The Politicization of Breath

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

In late June, Republican Councilman Guy Phillips ripped off his face mask as he repeatedly shouted “I can’t breathe” to an anti-mask rally crowd in Scottsdale, Arizona. Appropriating the Black Lives Matter rallying cry that echoes both George Floyd’s and Eric Garner’s dying words, Phillips is one of many who for ideological purposes have linked the two pandemics of COVID-19 and the rampant murder of Black people by American police officers.

Today, breathing is a contentious and political issue — from COVID-19 patients living their final days on ventilators, to the illegal maneuver that asphyxiated George Floyd — and how we breathe has larger implications beyond personal health. Meanwhile, much of the Western United States is struggling to breathe through the smoke of extraordinary destructive wildfires fueled by our growing climate crisis. And teargas, deployed against peaceful protestors demanding an end to racist policing, is having unknown side effects on victims and the environment, as well as making people more susceptible to COVID-19.

Six months into the coronavirus pandemic, Black Americans are more likely than white people to die of the virus. Black people have less access to health care and a greater probability of fatal health complications. This disease that attacks the respiratory system is just the newest way in which we must learn the devastating lesson that our society’s deadliest preexisting condition is racism.

This isn’t a new issue. Environmental racism has long left underserved communities gasping for air. The environmental justice movement arose out of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, when people of color started organizing against the disproportionate levels of toxic pollutants and poor air quality in their communities. The problems persist today; in 2018 the Environmental Protection Agency found that people of color are far more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air, and that Black children are twice as likely to have asthma as white children, while being ten times more likely than white kids to die of asthmatic complications.

Today, California and Oregon are battling an early and virulent wildfire season and facing incredible destruction. It is widely understood that smoke exposure makes people more susceptible to COVID-19, however being able to limit one’s exposure and stay inside with well-filtered air is a privilege many people do not enjoy — such as undocumented grape pickers forced to work in evacuation zones, and already vulnerable homeless populations.

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

The parallel pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism have brought extraordinary levels of stress and anxiety onto our whole society. In this unprecedented time, we all could benefit from some nice deep belly breaths, but even among those who have the luxury of clean air, many of us don’t know how to breathe deeply.

Our culture promotes shallow breathing — short, small inhalations into the chest, and quick little puffs of exhalations. Theories abound for why this is, but it is generally agreed that the way we breathe in modern society (in the United States at least) is insufficient. As journalist James Nestor recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “breathing is a missing pillar of health, and our attention to it is long overdue.” Nestor, whose recent book Breathe: The New Science of a Lost Art was an instant New York Times Bestseller, went on to say, “doctors who study breathing say that the vast majority of Americans do it inadequately.”

Shallow breathing is problematic for a variety of reasons, but most noteworthy here is the way it perpetuates a state of chronic stress and fear. It is indicative of our body’s activation of the sympathetic nervous system — the so-called fight or flight response — and thus makes stress a habit in our bodies. Being under constant stress is taxing to the body in many ways, and can be a contributing factor in numerous health problems such as high blood pressure, insomnia, a suppressed immune system, depression, and more — all of which can lead to even more severe chronic conditions. Additionally, shallow breathing perpetuates stress and stress perpetuates shallow breathing, creating a feedback loop that can be challenging to interrupt, particularly when paired with persistent triggers such as structural inequality.

These connections are being made within the wellness industry, especially by Black women entrepreneurs such as Tricia Hershey and Jasmine Marie, who have long been making the links between racism and poor health outcomes for Black Americans. Hershey’s project, The Nap Ministry, is an in-person and virtual movement to reclaim rest, with a popular Instagram account. “Rest is resistance because it disrupts and pushes back against capitalism and white supremacy,” Hershey wrote in a recent piece for Yoga Journal, “We center rest as a means for healing and liberation and believe sleep deprivation is a racial and social justice issue.”

Jasmine Marie, of Black Girls Breathing, has a similar thesis driving her company, which is currently fundraising to provide free breathwork for Black women. Marie recently told Vogue, “Black women are dying from chronic stress because it’s linked to diseases such as breast cancer, ovarian cancer, heart disease, and high blood pressure. We’re the most affected by these ailments, and not being able to lower our cortisol and reframe our nervous system is killing Black women.”

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Hershey and Marie make clear that lowering stress through achieving a resting state in the body is a matter of life and death. A chronically activated stress response can have devastating consequences interpersonally as well. We are unable to understand and empathize with one another when we are in “fight or flight” mode. During this extremely polarized time, interpersonal understanding is more important than ever, and yet we are struggling to breathe deeply enough to even begin to reach common ground.

