The photo shown is a colorful picture of lungs. Notice how the circulatory system inside of them looks like the roots or the branches of a tree. The roots take in support and nutrients from the soil. The branches and the leaves help trees breathe. Trees use the energy of sunlight converting carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates and oxygen in a process called photosynthesis. And when the tree exhales, they give us our much-needed pure filtered oxygen.
With the spread of the Covid 19 virus and its vivid presence in our lives, we are very much aware that it affects the lungs, possibly causing pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome.
So, on topic, I have been exploring BREATHING lately.
As a somatic therapist I am always paying attention to the data offered by a client’s breathing. It tells us a lot. I always notice the- BIG BREATH. It occurs organically when I have asked a particularly targeted or provocative question, or the client has said something extremely relevant, something that is profound, that nails what they needed to see. We notice together- BIG BREATH. I have been trained to not interfere with the way people breathe. Rather to trust that they are breathing a certain way for a reason. To tell a client- “Breathe” is rather insane. They are breathing already or they would be dead, and then what would be the point?
Since these days I have lost a good many of the usual ways I do self-care: working out, Chinese massage, acupuncture, an occasional facial. And of course, being close to friends, giving and receiving hugs. Like the tree roots I need support and nutrients of all kinds, in addition to food. Like the tree, I too, need sunlight. I also need to touch the soil and the plants in my garden. I ordered a light therapy lamp which I keep on during my zoom sessions rain or shine. I have gifted myself with a weekly private yoga class which we do on zoom and a private meditation class also online. The one on one is so helpful. I have two wonderful teachers. These sessions are worth every penny. I am not spending money on much these days and these choices offer mutual support.
And, as many of you know, in the past I have offered free workshops during difficult times, as an act of service. I am beginning a weekly Sunday evening support group via zoom. I will be sending details via email throughout this week. I realize this is as much for me as for my clients and my subscribers. We need to meet each other in familiar terrain. And like the trees, network our root energy.
A couple of weeks ago, in my private meditation session, I realized how I was walking around and sitting mostly holding my breath. Certainly, I was breathing enough to stay alive…so far. And there was an awareness of an intense, grabby “holding” happening.
We hold our breath when we are hoarding it, maybe afraid there won’t be another breath to follow, making sure we have enough, and some to spare. Just as I typed those words, my breath organically made a heavy sigh, inhaling and exhaling deeply. “Yes,” the breath said, “that’s right! Thanks for noticing. Why are you clinging to the air? Just breathe with trust. Breathe until you just don’t anymore.”
Hanging on a wall I have a plaque that says LIFE IS NOT MEASURED BY THE NUMBER OF BREATHS YOU TAKE, BUT BY THE MOMENTS THAT TAKE YOUR BREATH AWAY. When you think about it, we use that phrase to describe experiences of awe or inspiration, like- The moon was so beautiful, it took my breath away. Yet actually, we INHALE profoundly when we are moved, taking IN a big breath, feeling inspired. Those awesome moments actually don’t take our breath away; they give us breath. BIG BREATH. So, a key here for us is to look for awe-filled moments that organically inspire us- filling our lungs with beauty and a reason to take the next breath, to seize another moment of meaningful life.
In my last yoga lesson, I was disturbed that my zoom wasn’t working AGAIN. I noticed how I was holding my breath once more in my frustration. At the same time, my heart was pounding vehemently. I could hear it telling me- “Hellllooo. I need your help. I’d rather have you scream than hold your breath. Remember, we work together.”
I told my teacher what I was noticing and we decided to make this particular practice a pranayama class, devoted to breath. Breath of any kind. No preference. I love how she is so in alignment with me, that we need not have a preference around the quality or length of our breath, that instead we can just be curious about watching the data of breathing unfold, with no judgment, as we are grateful for each breath that comes, another moment of life.
My son has a friend who climbed Mount Everest and trained using a powerful breath-work technique for a year. The air is so thin at those high altitudes it can absolutely kill you. He became adept at controlling his heartbeats, and oxygen intake. His survival depended on this expertise. It was amazing. He was in an environment that demanded he be master of his breath.
Assuming we don’t have a lung disorder, or if we are not climbing Everest, taking big breaths can be a medicant, like taking a natural kind of pill to relax. It definitely changes our brain chemistry and emotional reactivity, for sure…for a while. It can take away discomfort and make us feel better temporarily. Yet it does not help us get to the root cause of what is making us breathe very fast, slowly or understand why we are holding our breath. It placates and soothes us if we interfere with its rhythms and demand it behave differently. It may give us a respite from our unrest. Maybe sometimes that’s useful. And that does not bring us closer to ourselves, or help us understand what is going on for us, what is informing our breathing. It does not enrich our self-intimacy and self-knowledge.
I recently heard a new term from a colleague- functional denial. Forcing ourselves to breathe a certain way can push down or away our feelings, yet support our momentary functionality.
When I can, I prefer to befriend my breath with loving acceptance and curiosity, as it is.
As my yoga teacher and I were observing my inhales and exhales, I noticed something so interesting. I could easily take in a deep breath, hold it for a bit, and then I found I could not manage the exhale. Whoosh…I breathed out very quickly and then it was hard to empty fully. And even harder to hold the emptiness at the bottom of my lungs before refilling. I got in touch with a huge fear. Can I trust that another breath will come? I teared up. I felt the fragility of my life. I felt the pandemic making us gasp for air, not out of awe, rather from terror.
I remember my beloved father on his deathbed. He had told me early that morning that he knew this would be the day he would die. He said he knew it from his breath. He was right. I remember the rattling sound of his breathing. And I remember the big gasps of each desperate inhale. Even though my dad wanted to leave this life peacefully and was very ready mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, his body still wanted the next breath. And the next. And the next. The body wanted to trust that there would be yet another breath. It did not want to give up. Until it had no choice.
My husband and I witnessed that last breath, waiting to see if another would come. The body had surrendered. The lungs had completed their task. The last exhale was to be trusted. Now was the time for my dad to move on. My husband commented- “He looks so beautiful in his stillness.”
A dear friend recently sent me an oximeter which measures your oxygen saturation, reading that your organs are getting all the oxygen they need to thrive. I take a reading twice a day. It soothes me in these scary times. I notice my breath wants to prove itself healthy.
Thank you, Lungs. Thank you, Diaphragm. Feed those organs what they need, I think to myself. Thank you, Air. Thank you, Trees. Thank you, Soil and Sunlight. Thank you, Miracle of Life and even the inevitability of that last exhale, that will come when it must. With or without this pandemic, I must remember and look toward and for the moments that fill me with awe, with truth, with the BIG BREATH. And I must trust that there will be another breath to cherish, whether shallow or deep, fast or slow, until the exhale has finished its work, let go organically, and at last found exquisite beauty in the stillness.