SKY Breath Meditation is the first out of three courses, or journeys as they are called, organized by the volunteer-driven foundation Art of Living. The course, they promise, can ”help busy people who struggle with stress to clear their minds with a breath meditation that works from week one.” The journey begins with the three-day live online course but continues as private practice accompanied by optional weekly (or less frequent) meet-ups.
I had the opportunity to participate in SKY Breath Meditation course, and in this review, I let you guys in on how it was. As the specific contents will look different per instructor and per group, I will focus on the specifics of my experience and outline the general structure of the course.
Why take SKY Breath Meditation?
I wanted to take the course because I am looking for a practice that can help me balance my moods. Nothing as serious as anger issues or depression, but simply feeling overwhelmed. In many ways, all is better than fine—I have goals, a wonderful family, plans for the future, good health (as far as I know), I am constantly on the move, I have a meditation practice, exercise routine, productive working schedule, and a robust collection of hacks to get me out of unhelpful cycles, procrastination, or energy dips. But at times, yes, I’m overwhelmed and stressed out.
The Art of Living Foundation is committed to offering practices that help you reduce the stress that builds up in your life. It’s not like therapy, nor does it replace therapy; its goals are different. When therapy helps you to identify causes and effects, making sense of the relations between events in your past and your actions in the present, the spiritual practices of the Art of Living foundation help you to think differently about the entire life and the entire world as a context to your specific experience of it.
Due to this spiritual, cleansing idea behind it, I think it’s important to acknowledge that you need to be open to such an approach. If you go to the course looking for yet another way to boost your productivity, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, their practices can help you get your mind off of the constant focus on different things in your life and find a place of effortlessness. This will no doubt make it easier to be more productive, but that cannot be the focus. In order to benefit from the course, you need to be willing to give a shot at letting go of consciously insisting, pursuing, and striving towards something.
Table of Contents
What is taught in the SKY Breath Mediation course?
Calling the experience a course sounds wrong, but I don’t know what else to say—an experience? A workshop? It is a combination of getting to know the people in the group, your instructor, and learning about the teachings of the Indian guru or spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has helped millions of people of all backgrounds, including prisoners, veterans, and people in war zones, to find acceptance and the joy of living despite their circumstances. These courses, of which SKY is the first, are condensed versions of the practices he teaches around the world.
SKY Breath Meditation course focuses on getting you accustomed to a breathwork routine, and alongside it, the instructor leads the conversation into topics about happiness, needs, responsibilities, experiencing events in your body, emotions in the body, nutrition, sleep—a holistic approach to health and mental hygiene.
How is the course organized?
The courses are taught by one instructor who typically guides 8—10 participants at one go. The number is rather low to make it possible for the group to get to know each other, to get individual instruction, and to facilitate an intimate experience.
You can participate either in a center near you or online. There are fantastically many options for contact meetings everywhere in the world (some even here in Finland, this country with the population of a middle-sized European city), but even more online:
I participated online. The online meetings, of course, take place in the space of your choice but virtually via Zoom. Now, let’s dig into the experience!
Day 1 – The first session
A good eight hours before the first session, I get email-instructions on how to get ready for the session: Find a peaceful place in your apartment (or why not elsewhere), dress comfortably, not eat too much before it, have a journal and a pen as well as a glass of water nearby, and check your audio, video, and Wi-Fi connection.
I do all this and sit myself in front of my low sofa table, sitting on a pillow, dressed in grey joggers and a grey loose shirt, hair up, window cracked open for comfort, and log in.
Starting the session
I log in at 3 p.m. my time, 8 a.m. the instructor’s time. The instructor explains that they took the course in 2008, have practiced ever since, and have acted as a volunteer instructor to pay forward. Obviously, the fact that the entire program is volunteer-driven is a testimony to its value, but so is the instructor’s whole presence: they seem incredibly happy, and at ease with themself, creating a very welcoming mood in the virtual room.
