He who half breathes…

… half lives.

Or as one yoga student amusingly misquoted, “He who doesn’t breathe, doesn’t live.”

In our culture, we tend to only think about breath when it becomes a problem, like when doing burpees or after eating garlic. Or more accurately, when someone else eats garlic (and then joins you in the sauna*). We assume breathing is more of a subconscious activity, and there’s no need to think twice about it.

So, it may come as a surprise to learn that breathing is the new yoga (as MM Owens pointed out in his magnificent article Breathtaking). Breath exercises, known as pranayama, have been an integral part of yoga for thousands of years. Many popular styles of Westernized yoga relegate pranayama to a few deep breaths in the beginning of class and “coordinating movement with breath”. Although these are vital for yoga, there’s a whole world of breath techniques to discover – breaths that calm, energize, focus the mind, “polish the skull” (no kidding), detoxify, enlighten, and even tranquilize, if that’s what you’re looking for. Just like the tagline “there’s an app for that”, there’s probably a breath for that.

There’s even a type of breathwork that’s been described as “20 years of therapy in 1 hour”. Mystical and legendary, it goes by many names; integrative, holotropic, kriya, and more. I was first exposed to this practice at the Energy Intensive program at the Kripalu. As much as I believed in the power of breathwork, I found myself scheming how to skip this portion of the workshop because it sounded so dreadful. But out of my immense respect for our instructors Sudhir and Shoban, I showed up.

They set you up in small groups with a dedicated coach. You lie down, get super comfy with pillows, blankets, and bolsters – whatever you need – and then commence the breath technique. It’s a very simple practice actually. I can only describe it as those little breath spasms that would come after crying really hard when you were a kid. It’s a quick inhalation, with a long, “letting go” exhalation. That’s it.

And you do it for an hour.

The first 10 minutes aren’t fun. It feels like it’s going to take forever and be tedious and your mouth is going to be dry, yadda yadda yadda. But then something takes over, and the breathing becomes automatic; you don’t even have to try anymore. If you do happen to space out out, your coach will gently remind you to begin again.

What happened to me the first time blew my mind, and still does to this day. My coach, Laura Mushenko, asked me early on if I needed anything to get more comfortable. I asked her to roll up a blanket under my neck. After she did that, I asked her to make it just a little bit higher. Here’s where it got bizarre… As soon as my neck relaxed on that perfectly rolled blanket, I started instantly bawling like never before. Totally out of the blue, like someone flipped a switch. I cried so hard for so long that my face twitched. It was ugly crying at its finest.

Although I was probably in an altered state, what I experienced felt very real. I saw myself as a newborn, alone and scared in my crib, with terrible stomach pains. (After I was born, they called me “Screamer”, and the doctor assured my parents that crying alone in the crib was good for babies.) My adult heart broke for that little baby. But understanding the suffering that I endured so early on, felt profoundly like “healing my inner child”, and I didn’t even know there was an inner child to heal. All that crying was soul cleansing, letting go of an incredible sadness that I didn’t even know I had. It. Felt. So. Good.

So yes, it really was like decades of therapy in one hour.

I became a huge fan of this technique. I went back for a second session at the Kripalu a year later, which surprisingly turned out to be more blissful than anything. Then I arranged another small group session for my friend’s 50th birthday. Because who wouldn’t appreciate the gift of crying until your face twitched?

That angel who perfectly supported my neck, and wiped my tears and boogers for an hour, flew in to our area to lead our birthday group in this process. It takes a very special person to hold the space for people to go through something that intense, and Laura is that special. She led us lovingly and expertly.

With this type of experience, there is a deep respect for our own innate intelligence, and we trust that what needs to happen will happen. That said, I honestly would have liked to hear my friends cry more (wahahaaa!) because I wanted them to have the same depth of experience I had the first time. But even though there was less emoting than I expected, I believe good things happened. After the session, everyone looked so refreshed, relaxed, and kind of sparkly. In the week that followed, I heard reports of lightness, vivid dreams, and feeling more alive.

My own experience the third time felt metaphysical, deeply meditative, and expansive. At one point, I stopped breathing for what seemed like a very long time, and floated in that pristine stillness. Admittedly, I kind of wanted to cry hard again myself, but this was probably just as good. When it was over, I felt cleansed and refreshed, even without all the tears, and was reminded of just how powerful breathwork is. When you bring a subconscious process under conscious control, you may catch a glimpse into your own subconscious. You also enhance your sense of vitality, joy, and clarity, especially through regular practice. Practicing simple techniques like the full yogic breath for a few minutes each day can make you feel calm, energetic, and focused. Who wouldn’t like a little more of that?

Image credit: Tasha Marie

* That was me… sorry Karen and Beth!

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