Learning to Breathe

I’ve never been very good at breathing. 

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 to 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.

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