breathing more

For the longest time, I've always been a bit scared of doing yoga. I think it's because I've always perceived the act of yoga to be purely physical. A stream of limiting beliefs flow through my mind, like you need to be fit, you need to be flexible, you need to have perfect form. A narrative that is fueled by the wave of lululemon-wearing digital influencers and the advent of body optimization culture, in a way that gatekeeps the average person from taking yoga seriously.

In late 2019 I went through all kinds of strategies to attempt to add yoga into my life, including buying a luxurious mat, committing to intro vinyasa flow classes, dragging gal pals to Sunday pilates. What often happened: the stretches hurt, the positions were difficult to hold, I had trouble breathing at the pace the teacher specified, I kept looking around at everyone else in the class, I was always sore the next day... the whole gamut of miserable moments. Whenever the instructor would come over to me specifically and help fix my posture, I'd just feel like a helpless, broken bug. “Yeah, that's how downward dog is supposed to look like”. Bloated dolphin-looking poses don't count, apparently.

This piece is not meant to be a long lamentation or a rambly rant about my lack of yoga prowess. In fact, this is the start of my re-appreciation of breathing as a core skill, a philosophy, and a way of life. Yoga is just one useful conduit for the breath. So just like my relationship with art, I find the best ways of hurtling yourself into new ways of thinking and being are by doing things in extreme environments. In framework-speak, you find forcing functions that provide a platform of repetition and constant action, usually in ways that scare you. Some examples in the wild include tackling social anxiety through improv training, building independence by uprooting your life to the countryside, and developing creativity by pressing publish on a project for the entire world to see.

In my case: let's talk about plunging face-first into a 3-day wellness festival with expert yoga instructors, meditation practitioners, and mindfulness leaders.

. . .

When I entered the Five Senses Sanctuary in Al Ula this past weekend, my intuition told me the experience would be literally sensational. The only condition I needed was to keep my beginner's mind activated and plugged in. There's something about being in the center of the desert that oozes calm energy — the palm trees swaying peacefully, the majestic mountains tethering good vibes, and the natural outdoorsy smells mingling with artificial soothing scents, with sage, lavender, and Arabic coffee conspiring to stimulate you.

I entered the venue and walked straight into Pavilion A, not even knowing what type of session to expect. Equal parts fun and fear. All I saw was an array of symmetrically lined yoga mats, decorated with glass water bottles and round cushions, so I knew I was facing my demons immediately. I find there are a few mental hurdles when approaching things solo, even for someone who thrives in new ambiguous settings. I had no sense of the tone and textures of the event, no connections made, no understanding of the in-groups. I read on the board for 11 am: Kino MacGregor's “Yoga: Just Breathe”. Who's Kino? Never heard of her.* But oh well, in classic Sam fashion: time to walk in blind and see what happens.

Kino's session basically set the stage for not only my confidence and comfort at Five Senses, but also to help uncover greater meaning behind breathwork. As she eloquently broke down in the first five minutes:

"Yoga is not about stretching and bending. We're not training for professional acrobatics. If you're spending all your time trying to be flexible and ignoring the breath, you're not going to get anything out of the practice. Flip your mind this way: yoga is 80% breathing and 20% movement".

That's it? You just breathe and your yoga skills exponentially improve? Well, yes and no. Kino's one-hour class was still challenging because you had to combine fundamental breathwork with classic ashtanga vinyasa. The secret sauce is synchronization: how well can you still prioritize the breath when you're energetically tasked with a rapid 10-step sun salutation? It feels so good when you do reach that harmony after a few cycles, a kind of free-form flow state. You tend to worry less about positions and people when breathing through it.

I could write a 20-pager about my thrilling times at Five Senses, bouncing in and out of unique sessions like kundalini, artistic flow, yoga nidra, ecstatic dance, handpan orchestra, cacao ceremony, paint therapy, and pranayama meditation. Each piece is too gnarly to describe; this showcases the magic of when you bring mindful souls together who are open to any modes of healing.

But there's a more important reflection to make: how do we practice breathwork intentionally, in the name of true self-help?

We aren't really taught how to breathe. Arguably one of the strongest skills you can develop — that literally anyone can access — is breathing. But there's a catch. Breathing is hard. It's an unconscious force, one that gives and takes away power like the supreme ruler of your internal kingdom. You could view the breath as the director who is essential to our play of life, who is often taken for granted because you don't typically see the backstage mechanisms at work.

Away from the colorful metaphors, what I'm trying to say is that the simple act of focusing on the breath is our inherent reset button in life. Not in typical game design where you're taken back to a previous checkpoint, but to the degree that the breath acts as a built-in, on-demand tension diffuser for the present.

Jumping into your big final round interview? Breathe. Meeting an attractive someone for a first date? Breathe. Stressing about how to get your points across clearly in a public blog post? Breathe. I mean, it's almost unfair how we can rewire ourselves that quickly to shed any perverse emotions cluttering up our headspace in these heightened states. Of course, it's easier said than done — our breathing usually becomes quick & erratic, and we lose control of rationality.

There's not really a “proper” way to breathe, which on paper sounds so strange. Five Senses taught me the power of inhalation, both within yoga and as a self-trigger to exorcise unwanted sensations. One trick is to do one big, slow inhale, and then hold and retain it for as long as possible. This pause is important because you can't think of anyone or anything else when you're suspending your breath. Your brain switches out of trivial worry mode into the nontrivial survival system: hold for too long, and you're gone. We're operating in true extremes.

Since this is more of an exploratory & experimental post, I'm saving the deep dive on breathwork for another time. Actionable techniques I'm noodling on:

  • Slow inhale through the nose & retain. This is the inhalation-retention method and a capacity-driven approach to breathwork that I often don't hear talked about. I want to experiment with this whenever I'm feeling mentally drained or overwhelmed, and I want an instantaneous stopgap response. This might come up a few more times in my nomadic journey.

  • Slow inhale through the nose, retain for 4s, slow exhale through the nose. Also known as “box breathing” and the classic rhythmic sequential style. This one is the most intuitive approach, and I typically employ this during unguided meditations. But I'm also wondering if I can make this an ongoing maintenance, a series of mini-meditations throughout the day as I'm phase shifting from place to place, or from activity to activity.

  • Rapid inhale through the nose & rapid exhale through the mouth. Also known as the “bellows breath”, the Win Hof method uses a variation, and is often used in kundalini as the “lion's breath”. This is a fascinating tool to me because it's the body's natural espresso shot, through a wave of controlled hyperventilation. I want to test this in high-performance settings (work, social) and whenever I want to coax more creativity out of my system.

Maybe that's what finding flow is — feeling so in tune with your body and breath that anything can be made blissful, anything can be made beautiful as you consciously work at your highest degree of focus and performance.

A good reminder is that the breath is the balance of life, as A says: For every inhale there’s an exhale. And the release isn’t defeat, it’s the necessary letting go. The rhythm of our lungs and of our life: we give up what we hold onto, and then we take in something new.

Either way, consider this my commitment to lifelong learning of breathwork. The good thing is that it naturally integrates well with other components of my mindfulness toolkit (meditation, psychotherapy, running). That makes me happy.

For April, I'm going to try breathing more...and maybe hit up some hip yoga studios in Paris too :)

Published by Sam (samwong) 2 months ago on Tuesday the 29th of March 2022.

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