I have been learning to breathe again.
I’ve been practicing breathing for a few months now. You know, the kind of breathing that requires a concentrated effort to simply listen to the sound, the sound of your breath.
No thoughts allowed. Just create a small wind tunnel in your throat and focus on that sound for twenty minutes. It’s supposed to be healing; a meditative exercise in calming the brain and body.
‘How does one not think thoughts?’ I wonder in my head as I try to listen to my breath. The sound reminds me of ocean waves on the beach in some small town along the Gulf of Mexico, and I picture myself on the sand, and, oh, I could use a week at the beach and–oops, there I go thinking thoughts again!
Letting Go of Tension
When I do this practice, I usually lie on my back on the floor with my knees up on a chair. This creates a release for my lower spine and gives me the best chance to not use a single muscle. Except for my breathing muscles.
I hold a lot of tension in my body, even when lying in this completely relaxed position. My neck is tight and my feet and hands slightly clenched. Honestly, when I roll out of bed every morning, I have more tension in my hips and back than when I rolled into bed. How does that happen? Do my muscles ever loosen their grip? If not in sleep, then when?
That’s why I am re-learning how to breathe, how to tell my brain that all is well. Then maybe my brain will give my muscles a vacation. Take a few days off, go to the beach, ahh the beach, the ocean, oh my thoughts are running off again and I was supposed to be just breathing, just listening…
Learning to Die
Have you noticed how an exhalation makes your torso collapse a bit? The rib cage shuffles down and the shoulders drop as the diaphragm forces the lungs to let go of their air. If I push all of the air out of my lungs, my entire body drops more deeply and more heavily toward the floor. Pausing between that full exhale and the next breath in, I lie in stillness like a corpse.
This place between breaths feels like a kind of death. When I empty myself of the breath of life and hesitate before the next inhalation, I am in liminal space. Between rooms, I pause on the threshold and take the time to examine where I’ve been, before moving on to God-only-knows-where.
As I understand it, the autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. When I inhale, I engage the sympathetic so that my body is ready for flight or fight. My heart rate increases and my bladder is more than willing to empty itself.
When I exhale, my heart rate should drop as the parasympathetic system kicks in for calming and relaxing my body. In this state, I should be able to digest food and lose some anxiety. The bladder holds on and the bowels loosen up.
Not so much for me.
One Breath at a Time
My sympathetic system seems stuck on hold. Hyper-vigilance might be a good word: ready for anything all the time. It’s as if my body is saying, “no way, José, I’m not letting you die!”
Maybe I learned hyper-vigilance as a child, lying in my bed at night hoping Dad would come home so Mom could relax. Perhaps it was later when we were hoping he wouldn’t show up drunk to wake us up in the middle of the night. Possibly, I learned to be on high alert because of my personality, hyper-sensitive or something.
Let’s face it, the unpredictability of life presents a case for staying on the watchtower, no matter how safe your castle may seem.
What I want to know is: how do I let go and live now? Forget the past; who knows the future?
This very moment is what’s happening!
So, back to the breath.
Learning to Live
When I practice my twenty minutes of doing nothing but breathing and listening, I am learning to live in the moment I’m in. Trust the present being, let the doing take care of itself.
I’m not supposed to be thinking but here’s what I’m thinking:
- The very first breath we take as humans is at birth. Our life in the womb suddenly opens up to the flow of air through mouth, throat, and lungs.
- Then comes our first exhalation–a tiny death as life immediately shakes our bodies and creates fear and insecurity. We feel untethered. No wonder most babies start out with a good cry.
- The next breath in is a tiny resurrection: Oh, I’m still here and I’ve been here before. I’m alive.
Something in Me Just Takes Over
And so it goes. Every breath a birth, death, and resurrection.
If it weren’t a mystery, we’d have stopped thinking, talking, and writing about it by now. But Life is wild. The daily-ness of each day, the normalcy of each creature, the magnitude of every morning. Why shouldn’t every breath we take be as astounding?
As I lie here learning to breathe, my shoulders settle for a better situation. A connective tissue clicks loose in my spine. An electric tingle sizzles on the tips of my fingers and toes. Small signs of change and movement towards release. I’ll take them.
I’m alive, I’m dying, I’m alive again. My soul longs for eternal life even as my flesh lies encumbered by the tension of suffering and death. With all of that to think about, I’m glad I don’t forget to breathe.
