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How to Breathe -- an IAP experience

By Zarminae Ansari

Staff Writer

Walking down the infinite corridor reading flyers, I marveled, as usual, at the range and weirdness of some of the courses being offered. Then a flyer caught my eye. The course had the ambitious title of “The Art of Living” and seemed to be about yoga breathing techniques. I did not know much about yoga, except that it was good for flexibility, was thousands of years old, and involved contorting your body into seemingly painful positions with exotic names such as the upside down dog, the cobra and the sun salutation. I also knew that local yoga classes were not very cheap, so I figured that a free IAP course might be the way to get a good introduction.

Introductory class, January 19th

I rushed from a stressful day at work, then the gym, got on to the T, transferred to the No. 1 bus, got off at MIT, and ran to where the class was being held. I was late, tired and stressed.

There were three coordinators -- Janael, an elegant and soft-spoken woman with a beautiful and gentle looking face and a difficult to place accent. Kamlesh, an Indian, with long curly locks and beard covering almost his entire face. Eng-An, a vivacious, pretty younger woman from Argentina, but of Asian descent, was animatedly leading the class.

She had just begun to introduce the concept behind yoga breathing. Followers believe that 90 percent of toxins (and this includes stress) could be expelled from the body through the use of correct breathing. We normally use only 30 percent of our lung capacity. The class started to practice breathing by imagining a balloon inflating in our stomach as we inhaled, being conscious not to raise our shoulders as we breathed deeply.

Then Eng-An introduced us to “Ujai Breath” (the victory of the breath), which we would use regularly during the course. It is difficult to describe, but made a rasping sound from the back of our throats, which was strangely soothing. We ended the session with meditation. Attending the course the following week meant a time commitment of two to three hours every evening and I was a little apprehensive. However, I realized I was amazingly de-stressed and energized and so decided to commit myself.

Monday, January 24th

One of my housemates and three other friends decided to attend the course with me. There were about 30 or 40 people at the first session. The first thing we were all asked to do was to wear name tags, and then go and shake hands with everyone in the class and say “I belong to you.” Everyone seemed to feel ridiculous doing this and ended up embarrassed and laughing sheepishly as we decided to go along. At the end of this exercise I decided I wasn’t coming back. As a good friend put it, the course was too “crunchy granola.”

We were then asked to write down all the stresses in our life and what we wanted out of the course. Eng-An gave a little talk and explained the meaning behind Deepak Chopra-ish pronouncements such as “Expectation reduces the joy” and “The present moment is inevitable.”

She explained that Prana is the life force and energy that is all around us. There are certain things that reduce prana and we were asked to avoid those during the next few days. These were: meat, alcohol, frozen and canned foods, mushrooms, onions, garlic and eggplant. To raise good prana we would be on a vegetarian diet, get enough sleep, and try and expel negative thoughts.

The three centers of breath represented the three Hindu gods. Brahma is at the base of the stomach and represents the center of creation and procreation. Vishnu is at the heart and deals with emotions. Shiva, in the mind, is the god of destruction, for it was the mind with which you could destroy anything.

Next we did the breathing exercises, and as before, I felt calm and de-stressed. So I decided to go along with the whole program. My friends and I made a quick, desperate trip to Star Market since we realized that everything in our fridge was “bad prana,” and bought every green leafy thing we saw.

Tuesday, January 25th

I felt really tired due to bad sleep Prana, since we had to shop for and then cook our green leafy things till midnight. We did more of the same but with music and chanting this time and another brief lecture explaining the existence of “Aum” sound in every culture.

Then we had a discussion about the importance of accepting everyone as they are without projecting one’s desired expectation on them since it leads to disappointments in relationships. An interesting exercise followed where we were supposed to raise each other’s level of enthusiasm and energy: we shared our wildest dreams and aspirations with a partner who was then supposed to react with great -- if necessary, faked -- enthusiasm and encourage us. It was amusing and we all knew that we were exaggerating our excitement and support for some ideas, but interestingly enough everyone felt really good after that. I thought I would practice this on my other friends who weren’t present and resolved to never shoot down anyone’s ideas again no matter how far fetched they sounded. As Eng-An put it, most people know deep down which ideas are impossible or impractical, but sometimes you just need a friendly ear and a sounding board.

Wednesday, January 26th

This session we learnt about the use of breath to dispel anger, anxiety, and displeasure.

Another interesting development was doing breathing exercises, the “Sudarshan Kriya,” to the sound of guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar on tape which ended with a deeply relaxed meditative state. When we got out of it I felt like I had had a delicious catnap. Everyone shared their experiences which ran a gamut of emotions. I only felt a deeply relaxed physical state where I almost felt as if I was floating as I lay down with my eyes closed.

Thursday, January 27th

We did the “Sudarshan Kriya” with and without the taped chanting, so that we could replicate the exercise at home. This session was not as amazing as the day before for me. The reason being that as people lost their inhibitions and laughed out loud or exclaimed I kept snapping out of the deep meditative state I was in, or getting distracted because I kept wondering what they were saying. I suppose with practice, one can probably ignore all disturbances but I was only a novice and someone exclaiming “Yes! Yes!” brought all kinds of not-very-yogic thoughts to my mind.

Friday, January 28th

We had been getting “homework” everyday: thinking about a particular philosophical or personal question, for example. Our homework today was to practice the breathing exercises on our own before we came to the evening session.

I wish I had been able to do the practices, because those who did felt that they went into an even deeper “trance.” The one thing that I found absolutely mind altering about the course happened on the last two days. We sat across from each other and were told to stare into each other’s eyes. I thought this was really up there with the weird stuff that we had been doing until then. The first person I had to stare at was a person I had not even spoken to in the course.

I actually felt hostile as I began, and I could see intimidation and uncertainty in his eyes as well. Then we were told to close our eyes and look at the person again. This happened three times while Eng-An, in a soothing voice asked us to accept the person as they are. I did. Then she asked us to imagine the divine in the form of the person opposite us, and would we now accept that person. We both did. Suddenly it hit me. Our expressions had changed, we could see friendship in the other’s eyes and a sense of bonding -- this stranger was no longer a stranger. I had heard that the eyes are the windows to the soul, and perhaps that is why we felt so vulnerable initially and so close afterwards. But what was so amazing was the power of visualization.

As a Muslim and someone who has been interested in reading the esoteric interpretations of Islam, I found myself in a strange quandary. One part of me was secure in my faith and found this to be only another way of being aware of God. Another part of me had the wildest imagination and conspiracy theories going on. Along with that was a Pakistani collective unconscious that spoke from somewhere and said, “What in the world are you doing attending this course?”

Islam especially in its esoteric, “Sufi” form talks about the existence of the divine in every person and thing. I had understood but never realized that concept before this day. One had to drop all preconceived ideas, stereotypes, hostilities, and fears, and imagine the divine in the other person.

I went through the exercise with a few more strangers and was curious to see my reaction when I would sit across a friend. Ritu, a recent PhD from the department of History, Theory and criticism in Architecture and someone I respect and admire for her intellectual rigor and analytical mind was that friend. We were both amazed how much closer we felt at the end of the exercise. At the end of the class we shared gifts that we had brought and were asked to go around and repeat the exercise that we began with.

That is, to say “I belong to you” to everyone else. This time we were not embarrassed, and understood the deeper meaning behind this previously meaningless and flaky phrase. And I was still a Muslim, a calmer and less stressed person and not a convert to a cult, as I had secretly feared.

The The Art of Living class will be offered in the future as a Physical Education course.