We start with practicalities. For starters, there are some rules on this 3-day retreat: Participants should not use recreational drugs, alcohol, smoke, or use a lot of caffeine. As I’m rage-sober, as we say in Finland of a person who does not use drugs nor alcohol or smokes, everything but the caffeine is sans problème. (I decided to cut it down to one cup…) The participants should also stick to a vegetarian diet, as meat takes longer to process in your system. Also, check – I have been meat-free for over six years.
The instructor recaps that the course takes three days, there will be a lot of practice in the group, and it is very important to attend every day through the whole workshop. I get it; the mood of the Zoom classroom is created from the very beginning, and it would be weird to have people stumbling in later. I also believe that the stumbler wouldn’t get nearly as much out of the experience, then.
Starting the session
I’m led to ponder on and discuss different states of the body. We go through different scenarios and imagine what happens in our body in those situations and how that reflects our breath. These questions are followed by sharing and open discussion and eventually lead to breathwork.
We try different ways of breathing. The instructor explains how to feel the breath in the right place, and how to find the right frequency. It’s fascinating. We do multiple rounds of guided breathwork, and I realize how little of our lungs we use, really. I say as much and am told that the number is apparently about 10 %. What a waste!
I notice my body temperature rising – I never sweated before from mere breathing. We hold our hands on our body in different ways, draw short and long breaths in certain intervals, huffing and puffing, then almost snoring, calming down with our hands on our laps in between. All of this seems to aim at a certain pattern, much like a dance choreography, but using the lungs, not limbs. In addition to weird fatigue in the chest area, I notice that my gums start tingling, and the skin starts feeling electric. Then, after what feels like a long time, it’s time to lie down. Straighten the feet and let whatever comes come. What’s coming? I feel nothing, just relaxed, I think as I position myself on the floor.
However, lying down there in silence, absolutely immobile, I start to feel a tightness in my chest and throat. I do but also do not feel extremely sad, and this weird feeling doesn’t go away—it’s like watching myself be very sad and being empathetic of my experience, but also, of course, I realize that I have happily not left my body, but it is me who’s sad.
I try to remember not to push the feeling away or rationalize it and just let it sit. Minutes pass on. It dissolves. I do not meditate; I do not do anything, but it dissolves.
Soon, the practice is over. I get up and feel extremely light.
This is the situation when the group can share what they went through. I try to share my experience but notice that it is extremely hard to find words. The instructor is very compassionate and supportive about it—there is no need to explain anything in more detail than one is ready and able to.
Closing the first day
After breathwork and sharing, the instructor gives homework to be completed before the next meeting. A bit of breathwork to be done in the spirit of active recall and a couple of journaling prompts about happiness. They also encourage the participants to take it easy today, if they can, and let the reflexive mood prevail throughout the day.
Day 2 – The second session
Doing the homework
I do the breathwork exercise right after waking up, and journal on happiness over morning coffee. I refrain from coffee the rest of the day, so I take care to make this morning’s batch extra good. (And succeed in it!) I go about my day normally – translating for the whole day, a bit of a Teams meeting with the people I work with, and then closing off the work laptop. Fifteen minutes before the session, I set myself ready for another about two hours of breathing.
Exercises and discussions during the second session
The second day of breathwork feels more constructed, as now I know what’s going to happen and for how long. I find this extremely relieving, and fleetingly realize that yesterday’s sadness was probably induced by the lack of control I felt in the moment. I have a sometimes even crippling need to have enough information to predict situations and feel in control. Today, I decide to let go of the need to control while also feeling happy that I, to some extent, am more familiar with the routine now.
This has a good impact on the experience. As we go through the exercises, I am able to relax more into them, and when it is time to lie down again, I do not get sad at all. Very much the contrary. Writing this review, I tried to find words to explain the feeling I got on the second day, and this other participant put it perfectly in their review, published on the Art of Living website:
Exactly – happy for no reason. That child-like joy of just being alive. It feels ridiculous, and it’s like being in love without the debilitating need of having that love returned by someone. This much intensity, simply from breathing!
