There is a pool of sweat under me and I can’t feel my arms or legs. I hear the vibrations of the traditional music around me and the occasional voices of people around me calling out, chanting, or breathing heavily. My breath is speeding up and I have to remind myself, “You’re in control. Slow down.” And I try, but the motion has already taken over my body and I can’t seem to stop my abdomen from rising and falling in a continuous wave pattern. “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” I think and try moving my thumb to no avail. “Say yes. Just say yes to whatever comes to you,” I hear, from several feet away. And I do. Then everything goes black.
I’ve never dropped acid or done any other hallucinogenic drugs, but I have tripped on my own breath. Or “hyper-oxygenated,” to be technical about it.
It all began when I spent a few weeks doing yoga in Bali’s yoga capital – Ubud. The studio I had been practicing in advertised a workshop on Transformational Breathing. The three hour session was said to heal “years of repressed and suppressed emotions” and all of the teachers raved about their experiences with it. It would be one hour of introduction and instruction, one hour of breathing, and one hour of coming down and processing our experiences. So for $25, I thought, why not give it a shot?
However, as the date of the workshop approached, I started getting nervous. Everyone I talked to kept comparing it to something you’d experience on heavy drugs – it wasn’t exactly comforting for a person who likes to have control. By the time I walked into the studio on the date of the class, my heart was racing and I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t, in fact, doing any drugs of any kind. I was just breathing in a room with a bunch of strangers. Daniel Aaron, my guide through the Transformational Breathing class, was also the founder of the Radiantly Alive yoga studio. Over the first hour of our time, Daniel explained the philosophy behind the practice, which was fascinating.
As a baby in the womb, you are warm, comfortable, and being given everything you need from your host, including oxygen. The first experience most of us have of the outside world is being born into a cold hospital room with stark fluorescent lighting and having the cord (that offered us everything we needed to survive) cut. The subsequent moment is a sense of shock – the baby has never breathed on its own and the first breath it takes comes in as a gasp. It’s cold and it is painfully deep and, according to the founders of this practice, in this moment we learn that breathing hurts and, therefore, we try to breath as little as possible for the remainder of our lives.
Daniel then asked us how we react in certain extreme situations – all of which linked to breathing. It became clear that breath is inextricably tied to living and to the processing (or not processing) of emotions through our lives. People often hold their breath when processing something difficult emotionally, or gasp for breath if upset only using the top level of the lungs. Building on that idea, Daniel said, “If breath is life, then the quality of your breath relates to the quality of your life.” He said that most people are only using 1/3 of their lung capacity. That would also indicate that the typical quality of life is below a failing grade. These beliefs led to the creation of Transformational Breathing.
The goal of the practice is to access deep parts of your lungs you may have never tapped into before. The depth of the breath during a session inevitably brings up emotions, many of which are suppressed or repressed. The body may have a physical reaction to a repressed emotion coming up, but the brain cannot process what the emotion is or the related memory might be. It comes through in a wave of intensity that isn’t necessarily negative or sad. According to the founders of the practice, the more you allow these emotions to come up – the more you say “yes” to the signals being sent through the breath – the better the quality of your life going forward.
As for the physical aspect of the practice, it’s very unique and unlike anything I’ve experienced even though I’ve done tons of breathing exercises over the last seven years of practicing yoga. In the one hour of guided breathing, you inhale for longer than your exhales (2/3 inhale, 1/3 exhale) and you’re using most or all of your lung capacity for an extended period of time. You are not hyper-ventilating – you’re hyper-oxygenating. The breath is infinite – never stopping and slightly overlapping the inhales and exhales. And, instead of what we’re used to – tightening our stomachs and sucking in – we are told to take big belly breaths and puff out our abdomens. Daniel’s demonstration of the infinity breath looks like an exaggerated body roll without actually moving.
In the end, we are told, our breath will unite to create a shared energy throughout the hour. Vibrations will echo through the air and link our breath, the music, and our experiences.
Trying to put what I experienced into words was extremely difficult, but I wrote it all down a few hours after without analysis or judgment. I wouldn’t want my experience to be generalized, as the breathing exercise is extremely personal and, from what I understand, each session may be entirely unique to a single person. However, I found the entire experience fascinating and thought I’d share it for anyone who might be interested in trying this themselves or for someone who has absolutely no interest to see what it’s all about. This section more of a stream of consciousness than I normally publish, which is fitting given how I experienced the hour. So excuse the lack of flow, but take it for what you will, just like I did.
Daniel sets us up lying on mats in two rows with a pillow under the knees to relieve lower back tension and let us be flat on the floor. Traditional Balinese music starts playing. I close my eyes and relax my whole body, letting the breath be my focus.
