Whole Living Daily

The Newbie Yoga Chronicles: Scared to Breathe

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I had never thought about my breath being safe before.

But there I was, in my Saturday morning yoga class and when we were asked to breathe out as much as we could, I panicked. When you breathe all the way out, you don't have any more air.

Yes, I know. Duh.

When I breathed back in (after what felt like several excruciating seconds), I felt like I was gasping for air, a swimmer come to the surface, finally, greedily sucking down sweet oxygen. It didn’t feel very yogic.

I consulted a friend and restorative yoga instructor in Denver, CO, Sara Alan about my moment of panic, who assured me that it’s a normal experience.

"Our bodies aren’t used to the range of our breathing, the full capacity of our inhales and exhales," she said. "It can be scary—and uncomfortable—in the beginning when you first start experimenting with breath work exercises and shifting to a deeper natural breathing."

Maybe this comes down to a matter of trust. You have to trust that if you breathe all the way out, when you’re ready to breathe in again, the air will be there for you.

I’m not that good at that kind of trust. I like safety nets and backup plans. I like having the directions and a map. I thought about my friend Liz, who is this week packing up to leave New York and is heading to a new life in Seattle. I’ve been admiring her these last few months and the calm that she seems to be displaying as she breaths out this New York life.

If I were her, I would definitely be experiencing that same sense of panic that I felt when breathing out. But I think that she’s trusted that things will fall into place and her new life in Seattle will be there for her when she’s ready to breathe it in.

Her sense of calm seems to be working for her; just this week she found a great new job out there. Trust.

At the end of our "consultation," Sara told me my moment of panic meant that I was talking a step in the right direction, by exploring the  range of breath that my body is capable of. I think Liz is probably doing the same.

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Comments (2)

  • Hi Olessa, and fellow WL blogger!

    I love to hear this from a beginner, but just so you know, it happens to us all. One of the techniques we learn as we move from figuring out the breath into directing it to serve our goals in the poses (whether that be a Down Dog or averting a near-blowout with our boss), is to relax during that moment of panic during a held exhale. You can actually dive underneath the urge to breathe in, like when you finally get an hour to take a sweet nap. Try it sometime, not in your active practice, but while lying on your back.

    Even beginners can easily hold the breath, in a peaceful state, for at least a minute. We do this not to tempt fate, but to cause a deep relaxation of the central nervous system, as your rational mind takes over your fight-or-flight hair trigger. In this way, just like your friend Liz, you get a chance to practice the peace within the letting go, and the space within the emptiness of that next unknown moment.

    Thanks for your stellar blog. I'm inspired!

  • The same thing happens when I have a Cat Scan of the lungs. You are told repeatedly to hold your breath, then let go. Sometimes they forget to tell you to let go. Yoga serves it's purpose in all aspects of life.

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