Closing the second session
This time, the journaling prompts are about needs and responsibilities, and those will be discussed together in the beginning of the next class. We are also advised to repeat what we can remember of the breathwork practice and try to be mindful of the things we learned that day, putting them into practice in our interactions with other people and tasks we do.
Day 3 - The final session
Doing the homework
On the third day, I do the breathwork routine (or a memorized version of it) after my workout. It feels incredibly nice to relax the mind and the body so completely after first having fatigued it physically. I make a note that connecting workouts and breathwork is a good way to stack the habit.
Again, I journal over the homework themes over morning coffee and start my day. The third day is not translation, anymore, but research, and I find it quite easy to produce text on the article I’m working on. Half an hour before the session, I close my second laptop, video call my kids, who are on holiday with their other parents, and then sit down to enter the virtual Zoom room for the last time in this course.
Starting the third session
We start by talking about the homework again and continue to go deeper into the teachings of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The instructor shares anecdotes from their journey, and through them, we bind the rather esoteric teachings to the things we face every day and go through in our lives.
Not avoiding my persistent need to rationalize everything, I notice that even the most highbrow ideas are just ways of putting normal phenomena into different words and this way, they are fully comprehensible. For example, put in mundane terms, it makes perfect sense that breathing affects the entire body as oxygen travels through the entire body. Through that thought, it feels completely natural to think about breathwork as a part of mental hygiene, a way to help your nervous system manage stress. And this is, after all, the practical benefit that the course promises to yield.
Exercises and discussions during the third session
After the discussion, we go into the breathwork routine. This time, there’s less guidance, and we are instructed to do the exercises at our own pace. I notice that my internal rhythm is somewhat slower than the rhythm we initially followed. The exercises feel slightly easier now as if I was more aware of my lungs and their capacity and the channel through which the air flows in and out. Also, today I’m left with a sensation of bubbling happiness and a very bodily vibration of joy, feeling light, energized, and connected to everything around me.
Closing the third session
We draw together what the three days taught us. We go through the thoughts about happiness, needs, responsibilities, priorities, time, and everything else that was covered in the discussions and talk about putting them into practice in the future.
We also talk about the next steps. We are instructed to make use of the app, the community, and that we are welcome at any point to contact the instructor for guidance about practicalities or anything else to do with the course. We express our gratitude to the course and to the participants and say goodbye for now.
Final words and next steps
Two days into my practice after the course, I have found it effortless to devote 15—20 minutes to breathwork. Even though the routine can be done in your own space, it can also be done in an online group to which you can sign up via the app.
Or, if you don’t want to or cannot meet up in a group, you can follow guided breathwork by a huge variety of instructors, all available in great quality videos on the app.
The app also provides long-term challenges and guided programs that unlock after you’ve participated in a physical or online workshop. For example, there’s a 100-step guided journey for people who have participated in the SKY Breath Meditation workshop that unlocks after your instructor has registered that you participated and completed the course.
And, finally, even if you would not like to continue with the journey right now or ever again, the app has a huge library of meditations, yoga practices, meditative music, and recorded talks of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
All in all, the sheer number of online and in-person instructors is so huge that the courses are truly available anywhere in the world quite easily. In addition, the user interface of the app is made so fluent and intuitive (and affordable—$5.99 a month) that keeping up with the private practice is very easy. Art of Living Foundation people have clearly really put a lot of effort into making these practices as effortless as possible to acquire and follow as a part of your everyday life.
And all of this makes absolute sense if you consider the work that the foundation does. In the Simon-Sinekian manner of leading with why, the organization’s why is to ”see the whole world as one family” and ”see a smile on every face and create a stress-free and violence-free society,” as you can see and hear in this video. So, considering the impact that Sri Sri Ravi Shankar as a public figure and the foundation as an organization driving his message has had globally, it makes sense that I, lying on the floor at the end of a session of SKY Breath Meditation, do not quite know why I feel funnily good and happy for no reason at all—apparently, the experience is shared by millions of people.