October 8, 2018

How Breathwork nearly Ruined my Life.

When I was a yogi, my spiritual gurus told me I would find happiness and true bliss by focusing on the breath.

They told me how the breath was marvelous. They said it would liberate me from my emotions, suffering, and attachments.

My teachers spoke of great yogis who found happiness when they evolved into breatharians, people who survive only on the breath, conquering even their need to eat. They spoke of gurus who had mastered the breath so completely, that they breathed only once every thousand years, sitting motionless in blissful nirvana.

They said that one day, even I could conquer my need to breathe so frequently.

From the very first yoga class I attended, my teachers told me to focus on the breath. I assumed breathwork was just a simple way to deepen my Downward Dog. I thought the breath was a new approach to stress relief.

Instead, as I advanced in my practice, I realized breathwork was something more. It was a spiritual practice. Spiritual breathing is an entire branch of yoga, called pranayama. Pranayama, they said, would lead me to discover the oneness of all things.

My teachers said that pranayama was the key to awareness, and to bliss.

Well, I faithfully tried to master my breath for a really long time because I wanted to be a guru. I imagined the glory of breathing a thousand year breath. The elusive state of bliss fascinated me, and I wanted to be the special person to reach it.

And becoming one with the universe seemed so….empowering! I was frustrated by my human attachments, and wanted to rise above my troubled emotions. My teachers told me that breathwork would be a solution to all my struggles. To boot, they said the breath was the key to world peace.

My initial efforts produced some results: through the breath I did have some release of tension. I was better able to control my emotions. Breathwork gave me greater body awareness, too. All this was encouraging. Yet, despite years of practice, I still couldn’t say meditating on my breath had made me happy. It had not solved all my struggles. Instead, the harder I tried to master this technique of breathing, the more unreachable bliss seemed.

Even my teachers claimed how rare true bliss is, telling me it was for the select few, those who are enlightened only.

I wondered, what could I do to become one of these elite individuals?

I earned my yoga certification in hopes of becoming an enlightened being. I got on my mat daily and was faithful to my meditation practice. But enlightenment still seemed on the far horizon, and I became self-critical. This did little to improve my state of bliss. I kept wondering, why couldn’t I get it right? What was I doing wrong?

In hopes of reaching enlightenment sooner, I stepped up my meditation. I contorted myself into even more advanced yogi pretzel poses. I ate a strict sattvic diet (which is the yogi equivalent of a kosher diet, focused on purity). This path to bliss seemed to demand ever more unusual practices. Yet, I felt like I was sinking further and further from my goals.

My teachers said I needed to push through this “phase.” But conquering hunger and mastering the breath was beginning to feel unnatural. With so many conditions for spiritual advancement, it was hard to go to restaurants with my friends. I couldn’t take part in many social activities involving food. Bliss was starting to seem exclusive to people without family or friends.

I googled a few photos of yogis in deep meditation (called samadhi) which yielded some austere looking results. They seemed undernourished and withdrawn, their minds far off and away.

I thought about those motionless yogis breathing once every thousand years, and pondered, “Were they any happier than I was?”

Instead of finding bliss, I noticed that every time I meditated, I felt an empty wind blowing in my heart. Sometimes, it blew quietly as the breath moving inside my body. Sometimes it blew as if I was sitting in a vast echo chamber. Whenever I closed my eyes to meditate, I felt like I was sitting in an empty room. Listening to the wind in my nostrils made me feel detached from everyone, and even from myself. My whole state of being felt atmospheric. My heart seemed more connected to the cosmos than to reality.

Every time I tried to be spiritual in my yoga practice, every time I thought of God, I thought of the oneness of it all. I thought of the whole cosmos and the vastness of space. So every time I pondered who God was, I had an out-of-body experience. My meditation was like floating in a spaceship, looking from a place beyond the world at myself. I was watching my life like a movie.

I didn’t like this empty feeling.

In the breath, I wondered, where were the children? Where were the family picnics and backyard barbecues? Where were the ice-cream cones and candlelight dinners?

