Cleansing Breaths

Photo by Andy Stockholm

We have been holding our breath for four years. Or hyperventilating. Or breathing with a heaviness evocative of the times.

Respiratory science, meet metaphor. The Inauguration was out with the old, in with the new — toxins expelled, oxygen inhaled, heart rate normalized, blood pressure lowered, and homeostasis made possible — or not. Trusting in America again may well begin with the most basic act there is. Our sighs when the Biden/Harris team was sworn in on January 20 are good starts. Breathing can help everything.

We have become vigilantly aware of the breath this past year. The virus that has upended our lives attacks the lungs and respiratory system. The masks we wear (or deride) manage potentially infectious breath. George Floyd’s plea “I can’t breathe” has, as a rallying cry, both strengthened our democracy and, in seditious rebuttal, shaken it.

Breath’s most conclusive statement is a silent one. Loved ones on their deathbeds whose hands we hold and foreheads we stroke — or are unable to because of the coronavirus: Their breathing dies away and carries them with it. Without breath, we are nothing.

In normal times, we tend to only think about breathing when we or someone we love cannot do it. Consciously inhaling and exhaling can seem like all so much yoga class or meditation app woo-woo.

Back in my 20s, I signed up for the class “Prana Vayu [Breath of Life]” at what is now Unity Minneapolis in Golden Valley. It was taught by the minister’s wife, Andrea Jo Fisher, an ordained monk in the Saraswati order of India, who told of anesthetizing herself during medical procedures using her mastery of breath. I was captivated for the first two sessions and then bailed, anointing myself as evolved enough (cue deep belly laugh; I was young).

Breathwork can be a hard sell because we think it too basic. Breathing is automatic and we have bigger issues with which to concern ourselves, so why bother?

A registered pharmacist for 42 years, Terri Peterson of St. Paul knows a lot about the properties, side effects, and potential interactions of 24,000-some prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, and natural remedies on the market. But it is oxygen as a tool for health that drives her work as a breath facilitator, teacher and coach — oxygen, and the mechanics of breathing and energy, or ch’i, that rides along with it.

“If everybody knew how easy and important breathwork is, more people would be doing it,” says Peterson, who runs Breathing Wellness.

Most of us use only 30 percent of our respiratory capacity, according to Peterson. “We think we are breathing just fine, and it is enough to get by.”

It is a missed opportunity, however. Full breathing can help ease anxiety, depression, insomnia, trauma, health issues, even autoimmune conditions, she says. It is a viceless way to self-medicate. It rejuvenates without grabbing another cup of coffee. Our focus improves, allowing us to think more clearly and get stuff done. Disconnecting from the chaos and centering ourselves also enhance calm; we know we are going to be okay.

“Okay” has eluded many of us lately. And yes, “okay” is relative to our circumstances.

“How you breathe is a reflection of everything that has happened to you in your life,” says Peterson. We are born open, natural breathers, our little bellies rising and falling with no effort. Then things scare us: monsters under the bed, adults who yell or worse. Over time, our diaphragm, or breathing muscle, develops a pattern of expansion and contraction that sticks, which becomes our default when we are stressed, rushed, or pressed to comprehend, say, an insurrection on the Capitol, disputed election, deathly virus, and ellipses known and unknown.

Stressors new, stressors old: Our bodies hold onto them both. “Breathing,” says Peterson, “has the ability to release some of them. Proper use of the diaphragm can calm the nervous system and relieve stress. Oxygen goes deep into the cells and it’s like Scrubbing Bubbles clearing out toxins.”

The life force — breath’s spirit power — returns us to a less triggered, more grounded place. Who doesn’t need that these days?

Conscious breathing, as the name implies, starts by being aware. “Breath is simple,” Peterson assures. Expanding our bellies on the inhale and relaxing them on the exhale is a simple ask of ourselves when standing in a socially distanced post office line, walking the dog, consuming media, or engaging with those of differing views.

Take a breath. Such begins a most peaceful transfer of power from all that has been of late, back to ourselves and everything we hold dear.

Kitty Shea is a Twin Cities writer and editor and onetime adjunct writing professor at the University of St. Thomas. She explores on Twitter healing and its many contours. @thisdaythisway