In yoga, when you find yourself in a challenging pose, you are often told to “focus on your breath.” At least that has been my experience on the mat, having taken yoga sometimes religiously, sometimes occasionally, for the last six years. It’s also true in strength training that utilizes isometric holds, such as a wall sit, or perhaps when you are doing distance running, and your body and mind are constantly fighting an internal battle – “focus on your breath” becomes a way to engage the mind, body, and maybe even the spirit.
If you talk to many people who work in the wellness, fitness, and health industry, and especially in instructing exercise – or even enthusiasts (like yours truly) – they might tell you that breathing or breathing well is often underemphasized. A strength trainer once put it like this, “Breathing is not something we think about ordinarily. I mean you go through the day, you’re not thinking about how to breathe, or that you’re breathing, for most of it. But all of a sudden your body is doing something challenging, and you forget to breathe.”
As a writer, I could not help but see the metaphor in the observation, and indeed ask the question, mostly to myself, “When life is challenging, how many of us forget to breathe?” The answer, I think, is many of us, and often.
When we find ourselves in the midst of chaos and difficulty, we are so consumed by it, that we may hold our breath. The irony of course, is just like in yoga or strength training or running, when you hold your breath in the midst of the challenge, the exercise actually becomes more difficult for your body (and your mind) to manage and complete. This might also be true in life. But what does it mean to forget to breathe in our ordinary lives?
It might mean, I think, to forget that a challenge is not permanent, but temporary. It might mean believing that keeping the pain in, rather than letting it out, is the best way to handle the pain. It might mean trying to ignore the suffering or the despair, rather than enduring it. Or it might mean not realizing or recognizing the profound reality of humanness – your weaknesses, the things beyond your control, life’s defeats – and forgetting that in the moment, there is nothing to accomplish but breathing. In fact, in the simple but spectacular words of that Ingrid Michaelson song, “All you can do is keep breathing.”
It might surprise you to know that some health clubs or spas or wellness retreats even offer breathing classes. They’re quite helpful if you want to improve your breathing on the mat or on the running trail. In life of course, we don’t really get breathing classes, do we? But we get something better: loving families, good friends, kind strangers, well wishes, heartfelt prayers, and sincere and transformative words, art, and music.
These people and these things can be our breathing lessons, and in the midst of the challenges, maybe you and I can recall one of them and for a moment, say to ourselves, “Focus on the breath.” In the midst of the challenge, sometimes the only thing to do, is just breathe.