The only thing you have to do is let go.
Everything needs it: bone, muscles, and even,
while it calls the earth its home, the soul.
So the merciful, noisy machine
stands in our house working away in its
lung-like voice. I hear it as I kneel
before the fire, stirring with a
stick of iron, letting the logs
lie more loosely. You, in the upstairs room,
are in your usual position, leaning on your
right shoulder which aches
all day. You are breathing
patiently; it is a
beautiful sound. It is
your life, which is so close
to my own that I would not know
where to drop the knife of
separation. And what does this have to do
with love, except
everything? Now the fire rises
and offers a dozen, singing, deep-red
roses of flame. Then it settles
to quietude, or maybe gratitude, as it feeds
as we all do, as we must, upon the invisible gift:
our purest, sweet necessity: the air.”
― Mary Oliver, Thirst
“We’re all at the top of an ocean of waves — up and down — we bring each other through the movement. I wonder if what is not conscious of movement is life, when it does not take a physical body to move — you can move through the breath, and in the process, let go of your concept of self. There are so many ways of being in the universe — of existing — to remind ourselves that our varied experiences is one and the same is to acknowledge that all beings are one and the same. The different energies we lose are always present, so in a way we never lose — we simply discover them anew.”
I wrote this after a Pranic breathing workshop I took in San Francisco a few weeks ago, on a sliver of journal paper that I kept by my mat after breathing actively for an hour, without stopping, and riding through a series of emotions that made me want to reflect using stream of consciousness. I know, you’re probably thinking, “Lord, not this hippie dippie bullshit.” But before you tune me out — I want you to ask yourself: “Am I fully, deeply breathing right now?”
When was the last time you felt your ribcage expand out of your chest, puffed yourself up like a bird and took the deepest breath of the day, only to let it out in one swooping, giant sigh of relief? When was the last time you did this consistently? When was the last time you remembered to just let it all go and give into your body?
I’ve struggled with breathing for most of my life. I’ve experienced the debilitating sensation of my throat constricting and somehow thinking that my body would forget to breathe and that the paramedics would laugh and say, “No, silly, breathing is automatic, you’re fine.” The fact is that the lungs alone do not do all the work. Breathing requires the whole body’s participation.
I’ve had trouble trusting my body because of the anxiety I’ve had since I was a child. So, when I discovered that proper breathing was something most westerners do not engage in, I was curious to change my story. To tune into my body — to let go and learn to trust it, not simply let my mind do all the steering.
Since I started practicing yoga 10 years ago, as a freshman in college, I started becoming more aware of the powerful connection between our brains and our breath. Breathing is a curious exercise, for it is voluntary and involuntary, unlike other bodily process such as digestion that we cannot influence. To train ourselves to breathe deeply throughout the day is to come back to our most natural selves; it means learning to simultaneously let go and take in, but to maintain a state of dual control, where we have the option to slow down, pick up the pace, or do nothing. Much like life itself.
Pranic breathing, or another form of deep breathing, has long been a practice in the East. Whatever you choose to call it, though, there’s no doubt that the process of full oxygen exchange (more oxygen entering the body, resulting in more carbon dioxide exiting) has some measured health benefits, namely managing stress and anxiety, lowering high blood pressure and sparking brain growth.
In fact, there have been countless studies outlining these benefits — including one by the American Institutes of Stress that sheds light on how breathing and relaxation techniques can significantly impact our emotional responses to stress. The fact that this is a carefully monitored, active process and does not involve relaxing on the couch or sleeping as a way to relieve everyday stress and anxiety may surprise you. But the basics of controlled breathing are pretty straightforward — they may vary depending on who is teaching you, but fundamentally, it looks something like this: inhaling deeply through the nose for a count of 5–7 seconds, holding the breath for a second or two, then releasing slowly and letting go entirely of any stale air than you inhaled, resulting in active, controlled breath. After a few rounds of this, you might start to notice that your thoughts have slowed down as well, that the pressing issues and To-Do lists clouding your mind and driving you a bit insane suddenly don’t seem so pressing. You might feel more open. You might feel lighter. You might not notice a significant change, but the process has started and the key is consistent practice.
The idea of breathing is not revolutionary, but conscious breathing can be an anchor that you rest on, believe in, and ride throughout your day — much like the many waves we navigate. Perhaps conquering anxiety will never happen for you — but living in the moment means living in the breath. We all have different reasons for forgetting to breathe, but to remind ourselves to be present in the breath, to create space for ourselves in our own bodies, is to support the fire of our life.