To try and replicate what Daniel did with his breath is difficult, but I give it a shot. And the hardest part is keeping it slow and steady instead of running off into the pace of a sprint. During the hour of prep, my heart had been racing with nerves, so my body already has the heat and intensity which most people build up over the first ten minutes of breathing. I feel the intensity immediately once we begin. I feel all the fear and adrenaline, wondering what the hell I will experience in an hour of doing this. I focus on breathing and feet a tingling in my feet and hands as I allow it to take hold of me.
As I continue, the rhythm starts to take over and I no longer have to focus so intently on the length of breaths and the motion of breaths. Instead, my mind wanders. Within a few minutes, I feel my hands go completely numb. I wiggle my finger, thinking it is in a certain place, then realize it was absolutely not. My hands have tensed up without my knowing, flattened like an oven mitt with my thumbs tucked under. Minutes later I feel the numbness in my cheeks, chest, shoulders, and feet. I try to flex my toe and find it paralyzed as if I were a ballerina on point. And I leave it that way.
There is a pool of sweat below me. There is sweat dripping all down my face. I feel it but I can’t move. The heat is coming from within and flowing outwards.
I feel vibrations everywhere. The room is tingling. I hear other people’s breathing. Every now and then I hear people “toning” – making a loud, clear sound to intensify the experience by expelling energy. It’s similar to the exercise of chanting om but not necessarily an actual “om” sound. I hear our teacher say, “You are happy in your own body.” Then I hear a woman making noises that sound like an orgasm, moaning. And I think “I am happy I am in my own body. I am happy I’m not in her body. I am happy here.”
I try to fight the intensity of it – to pull back and slow things down, but it’s not possible. I am in this now and it’s got me for the rest of this hour and my body is on auto-pilot, infinity breath flowing freely and deeply, abdomen moving up and down without effort.
And once I accept this – that I’m really in this, I tone. I take a big breath and just push the energy out into the atmosphere with my voice, which I had forgotten exists. I picture the breath as light and as I force it out of my system, I picture it darkening inside – I want to force the air and energy outwards and at the very end of each tone I make, I squeeze out the last drops and try again.
I feel nothing and everything at once, tingling everywhere. Both relaxed and tense simultaneously. My mind is sharp and present and then completely detached like it is right before you fall asleep. At one point, I step into a new space in my mind, another room, I think. In the room, someone says, “It’s all interconnected,” and I come back to consciousness – not remembering who said it or in what context. Maybe there was no context.
Perhaps forty minutes in, I feel as though I am taking it too easy. But then this beautiful music plays and I try toning again – it feels good to release the excess energy and to push myself into a further state. And when I tone this time, I sound like an angel. A Balinese angel. My voice quivers in a way that I’ve only heard in local music and I’m not trying to do it. I am just letting the vibrations wash through me and then exert themselves out of me. And I just want to sing. I never sing but it felt amazing to sing. At this point we are supposed to slow our breathing down a bit and not tone, because that pushes you deeper. I know this, but must sing. So for several minutes I sing under my breath – feeling light and happy doing it. I have never heard my voice sound so clear and beautiful and I have never felt so free to just sing sounds that had no meaning or melody.
Later on, I try to slow my rhythmic breathing but to stay in it and, without any awareness of exactly what happened, I shoot up, eyes wide open, in a complete shock. I did not fall asleep, but I think I was in another state of consciousness. Once I’m sitting up, I touch my legs and shoulders and face, needing to settle back into my physical body. What passed through that moment, I don’t know. I have no recognition of the moments leading up to shooting my body out of the meditative stillness it had been in before. However, my guess is that it was something repressed that had been sitting just below the surface. My mind had completely detached and gone somewhere else for a moment.
At this point, the hour in winding down and when Daniel asks us to start breathing normally, to wiggle our fingers and toes, I am still in a shock from my black out. When I begin moving to try and turn my body, it is extremely difficult in a very satisfying way. I finally turn to my side and curl up and I can’t remember feeling so physically happy ever in my life. I am like a slab of cookie dough, just melting into the ground and while I feel so heavy, my energy is sky high. I feel like two people at once in a fantastic way.
Finally we slowly sit up and open our eyes. It is the best feeling – being totally high from your own breath. Everyone’s eyes are glassy; they aren’t making any sounds. Our eyes have an intensity which we all share, smiles striking our faces as we think back to what we just experienced.
When we finally get back together, back on this Earth, we were able to talk about our experiences. The Czech man next to me said that his hour of Transformative Breathing was very visual. He said he slowly filled up an entire lake full of love. And sometimes he would focus on something else and get distracted and then when he came back to the lake it was even more full, he was doing it without focusing on it. Others discussed reaching a new plane outside of the physical body. I talked about my singing and angelic voice (which had unfortunately disappeared when I tried to replicate it later on).
To try and analyze this experience is impossible, even for me, but I do know that it was a positive one. While I don’t need to make a habit of doing these types of sessions, I would absolutely try one again. Who knows what else I’ll find in that other room.