Learning to Breathe

I’ve never been very good at breathing. 

My childhood was spent with perpetual croup, the seal-barking cough echoing through the house at all hours.  Eventually, I was diagnosed with asthma, my lungs plied with drugs that were supposed to encourage them to relax.  Regardless of the dosages and names of the medications, I always failed my lung function tests at the allergists.  I wasn’t used to failing tests, but I didn’t know how to study for that one.

I adapted to my lungs.  I knew when an attack was about to have me helpless in its clutches, I knew when pneumonia was setting in.  I let my lungs call the shots and we had an agreement that I would work within their constraints.

Then, one day soon after my 30th birthday, I grew tired of the bondage.  I turned the tables on my lungs and informed them I wanted to start running.  This was a laughable goal, as I had never even completed the mile running in school.  But I was determined.

I started at a local park with a .75 mile loop.  My first try was a humbling experience.  You see, I was in shape.  I lifted weights and could do cardio.  I just couldn’t run.  Within moments of beginning, my chest heaved, my breathing was rapid and gasping.  I was taking in air as though threatened, as though the next breath would never come.  I made it one full loop that first day, but I still didn’t know how to run.

Over the next few weeks, I kept at it, returning to the park 3-4 times a week.  I starting to trust my body.  Believe in my breath.  I worked to consciously slow my breathing, pulling air deep down into the unused basement of my lungs.  As I learned to breathe, I was able to increase my mileage to the point where I outgrew that park in the next two months.

My breath training extended to yoga.  I had been practicing since I was in high school, but I always focused on the positions and movements, not the airflow.  Running had brought the breath to consciousness; yoga taught me how to use the breath to calm and energize the body.

Then July came.  Disaster struck.  I lost contact with my breath, but I didn’t even realize it.  I just knew my chest felt constricted, wrapped in bindings carried in by the trauma.  I wasn’t able to run or to do yoga, getting even further out of touch with my lungs.  It finally took a third party to make the re-introduction; a therapist at a meditation and yoga retreat that autumn after my breath left me.

I lay on the floor of her office, cradled in a soft, fuzzy blanket.  She kneeled next to me, her voice soothing and calm.  She spoke to my breath, encouraging it to return, assuring it that I was ready to make its acquaintance once again.  She spoke to me, telling me t trust my breath, to allow it deep into my lungs.

My chest began to rise, the bindings loosening.  As the oxygen flowed in, I felt grounded.  Whole.  Reconnected.

My breath and I still have a complicated relationship.  I frequently don’t find it until a couple miles into a run or 10 minutes into a yoga practice.  I still have to encourage it, willing it back into my body, especially when I find myself gripped my stress.  It may at times be a tumultuous relationship, but I have no intention of loosing connection with my breath again.

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Going With the Flow: SUP Yoga

The 10 foot long paddleboards lay side by side in the sun along the sandy shore like fiberglass coated seals.  Soft waves chased each other across the lake, encouraged by the welcome morning breeze.  It was early enough that the herons still outnumbered the speedboats and the sun was just erasing away any hint of the nighttime chill.

I slipped my hand into the groove cut into the center of the board and hoisted it off the sand and into in the water.  I carefully placed my knees on either side of the handle, the cutaway serving as a constant visual reminder of center.  Stray too far and you fall in. After finding my balance, I carefully placed one foot and then the other on the board, staying in a cautious crouch until I trusted the board.  Until I trusted myself.

Learning to paddle

I pushed up to standing, taking the paddle with me.  After a few rough rows, as I learned how to twist and shift to keep the board steady; I was off. The board traveled lightly upon the water, the hollow thud of the waves hitting the underside of the board.  Our small group made our way up a protected inlet where the current was not so strong and the boats not as numerous.

off to yoga class

We gathered in a group, our boards constantly shifting on the water as our minds shifted into practice.  We were constantly reminded that these were not well-behaved yoga mats, sitting at right angles to a wall, rather they were dynamic surfaces carried by the whims of the winds and the currents. Common poses became uncommon when faced with the limitations and challenges of the board and the water.  We each were ever mindful of our center.  The water became our teacher, each little misalignment gently acknowledged with a tip of the board.  Or, if the subtle hint went unrecognized, a fall into the depths.

attempting tree in the wake of a passing boat

There is no illusion of control on the water.  You have only two choices: give in or give up.  I gave in, sinking deeper into the board.

Pressing into down dog, the board began to rock with waves sent from a passing boat.  Be with it.  You can’t fight the waves.  “Accept them and move with them,” was the lesson spoken by the water.  I listened, giving in to the sway.

a vinyasa

I turned over, pressing into wheel, gaining a new perspective on the ripening morning.  I felt the strength in my limbs anchored equally to the board as it danced lightly on the surface, creating a balance of contrast.  Feeling emboldened by the sun and lightened by the sense of playfulness, I moved into tripod, a pose which eludes me on the mat.  Every muscle and every thought focused solely on the moment.

wheel – a whole new perspective of the lake!

After lying in repose for several minutes, I pushed myself back up to a seated position, so comfortable in my balance that I moved with ease.  Bringing hands to heart center,

Namaste.

As I walked back up the beach, I could feel the lessons of the morning practice settle in and I chose to carry them with me.

Update:  The following day, I was able to do my first full headstand ever! I love the fact that I learned the basics of the pose on the water:)

The group I practiced with:

Atlanta SUP Yoga
Worldwide organization dedicated to SUP yoga:

NamasteSUP