--- Dharamsala, India
As the birthplace of yoga and home to the oldest religion in the world, India is brimming with different psychological, spiritual, and cosmic experiences for the wandering and curious soul. Cities like Dharamsala and Rishikesh, both famous for their yoga community and many retreats nestled between the valleys of the Himalayan mountain range, bring thousands from around the world every year looking to expand their spiritual self-awareness. From breathwork to ecstatic dance to ayuverdhic cleansing rituals to guided meditation or yoga class, one can fill their day up with a wide range of different therapies to pick from.
After six months traveling India, Dharamsala would be my last stop. Like many curious about the magic of Himalayan tradition and ancient practices, I was interested in trying out new and exciting experiences that would build onto my spiritual practice.
The breathwork workshop that had grasped my attention (which had been recommended to me by a friend I had made at the homestay I was staying at) was a four-hour long session. Haven never done anything similar before, I was utterly clueless about what to expect.
The workshop was devised into three parts. In the first hour, prior to the actual breath exercise, we were asked about our personal history and/or previous knowledge of breathwork, to gain a sense of our individual physical and psychological needs. It then later continued with the workshop facilitator instructing us on the breathing technique that was to be used in this session.
The breathing technique seemed simple in words; however, it became much more difficult than I had anticipated once carried out. It consisted of deep breaths in and out through the mouth, with no pauses, locks, or holds in between. Nothing had to be forced or controlled, but the focus had to be on keeping the flow of breath constant and even throughout.
Everyone proceeded to get comfortable on their mats. Some laid blankets to cover their bodies, others propped pillows underneath their knees and necks. Once everyone was ready to commence, a singing bowl was chimed, and the room started the exercise. If you were an outsider walking into the room, it would seem as if everyone was hyperventilating.
The first physical sensations set in quickly: the cramping and curling of the fingers and hands, the disorientation and spinning of the room, the rapid hot and cold flashes shooting from the spine down to the toes. It took everything in me not to panic about the pain and the alien feelings resonating throughout my body, rather ease into them. Like in any situation where the brain is suddenly pumped with a lot more oxygen, these sensations are normal and expected.
In a matter of minutes, cries and moaning filled the room. To my right, I could hear playful sighs and laughter. To my left, whimpering and sobbing. Soon enough, my own cries echoed in, feeling into a depth both release and confusion. I tried to find meaning behind my random outbursts something to ground myself in objective reasoning. In truth, the experience ended up being an emotional roller coaster. I encountered feelings that I hadn’t realized I kept stored deep within my body, primarily my hips, ankles, chest, and jaw. It was a strange dance between experiencing feelings of sheer pain and eternal bliss. In recognizing when and what I was holding on to, I found small victories in moments I let go – whether it be physical tension or emotional blockages.
After my painful yet eye-opening experience, I do believe it is important to keep an open mind and to avoid having expectations. Not everyone will have the same experience, nor will it bring similar feelings or traumas to the surface for each participant. For some, breathwork may not even bring a transformative effect. Like myself, breathwork allowed me to see and feel into the depth of what I was holding into my body—and the amount of work that I still needed to do in order to unpack, and eventually release, it all. For me, my first breathwork experience opened a new doorway to awareness – a new milestone on my path to self-mastery and happiness.
The point of this workshop, and other workshops that play with pranayama, is to draw back the veil between what may lie behind our subconscious minds -- the things that have been kept dormant or buried within ourselves. It is about easing into what comes up and what the breath can teach us about compassion towards the self, and others.