In September 2013, I attended a five-day conference at Omega called Breathwork Immersion: From Science to Samadhi. As a longtime yoga student, I was excited to explore the scientific and spiritual dimensions of the breath, and to learn new breathing techniques with some of the leading experts in the field. What I didn't expect was that the experience would get me outside of my comfort zone—and teach me a few partner breathing exercises that I soon realized could have a profound effect on my relationships with my sweetheart, friends, family, and even perfect strangers.
A number of the conference presenters, including Dan Seigel, Jessica Dibb, and Jim Morningstar, talked about the concept of entrainment as it applies to breathing. Babies, they said, mirror their mother’s breathing patterns. Lovers mimic the breathing patterns of their beloved. Bodyworkers often tune into their client’s breath, and sometimes, when we sit with a realized spiritual teacher, our breathing begins to slow down to match the teacher’s respiratory cadence.
In the context of therapy, the presenters explained how healing it can be to have another human being breathe in unison with you. Then they offered a few practices to help us explore that healing power firsthand—and cultivate a sense of oneness in our personal relationships.
Practice #1: Mirroring the Breath
The first exercise we learned was taught by Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield. But when he asked us to find a partner, I confess that I froze. I’m a classic introvert, and I didn’t know a soul in the room. I wasn’t sure what he was going to ask us to do, so I looked for someone I thought I’d be relatively comfortable working with.
My eyes landed on a beautiful Belgian woman who looked a little shy and reserved, too. I thought we might be a good match, so I asked her if she’d like to work together. She looked about as uncomfortable as I felt, but she said yes.
Kornfield asked us to make eye contact and silently acknowledge each other. My partner was so shy she could hardly look at me. I was asked to lie on my back, close my eyes, and breathe naturally. My partner’s task was to observe my abdomen and match the rhythm of her breath to mine.
At first, I noticed tension in my abdomen and rib cage. But slowly, the tension began to dissolve, and about five minutes into the practice—there’s no other way to describe it—my belly ballooned open. Suddenly, I felt as if I could inhale for a century, and exhale for another hundred years. It was profoundly freeing to breathe like this for the rest of the exercise. And I found myself wondering if it was because my breathing pattern was being mirrored by another person.
After a few more minutes, Kornfield asked those of us who were lying down to open our eyes, silently acknowledge our partner, and switch places without talking. My partner was still shy about making eye contact, but she looked a little more relaxed. Once she got settled on the floor and closed her eyes, I noticed her breathing pattern was markedly different from mine, so it took some time for me to get into a groove with her. But something remarkable happened. About five minutes in to the practice, her breath ballooned open, too. In fact, it sounded like everyone in the room was having a release at the same time. Some people started to moan or otherwise audibly exhale. It was like the sound of ocean waves crashing into the shore.
When the 10 minutes were up, we silently acknowledged each other again. This time, my partner held my gaze. She looked peaceful. Content. Comfortable in her own skin. The change in her visage—and in her whole body—was dramatic. I felt more relaxed and open, too.
From then on, every time we crossed paths, the Belgian woman greeted me with warmth and held my gaze. And although we didn’t talk about it directly, it was clear that we felt more connected to each other. More deeply “seen.” Somehow, we created a bond through the course of that simple exercise, and it lasted through the rest of the workshop.
Practice #2: The Aloha Breath
A few days later, Rabia Hayek, the founder of a breath-centric organization called Do As One, announced that he was going to lead us in a practice known as “the Aloha breath.” But when two of his colleagues, Jaime Collaco and Jenna Grayson, demonstrated the practice on stage, I had the sudden urge to flee.
Hayek asked the pair to stand face-to-face, put their palms together at their hearts, and silently acknowledge each other by making eye contact. Then he asked them to lean so close together that their foreheads and the bridge of their noses were touching. “Look into each other’s eyes," he told them. "Begin on an exhale and take three deep breaths in unison. Then stand up straight, silently acknowledge your partner again, and find a new partner to work with.”
"He wants us to get that close to perfect strangers?" I thought to myself. "What about germs? Creepy guys? People with bad breath?"
I wanted to jump out of the window. But soon, everyone was getting up from their chairs and moving toward the back of the room where I was already standing. I decided to give it a try for a few minutes—if I still felt uncomfortable, I told myself, I could leave.
I quickly realized that after four days of breathwork together, my fellow participants were pretty open-minded. We milled around the room, making eye contact with each new partner, leaning our heads and noses together, looking into each other’s eyes, and taking three deep breaths in what felt like a very intimate, yet universal way. I was surprised to realize that instead of aversion, I felt a deep sense of peace and connectedness with the first woman I did the practice with, and then the next, and the next. I continued to walk around the room, stopping to breathe with different people—first choosing friendly-looking women my age and then branching out to breathe with men and people of all ages, too. It was a fascinating experience.
The Ripple Effect
I came home from the Breathwork Immersion inspired to try the practices with my sweetheart. Although he was new to the world of conscious breathing, he was intrigued by the stories I shared with him, so he decided to give them a try. We started practicing the mirroring breath and the Aloha breath once a week, and the results have been profound.
The mirroring breath helps us "read" each other on an emotional level. When we're observing and imitating each other's breathing pattern for 10 minutes, it's easy to see if we're tense, angry, or down in the dumps. Invariably, about halfway through the practice, we're able to help each other release stress and negative emotions, so that we can settle into a deeper place of stillness, peace, and ease—both as individuls and as a couple.
And when we practice the Aloha breath, a profound sense of love and interconnectedness arises between us almost instantaneously. We feel so enlivened when we're exchanging our breath and prana (life force energy) in such close contact. And perhaps most importantly, our breathing practice creates a ripple effect that lasts for days. We're more in sync with each other, and our actions are imbued with love and mutual understanding.
I haven't tried the exercises with friends or family members yet, but I'd like to. Because whether I’m longing to connect more deeply with a loved one or shift our energy after a quarrel, something tells me that these breathing exercises have the potential to deepen a variety of personal relationships. And I can't help but wonder about the positive impact we all could have on the world if we cultivated a sense of oneness with each other by breathing together like this regularly.