Take a deep breath. How often do you hear people saying that when you are stressed or angry? Simply breathing in and out slowly can relieve your stress and make you infinitely more level-headed. Ninety-nine percent of the time we are oblivious to the rhythmic activity of our lungs. For that reason, we often overlook the powerful capacity of the breath to heal us physically, mentally and emotionally.
I signed up for a course just before spring break entitled the Art of Living. It came highly recommended and I was told it would make my life drastically less stressful and incredibly more peaceful. I expected a mix of yoga, meditation and perhaps some spiritual proselytizing. The course would meet three hours a day for six days – quite a time commitment considering the never-ending rigors of the quarter system.
For the six days, we were told to maintain a strict vegetarian diet and cut out all caffeine, alcohol and drugs. We were also told to drink one liter of water every morning before even putting our clothes on. Just the thought of abstaining from meat proved too daunting for some, but I gladly went along with it.
The six days were a blur of breathing, meditation and silly games. Variations of games like tag were played to foster camaraderie and trust among the group. What began as a diverse group of 17 was whittled down to 12 by week’s end. Men and women, young and old, students and non-students all partook in the course. By week’s end, the initial awkwardness had subsided and was replaced with congeniality.
Different emotions are associated with different breaths, such as huffing and puffing with anger, or slow wheezing with sadness. By alternating the rhythm of your breath, you can theoretically alter your emotions. By regularly practicing the exercises, you can relieve stress, increase mental clarity and learn to live in the present moment. The essence of the class is a rhythmic breathing exercise called the Sudarshan Kriya, created by the founder of the organization, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Naturally, we signed waivers swearing us to secrecy.
On day two we did our first Kriya breathing exercise. We sat in a dark room with our eyes closed and followed the intonations of a recording by Sri Sri. We were told each person should expect a unique experience. For an hour, we sat and breathed in and out at different paces. My mind raced as I fruitlessly tried to center my thoughts on the breath. My legs cramped and boredom set in. Why was I wasting my time sitting in a dark room doing nothing? Out of nowhere, a sudden rush of energy flowed into my hands. It was as though my hands had fallen asleep, minus the awkward, uncomfortable feeling. What the hell was happening to me? I had just been sitting with my legs crossed breathing in and out and suddenly I felt like I could shoot a Ha Dou Ken fireball like Ryu from Street Fighter. I tried wringing my hands like a wet towel to eliminate the tingly sensation, but to no avail. After about a minute, the feeling subsided on its own.
After the hour of breathing, we laid down and rested. I could hear our teacher relay instructions, but I was dreaming at the same time. I was meditating, and it felt utterly sublime.
We shared our experiences afterward. Some in the group experienced the same sensations as me in other parts of the body. For others, the exercise evoked painful memories and rushes of tears. It was stunning to see how something as simple as breathing could have so profound of an effect.
The class was organized by second-year UCSB student, Sunaina Kuranwal. She initially started the UCSB Service and Yoga Club because “nothing like it existed in the community.” The Art of Living course has changed her life by increasing her focus and liveliness. She plans to organize another course in the spring.
I feel calmer and more relaxed than I have in years. I credit the class and the lessons it has imparted on me. Part two of the course involves at least a 48-hour period of silence in the woods. I’ll report on that if I am crazy enough to sign up…