Hah! Hah! Haaaaah.
Hah! Hah! Haaaaah.
The sound is coming from a ski-chalet-like retreat center near New Mexico’s Sandia Mountains. Outside, dozens of Ponderosa Pines and Two-needle Pinyon trees watch over us and the falling snow.
Inside, 40 humans are practicing breathwork: two inhales (Hah! Hah!) and one exhale (Haaaah), all through open mouths.
James Nestor wrote a fantastic book on the power of breath (called, not coincidentally, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art) in which he outlined all the reasons to breathe through your nose, ranging from our ability to use air much more efficiently to how it calms anxiety and addresses respiratory problems.
Based on the research, I do my best to intentionally breathe through my nose. AND, this kind of open-mouthed breathwork I learned from my teacher David Elliott twelve years ago has been the single most transformative healing practice I’ve ever tried.
And I’ve tried it all. Over the past 35 years, I’ve had the good fortune to study directly with some of the most well-known practitioners in mindfulness, Buddhism, Qi Gong and yoga: starting with Ana Forrest when I first moved to LA in 1997, to Rick Hanson, Norman Fischer, Mirabai Bush and Daniel Siegel during my year-long training period as one of the first 30-Search Inside Yourself certified teachers.
I’ve benefited from the teachings of Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg, to name just a few.
I’ve also done a whole lotta other training – less well-known, more esoteric — ranging from the Arcturian Healing Method to Tantric Buddhist practices, from Chakra clearing to Shamanic drumming.
But it was that first time doing breathwork when I experienced what some part of me always knew: that my breath and my body were the map to my true identity. That I was not the person my mind thought I was, but the feeling of love surrounding and underneath it all.
People often say that something is as easy as 1, 2, 3. It’s taken a lot of unlearning for me to uncover – discover – recover – what my heart and body kept trying to tell me.
It’s not easy … but/and, I have found that healing with breathwork can be as simple as 3, 2, 1.
Hah! Hah! Haaaaah.
Hah! Hah! Haaaaah.
I’m lying on a wood floor. Underneath me is a thick black yoga mat with a green Om symbol; above me, a gray Pendleton wool blanket with a white bison in the middle of its medicine wheel design.
Between the mat, blanket and burning sage wafting over me, my body feels supported. Meanwhile, my mind is asking — demanding – what the hell I am doing here. I pull the blanket over my head so I can focus on the breathing.
The first inhale – Hah! – starts in the lower belly. The point is to bring oxygen into an area where a lot of emotion tends to get stuck and hang out. It’s like the neighborhood bar, the Cheers where everybody knows your name. Maybe it’s no coincidence we’re told to “belly” up to the bar.
Just for fun, let's call it The Belly Bar – the local pub where all your emotions gather. The friendly barkeep wipes down a mug and gives a warm welcome to each of them:
Why hey, there, sadness! Howdy grief...hello again, rage!
What’ll you be having?
Of course, at my local Belly Bar, french fries are what’s on tap. I’ve found no better way – apart from doughnuts, which really goes without saying – to dampen down strong emotions.
Whatever they serve at your Belly Bar – whether it’s wine or work or (fill in the blank), one thing tends to hold true. Everything at The Belly Bar seems fine until all of a sudden – seemingly out of the blue – a guest throws a shot glass against the wall and there’s a brawl.
Like when you scream at the robotic Customer Service message telling you to press 1 for more help. And there you are, yelling “REPRESENTATIVE! REPRESENTATIVE!” realizing you are shouting at a recording.
All a way of saying, a lot of stuck emotion lives in the lower belly.
After creating some space in the lower belly, you breathe into the chest. Again, through an open mouth.
It is now at this point you’re wondering why the hell you left your nice, cozy (albeit miserable) life in Los Angeles to end up in a room filled with sage-breathing strangers. You wonder how hard it will be to get french fries since the last time you saw the Golden Arches was more than an hour ago.
Then you remember that you’ve committed to eating healthy on this retreat. As your stomach mourns the loss, David’s voice cuts through:
Back to the breath. Your only job now is to breathe.
My brain loves a job. It goes back to the breath, as instructed. A few minutes into it, I’m finally getting swept up in the cycle, the rhythm. I am noticing that the second Hah! brings more air into my upper chest.
It’s important for your heart to know that you respect it. That you’re approaching it with the proper deference. You’re not prying it open with a crowbar.
If you’ve been avoiding your emotions for fear of being overwhelmed by them – as I had a tendency to do – you want to think about meeting your heart like a scared but curious cat. You reach out your hand for the cat to sniff, letting it approach you on its own terms.
Otherwise you end up at your dermatologist with a staph infection from where Bam Bam bit you. Twice.
And then, there’s the Haaaah….the exhale. Your cells lap up the oxygen they’ve been asking for, nourished by the attention they’ve wanted from you for decades. But, like a puppy who doesn’t notice how long you’ve been gone, they forgive you. They’re just so grateful you’re here.
2 Parts (Active and Receptive)
A few minutes later, I find myself in the second part of this two-part breathwork – the receptive part. Shifting from open-mouth breathing to nostril breathing, it’s time to release any and all effort.
It’s at this point I notice the song that’s been playing the last few minutes: Stevie Nicks’ Landslide. Stevie asks what we all want to know: “what love is and…if the child in her heart can rise above?”
All that space I created through the Hah! Hah! Haaahing – not to mention a round of screaming and laughing into a pillow (it works even if the laughter is unabashedly ironic) – has opened the floodgates. A landslide of emotions and tears stream down my face, dampening the lavender-scented, flax-seed eye pillow I got for just this occasion.
And what about those frequent guests at the Belly Bar? Those emotions that did everything they could to avoid looking at their reflection in what Nicks calls “the mirror in the sky”? The rage and grief, sadness and joy, the perennial emptiness. They finally found that one song on the jukebox they all love singing along to.
There they are, belting it out together, putting aside politics and who was trying to cut in on who’s girlfriend, as they put their arms around each other and sing together, off-key, but in harmony.
Releasing those pent-up emotions is the key that first unlocks the puzzle of what it actually means to LOVE yourself. Bath salts and candles are great, but they’re not self-love. And when it comes to loving yourself, your mind doesn’t hold a candle to your body.
At this point, my body takes over and lovingly – but clearly – says, “OK, Harvard, you can relax now. I’ve got this.” My legs and back sink deeper into the floor, belly softening. My body doesn’t just know there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do.
It believes it. And for the first time in decades, my mind can finally let go of control.
What a relief.
Now that the mind has let go and the body feels safe, it’s time for the third act. The end of the July 4th spectacular when you get the full blaze of fireworks, the moment when the pink sunset melts into the coastline.
I lie there, still, my body safe under the warm blanket, while my heart is connected to an infinite sense of coziness, like a bottomless cup of hot cocoa.
Eyes peacefully closed under that tear-stained mask, a vision emerges of the child in my heart rising above me. I am embraced by what I can only call my soul, my spirit. My infinite self.
I had been reading about this idea of “energy” for what felt like forever. I first read The Way of the Peaceful Warrior and The Celestine Prophecy when I was in business school almost 30 years ago. Learning about invisible energy fields and psychic guides, I was intrigued and skeptical.
It seemed possible, but not for me. It certainly wasn't something I was learning in school.
But lying on that hard wooden floor, under the watchful eyes of those trees standing watch outside – as they extended their roots under frozen soil, outstretched branches high towards the heavens – my body dissolved and melted and I knew something that would never be taken from me.
That we are all interconnected.
That we are all reflections of that same infinite source.
And then a day later I had french fries.