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Second man drowns while doing relaxation exercises in shallow water. Have such practices gone too far?

Aaron Pappas was considered to be particularly good at acroyoga. Done by partners, this practice combines acrobatics and yoga.
Aaron Pappas was considered to be particularly good at acroyoga. Done by partners, this practice combines acrobatics and yoga. Courtesy of the Pappas family

The accidental drowning of a popular Sacramento area yoga teacher in a shallow pool at Asha Urban Baths has raised questions about a breathing technique that involves “controlled hyperventilation” before holding the breath for an extended period of time.

The death of Aaron Pappas, 43, on Sunday at UC Davis Medical Center follows another accidental drowning a few weeks ago by an Israeli man who was meditating, face down, in a shallow portion of the Yuba River.

Pappas’ girlfriend, Sarah Estabrook, said he had begun practicing a new breathing technique, and she thinks he tried it while relaxing at the Asha bath house. Invented by the Dutch daredevil Wim Hof, the technique bears his name and has nothing to do with yoga. In a YouTube video, Hof has described his process as controlled hyperventilation and explained that, after oxygenating the body, practitioners eventually will be able to expel their breath and go two minutes or more before taking another breath.

On Hof’s website, www.icemanwimhof.com, he has cited the breath work in helping him to withstand fear and traumas such as extreme cold and heat. After doing the Wim Hof breathing exercise, the website stated, practitioners will have a feeling that is like meditation. The site also contains a warning, however: “Never practice it before or during diving, driving, swimming, taking a bath or any other environment/place where it might be dangerous to faint.”

Pappas’ mother, Evelyn Pappas, urged people practicing the Wim Hof breathing technique to never do it near water. Brenda Berry said her younger brother had struggled with substance abuse as a young adult, but he found yoga and his path in the mid-1990s.

If Pappas hyperventilated near water, it’s possible that he could have passed out in the bath, said Dr. Ken Johnson, an emergency room physician at Mercy Hospital in Folsom and a friend of Pappas. Anytime someone passes out in water, he said, it will result in drowning unless someone’s there to get them out.

In Sacramento’s yoga and recovery communities, word spread quickly about the July 18 drowning. Pappas was found alone at Asha, immersed in the bath, so no one knows exactly what happened. His death raised questions, coming just weeks after the death of 33-year-old Israeli Yoav Timmer. There was no indication that Timmer was practicing the Wim Hof technique.

“Based on statements from his friend, Mr. Timmer was practicing a type of meditation where he floats face down in the water for an extended period of time,” said Nevada County Sgt. Mike Sullivan shortly after the accident.

Since 2008, Pappas has taught at a number of Northern California studios – most recently at AcroYoga in San Francisco, Folsom’s LEAP Yoga and Akasha Yoga in Davis – but he also led free classes for Yoga in the Park and Yoga Across America. He ran his own Thai massage business on J Street called Divine Mettacine and lived what students described as a markedly reflective life, the hallmark of a yogi.

The humble Pappas was always willing to take on the role of assistant rather than lead teacher, said Gina Garcia, who founded Yoga in the Park and Yoga Across America, because he wanted people to experience the relaxation, clearer focus, flexibility and other benefits that yoga could bring.

“He worked in high schools, and he shared yoga with literally tens of thousands of people across the country in that outreach,” Garcia said. “He shared yoga with Wounded Warriors. One of his biggest passions was working through (Alcoholics Anonymous). He brought a lot of people, a lot of men and women from addiction recovery centers to yoga.”

Pappas had read that the Wim Hof breathing method had been helpful to healing trauma, Estabrook said, and in his work as a yoga teacher, he strived to bring healing to people in the addiction recovery community.

“He was on a mission to always learn really anything that there was to learn,” she said. “He wanted to help people so desperately. I think it was a curiosity and a mindset of trying to be of service to more people.”

Although Pappas’ voice was silenced July 18, Fair Oaks resident Katie Heilmann and the yogi’s other longtime students say his voice has become the one they now hear inside their heads as they practice poses.

“I’ve taken his Friday noon class, I think, for at least four years now,” Heilmann said. “Aaron was so challenging – in a new way. It was physically challenging, yes, but mentally challenging in a way that I hadn’t really experienced with other teachers.”

Where other instructors tried for different, new and exciting, Heilmann said, Pappas rarely deviated from the same poses each week. Rather, she said, he asked his students to resist the distractions of busy lives, of aches and pains, of the thousand little itches begging to be scratched. He asked them to focus instead on what each pose offered.

Pappas is survived by his mother Evelyn Pappas of Foresthill; siblings Berry of Minden, Nev., Alex Pappas of Atlanta, and Jeff Pappas of Seattle; and many other relatives. He was preceded in death by his father Roger Pappas. A memorial service will be Monday at 6 p.m. at Scottish Rite Masonic Center, 6151 H St., in Sacramento. Doors will open at 5:30 p.m.

Bee reporter Ed Fletcher contributed to this report.

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee

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