“You are not going to die. Just breathe. Breathe!” I laugh now remembering the nurse who yelled this at me while I was hyperventilating in her emergency triage room. I was in my first semester as a doctoral student, and at the end of the semester, I found myself at the hospital suffering from an anxiety attack. I had several final papers to write, I was juggling being the mother of a 3 year old, and I was simply overwhelmed. I had a lot on my plate, and I was not confident about how I would accomplish it all. In that moment, my body clamped shut, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was hyperventilating, and I was scared to death. I was freaking out. To calm my nerves (and to threaten some sense into me), the nurse yelled at me to “Breathe!!” And, into the brown paper bag she handed me, I did just that. I paused, and I paid attention to my breath. I listened to my breath and slowed down. I just breathed.
In yoga, the focus on breathing is called pranayama. B.K.S. Iyengar, the founder of Iyengar yoga, writes about the stages of breathing and the importance of practicing breathing techniques in yoga. You begin with the breath, you flow with the breath, you end with the breath. Anytime I want to sustain or go deeper in a yoga pose, I focus on my breath. If I’m going through a particularly stressful time in my life, I carve out space to focus on my breath. The practice of pranayama has helped me to work through some serious health issues. Breath is life. By focusing on and honoring my breath, I was honoring my body and my health. Without breath, there is no life.
So, everything begins with the breath. And, as I’ve learned to live my yoga off the mat, I’ve learned to apply this understanding and practice in other areas of my life, including when I run. I ran track in high school (years ago). But, in my adult life, I had concluded that I am not a runner. I don’t run. I can walk for miles. But, running–not for me. Well, this past summer, a good friend asked me to run a 5K with her for her birthday. We signed up for one of those Color Vibe races that are all the rage. I said I would do the 5K, but I planned on walking. Actually, I committed to just walking.
But, my friends decided to begin training for the 5K. The competitive spirit in me could not be upstaged, so I too decided to try training for the race. My first time going out for a run was tough. I could barely run a quarter of a mile, and I was completely out of breath. I went out a few more times–same result. I ran for a few minutes each time and quickly resumed to walking and trying to catch my breath. Then, it occurred to me that perhaps part of my problem was that I was not focusing on my breathing. Like in my yoga practice, everything begins with the breath. When I’ve found myself challenged in my yoga practice, I return to my breath. When I found myself challenged by running, I returned to my breath.
I ran my first 5K this summer in a little over 30 minutes. And, I ran the entire 3.2 miles. The woman who swore she did not run now runs regularly. I try to go out for a run once or twice each week. I love running. But, more importantly, I love honoring my body and health by focusing on my breath.
I often fondly reflect back on the words from my triage nurse, “You are not going to die. Just breathe. Breathe!” The act of breathing is the act of giving life. And I’m all about getting my life. So, in those moments when I find myself challenged or overcome with anxiety, I exhale, relax, and just breathe.