Learning To Breathe

Via on Jan 20, 2010

…that as the sun rises and sets I know my place,
that breath is what saves me,
that even the forced syllables of decline are breath,
that if the body is a coffin it is also a closet of breath…

that breath is the beginning again, that from it
all resistance falls away, as meaning falls
away from life, or darkness falls from light,
that breath is what I give them when I send my love.

- From Mark Strand’s Breath

A Tuesday morning in mid-December and I am lying face-up on a padded massage table, a red flannel pillow tucked beneath my knees.  I close my eyes and try to take a deep breath, but I come up short, like so many times before.  My lungs feel stiff, like paper bags instead of the stretchable spandex bellows they should be.

“That’s it, keep breathing into the back of your lungs,” says Shawn Flot, the physical-therapist who I’ve come to see this morning.  He’s a friend of my Aunt Tami, and I happen to know he also does yoga and meditation, and is single.  This treatment is a Christmas present from her, and although I was interested in getting his feedback on my tight lungs, I knew my aunt had fantasies of playing match-maker.  He is a little shorter than I expected, and looks at least ten years older than me, but still, he has a nice brown beard, kind eyes, and the most beautiful hands.  Graceful, like sea anemones in ocean currents, they move gently over my sternum, holding points on either side of my heart.  The touch feels warm and comforting, and as I inhale I try not to think about how lovely these hands are.  I concentrate on bringing air deeply into my back.  My heart stretches reluctantly, and I feel a slight opening, my chest leaving more room for my lungs to expand.  It feels delicious.
“Congratulations,” he says.  “That was a good one.”  It’s amazing – the first time I’ve taken a full breath in a long time.  I sigh and close my eyes.  “This tightness in your heart feels old, like it’s been here for a long time.”  Interesting that the tightness is really in my heart and not in my lungs, like I had thought.  “How long have you had difficulty getting a full breath?” Shawn asks.
“The first time I noticed it was two years ago, when I first moved to Northern Virginia,” I say.  “As much as I tried, I just couldn’t yawn completely.”
“It feels like it started much earlier than that,” he says as he pulls the pillow out from under my knees and guides me to a sitting position.  He explains that my breathing is difficult because the space around my heart is cramped, which pushes down on the lungs and keeps them from fully inflating.  “For now, just concentrate on those deep breaths in the back of your chest.  You may want to think about what might have caused your heart to get tight.  It’s not necessarily physical – could have been mental or emotional trauma as well.”  My mind reels through my life up until now: high school crushes, adolescent self-consciousness, my bad college relationship, trauma on the light weight crew team.  I try again to breathe deeply, lungs straining against my reluctant heart.  I realize Shawn is watching me, his gaze brownish-green.  I look back at him and then jump down from the table, unraveling my coat from the rack.
As I pull on my fleece, Txuri, Shawn’s stout Labrador rubs against my legs and looks up at me with doleful eyes.  I rub his ears, and feel slightly dizzy, light-headed from the treatment.  I am suddenly shy saying goodbye to Shawn.  I’ll see him again in a week for a second treatment; until then, I am left with my homework assignment: breathing into the back of my heart, and thinking about where this strange tension began.
*
The first time I noticed a stark difference in my breathing was an October day two years ago as I was driving to school.  I was in the middle of a yawn when I realized I couldn’t do it.  My lungs refused to finish.  One minute I was yawning, anticipating that satisfied oxygen-infused feeling, and the next I found myself exhaling prematurely, air leaking out in a disappointed dribble.  I locked my elbows against the steering wheel of the car I was driving, and felt a strong urge to slam on the brakes, much like my lungs just had.  All that autumn, this happened again and again.  I’d get that feeling just before a big one, that impending suck of air, I’d gape my mouth wider and wider, preparing for a last in-rushing urge, in, in, in, ribs rising up and up and up until peak capacity, uuuppppp, hoping and waiting and hoping for a swoosh of exhale, the relief of air and fullness flooding out in one ventricle-tingling purge.  But instead, my lungs would stop somewhere just before maximum capacity, held stiff by a bizarre heaviness, like un-stretchable burlap instead of the elastic-spandex-expansion-liberating-oxygen-infusing bellows they should be.
