Nonprofit Group Teaches D.C. How to Take a Breather

By Rachel Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 23, 2009

About 200 people are sitting on yoga mats in a Washington hotel ballroom trying to learn how to do something they already do about 21,600 times a day: breathe.

This "automatic breathing" they've been doing all their lives? No good. So they're learning to breathe deeply from their diaphragms and hoping that benefits -- such as stress reduction, better sleep and increased mental focus -- will follow.

"If you're angry and you want to be calm, what do you do? Breathe how?" asks senior teacher Rajshree Patel from a stage at the front of the room, a white orchid at her side. "The breath of rest and relaxation. And you will see the mind will shift. If you switch the rhythm of breath, it will switch the emotion."

"Take a Breath DC" ran from Wednesday to Saturday and culminated in a group meditation for about 600 in Lafayette Park. The course was organized by the Art of Living Foundation, a nonprofit group that has its national headquarters on 15th Street NW. The cornerstone of Art of Living is a rhythmic breathing technique called Sudarshan Kriya. About 30 years ago, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (not the sitarist who knew the Beatles; different guy) discovered that this type of breathing, combined with yoga and meditation, can bring inner peace; he and his followers have taught the art of better breathing to millions since then.

The D.C. students paid $250 for the course, which ran for 22 hours over four days. (Art of Living also teaches prisoners, high-schoolers and natural-disaster survivors how to breathe, for either a reduced rate or for free.) The organization will host two more breathing courses in the District this month: One starts today, the other on Friday.

The students must agree to these rules:

1. Be on time.

2. Finish the course.

3. Eat a vegetarian diet. (One muscular young man seems concerned he won't get enough protein. "I'll let you eat eggs," Patel says. "Because they're not chickens yet.")

4. No alcohol. ("You're going to do a lot of cleansing of the system, and you'll find that if you've had alcohol the night before -- or the morning or the afternoon -- what happens is, in the evening, the first thing you'll cleanse is the alcohol, and I'd like to go to deeper layers of cleansing with you.")

5. Refrain from tobacco.

6. No recreational drugs.

Students get extra credit for avoiding caffeine.

Vincent Ko, a Georgetown University student, heard about the course when a young woman from the Art of Living chatted him up at the Iceberry frozen yogurt shop on M Street NW. His "party animal" friends, he said, were skeptical of all the yoga and meditation talk, but Ko was intrigued.

"I'm at that point where I'm going to be a senior, and I'm really stressed out about what I'm going to do for the rest of my life," Ko says. "I'm trying to start this business, I want to be an entrepreneur, but then, like, should I do an investment banker type of deal? So I'm just freaking out. . . . I'm at a crossroads."

During the first session, Patel leads the participants in a variety of games and exercises that all end with a life lesson. For example, Patel tells a math riddle about a shop owner and a counterfeit $100 bill. The students must try to solve it themselves, then break into groups of two, then four, then eight to come to a consensus on the answer.

She makes an example of a group that cannot agree on a solution.

"You are so convinced that you are right, that instead of listening, you're giving an argument in your head long before you speak," she says. "Then we wonder why relationships don't work."

"I've been married three times; don't ask me!" quips one man.

During a break for granola, fruit and energy bars, Ko gives a "so-so" verdict on the seminar so far: "They've been talking a lot about the past, and it's mostly about the future for me."

After the break, the students learn the first breathing technique aimed at bringing the mind into the present moment: "ujjayi," sometimes called "ocean breath" because it makes the sound of the sea. The 14 Art of Living instructors and 46 teachers-in-training (most whom wear flowing white pants) scatter throughout the room and show the students how to breathe in and out through their noses while constricting the backs of their throats. When everyone has it down, Patel instructs them to sit cross-legged, close their eyes and practice ujjayi breath. After a few minutes, participants say they feel peaceful and relaxed.

One even says, "The colors are brighter."

By the end of the four days, Ko is a believer: He plans to meditate 30 minutes a day and take refresher classes at the Art of Living headquarters on Wednesday evenings.

"It was really powerful," Ko says of the course. "While we were doing meditation, I could visualize all my stress, and it stopped bothering me."


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