get all the accumulated toxic air and impurities out of the air passages including the nose, but it also scatters germs and bacteria in the process.
The corona advisories today, ask us not only to stay away from those who sneeze and cough, but also maintain suitable distance from anyone while outside the house to avoid droplets from their saliva, phlegm or mucus fall on you, just in case someone is a carrier of the virus. Seen in this context, don’t our ancestors come across as being much more scientifically aware than anyone gives them credit for and their so-called taboos were in fact, rooted in sound common sense connected with health?
This post goes beyond just the hygienic aspects of sneezing away from people. It talks about how śabdam and vāyu (sound and air) work together to maintain a healthy balance of the elements in our body. Now, let us look at the relationship between the two.
The evening puja was going on in the crowded temple. Arun stood in front of the sanctum with folded hands. He looked as if he was lost in the contemplation of the Deity, but was in fact thinking about his assessment report that he had got that day, which was not too good. A few feet away from him sat old Guptaji, leaning on a pillar. His eyes were closed as if in meditation, but perhaps he was taking a nap. In the crowd of devotees was also Usha, who had come with her mother to the temple. She was bored and wanted the ārati to start, so that they could leave. She tried concentrating on the pūja and unknowingly, yawned. Guiltily she looked around and saw many around her yawning away. She wondered curiously as to who had started the chain of yawns!
Suddenly the temple bells began clanging as the ārati started. Instantly, Arun, Guptaji, Usha and all the yawning devotees were alert and began clapping to the beat of the ārati.
Do you know, that we just witnessed the amazing power of sound or śabdam – one of the panćēndriyās, coming to the rescue of the polluted mind awakening the mind and body. I have mentioned the yawning devotees because sound helps in yawning too. Our elders had a very simple solution using śabdam, to deal with the yawn. But we will come to that later.
Let us first look at some basic facts about respiration. It is important to breathe through our nostrils as they have inbuilt fine filters in the form of very fine hairs to filter the air we breathe in of noxious gases and particulate matter, allowing more oxygen into the windpipe. The amount of oxygen we inhale determines our good health.
- talking incessantly on our cell phones.
- engrossed in the apps on our smartphones.
- immersed in some serious work – reading, writing, thinking or listening intently, as during a lecture.
- holding our breath while watching something thrilling on the screen or in real life, exhaling only when it ends.
All the above factors interfere with the inhalation-exhalation process. When we talk, we don’t breathe through the nostrils, but only through the mouth, thereby allowing unfiltered air to enter the system along with carbon-di-oxide and other gases. Likewise, when we are engrossed in some serious activity, we never inhale normally through the nostrils, or just do shallow breathing. And when we hold our breath, we don’t inhale at all, thereby increasing the quantity of impure vāyu in the respiratory track and lungs.
Now visualise this: our lungs are filled with impure blood, waiting for oxygen – but we are not inhaling normally, thereby not sending in enough fresh oxygen to purify the blood. Since only oxygenated blood can pass through the arteries to the heart, the blood becomes dense and the breathing becomes heavy.
But Nature has a wonderful tool in the form of yawning to remove the noxious gases that have accumulated in our body due to our incorrect breathing. Talking of yawns, you must have often wondered why it seems to be contagious, especially in a room with lots of people, just as we it happen in the crowded temple.
When one yawns without trying to close the mouth or suppress it in anyway, the heavily laden foul breath escapes in a large quantity, sometimes accompanied by a loud sound let out by the person yawning. If the persons near the one who is yawning inhales this impure air unknowingly, it enters that person’s lungs and soon he or she is yawning too. Before long there is a chain of yawns.
In Tamil, there is a saying that goes, ‘A kumari (young girl) might go alone on a lonely road, but a kottaavi (yawn) will never go alone.’ In this saying, the original word was kottaan (ghost), which later got corrupted to kottaavi. It means that even a young girl will go alone but the ghost will never. It will take others along. Our elders had meant the impure air exhaled through the yawn to mean the ghost. What does this ‘ghost’ take along? Yes, it takes the toxic air exhaled by others too!
Modern day etiquette dictates that it is impolite to yawn with an open mouth, but that is the best way to get all the foul air out of the lungs – better still, to let out a sound along with a yawn! When the yawn is suppressed, the foul air remains in the system making one even more tired.
And now for the use of śabdam by our elders to deal with open-mouthed yawns, which I had talked about earlier. It is true that they opened their mouths and let out a sound as they yawned, but snapped their fingers or clapped their hands in front of their open mouth. It is significant to mention here that the thumb and middle fingers represent agni and ākāśa, respectively. The sound from their throat, the fingers and hand – all helped to disperse half the polluted air that escapes in a gust.
Here, I would like you to recall the story of the boys who had run away from the tamarind tree, which I had written about in a earlier article. There too, it was their screams that helped them move, by eliminating the noxious air they had inhaled and removing their tiredness.
We saw how accumulated toxic air in the lungs is cleared by yawning accompanied by sound. There are other methods used by Nature to rid the body of accumulated foul air – sneeze and hiccough. Let us look at the sneeze and the role of śabdam in sneezing. (I will deal with hiccoughs, when I take up digestive problems).
It is customary for elders to say, ‘Hari!’ or ‘Shiva!’ when either they themselves or others sneeze, repeating it after every sneeze. Their sneeze would also be explosive with a loud hachchoo! Would you believe me if I said that this is the best way to sneeze as it clears the air passages and lungs effectively? (Śabdam to the rescue again!) Often people close their mouths while sneezing, or pinch their nose to stop an impending sneeze. Such actions can cause many health disorders, including allergies, with breathing difficulties like asthma, ear-related problems, chronic and even incurable diseases later on.
Significantly, our elders never admonished one to stop a sneeze, or told them to sneeze soundlessly, but instead encouraged one to sneeze aloud. As detailed in the opening paras, these were the reasons why one was told to leave a gathering if one wanted to sneeze. Alone, one could sneeze aloud and not worry about dislodging germs and bacteria in the air that might harm others in the vicinity.
As we saw earlier, both the yawn and sneeze are accompanied by sound, since sound disperses air. The added sound made with the hands and fingers helps to disperse the foul air of a yawn. From these, we understand that the bhūtas and índriyas work together to keep us healthy. In this case the índriya śabdam comes to the aid of three bhūtas – Vayu (yawn), and Vāyu + āpas (sneeze) and Vayu + āpas + Agni (hiccough). We will look at this relationship in the next post.
Please read the earlier posts in the series: