July 17, 2013

Yoga Taught Me How to Breathe.

The art of breathing…

I have always been fascinated by science. The mystery of it, the facts, and the puzzle pieces fitting together to create an amazing whole. Even though I diverted in the end to get a degree in Sociology, I spent a number of my college years dedicated to science: zoology, bacteriology, botany, human anatomy and physiology (my favorite).

While studying the human body, I devoured the intricacies of phenomena like the Krebs cycle, the sodium-potassium pump and the wonderful package of muscles, bones, organs and vessels that we carry.

Equally fascinating was the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide that we call breathing.

But for all my fascination with cerebral studies, I avoided my own emotional landscape.

I had learned early on that emotions were in a frightening and uncertain place, and I spent as little time there as possible. I did this so well that when I began therapy as an adult, my therapist noticed immediately that I barely breathed; my chest barely moved with my minute inhalations and exhalations, yet I had no idea.

Subconsciously, this lack of full breath made it much easier to keep my emotions inside. And I had done it for so long that unless I made a strong mental effort to think about breathing deeply, I automatically went back to my shallow breaths.

If you had asked me back then how I was doing, I would have replied that I was just fine. I lived most of my life in my head, thinking about things and trying to figure everything out. I had a good brain, and it had served me well. Even though I was very physically active, I pretty much ignored my body from the neck down, and certainly tried to ignore my emotions.

I had a difficult time keeping weight on, as stress and anxiety killed my appetite. I had stomach trouble, and often woke up in the middle of the night with intense anxiety. Finally beginning to think that there had to be something “more,” I sought the help of my therapist, and started to explore the well of buried feelings I had inside.

She began to teach me the importance of focusing on the breath. Yet, even though I logically understood what she was saying, and could even be fascinated by the science behind the effects of stress on the body—the flood of cortisol and the damage it can cause over time, the fight-or-flight response, the stomach problems—I resisted and stumbled.

It was almost comical how my mind could marvel at the mechanisms behind deep, slow breathing and the body’s relaxation response, and still not allow me to experience it.

A few years ago, I began to take yoga classes. Immediately, I struggled with the deeper breaths. I would have to concentrate so hard on the breathing that it was difficult to focus on anything else. But over time, as the poses became more familiar, the deeper breaths came more naturally. And what I began to notice was how breathing deeper seemed to open a gate to the feelings I carried inside.

As I have always avoided “bad” emotions, this was not always comfortable for me. After someone dear to me suffered a serious medical situation, there were times in yoga class that I would have tears leak down my face as my feelings for this person surfaced. But rather than being afraid of these emotions, I began to trust that they were an essential part of my experience. I slept better, and my stomach trouble went away.

My body was finally starting to soften into the breath.

A couple more years of yoga have gone by, and I now see that this portal to my emotions is invaluable. Breathing deeper has also become a tool I use to quiet my monkey mind, and gently explore how I feel about someone or something. It has become a way for me to be present, and feel part of a larger Universe.

I still struggle, especially in times of stress. 40-plus years of any habit will be hard to break. But this journey I am on to stay present and feel all the parts of me is so worthwhile and I am committed to seeing where it goes.

If need be, I can still look at the tattered yellow Post-It note above my desk, with one word written in red pencil: “Breathe.”


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Assistant Ed: Moira Madden/Ed: Bryonie Wise

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