Anya, a member of the Yoga District community, shares her powerful relationship with breathe and her journey to breath.
I grew up fearing my own breath and fearing my own body. As a child, I was raised with the kind of religion that espouses “if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Now if you tell an obedient and anxious child these words to repeat then know that they will be internalized. This was the origin of my panic attacks. Each and every night, I feared when I fell asleep because I didn’t know if I would wake up. I didn’t know who would ultimately take my soul.
Breath in Yoga
In Sanskrit, the word for “self” and “breath” are the same: Atman आत्मन्
In Hinduism, it also refers to our conception of soul
The practice of yoga is something deeply spiritual to me and my people. Although I have been a practitioner for nearly 10 years now, I did not fully understand the spirituality of yoga until very recently. The sacred and religious communion of mind and body, breath and stillness while harnessing internal heat and energy to achieve meditative mindfulness. Before now, when my yoga instructor uttered the words, “just keep breathing” or “focus on the breath and align each movement with it” then my internal dialogue amounted to not much more than “Bitch, please”.
My Relationship with My Breathe
I was afraid of my breath. I was afraid of my body. There was something in recognizing the power of unionizing my body and mind that actively scared me. My breath becomes a foreign imposter to me when I experience panic attacks, bouts of hyperventilation, and surging waves of anxiety. It feels like it’s actively working against me, fighting my will and intention to feel the stress in my body. Biologically, I know how my breaths of life-replenishing oxygen are valuable. Yet, it was something my body did without my voluntary control, without my permission, and without my knowledge. I don’t always want to be alive and that’s when my breath becomes my enemy. It’s a foreign, disconnected, and involuntary scientific process that I could not understand.
Little did I know, my body was desperately trying to protect me. After being diagnosed with manifold chronic conditions and pain syndromes, I finally came to understand what my body was telling me with its pain signals. It was trying to stop me from falling off the ledge by sending a conscientious warning that I needed to slow down. I needed to breathe. Slowly but surely, an autoimmune illness would eat away at the lining surrounding my joints until they became ankylotic, dysfunctional, and excruciating.The connective tissue synovium became so inflamed that my joints themselves would begin to erode. Joint spaces were on their way to rupture, cartilage deteriorated until bone met bone in an unholy communion of pain, fissure, chronic inflammation, and irreversible damage. My disquieting pain was a canary in a coal mine, an omen of early demise which came 25 years too soon. A curse that plagued my family for generations and had finally found me.
Struggling with Breathing
On average, we use 80% of our total lung capacity. This figure is lessened by our daily chaotic routines and schedules from our busy and stressful commute, workday, lack of adequate rest, lack of active diaphragmatic breathing and parasympathetic nervous system activation.
My heart rate tends to rest near 110 beats per minute because my severe anxiety, restlessness, and drive to produce disables my nervous system from leaving its instinctual fight or flight response. Paradoxically, this means my body is not granted time to heal, time for the oxygen from my breaths to fully reach my extremities. Nor for my bloodstream to bring critical anti-inflammatory white blood cells to the joints in my hands, neck, back, and shoulders to repair the damage I consistently and involuntarily wreak.
My body said: Resist the tugging in your chest (whether from excitement or anxiety, they maintain the same physical manifestation) that compels you to lean in closer, to breathe more quickly, and to get riled up. We need you to find a resting place, a glass of water, a gulp of air, we need you to finally let us stop and heal.
“According to Hindu philosophy, the self or Atman is ultimately identical with the supreme reality of Brahman (the Hindu god of creation). Attaining Moksha means realizing this identity and becoming one with the divine. This state of oneness is characterized by a profound sense of peace, joy, and unity with all of creation.”
– Alexandra Kesler
It occurred to me that I have been reticent in my role to return carbon dioxide to this earth, to return the gift of life that plants afford us on a temporary loan. With the expectation that we will hold up our end of the bargain to return the life-sustenance they grant us each and every moment. I haven’t been fully breathing.
No Space to Breathe
We live in a world that deters rest, especially from people like me. From those who are multiply marginalized, who are BIPOC, queer, women and non-men, disabled, and who are not economically wealthy. Those who are also disempowered, overshadowed, overspoken, who are simultaneously overexploited and underappreciated.
I was conditioned from a very young age, as a small child who knew death, grief, trauma, racism, and violence all too well that I needed to work 1,800 times harder than my peers to succeed. It was necessary to work 3 jobs, play 6 different sports, take 25 AP classes, volunteer for every opportunity that arose, win class awards, attain every scholarship, and graduate at the top of my class in order to simply rinse and repeat. My brain, body, and nervous system knew no rest, no peace, and no stillness. My friends joked about how I never slept or would fall asleep in the strangest places when exhaustion finally overtook me. My body had to forcibly step in and power me down. My peers would compete about who actually got the least sleep. As if this was a competition in fatigue, a prestigious medal to be won for chronic sleep deprivation, exhaustion, stress, and dysfunction.
The world does not wish for us to rest, for us to realize our collective power and resist and destabilize the forces that be. Yet, this is precisely what must be done to save our planet, our bodies, our souls, and our minds.
Trying to Breathe
My hope in telling my story is that this reaches another small brown girl out there who fears her breath and body, and who fears her Atman. I want her to know that she is so powerful, so capable of a life replete with love, peace, fulfillment, rest, and joy.
Listen when I say: I need you to honor your soul, your heart, your breath, your rest. Protect it and do not let anyone take it from you.
I need you to finally let yourself breathe.
I’ve been thinking a lot about lungs.
The miracle of breath
The sensation of oxygenation
The beauty of functional
And for that, today I am grateful.