Sometimes I forget to breathe.
I’d never really thought about my relationship with respiration until a few years ago. In the early part of my karate journey, one of the sensei at my dojo observed that I was holding my breath during moments of intense focus, like when learning a new kata or trying unfamiliar combinations. This teacher would regularly remind me to breathe and invited me to consider how the kiai served me in this regard–requiring me to inhale strongly to be able to produce this yell that simultaneously expresses, releases, and generates power. And so I turned my attention to the importance of breathing (and the ill effects of not doing it).
Oxygenation is necessary for the body to be able to do what we ask of it, but the influence of breath is important beyond the simple physiological role of keeping us alive. The air we inhale passes through the inside of our body and our exhale returns it to the outer world–each breath is a literal link between our innermost self and everything outside of ourselves. In this sense, breathing is an act of connection. It connects us to the atmosphere all around us and to everyone else on the planet, for we are all breathing the same Earthly air. We all share in this fundamental rhythm, this tool for achieving focus, relaxation, flow of movement, this force that can summon our physical, mental, and spiritual power. It is no wonder that so many martial, medicinal, and meditative practices call us to observe it.
Ruminating on this leads me to explore some of my history with breathing.
When I was six, one of my sisters died. She’d had serious health struggles throughout her life but one night she stopped breathing, and she died. In the morning, trying to process and understand, I could not help but to search for any faint sign of breath, some indication that her death was not true. After that I developed a habit of watching over my mother while she was sleeping, like on those Sundays when she might take an afternoon nap, guarding her rest but also making sure her chest was rising and falling at regular intervals. I do not remember worrying over my dad in the same way–likely because his famously loud snoring was raucous resassurance enough. Later when I was grown, he was sick and I did watch and worry. And then, together with my family encircled around his hospital bed, I watched my father take his last breath.
But I have happier breathing-themed recollections too. Like blowing out birthday candles, rollercoaster rides sweeping my breath away, the urgentcalm breath regulation giggle suppression needed for silent hiding in Hide and Seek, or trying (rather unsuccessfully) to learn the circular breathing technique for playing the didgeridoo. Or inhaling the hot Suavitel scented air walking past the laundromats near my grandmother’s house in Mexico, where I learned one summer how to duck dive in the ocean. Taking an extra deep breath, blocking the snorkle with my tongue, folding and propelling myself down to explore the Pacific depths both thrilled and terrified. And then the dramatic rush to ascend back to the surface before my breath ran out, and the punctuation of blasting the water from the snorkel into the air like a whale from their blowhole.
As I recall more and more of these memories I realize something rather obvious: to engage in any exhaustive exploration of one’s personal experience as either participant in or witness to breathing, is to of course and in fact examine a whole life. Every moment of our autobiography involves some kind of–quick, long, deep, shallow, easy, wheezy, heavy, light, lusty, gentle, panting, sighing, ragged or regular, first or last–exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Breath is a both/and kind of thing. The act of breathing is both profound (it tethers us to this existence and each other) and somewhat mundane (for most of us, much of the time it is an everyday involuntary action that doesn’t require much attention). In this moment, though, it seems anything but mundane. In this moment, it seems like I can feel the whole universe, our ancestors, our deepest human instincts, and current experience reminding us–like observant sensei–breathe!
Our best teachers–from our cosmic mamas to our classroom maestres–are imploring us to remember what is most essential. To take a breath, take a beat. Pause and prioritize, health and humanity, care and community. And remember to keep breathing.
Breathing is fundamental.
All around the U.S. there is abundant evidence of how desperately we need to understand this–the smokeorange skies along the west coast, the ravages of the coronavirus, the painful reality that the words “I can’t breathe” are not enough for some people to release their chokehold on others and instead grasp their humanity.
Everything that has brought this country to this dire moment is incredibly complex and all it will take to remedy this country is incredibly challenging, but the basics of what we must do seems plain and clear.
Breathe. Observe. Transform.
Make America, along with all the other geographies on the planet, with which we are interconnected, ecologically healthy again.
Make America attend to immedate threats to the wellness of all our communities in equitable, scientifically-sound, humane ways, and create conditions for everyone to thrive, now.
Make America fully reckon with its violent origins, act to repair the harm of ongoing racism and all forms of bigotry, marginalization, and injustice, and build just systems, for once and for all.
Make America realize that “greatness” will not be achieved through individualism and competition but collectivism and collaboration, and that the life of this society–whether we will ultimately flourish or perish–is bound up with that of all the other societies on the globe.
Make this world a place where we can all breathe.
I heard the news about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as I was finishing writing this post. Feeling such sadness for her family and gratitude for her work. Feeling the wind knocked out of me, trying to catch my breath, but fighting off despair. Trusting that we will find a way to summon our deepest inhale and produce a collective kiai that will knock Injustice on its sorry ass.