As Resmaa Menakem details in his book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies, when the fight or flight response is engaged, we go into survival mode and our “lizard brain” takes over:

“Our lizard brain cannot think. It is reflexively protective, and it is strong. It loves whatever it feels will keep us safe, and it fears and hates whatever it feels will do us harm. All our sensory input has to pass through the reptilian part of our brain before it even reaches the cortex, where we think and reason.”

As we weather the collective trauma of this time, we all must learn to breathe in such a way that is soothing to our nervous systems, and allows us to be in a place of calm understanding. We must get out of our “lizard brain” and into our mammalian brain where we can think clearly, listen to the experiences of others, and make informed decisions.

Much of the alt-right is complaining of not being able to breathe behind a mask, and it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if they truly are having trouble — but this would only be an indication of a deeper problem with the way people breathe in the first place. With the exception of those with respiratory complications or trauma that makes wearing a mask uncomfortable, breathing in a mask should have no bearing on a person’s ability to breathe properly. However, wearing a mask will exacerbate improper breathing if individuals are breathing shallowly through the mouth, in little gasps, rather than taking longer, slower, deep belly breaths in through the nose and even longer exhales.

Such deep breathing methods, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, have an extensive list of physical, emotional, and mental benefits. Deep breathing is not going to solve our deep-seated political divides, the racism that is deeply ingrained in our culture, or the inequity that runs through the very fibers of our institutions. It can, however, allow us to prioritize self-care and collective care, while moving us from a place of fear, defensiveness, and reactivity, into a place of thoughtful consideration and grounded compassion.

Deep Breathing Practice

Incorporating deep breathing into our daily lives can be challenging, but truly all it requires is awareness several times a day. Set timers on your phone to incorporate breathing practice throughout your schedule. Directly before or after meals is a good idea, as deep breathing can aid in the digestive process. If you are finding it challenging to breathe deeply due to a medical condition, past trauma, or any other reason, consider reaching out to a respiratory therapist or trauma-informed breathwork guide for extra help. Here is a beginning breathing practice to try on your own.

  1. Lie down flat on your back on a yoga mat on the floor, or on your bed without pillows under your head, so that your neck is in line with your spine.
  2. Place one hand on your lower belly and another hand on your chest. Breathing in whatever way feels natural, notice your breath and if either of your hands move as you inhale and exhale.
  3. After a few breaths, begin to inhale slowly through your nose and send the air deep into your belly, feeling as your hand is lifted up by your rising belly, and as it falls as your belly deflates with your exhale.
  4. Repeat for 10 slow breaths, with a long inhalation, and an even longer exhalation. Try to get to a 5 second inhale and 10 second exhale. See if you can keep the hand on your chest completely still and isolate all movement to your belly.
  5. Now sit up and — maintaining your hands placed on the low belly and chest — continue this same breathing method for 10 more breath cycles.
  6. Now stand up, take your hands off your belly and chest and try it again, noticing if you’re able to maintain the low belly breath and the slow tempo.
  7. Over the next few days, practice the method in different situations, positions, and environments. Try it while walking, while working, while talking on the phone.

Through the above exercise you will begin to feel into what it’s like to incorporate deep breathing into everyday life. As you do this, you will also begin to notice when you tend to get stuck in a shallow breathing pattern. Noticing and becoming mindful about when we’re breathing shallowly, and then gently reminding ourselves to deepen the breath, is a small but impactful step in the process of shifting our culture from being stuck in a permanent collective stress response.

Juniper Waller (she/her) is a vocal empowerment coach and breathwork guide helping people free their voices through guided vocalization and meditation practices. After 10+ years of voice study, 4 years of teaching singing, and a background in performance, social justice work, and holistic healing modalities, Juniper has merged her passions to help others use their voices as their most effective tool. Born and raised in Oakland, CA on occupied Ohlone territory, Juniper now lives in Sacramento on unceded Nisenan land. Her monthly online healing circle, Breathwork for Collective Liberation, happens every second Saturday from 4–6pm PT. Juniper can be found at @voicebodyspirit on Instagram and Facebook.

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Juniper Waller

Juniper Waller

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(She/her) Vocal empowerment coach and breathwork guide, singer, writer, disruptor, living on stolen Nisenan land. Connect with Juniper @voicebodyspirit