As a dedicated student of yoga and meditation, I was stunned by my lack of breath.  I’d spent the last five of my 24 years learning how to focus on my breath in sitting meditation.  I’d heard about the importance of deep breathing and oxygenating our cells in weekly yoga classes, and I’d spent hours cultivating ujjayi breath – that deep raspy inhalation and exhalation like the sound of the ocean in the back of the throat.  Yogis use ujjayi to keep their breathing even while holding pretzel-like postures.  While the inability to yawn would have been a minor annoyance six years before, now I was concerned – frustrated that I could not draw a full breath, worried about what that meant for oxygen levels in my body.  As an infant, I had been sleepless with extreme colic for the first six years of my life.  Antibiotics prescribed by allopathic doctors exacerbated the condition, and eventually my parents sought alternative therapies such as homeopathy and naturopathy.  These early experiences led to a lasting mistrust of allopathic medicine, which kept me from going to see a doctor about my yawning problem.  I began, instead, with Google.
According to the internet, Western doctors may not have been able to provide an explanation anyway, as yawning remains a mystery to human science.  Andrew Gallup at the University of Albany states that studies do not support theories of oxygen deficiency as the cause of yawning, and hypothesizes that yawning is a means for cooling the brain down.  Catriona Morrison, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Leeds suggests that yawning is linked to empathy, while psychiatrists at the University of Cincinnati believe that yawning is akin to laughing and crying – ultimately a catharsis, a means of shedding anxiety and promoting emotional well-being.  These theories seemed to explain my distress – my lack of a yawn did feel stifling, and I felt deprived of an expected release.
Usually we try to suppress yawns out of politeness especially in public.  But now I was actually in search of my yawn, trying to fill my empty bag lungs.  Maybe I was more in search of air then of my yawn.  I stood in front of a mirror and opened my jaws wide, inviting in as much oxygen as possible.  I could get about half way there, but my body refused to continue, and I exhaled.  Then I thought about going to boring lectures, listening to endless hours of talk radio, reading Don Quijote, doing anything that would bore me to yawning desperation.  But really, it wasn’t the urge I lacked, it was the ability to finish.  This urge to complete, to accomplish, is an essential trait in people classified as “air” in classic Tibetan psychology, those people, like me, who are in constant motion, rushing to everything, obsessed with the To Do List.  I’m also an Aquarius, an air sign.  Soon I realized that my difficulty yawning had now grown to the inability to inhale completely, which, in retrospect, seemed to add fire to my already burgeoning schedule.  Instead of consciously slowing down and trying to deepen my breaths, I distracted myself with more activities – jogging, biking, weekend trips to New York and Massachusetts.  I kept running from place to place, breathing my shallow breaths.
When I signed up for a weekend meditation retreat in early December, I wasn’t expecting a cure for my stubborn lungs.  I didn’t think about how this might help me slow down – I was curious about the place, about the woman who founded this zendo 20 years earlier.  I didn’t think about how often I used to yawn during group meditation sessions.  Perhaps I was, however, unconsciously trying to breathe deeper, and continuing my quest for air.
*
The stone farmhouse now occupied by Mt. Equity Zen Center is at least 200 years old.  It looks oddly European, sitting atop rolling green hills in rural Pennsylvania, replete with painted wood shutters, lattice iron work, and large grey slabs of stone held together with white mortar, their organic lines weaving across the building like wrinkles.  I arrived on a Saturday and stayed for two Days of Mindfulness, which included sitting and walking meditation, a few hours of discussion, home-cooked organic vegetarian meals, and a final lecture on the last day. What all of these activities boiled down to was breath, silence and breath.  In Zen practice, the goal is not just to pay attention to the breath, it is to become one with it, so instead of observing the breath, the meditator becomes her breath, transcending all boundary, all duality.
So I sat and walked and slept, trying to become my breath, feeling air brush against my lungs, push out my stomach, scrape the edge of my nostrils as I exhaled.  I also tried not to fall asleep.  I’d feel my eyelids getting heavy; but I still strained when the urge to yawn arose.  I arched my eyebrows and looked upwards, which I’d heard counteracts tiredness during meditation.  Directly above me hanging from a wire on the old flaking plaster wall was a Japanese black and white wood print of an old monk – one of the twelve disciples of the Buddha – sitting on a rock, holding a wooden staff.  Despite his sagacious air, his feet fascinated me the most, drawn in perfect detail, with long, arched toes sprouting clumps of hair between the straps of his wooden sandals.  I breathed and watched the feet of this sage.  The mischievous angle of his eyebrows made me imagine that he had unlimited yawning potential, lungs stretching like balloons inside his chest.
When the meditation ended, we gathered for a lecture by physicist and mathematician Dr. Milton D. Machalek, coincidentally entitled “Each Breath We Take.”
Besides being a scientist, Dr. Machalek was also a dedicated meditator.  During his meditations he’d begun to wonder about the common air we breathe, how it may be a symbol for interconnectedness.  He’d done some calculations and figured that the average volume of one human breath is a quarter of a liter, which is about one cupful; he’d also figured out the average number of air molecules we inhale and exhale in one breath.  Some of us, Dr. Machalek said, may be familiar with the high school physics lesson that says we breathe molecules from Caesar’s dying breath each time we inhale.  He explained that not only was this idea accurate; in every breath we inhale 70 million molecules previously exhaled by each human being who ever existed on earth.
In other words, with my next breath I would inhale 70 million molecules breathed by the Buddha himself, plus 70 million from Jesus, Stalin, Einstein, Mother Teresa, Picasso, and even George W.
I was still listing off famous people when Dr. Machalek said:
“In your next breath you will inhale 42 billion-billion air molecules previously exhaled by all the human beings who have ever lived.”  He arched his eyebrows like the wood-print sage above me.  “Although this is only six tenths of one percent of a breath, it’s astonishing that we recycle any air molecules at all, except in confined spaces.  Have you looked outside lately and been mindful of just how many cupfuls of air in the atmosphere there are?”
I was a little doubtful of the accuracy of his numbers, but the magic of this idea seemed more important than its scientific precision.  No matter how many air molecules I share with Jesus, I still believe that we’re all exquisitely interconnected, and although my meditation retreat didn’t cure my inability to yawn, I came away from the weekend happier.  Maybe some of my breaths were meeting other stiff-lunged cavities, in other equally frustrated people.  I did find that if I focused only on my breath and slowly slowly inhaled as much as possible, my lungs could stretch a little further than before.
When I got back home to my apartment looking out on the Potomac river, I resumed my daily morning running routine, going three miles up the river and three miles back, past the coal-burning plant spouting nasty-smelling water into the brown river water and the quiet marina harboring sailing lessons on Sundays.  As I ran I tried to focus on breathing deeply despite whiffs of sewage that rose to my nostrils.  I thought about all the places I’d run – those grueling hill climbs during crew practice in college, girls retching mid-way from their effort.  The races I’d done as a skinny sophomore, intent on getting even skinnier.  Back then, I ran mostly out of vanity, the wish to be thin and beautiful; I always abstained from the bagels and Power Bars at the end of the races and regattas.  Now, I thought, I ran for the pure joy of it, the rush of adrenaline as I sprinted toward my towering apartment building.  I was training for a marathon in April, so I battled rain and wind five times a week, gradually increasing my distance.  Some mornings the wind was cruel, biting through layers of polypro and fleece, making goose bumps rise on damp skin, stinging my teeth.  My body steeled itself against the gales, railed against the wind, refused to inhale completely.  After these runs, my lungs were brick instead of paper.  After these runs, I didn’t feel exhilarated, I felt defeated.
Ever since I was a little girl, I’d hated wind.  I remember waking up on grey windy days and feeling depressed.  My mother explained my torpor with theories of positive ions – charged air molecules resulting from strong winds that cause havoc, environmentally and emotionally.  Upon a little more research, I read that positive ion-rich areas have high hospital admissions, suicides, and crime rates.  The courts of Switzerland even accept the blowing of the Foehn wind during a criminal act as explanatory evidence.  Certain ‘notorious’ desert and sea winds have also been correlated with sleeplessness, irritability, tension, migraines, nausea, hot flashes, tremor, vertigo, swelling, frequent intestinal movement, and even difficulty breathing.  In Israel these winds are called the Sharav, in the Alps the Foehn, in Italy the Sirocco, in Malta the Xlokk, in Africa the Simoon.  In the U.S., the Chinook badgers the Rockies and the Santa Ana blows in over the southern California desert.  Perhaps all the Potomac wind along my running route, those nasty nor’easters, carried too many positive ions, and my lungs, in their burlappy stiffness, were practicing self-preservation.
Besides the variety of regional and cultural names for wind patterns, the movement of air held mythical dimensions in many ancient cultures.  Greek sailors called wind Anemoi, personifying the winds of the four directions and the four seasons: Boreas, the North Wind, is notorious for stealing Oreithyia, a mountain gale, and fathering several children including the goddess of snow and a pair of purple-winged heroes who chased the Harpies, spirits of sudden, sharp gusts of wind who snatched away people and their breaths.  Boreas and his brother winds were often imagined as horse-shaped Gods, and swept down upon the mares in early spring to beget wind-formed stallions.  The swiftest and finest horses, including the fabulous war horses of Troy, were born from these couplings of mare and wind.  In Greek vase painting, Boreas is depicted as a striding, winged god, and sometimes his hair and beard are spiked with ice.  In mosaic art he often appears as a gust-blowing god, with bloated cheeks up among the clouds – this image might be familiar, as it adorns many old maps.  Still, as evil as some winds turn out to be, I’m not sure it’s enough to explain my loss of breath.  Boreas was not the one pushing me to run along the wind-swept river and force smelly air into my body; there was something deeper driving my heart to hardness.
*
The wind in southern France is called the Mistral.  For the year I lived in Provence, I’d run in that wind as well, watching ruffled, brown plane tree leaves swirl in stone gutters.  On Tuesday nights, I pulled on stretch pants and running shoes and jogged up Rue de L’Arc, past the pulsing neon casino building to my kundalini yoga class in a candelit hall, led in French by an utterly fatale française, breasts cupped to perfection, thick brown hair framing fine cheekbones, lips red and shiny.  The class was focused on breathing – we inhaled deeply and held our breaths, imagining eight-petaled lotuses in our foreheads.  My memories of those exercises includes red and white channels running up and down our spine; counting breaths in ratios of four, eight, and ten; old French yogis with their legs behind their heads, holding their breaths for unimaginably long minutes.  I had no trouble breathing in that class, despite my windy runs and my novice status in an advanced class.  I just tried my best and blamed any wrong move on misunderstanding or inexperience.  I felt wonderful after those classes as I ran home in the wind.  I don’t remember my breaths being short at all while I lived in France – I was happy and curious and excited.  Still, I made sure I ran every day, and tried to abstain from all the bread and cheese.  After one yoga class, our teacher encouraged us to eat the Lindt chocolates set out on the front table, tantalizing in their red and blue laced foil.
“Après le yoga, tu peux manger n’importe quoi!” she announced, telling us that it didn’t matter what you ate after doing yoga.  I was invigorated by the idea of being able to eat anything at all, but I didn’t eat the chocolate.  I ran home instead, and then did pushups before bed.
During that year, I began meditating with a Zen group that met in a small apartment in the middle of town.  We wore black robes, faced the wall, got smacked on the shoulder with a big stick if we got sleepy during practice.  After a few months of this, I got depressed and went to see the director of my French school, a chic francophone woman named Lilli Engle, with pencil-thin eyebrows and pointy shoes.  “Stop meditating,” she told me.  “Find a French boyfriend instead.”  While I was surprised by this advice, I respected her opinion, and soon I was dating Guillaume, a sweet and skinny engineering student from Grasse.  In retrospect, breathing certainly was more enjoyable hiking with Guigui and listening to the wind in the pines than in the stuffy zendo.  But tight lungs was the last thing on my mind that year.
*
I began meditating as a sophomore in college on winter break in a sleepy surfer town in Mexico.  Through hours of sitting, I’d cultivated a quiet friendship with my breath, the way it brushed against my lower lip and parachuted under my diaphragm as I inhaled.  After several years of studying Tibetan psychology, I discovered that green goddesses symbolize air and wind.  In their unpurified state, these sky-dancing women are crazed with jealousy, competition, and nonstop workaholism.  Their enlightened counterparts, however, carry names like Tara and Amoghasiddhi and are portrayed sitting cross-legged, with their left feet reaching out, showing their readiness to spring up and aid beings.  Their skillful action fills the world; they go with the flow, not the force.  These goddesses represent one of the five elemental psychological conditions among humans.  And here we find the diagnosis for me as an “air” person: my impatient, multi-tasking nature makes me a classic airy neurotic.  Luckily, certain Tibetan meditation practices encourage the transformation of neurosis into wisdom – jealousy and hyperactivity become the ability to accomplish, to remedy suffering with skill and grace.  I learned to chant mantra, invoking deities from seed syllables, glowing green and radiant.  My chanting aroused glimmering, shimmering goddesses bedecked with silk and jewels.
As in Zen meditation, breath begets enlightenment in Tibetan practice – everything begins with air, breath, sound.  Christian belief also holds that the world begins with sound: “In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  In Genesis we learn that “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”  Perhaps it is not so preposterous that certain takers of anti-depressants experience orgasm while yawning – our breath could be our most direct link to God, to the divine, to enlightenment.  Hence the word inspiration.
