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  • Writer's pictureToby A. Cox

The Secrets Our Breath Holds

Updated: Jan 17, 2019

Through your nose, take a deep breath in and hold it for 10 seconds. 1 ... 2 ... 3 ... 4 ... 5 ... almost there! ... 6 ... 7 ... 8 ... 9 ... 10. Now exhale, with control.

Let's talk about breath.

Every breath we take sustains us and gives us another second of life. How precious is that? Yet, we never think about breathing - only when we're doing something physically strenuous are we aware of our lungs, chugging along, inhaling and exhaling allowing us to live.

"When we're born, the first thing we do is inhale. When we die, the last thing we do is exhale. There are many secrets in breath."

We were riding in a taxi from Gokarna, a small beach town on the coast of India, to the Yana rock formations, on New Years day, when Tanuja, the woman sitting next to me said that. It has been on my mind ever since. The act of breathing not only sustains us, but represents our lives - the beginning, end, and everything in between, yet we take it for granted.

Maybe it's also because I've been doing a lot of yoga lately that this has been on my mind. Yoga is all about the union of body and mind, which is achieved through breath and proper breathing techniques. Every pose in yoga is coordinated with either an inhale or exhale. This is not arbitrary - inhaling and exhaling correctly helps with mental clarity by reducing stress and anxiety AND aids in increasing endurance, strength, and flexibility. When you're not accustomed to being aware of how you inhale and exhale, this can be challenging, especially in challenging poses where you might find yourself wanting to hold your breath.

In yoga, there are also (tons of) different types of breathing - for example, there's Ujayi breathing (breathing with a narrow throat) that helps with balancing poses and there's alternate nostril-breathing, which helps balance the two sides of the brain (I LOVE this one). (If you want to learn about more types of breath used in yoga, you can click here).

Yoga is a fairly new passion of mine. I started practicing while in Peace Corps and found that it helped with stress and anxiety, AND, as an added bonus, I got pretty strong. What wasn't to love?

So, for this New Year, I decided to do a yoga retreat in India, where it all started. Before you ask, NO, I was not trying to mimic Eat, Pray, Love ... I just wanted to meditate on a warm beach in India, overlooking the Arabian Sea.

I chose Tipi Garden Resort because, honestly, it was the cheapest option, and it was everything I wanted it to be!

At this resort, I met Tanuja, her husband, Shantanu, and their two kids, Deveka (8), and Kartik (6). You know when you meet someone and you just get a good feeling about them? You don't really know anything about them, you only just met them, but you just know. That's the feeling I got about this family. They ended up extending to me invitations to go on outings with them, which I accepted. Simply put, they are lovely people.

On New Years Eve day we visited nearby beaches and took a boat ride (Deveka spotted dolphins!). I learned that both Shantanu and Tanuja are involved with The Art of Living organization that focuses on a humanitarian approach to stress management through yoga and meditation to help people live more meaningful and peaceful lives. (I've since done some research on the organization and it's pretty amazing. One project area is initiating conflict resolution and trauma-relief programs all over the world. If you want to learn more you can click here. It's worth checking out!).

On New Years Day they invited me to venture into the town of Gokarna with them to visit the 2 Hindu temples there.

I honestly know very little about Hinduism, but Shantanu and Tanuja were both willing to answer my questions and patiently explain aspects of Hinduism and Indian culture to me.

Unfortunately, I was not able to join them inside the temples, since I was a foreigner and am not Hindu (<rant>I overheard many tourists grumble about this 'No Foreigners Allowed' rule, but I actually think its a good thing. If tourists were allowed inside, they might be unintentionally disruptive and disrespectful. With so many tourists visiting India, I understand the need to keep local, sacred places protected so that they remain sacred. To the grumbly tourists I say deal with it and understand that you're not entitled to culture. </rant>).

While I was waiting outside, I watched people waiting in line to enter the temple, many people buying flowers to present as offerings.

I saw a monks draped in orange cloth enter and exit buildings surrounding the temple. A group of around 10 school girls (I think 14-15 years old?) suddenly appeared in front of me, all of them wanting to shake my hand and introduce themselves. What started as a group of 10 quickly multiplied until they were a group of around 20, all smiling and eagerly asking me my name and where I was from. It was fleeting, because soon after they appeared, they were told to move since they were blocking the compound entrance. I, too, was (politely) told to skedaddle. I moved to the street, checking out the scene, when I see Tanuja, Deveka, and Kartik appear. Tanuja explained the line was long and asked if I could watch the kids while she and Shantanu waited to enter the temple. I said of course. Kartik then looked up at me and said, "we didn't want you waiting out here all alone." I smiled.

Waiting for their parents, Deveka and Kartik picked up icons at the nearby souvenir shop and eagerly explained to me what they all meant and the stories behind them. Something I learned was that in Hinduism, they don't pray to idols, they pray to various energies associated with specific deities. Tanuja explained to me later that day that in Hinduism, they believe in the energy associated with each deity - energy can be difficult for people to understand since people tend to be highly visual. For this reason, they have the idols, to represent the energy associated with each deity. (This is how I understood it. If I'm wrong, please, someone, correct me).

Breath allows us to not only be more in tune with ourselves, but with the world around us. Deveka has a special skill: highly developed intuition. Deveka was sitting at the breakfast table, blindfolded. She then told us, "write anything on a piece of paper and I'll tell you what it says without being able to see it." Of course, we all then began to scribble something on the paper, I wrote: GOKARNA. I handed the paper to Shantanu who then placed Deveka's hand on the words. She was silent for a few seconds, and then said, "Gokarna." All of the other tourists sitting at the table were shocked. Then for the next 20 minutes, we handed her pieces of paper with random words. One girl wrote her last name, which was Spanish - Deveka succeeded with every single one. One of the tourists pulled up a photo on his iPhone and was able to describe the photo without seeing it. You might be reading this thinking 'impossible,' but really, it was quite amazing. According to Shantanu, this is achieved through meditation and becoming in tune with one's intuition. In children, intuition is much stronger as they tend to doubt themselves less. It's believed that children who do these intuition exercises will grow up and be able to make better choices and be able to more easily decipher between right and wrong.

As much as I love traveling, before this trip, I've never traveled alone (aside from that one layover in Istanbul). Why not? Well, I thought that traveling alone would be daunting and would make me feel vulnerable. I was half right: it wasn't daunting, but it did make me feel vulnerable, but not in a "I don't feel safe" kind of way, but in a "I'm traveling alone, therefore I'm approachable" kind of way. By approachable, I don't mean unwanted attention, I mean meeting and getting to know people (like Shantanu, Tanuja, Deveka, and Kartik) I probably wouldn't have met and spent time with had I been traveling with someone else.

I learned that traveling alone can open doors of opportunity, especially if you have an open mind (but also while staying aware of your surroundings (mitigation, people!), making good choices, and avoiding unsafe areas). I also learned about the power of breath and the secrets it holds - my only resolution for this year is to breathe and to become more aware of how I breathe to control it and appreciate it. I challenge you to try and do the same - let's breathe together.

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