Kushal Choksi, 911 survivor, shares his story of surviving the collapse of the, World Trade Center, and then asking the universe why he survived. What was his, purpose, when he stumbled onto, Sky Breath meditation, and, breathwork, as a healing modality from, trauma; he realized that he had found his purpose.
Kushal’s new book “On a Wing and A Prayer” tells his story.
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Kushal’s thriving career as an analyst at Goldman Sachs was forever changed on September 11, 2001 as he made a split-moment decision to abandon his office and the co-workers who refused to leave the World Trade Center. Managing to narrowly escape, he witnessed the magnitude of death and destruction up close and was plunged into lengthy depression where he found himself believing life was meaningless.
His search for a renewed, purpose, began with a reluctant trip to a, breathwork, workshop and eventually turned into a decades-long journey of spiritual discovery, mind-blowing metaphysical experiences, and a fierce devotion to the life-altering benefits of mindfulness and meditation.
Today, Kushal and his wife run Elements Truffles, a New York-based artisanal chocolate company built on values of Ayurveda, sustainability, giving back and ethical trade. Kushal is a trainer of personal development, meditation, wellness, and leadership programs for the Art of Living Foundation. He has taught secrets of breathwork and meditation to thousands across the US, Europe, and Asia. And he serves on the US board of the International Association for Human Values (IAHV).
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Myrna: How did surviving, 911, on, September 11, change your life? How did that tragedy make you more receptive to a new spiritual path of, mindfulness, breathwork, and, meditation?
Kushal: Great question. I think, you know, as I recall, the day started as any other day where I was on my way to work. And as I was coming out of the, the subway, in the bowels of the, world trade center, that’s when the pandemonium broke around me and I froze. In that moment, I didn’t know how to process all that. People were just running around, saying things that they understood, or they perceived, someone was saying a bomb had gone off.
Nobody really knew what was happening. Only one thing was evident, there was a fear, there was massive fear in the atmosphere. That’s all I really remember that it was unsafe to be outside. I stepped out and as I was looking at the building, trying to process what had just happened, another plane crashed into the South Tower. Of course, in that moment, it became clear that this was a more deliberate action.
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And what followed after that, people jumping in front of me, just to end it willfully, or the first responders going in, almost walking into their own end, you know, and it was all kind of very unexpected and very difficult to process. It felt like a scene from an apocalypse movie that you can almost imagine, but you never think you would be part of it, or you would be living it. And as I was running away from it, the second tower just collapsed. And by a stroke of luck, I had just jumped on a ferry on the other end of the island that was leaving Manhattan.
I ended up being the last person on the last ferry that left the island that day. At that moment, I realized that I turned into a statistic, that I was now a, 911 survivor. And, you know, that day kind of prepared me and laid a foundation for what was to come in my life. Part of me was feeling very grateful, very happy that I had, I made it out alive, and I survived these horrific attacks.
Finding purpose as a survivor of 911
So, there was an enthusiasm to finish the unfinished business. I used to work on Wall Street now, that American dream that I have come to pursue as an immigrant, I had to go out and create a new dream. An event like this was a wakeup call to find, purpose in life. It was something that shook me up from my reverie and made me ask a bigger question. What is my, purpose in life?
This was a life changing event, I talked to many people and I say maybe, 911, was an event for me, but I feel everyone has their own, 911. Whether they were when their world crashed. It was that day 20 years ago before a pandemic like what we’ve just been through?
Myrna: Yes, we all we all walk away from something. So, you weren’t at work yet when the planes crashed into the, world trade center? You were just coming out of the subway. Obviously, it wasn’t your time. Were you running late for work? Were you supposed to be at work on time?
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Making the decision to Go
Kushal: No, the security person was asking us to go back in the building. Because, if you stepped outside, just on the other side of that glass door, it was raining cement chips, that insulation from the wall that glass splinters, embers from the sky, it was like really unsafe. And so, he was asking people to stay inside, but in that moment, I decided to step out and go. A voice from behind me tap on my shoulder and say, Just go. And so yeah, that was my clothes in the dryer moment, because the building collapsed a few minutes later.
The aftermath of 911
After, September 11, I think I can paint a broad brush and what I had was, depression. I think, depression, follows lack of interest, but for me, it was it was exactly the opposite. I was feeling so grateful that I had a second lease on life. That I felt I had to go after whatever was unfinished with even more gusto. I have tremendous force of life in me. It’s just that I began questioning the, purpose of life, what’s really the point of this life. I was I was doing well in my career. I got married to my soulmate but what was my, purpose in life?
So, I wouldn’t really call it depression, but it was just, sometimes you are on autopilot. You’re on a conveyor belt, and you were just going with the force of life and then something hits you with a club in your head and makes you question is this conveyor belt right for you? That was the first time I questioned my, purpose in life.
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Myrna: All right, you found your, purpose, by going to a, breathwork, workshop and, breathwork, meditation, and that started your decades long journey in spiritual discovery. So why do you feel that proper breathing was so important to healing trauma? I don’t know if you felt that you were traumatized from that, but if we don’t want to use the word, trauma, why do you think that, breathwork, is so important to healing?
Kushal: I must confess that in the spirit of being very open and honest, that I did not go to that, breathwork, meditation, looking for, purpose. I was almost pushed into it against all my reluctance.
And so, the first time I meditated with, breathwork, with this teacher, this spiritual master, I was blown away. I had read all about keeping your mind in the, present moment, not thinking of the past or future just being in the, present moment. It was a fantastic, very well-read intellectual concept, lodged firmly in my head. But the first time did, breathwork, meditation, it became a tangible experience. That what it is to be in the, present moment, or what it is to have a mind without thoughts, or mind without an impulse. And that was the first time I experienced that.
