Unabated Breath

A cartoon of lungs, with the words "sometmes it's OK if the only thing you did today was breathe."This cartoon by Yumi Sakugawa caught my attention for two reasons. First, it affirms my introvert/HSP/recovering depressive need for downtime.

But the second reason is something I’ve been wrestling with for several weeks now. I’ve become aware that a lot of my abdominal muscles live in a constant state of contraction. This is so automatic that I’m utterly unconscious of it most of the time. Even when I turn my attention to those muscles, it’s hard to figure out how to relax them. And the minute I start thinking about something else, they revert to their habitual contraction again.

The contracting is complex. There are at least three different areas involved, and if I try to relax them in the wrong order, the first group contracts again when I relax the second.

One set of muscles is around my waistline, and sucks my abdomen in under my diaphragm. You know, into the space where air is supposed to go when you breathe deeply? I have often noticed that I had trouble taking deep breaths during exercise or yoga. Now I realize it was because I was fighting against the inflexible girdle of my own muscles. What impact has constant under-oxygenation for all those decades had on my physical and mental health??

Vintage drawing of a woman dropping the ends of a chain that has been brokenThere are other tight muscles too – at the bottom of my belly, and running along the surface of it. They change my posture and balance, as well as my breathing. When I try to relax them while I walk, I can’t find my center of gravity, and my shoes suddenly feel like they were broken in by someone else.

I imagine this is the result of a childhood in which I was constantly berated (and randomly slapped across the face now and then) for expressing my feelings, especially feelings of grief, anger or fear. A child’s fear makes abusive parents even more abusive, as they catch a reflection of their monstrousness in their children’s eyes. And the child becomes even more afraid, yet also afraid to appear afraid.

Maybe that’s how I became so dense about things like being an introvert and my own breath. In the course of hiding punishable feelings from my abusers, I hid them from myself. Poor body, carrying all those scars for all those years, trying desperately to shield against future hurts in a way that only broadcast my vulnerability. Because bullies read body tension as instinctively as sharks scent blood.

I think I had an experience once of what a free body would feel like. I was about 20, and I had taken peyote. Initially, I felt a little queasy, and wanted to hold very, very still. However, after I had a meal, that subsided, and I had the most amazing bike ride of my life. Suddenly motion was smooth, and easy, and even pleasurable. Hills were effortless. I had calm, yet boundless energy. I felt like I could ride all night, for the sheer joy of moving.
A woman stands silhouetted against a rising or setting sun, with her head throw back and arms stretched back behind her
There’ve been a few times when I experienced intensely pleasurable breathing, too, when I was doing yoga, or working on my acupressure points. I’m experiencing that more often now, when I manage to release at least some of the muscles for a little while.

Like a lot of fundamental things, the significance of breathing gets lost in the rush and daily filters of modern life. For the most part, we don’t think about it, teach it to our children, or incorporate it into our medical practices. If we’re alive, we must be breathing, and breathing is breathing, right? Is there any more to say?

There’s so much more to say. Breathing is our fundamental act of connectedness with everything around us, not just metaphorically, but literally. Air is feeding us, becoming us, every moment. We can tolerate only the briefest interruption of that interaction with our environment before we cease to exist as beings, and become objects.

The word "breathe" with the lettersshowing through to a blue sky beyond
I think the feeling I hold my breath against most these days is fear. Can I make my next month’s rent? What if my cat becomes sick? Do they still respect my skills? Will she continue to be my friend? Life seems so mutable, fraught with uncertainties and instability.

And life truly is dynamic. Breathing can’t change that. But I have a theory it can bring me more energy, and more confidence that I can ride the waves.

Maybe one day I will even surf them.

blue waves

2 thoughts on “Unabated Breath

  1. Hey, I read this almost a week ago and was so struck by the sheer honesty of your descriptions; in fact, it was sort of too much for me to face at the time and I couldn’t even comment because I was so scared of what I would reveal to myself if I did… I don’t want to turn your blog into my ramble, but just to say thank you for having courage when I do not; I’m so blessed to have found you on this lonely journey I’m on.

    I’ve often reminded myself to breathe, but you’re right that we are often not doing it in a truly deep sense and fear is the biggest culprit of all. Still, you are trying so hard and that is genuine superhero levels of courage. Here’s to riding the waves and knowing we will not stop trying to learn to surf… one day it’ll just happen :)

    • I believe we find what we need when we are ready to hear it. You obviously have more courage than you give yourself credit for.

      Perhaps the largest cost of our mass ignorance about struggles with depression and other wounds is the unsung heroism of them. For many years people looked at me and wondered (often aloud) why I hadn’t done more with my talents. I finally came to understand that, whatever they thought, I have already achieved the success of a lifetime:

      I survived.

      It’s easy to only look forward, and focus on how far we have yet to go, but it’s so important to also look back, and see how far we’ve come.

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