Learning to Breathe
My childhood was spent with perpetual croup, the seal-barking cough echoing through the house at all hours. Eventually, I was diagnosed with asthma, my lungs plied with drugs that were supposed to encourage them to relax. Regardless of the dosages and names of the medications, I always failed my lung function tests at the allergists. I wasn’t used to failing tests, but I didn’t know how to study for that one.
I adapted to my lungs. I knew when an attack was about to have me helpless in its clutches, I knew when pneumonia was setting in. I let my lungs call the shots and we had an agreement that I would work within their constraints.
Then, one day soon after my 30th birthday, I grew tired of the bondage. I turned the tables on my lungs and informed them I wanted to start running. This was a laughable goal, as I had never even completed the mile running in school. But I was determined.
I started at a local park with a .75 mile loop. My first try was a humbling experience. You see, I was in shape. I lifted weights and could do cardio. I just couldn’t run. Within moments of beginning, my chest heaved, my breathing was rapid and gasping. I was taking in air as though threatened, as though the next breath would never come. I made it one full loop that first day, but I still didn’t know how to run.
Over the next few weeks, I kept at it, returning to the park 3-4 times a week. I starting to trust my body. Believe in my breath. I worked to consciously slow my breathing, pulling air deep down into the unused basement of my lungs. As I learned to breathe, I was able to increase my mileage to the point where I outgrew that park in the next two months.
My breath training extended to yoga. I had been practicing since I was in high school, but I always focused on the positions and movements, not the airflow. Running had brought the breath to consciousness; yoga taught me how to use the breath to calm and energize the body.
Then July came. Disaster struck. I lost contact with my breath, but I didn’t even realize it. I just knew my chest felt constricted, wrapped in bindings carried in by the trauma. I wasn’t able to run or to do yoga, getting even further out of touch with my lungs. It finally took a third party to make the re-introduction; a therapist at a meditation and yoga retreat that autumn after my breath left me.
I lay on the floor of her office, cradled in a soft, fuzzy blanket. She kneeled next to me, her voice soothing and calm. She spoke to my breath, encouraging it to return, assuring it that I was ready to make its acquaintance once again. She spoke to me, telling me t trust my breath, to allow it deep into my lungs.
My chest began to rise, the bindings loosening. As the oxygen flowed in, I felt grounded. Whole. Reconnected.
My breath and I still have a complicated relationship. I frequently don’t find it until a couple miles into a run or 10 minutes into a yoga practice. I still have to encourage it, willing it back into my body, especially when I find myself gripped my stress. It may at times be a tumultuous relationship, but I have no intention of loosing connection with my breath again.