The Gift of Breathing
Rainy Sunday mornings are right for praising life with yoga. My first session of the season is going resplendently well. My body isn’t arguing with me as I thought it might — a dedicated yoga class hasn’t been on the calendar in 10 years. A twin pregnancy and decadent, indulgent food in a metropolitan city as a restaurant editor have enabled me to eat recklessly.
Through death and abandonment, my original family of four shrank to one in the course of just a few years. I have grief-gobbled myself into a puffy caterpillar form, minus the legs. Finally, I’ve earned the mockery of the high school girls calling me an elephant, a quarter-century too late.
But my body is strong and limber today, giving me what I need. Hips opened wide after delivering two darling boys in one night — finally, I birthed a living child; full healing lungs breathe in deeply instead of screaming and gasping after a 15-year childhood stint of sucking on the cancer sticks (family legacy).
As we move through our positions, I hear my therapist’s words in my head: “Inhale deeply through your nose as if you’re trying to smell freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Then breathe out of your mouth so strongly as if you’re trying to blow out birthday candles across the room.” In. Out. Mindful breathing. Here we go.
I glance around the room of my “Easy Like Sunday Morning” yoga class, and I’m as relaxed as a breeze. The relief draws tears to my eyes. My pink nose tingles as if I’ve just inhaled a solitary snowflake. I am determined to honor the flow of the class.
Yearning to belong, I train my eyes on the bodies of the yoga soldiers in our packed class. Their bodies sinewy and muscled underneath their supple skin, their techniques refined. I revel in their wisdom and lovingly bathe in their path, mimicking their movements like a chubby toddler parrots her mama.
As we commit to the downward dog, we push up from our mats with an exhalation of breath for power, and two strong arms. As we lift our hips back into the air and draw our ribs toward the spine, we inhale, and then exhale fully.
We sit upright comfortably, feet tucked ever so slightly under the opposite leg. Crisscross applesauce. I place my single right fingertip behind my tailbone to provide all the support my entire body needs. I do this. Like a giraffe reaching for a bite of leaves from the tallest tree, I turn my body to the warm gray light, dappling in from the rain-splashed windows.
Then the class moves into an intense hip-stretching exercise. I’m a contortionist, with my right foot pressing into my soft belly dough and my left leg drawn back taut, pretending to be a sleek arrow on the hunt, pulled taut on the crossbow.
Like cracking open a coconut, I roll the outside of my right hip down by pushing into the outside edge of my foot and even out my seat. Somehow, as I am wincing to manage all of this, we lay forward and open ourselves fully to the ground, in a humbling, vulnerable open prayer to the fire in our loins.
During this time, the teacher tells us that we should never push ourselves to do anything that feels unsafe or painful. I’m immediately overwhelmed, and my eyes react by silently bawling. My cheeks are wet with the basic cooking ingredients of water, salt and necessity as I consider the basics that I didn’t receive growing up, the basic protections, the simplest of advice — the most primitive of worry.
After twinning the exercise on the opposite leg, we rustle up to stretch out into bent-over wide-legged triangles. It’s now that I take note of the male student behind me. Was he here all along? I’ve already tallied two in the classroom — one softer male three mats over to my right and another in the far right corner — but it’s alarming to think there’s a full-grown muscled man right behind me who I wasn’t aware of.
This heart quickens.
Suddenly, it’s time to relax and I’m supposed to trust this space. As the class draws toward the end, the instructor has us pull into our child’s pose. She tells us we are safe. We transition into rolling onto our backs, lifting up our hips and legs. “Stretch your legs out as you need,” she tells us.
Soothing music lulls around me as I roll my hips around, relieving them from the hard work I’ve done in the earlier exercise. The teacher says to make this practice our own. She’s turned the lights a little lower, to relax people, and she’s walking around waving aromatic scents of lavender salve under our noses.
My legs are tucked above me — I’m in a reverse child’s pose, except my arms are tightly wrapped around my legs and my eyes are closed to relish in the relaxation.
The instructor leans down and whispers to me, “Is your back hurting?”
I pop my eyes open and look around. Everyone has their legs flat on their mats, yet my arms are fiercely pulling my shins down to my belly. My legs are hugged in tightly; I’m giving myself the embrace I wish the people of my world could. Or would.
Cocooned, I am wrapped into myself: a tiny little package, impenetrable. I lock eyes with my teacher’s shiny blue eyes. She is here for me, with a gift of only love and assistance. I am broken down once more, and my shoulders quake.
I manage a smile and say, “No.” She gently takes my feet and pulls my legs out. Now I match my peers in position.
I know then what is wrong and I hiccup-cry as I try to mindfully smell cookies and blow out birthday candles but try try try as I might, I can’t close my eyes because I never know when another group of high school football players are going to force me in a closet again to take their turn at seven minutes in my hell or just one dark muscled man is going to lock the door, shove a dresser in front of it, and then heave himself on top of me with a hammer in his hand, reeking of a stench of old urine I’ll never unsmell, shoving his body parts inside of me, while I fight to breathe on a thin dark orange blanket in the middle of the darkest night, lost. My psyche caresses worse memories away before my mind is rendered powerless, a lost balloon floating above my body. Watching. Waiting. Breath withheld.
“Gratitude,” the instructor begins to read a poem out loud. Her gentle voice waxes and wanes in my ears as my heart thumps and burns in my chest. I have pulled in my lower lip with my two front teeth, and I’m chewing on it in rhythm to my heart.
I’m nauseatingly aware too that I’ve just whimpered like a newborn puppy. (Did anyone hear?)
For the love, please no one look at me right now.
My right hand twists around my lime green mat, fingers writhing on the cool wooden floor below like the stripper I can’t believe I didn’t become, who I chose to not become.
This is no longer an exercise in relaxation. I’m fighting for air and my eyes are wide open in a full-blown panic attack.
I wonder if I should run out, but I’m frozen in fear (a familiar feeling).
Tears pool around my earlobes, and I pray they aren’t wetting my expensive hearing aids. The first of the calendar month zings our accounts to cover tuition and therapy for our autistic son. Goodness. A merry-go-round of indulgent self-pity that I haven’t yet succumbed to encircles my head like a revolving crown of shame. My entire body begins to shake, wishing for just one tiny break in the clouds.
I think to myself: I know where I am. I am in a safe place. I am in control.
I have placed myself here, and I am grateful for the journey I am on.
This moment is mine. I choose this moment. I choose this place.
I blow out the birthday candles, for I am reborn in my strength of choosing.
I am grateful to be breathing.
This essay was first published on The Manifest-Station.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kirsten Palladino is an award-winning editor and writer, as well as the author of the forthcoming wedding planning book for LGBTQ couples, Modern Traditions, (Seal Press/Hachette Book Group, Spring 2017). She’s the co-founder and editorial director of equallywed.com, the world’s leading digital LGBTQ wedding magazine. She blogs about trauma recovery at foragedwellness.com. Palladino has been profiled on CNN and in The New York Times. Her work has appeared in Entrepreneur magazine, ARTNews magazine, Art & Antiques magazine, The Knot, Executive Traveler magazine, the Huffington Post, and more. She was recognized as one of Glamour magazine’s Hometown Heroes for 2015. Palladino has an open door communications policy on Twitter at @kirstenop and Facebook at fb.com/kirstenpalladino.