Growing up in my Italian American family, these things seemed warmer and more life-giving than the breath, more full and rich. In contrast, my breath meditation felt cold and empty.

I was told that the breath would bring me the ultimate cosmic connection with all beings in the universe. But, my attempts at breathwork led to just the opposite.

I had lost these things, instead of gaining them.

My meditation on the breath was so ethereal, my heart simply became numb. Instead of bliss, I felt indifference. Instead of compassion, nothing seemed to matter anymore. Instead of bringing me to happiness, focusing on the breath had actually deconstructed my happiness.

And I suppose this was the goal all along, to free me of the “suffering” caused by emotions and attachments. In the path to bliss, even happy emotions were on the chopping block.

And then I encountered Ayurveda.

Ayurveda emphasizes that life is not just about conscious awareness, but directs us to lovingly nurture our body and heart as well. Where yoga seemed focused on emptying, Ayurveda was focused on filling!

Ayurveda doesn’t see the body as an obstacle to spiritual advancement. Instead, it affirms that our humanity is a part of the spiritual journey. By affirming basic human needs and human nature, Ayurveda seemed to affirm my natural instinct toward fullness instead of emptiness, too.

No matter how much stress relief the breath offers, I suppose I knew all along that joy doesn’t come from focusing on the breath. Joy comes from loving one another.

I quietly admitted that using the breath to dissolve into a vast ocean of oneness, to let go of all my thoughts, and to detach myself from the things I cared about had hurt me and my relationships. I admitted how lonely I was living a life focused on the breath. Instead of emptying my mind, I realized I wanted to fill my heart and give more affection to people.

So I decided I would no longer focus on the breath, but focus on people. Instead of meditating on my breath, I began to pray for people. I fashioned each prayer as a gift of love to someone specific, which woke up my natural ability to love. I no longer felt isolated from everyone, but connected.

I returned to a spiritual worldview that was more personal too, the religion of my childhood. Instead of looking for God in the breath, or thinking of him as a great big ball of energy, I went back to thinking of God as a person again, as Jesus Christ. Instead of loving the breath, I went back to loving Jesus. I focused on adoring him. I kept his face in my heart. He spent his whole life trying to help people, so he was easier to love than the breath.

Because of his humanity, my search for God was no longer separate from my humanity. I found that the opposite of worshipping the ethereal breath is all the richness of cherishing a face.

The fruits of these changes were immediate. Once I stopped looking for God in the breath, my heart was no longer an empty wind. Once I turned my heart toward people, my heart was full of warmth and affection. Jesus’ earthliness seemed to bring heaven out of the clouds and me back down to Earth. In my firm decision to focus on people and relationship, instead of myself and the breath, I became a part of the community.

Nurturing a love of people did not require demanding methods or unusual techniques contrary to simple living. By comparison, a life focused on loving people is natural and easy.

I met my wife within a few years of this change. Our love has the richness, fullness, and joy I was seeking, but couldn’t find, in the breath. After meeting my wife, focusing on the breath and detachment seemed so meaningless compared to my life and connection with her.

I had thought the breath would give me mesmerizing cosmic awareness. I had thought that enlightened states of consciousness would empower me to manifest anything I wanted.

Now, instead of putting all my hope in myself, my own powers, or any meditative state of being, I put my hope back in others, back in relationships, and back in God. Instead of trying to be a cosmic guru, I have found more meaning in being a good husband and dad.

I’m still grateful for all that I have learned about the breath from my teachers. I still breathe when I stretch, and it still helps me deepen my stretch. I still breathe to loosen tension in my muscles, and to reduce stress. I’m grateful that, through the breath, I have gained perspective on my emotions.

But I no longer expect happiness to come from breathing.

My teachers all said that bliss is difficult and rare to achieve. In my focus on the breath and detachment, I found that they were right. I did find happiness, but it didn’t come from the breath, cosmic consciousness, or living life in the ether. It didn’t come from philosophizing about the cosmos. It came from cherishing relationship with people, and loving the face of Jesus.

My happiness came through the heart.


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John Immel

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