Myrna: That is amazing, because most people take time to get there.
Kushal: I personally had tried it so many times before, and it didn’t go anywhere. I want to come to that, why that was the case. This time, I effortlessly got there. So, then I started looking for scientific validation. That left-brain person that I was, I started looking for all the scientific underpinnings of that practice, or that, breathwork, meditation, that I experienced. And then I realized that it was real deal.
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Balancing Right Brain and Left Brain
I think the balance of both, left brain, and, right brain, is important. I think that brain is logic, analysis. Intensity, right brain, is more flow state, you know, calm music, you know, all of that emotion. So, I think a balance of both a judicious balance of both is very important. Either end of the spectrum, you somewhat lead an unbalanced life. And you want to, I think you want to be walking the razor’s edge balances boredom.
Myrna: Why do you think that proper breathing aka, breathwork, heals your, trauma? Does it have to do with being in the, present moment, is that the doorway?
Kushal: There’s a deeper scientific kind of effect that’s happening on our nervous system. You know, any life experience that you go through, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant, it leaves a lesion or a scuff mark on your nervous system. It leaves like a, an impression in your system somewhere. Let me give you an example of something so simple as wanting to have a coffee in the morning.
First day, somebody offered you a cup of coffee in the morning, oh, you say it is the greatest thing. And next day, when you look at coffee, you remember the experience you had before. And you say, I want coffee. Third day, you are going to go and switch on the coffee pot. And the next day, if you don’t have coffee in your apartment, that’s going to make you feel miserable.
Sky breath meditation
So something as innocent as a coffee has created a pattern, or a conditioning of your mind. Some of the traumatic events, or some of the events of loss or anything of that nature does a very similar thing. Seeing something similar that evokes that emotion, keeps taking you back to that emotion. You know, for the, for the longest time, every time I would remove my shoes at the airport, it would take me back to the morning of, 911.
That was an impression that, 911, had created in my mind, and now, any such related events, were taking them back to past, not letting me be in more in the, present moment.
The practice that I learned, this technique is called, Sky breath meditation. And what, sky breath meditation, does is harnessing the rhythm of your own, breath. It clears your nervous system of this debilitating impression. Impressions that hold you back, impressions that take you back into those moments that you don’t want to go back to.
So, the impressions make us, tied to our pass. So, what I experienced with, sky breath, was without effort.
You said a very beautiful thing earlier that I want to comment on, you said that you required visualization to move from, left brain, thinking to, right brain, thinking. Visualization, is an effort. Yes, not thinking of something or resisting thoughts is an effort. And as you know someone who is focused so much on, transforming the mind. You can’t control your mind from the level of your own mind.
Using breathwork meditation to calm the mind
Myrna: Exactly. You got it. You know, that’s the nature of the, mind. You cannot control it with your thoughts. Mind, does not subscribe, doesn’t listen to effort. Your body listens to effort. If you want to build muscles, you have to put effort, but, sky breath, is complete effortless.
Kushal: So, what this, chi breath, did was without effort, it cleared my impressions and effortlessly took my mind to a place which was meditative. I had I tried so hard to meditate but when I closed my eyes all the profound ideas about what I wanted to have for dinner, all these trivial things which entered my awareness to the point that I cannot meditate. But now, sky breath meditation, changed all that through the simple act of, breathwork breathing.
What is Ayurveda
Myrna: All right, awesome. All right. Now, you also talk about, Ayurveda, what exactly is that?
Kushal: Ayurveda, is just science of life. It’s also colloquially known as the sister science to, yoga. Yoga, focuses on body and mind. Ayurveda, focuses on nutrition, what you put inside your system. So, it focuses on achieving harmony, and balance, through your food, your food is your medicine. But unlike a lot of the trends these days, eg. keto or, paleo where you do certain things, and you definitely don’t do certain things, Ayurveda, is not restrictive.
Kushal: Ayurveda, has to do with the planet, it has to do with how we work with the seasons, it has to do with the time of the day. It’s all about bringing that balance, bringing that harmony in your system, through eating right at the right time, in the right amount. I realized that as I went deeper into my practice of, meditation, my nutrition automatically started aligning, aligning with what I recommended.
Okay, and it was very beautiful, it didn’t say, do this, don’t do this, it was never about that. And the minute someone says, don’t do this, I want to do that. So that’s why, Ayurveda, really resonated with me, because it said, do everything, just do it in the right amount at the right time. And mindfulness is about being aware, being mindful of what you do and eat.
Sky breath meditation and mindfulness
If you look at it scientifically, mindfulness, is a frontal cortex activity in your brain. And the research shows those people who practice, mindfulness, their frontal cortex is more developed. It is the thinking side of the brain. Mindfulness, keeps you at the surface level.
You turn off your mind, without effort. Turning off also requires effort. So, meditation, is not an act of doing anything but it’s just being and then you are in that state. You connect with yourself and, meditation, happen.
Use a tool like, Sky breath, or some, breathwork, techniques allows you to connect with yourself and the more you are in touch with yourself, the more resilient you automatically become. The more aware you are at every moment, the more what is important and what is not becomes very clear. So, you may have these memories, like for example, if you like how you asked me earlier, take us to that day, 911, 2011 I can close my eyes and I can see every little detail in crystal clarity, but does it does not have the same emotional garbage or that negative charge that it used to have.
On A Wing and A Prayer
Myrna: Tell us about your book On A Wing and A Prayer where you can they can get your book. Tell us about your website, tell us about your handle on social media, so they can connect with you and, and how they can actually connect with you to learn, sky breath meditation.
Kushal: Sure. The book is available on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. You can get it from my website, the links on my website, it’s my first name and last name www.KushalChoksi.com.