My meditation instructors talked about loosening the belly to fully allow breath in, letting go of the abdomen instead of keeping it tucked up against the ribs.  I always tried my best to focus on this area, even though I was self-conscious of my pooched profile.  Was this what kept my breath tight?  I had learned in dance to pull my belly button toward my spine, to breath from my chest.  On the other hand, in high school choir practice Mr. Otte had taught us to breathe from our bellies, to use them like a bellows for heating the sound of our voices.  I thought about that day in fourth grade when I had looked at myself in the mirror and decided I needed to always keep my belly sucked in so that people wouldn’t think I was fat.  Could that have been the moment when my heart first constricted, limiting my breath so minimally that I didn’t notice until just two years ago?
In thinking about why my heart was so stiff, I was perplexed, since I prioritized meditation and yoga in my life.  How could I let that space close down, and hardly notice that my heart was keeping my breath short, my yawn so elusive?  I realized that it probably had to do with my harsh judgment of my body – my disciplined running, sucking in my stomach, and yes, even my regimented meditation practice.  By boxing in my life, setting unattainably high standards, no wonder my heart felt walled in.
Two days before I was supposed to go see Shawn again, I was struggling to pull air into my reluctant lungs during my morning meditation, and I had a flash of recognition, suddenly recalling a summer day ten years earlier.  I had just graduated from high school and was working as a lifeguard at a girl scout camp on a lake in southern Oregon.  Brett Zundel, the tan muscled river guide, the first boyfriend I’d ever really loved, had just broken up with me because I was going away to college, or so he said.  I gained ten pounds that summer and felt so ugly in those horrid red swimsuits that showed my belly no matter how hard I held it in.  My stomach began to hurt after every meal of boxed eggs and sloppy joes.  I remembered one of my campers, Erika, pinching my stomach: “Look at your baby fat!” she had exclaimed.  My heart was broken, and I blamed myself; for some reason I wasn’t worth a long distance effort.
That was the summer I first lost my breath, my heart hardening against the unknown world I teetered on.  Although I may not have noticed it then, the seed was planted for later struggles which would finally surface in Northern Virginia, where I found myself feeling even farther away from home than when I lived in France.  That summer long ago, I was about to step into a sorority house full of eating disorders, a crew team determined to stay under weight, a manipulative football playing boyfriend.  No wonder my heart had steeled itself.
*
After my second session with Shawn, I sit up, breathe some more and rejoice in my heart feeling stretched and welcome, like waking up in the morning.  Again, I pull on my fleece and rub Txuri’s waiting head, fingering his velvet ears.  I linger by the door, talking to Shawn about all the snow in the mountains, watching his eyes light up at the thought of skiing.
“Do you like to ski?” he asks me.
“Yes, I love it,” I say, probably too enthusiastically.  There’s a pause, and then:
“Txuri and I are going up to the mountain tomorrow.  If you’d like to come with us, you’re more than welcome,” he says.
“I’d love to,” I say.  I was supposed to practice an hour of meditation the next morning and at least an hour and a half of yoga, and then work on putting together a class syllabus.  I let all these plans go on the wind.  Of course I have a crush on this person looking at me, this person who is helping to open my heart.  I inhale deeply.  Like Guillaume in France, perhaps Shawn is a person with whom I can enjoy the sound of the wind in the summer trees.  Still, my heart is completely my own – it began to close when I let some tan river guide and a red swimsuit determine my self worth.  I am grateful for Shawn’s wisdom, his companionship, his positive regard for me and my body.  But the effort and responsibility of breathing remains in my own heart and what I choose to put into it.  Perhaps I won’t go on as many runs when the nor’easters are blowing.  Perhaps I will be more relaxed about my schedule, or at least intend to be.  Perhaps I’ll think more often about all the people sharing air molecules around the planet.  I will breathe and count to ten, a beginner in an advanced class, full of curiosity and self-forgiveness, furled flower heart quietly opening in the candlelight.

About Devon Ward-Thommes

Devon Ward-Thommes, M.F.A, R.Y.T., is a devoted yogini, a poet and essayist, and a practitioner of Ashtanga Yoga and Vajrayana Buddhism.  Her life’s passion is awakening loving-kindness through creative, embodied practice and sharing these experiences with others.

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8 Responses to “Learning To Breathe”

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