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“The quality of our breath expresses our inner feelings.” ~ T.K.V. Desikachar
I can still picture myself as a young girl of about seven years old, sitting in the back of my parents off-white station wagon.
The back, back seat that faced the car behind you so that you either made awkward eye contact with the unknown driver and passengers, eagerly catching their eye to then make silly faces, or like me, sat and read a book and pretended to be invisible.
On these road trips to who-knows-where, I would spend a great deal of time and effort not breathing deeply, or even at all. I’d often hold my breath for as long as I could. As a child of seven, I believed that each human being had a limited amount of oxygen and that, if you weren’t careful, you might use it all up before your time. Not wanting to run out of oxygen, I spent much of my childhood holding my breath.
I now look back and wonder: was this a silly childhood belief similar to stepping on a crack in the sidewalk lest you break your mom’s back or, far more likely, was it the manifestation of something more?
I have come to believe that the latter is most likely the for-far-too-long ignored truth: growing up surrounded by alcoholism and abuse, being emotionally neglected by most adults in my life, being overweight and bullied throughout childhood and adolescence, learning to deal with relationships with anger and judgement, rather than love and patience, and destroying friendships with doubt and insecurity, rather than trusting that I could be loved and accepted. Just as these issues have followed me into my fourth decade of life, so have the gasping breaths.
“Many trauma survivors hold their breath and their bodies tightly, bracing themselves for whatever is coming next. Staying alert for years takes a toll. Create spaces where you can take your armor off.” ~ Thema Davis
Much like the victims in horror movies, perhaps I learned to hold my breath because I was always on high alert, always afraid of what monster might be waiting around the next corner.
While I no longer worry about running out of oxygen—not literally, anyway—I have found other ways to starve my being of the oxygen necessary for healthy survival.
If you’re a runner, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. You know, how when you get a side stitch it can be painful to breathe deeply, so you take short, shallow breaths until the pain lets up enough to begin to breathe deeply again.
I do this. But, not only when I have a side stitch.
I do this when what I’m thinking about, experiencing, reading, seeing, hearing, or imagining is simply too painful for deep breathing. When I imagine allowing myself to take that deep, desperately needed breath, I fear I’ll breathe in all the pain and hurt and anguish and maybe never be able to expel it again.
I take short, sharp breaths because it helps me to stop the tears, even while causing true, physical pain in my throat that stops the words I so desperately need to speak from forming.
I frequently catch myself taking shallow, halting breaths—taking in just enough oxygen to stay conscious—but holding back the real, life-sustaining breathing. When my husband and I are having a difficult discussion and I have to ask a hard question, give an honest response, or simply listen to his truth; when I know that a friend or loved one is about to tell me something that will be hard to hear, take in, sit with; when I am simply afraid of my feelings and potential reactions to the challenging moments we all deal with in our one precious life.
Is this some self-preservation technique that, in fact, does not offer any actual assistance? I have spent an inordinate amount of my life literally and figuratively holding my breath in fear of what might be about to come, always waiting for the worst case scenario I’ve created in my head to appear like an apparition from some distant world.
Nearly two years ago now, my little world was almost turned upside down with the near destruction of my marriage. Looking back, I wonder how, on the very worst days—which were plentiful—how I made it; how I didn’t sometimes pass out from the sheer effort of trying to breathe as little as possible. There were times when deep, healing breaths felt completely and totally out of the realm of possibility. It was all I could do to take in enough oxygen to stay aware and functional for my two children. I can still feel the pain that was there to greet me the minute my eyes opened in the morning, until I fell into the temporary unknowing bliss that came with sleep.
As my husband and I began to heal our pain and forge a new path, I found moments in each day when the pain and fear would dissipate and I realized I was, once again, breathing more normally. I wasn’t holding my breath in fear. I wasn’t denying myself oxygen in an attempt to not inhale my reality.
Over the last year, I’ve become more aware of when I revert back to shallow, halting breaths, and the physical and mental changes that occur simultaneously. My body reacts immediately to the lack of oxygen, and the pain starts in my throat, and moves deep into my chest and belly, until I relent and give it what it is demanding—blissful release.
I found myself recently again robbing my body of the oxygen it craves. I was on the last few pages of a book that spoke to the part of me that I cannot always find the words to represent. As the reality set in that I was about to finish this book that has been so meaningful to me, I found those short, halting breaths returning. As I read the very last word and closed the book, I had to stop, close my eyes, and force the breathing. As I relaxed, I attempted to reflect on why I was struggling with this ending.
I was sad it was over.
Sad in the way that I am sad when I am participating in an event—a moment that brings hope and joy and sometimes, intimate understanding—and must return again to my often uninspiring real life. I want to hold on to the extraordinary moments so that I do not have to face all the mundane, lackluster moments of my daily life.
I wanted to live in this book where I felt understood, where I felt the author knew the parts of me that I simply don’t have the words for, where I felt a life of meaning that I am still desperately searching for. Even more, I was sad because I want to express myself as confidently, assuredly, as this author—to my husband, family, friends, strangers—and I question if I’ll ever be able to do so.
So, what should my breathing tell me?
I’ve learned it tells me when I’m avoiding the pain, and truth, and discovery, and knowing that is essential for personal growth and happiness. It tells me when I’m causing myself additional, unwanted, and unnecessary suffering and anguish. It tells me when I’m trying to suppress the things I’m afraid to confront, rather than breathing them in, sitting with them, and putting my big girl pants on to take care of myself—mentally, emotionally, physically.
And I have learned, that when I close my eyes and take deep, life-affirming breaths, my entire being relaxes, my mind clears, the pain ceases, and I can face my truth head-on with necessary clarity and calmness.
Breath is life.