(Oh, and here’s a song about breathing: Love, Like Breathing)
22 thoughts on “Learning to Breathe”
Just love reading your blog and the gift you gave with words! Merry Christmas!
I’ve been reading a book by Andrew Murray. “ The Masters Indwelling “. In it he talks about waiting on God. In quiet. Not praying just waiting. Until you get your mind and heart in the right place to not just request but listen. I have trouble with this. I may try this breathing exercise. I have to get up early in the morning to spend the time with Him necessary to keep His peace as a dominant factor in my
life. I struggle daily but it gets better. It’s better when I do this.
Good stuff you’re doing, Jimmy. I find that all the striving to do the right things to connect with God has left me a little frustrated. Just “being” is tough but if I believe the gospel of Jesus, then He’s happy for me just to “be” too!
Hi Christine! Thank you for your blog! Not too long ago, I was challenged by the same thoughts of breathing and being aware of my breath. Hard to focus on breathing while you’re thinking of something else! Anyway, I too became more of each inhalation, breathing out the negative of the day, breathing in the Life of our precious Lord who daily gives us life and as I concentrated, I too became rested and then, fell asleep having a very good sleep!!!! IT MAKES A DIFFERENCE!!!! Thank you again and I hope you and your family have a Merry Christmas!!!
Thanks for reading and responding, Alyssa, and a merry Christmas to you and yours!
Hi Christine, actually the song of yours that came to mind as I read this blog was “The Deep,” another song about letting go and trusting God in the midst of life’s unpredictability. The vastness and immensity of the ocean can either elicit fear and uncertainty or peace and security, depending on whether one realizes Someone is in control, and the song in its invitation encourages the listener to focus on the latter. (I hope I’m interpreting the song correctly — otherwise, you can just ignore this post :-))
Ha ha, yes, Nigel, an excellent interpretation!
Hi sister, once again love to read your blog. One of these days I’m going to try breathing, stretching, or yoga. I know it would be good for me, I just need to decide to do it (maybe when I’m 60!). I just watched a video last week of this guy Wim Hoff who can do amazing things with his technique that’s primarily centered around breathing. You will find it very interesting.
Hi Brother, thanks for reading and commenting! I, of course, encourage you not to wait until you are 60. I’ll check out your link.
For the past fifteen years, I’ve been going to a mio-fascial doctor for tense muscles and pressure points; it’s treatment for restoring range of motion back to your muscles. People with fiber myalgia, multiple sclerosis, and most any muscle tension often benefit; so much healing in such a short session. There were several times when my neck was so stiff that I couldn’t turn my head to the left. (Having to turn the shoulders to look left while driving; I’m thankful that there was a quick fix for that.) Mio-fascial addresses the mylen tissue; the sheath around muscles. You saying to feel yourself breathe through your throat reminded me of what several mio-fascial specialists have said multiple times to me. I’ll be in a session, and having been through this before, I would think that I would know how to relax my muscles, but the therapist will say, “relax this muscle” and then I do, and then I’ll know that I wasn’t really relaxing, even though I thought I was. That of thinking I’m letting go and I haven’t really yet applies for other temporal things too; but “greater is He…” If anyone decides to get mio-fascial, I’d recommend an actual Doctor who is mio-fascial trained. A 45 minute session is approximately a $25.00 co-pay.
Thanks for your insight and experience, Kelly!
Cycle On —
Little gusts of air
Help us to breathe alive
Inward and outward
Winner for the holidays!
Thank you for coaxing me out of my “tunnel vision” life to see “new” things that God has placed all around us – for our enrichment, and enjoyment! You continue to bless my heart after 25 years of listening.
Harry, such a kind comment. And thank you for blessing my heart today!
After rereading your meaningful comments on the lifestyle variety achieved in breathing, I have rewritten my response as follows:
Little gusts of air
Help us all to breathe
Branch in and branch out
Thanks for your words. I started learning to breathe a few months ago too. Letting go. Living one breath at a time. Being present.
Thanks to you I have become attentive to breathing. It is enriching in a simple way. I’m still working on the images that meaningful breathing can take on. Thanks again, Christine.
I just love this article and I really enjoyed your album gravity
I really love that song the title track as well as the rest of the album.