Twenty years ago a Chinese man I worked with blatantly told me I looked awful.
His name was Pin. He was shaped like one too. His last name could have been Head.
I remember he was almost always happy, if not, at least a tad unf*ckwithable in his slender, pilled-sweater, coke-bottle-glasses calm.
All he meant was that I looked pale. Not just winter-in-New-Jersey pale, but lifeless. “Why you no breathe?” He then demonstrated with a gloriously full inhale and exhale, punctuated by his happy face.
I gave him a scrunchy-side-eye face, then demonstrated back a short, huffy, sarcastic breath and said, “I’m breathing. Mind your own blowhole, Pin.”
For the rest of the day I secretly wondered, “Am I breathing?” I mean, obviously I was alive, but then I would try a covert version of his full inhale and exhale and realize that all my in-between breaths were of the shallowest nature—just enough to barely sustain life.
And, how did he know I wasn’t breathing? Freak Chinese mystic. Must go along with how he would press my wrist to make my headaches go away.
In those days I didn’t even know what meditation was, much less about any breathing bandwagon. Today I am a bit more of an advanced creature—I do yoga, I’m touching on “letting go” and practicing following my heart. However, I still go batsh*t wild when I see five bazillion instructional leaflets flying around, entitled “Twenty Minute Breathing Meditation,” “4-7-8 Breathing Exercise,” “Proper Breathing Techniques To Reduce Stress.” Even the “Three Minute Morning Breathing Routine” makes me want to yell.
Are you kidding me?
Can. Not. Breathe. For. Three. Minutes.
I’m not there—and many of us aren’t.
Well, I wasn’t.
(Don’t abandon me here, non-breathers! I haven’t even made it to a minute breathing yet—so hear me out.)
I wasn’t—until a funny thing happened. I was driving one day and instead of enjoying the quiet time to be in the wonderland of my mind, to dive into my next story idea, enjoy a good hair day in the rear view mirror or manifest some goodness, I was churning (again). Grief, anxiety and frustration—over everything from cancer, fulfilling my son’s dream of having his own room, destiny in family and coupledom, the next holiday alone—were all spinning under this crashing wave that was pushing me down.
Until—I got sick of being pushed down.
I lifted my head and came up for air.
I took a breath.
The breath had pushed back.
It pushed a little bit of the aloneness and grief to the side. It created space. All of those things moved over.
They slid back into place rather quickly. “No, no!” I told the things. I like this. Stay over there a second.
Then I tried it again. One full breath.
Again, the churning calmed. The things were nudged over. That tiny space was a refuge.
My mind and body got a repose. Much deserved, I thought. (That new “compassion” thing I’m trying.)
After another breath, I noticed something in the new space. Not something I could see, not a picture—it was a feeling. That little space felt like friends at my table. A glimmer of possibility. An opening for opportunity.
It felt like love.
It felt like faith.
It made the grief and aloneness and anxiety feel more manageable. Like I could push it instead of it pushing me.
I don’t know what happens with this “breathing” that shifts the mind into a state of calm, that kicks in an ability to see things a little more clearly. But it saved my sanity in that moment and I’m coming back for more.
We all churn. Spin. Feel pushed down.
We can go for days, weeks, 20 years, without recognizing how we’re spinning entire stories of our lives that don’t have to be true. Coming from the last person who would ever say, “Just breathe,” well, maybe one good inhale and exhale is all it takes for a shift. To nudge things over and get the space we deserve. To feel some calm and control.
Here’s the great news: we can do it without a schedule, a time frame, or a step-by-step. It doesn’t have to happen in sets of four, 12 or 20, nor before a warm lemon honey water, or after a high colonic.
It happens in any moment when you’re sick of yourself and you want space. When you hear the mad churning of anxiety ringing in your ears, the grinding of worry in your gut or the throw-you-on-your-ass tsunami of “What if?” and “I’m scared” and “I can’t.”
Just freaking stop.
This you can do in any moment you choose. Inhale stronger than you are in this current moment and exhale stronger.
One more time.
Are the muscles in your face clenched, your neck drawn down? Are you hunched over, pulled to one side? Are your stomach muscles so tight they’re prepared for a linebacker hit?
Release your face, your neck. There’s no linebacker coming for you, so stop protecting yourself from that which doesn’t exist. Allow your precious body to open and straighten up.
Look up. Like, really up.
Did you notice something? Did the things move over a little bit?
Inhale. Blow it out. Hear the quiet.
Is there a little room for love? To write the first words of a new storyline?
Don’t expect a guided meditation or free e-book on breathing from me anytime soon. (Er, ever.) I may just stick to this “If-you-have-to-breathe-anyway-why-not-make-the-best-of-one-or-two-breaths” school of thought.
So far these momentary, unplanned, unthought-out stop-and-inhales have been more than enough for me to start seeing things more clearly—to open a space for a storyline I like better.
I offer this as a gift to you, all my fellow non-breathers who sometimes-yoga and are still side-eyeing the warm honey lemon water while cradling your coffee.
Taking a real breath may sometimes be the last resort to keeping our sanity intact. You can still tell all the “Just Breathe!” people to mind their own blowholes. Stop and inhale in your own time, at the call of your own crazy. A little breath can push things out of the way just enough.
Author: Kelly Berdine
Assistant Editor: Hilda Carroll/Editor: Travis May
Photo: Mae Chevrette/Flickr