Don’t Forget to Breathe

Haley Hamilton is a Boston-based freelance writer/full-time bartender. Her journalism has appeared in DigBoston, Spare Change News and on Boston.com. When she’s not writing or attempting dolphin-handstands, she is crafting cocktails in Boston’s Seaport.

essay_breathe

Anxiety Disorder: (n) a mental health disorder characterized by excessive worry, irrational fear, compulsive behavior, extreme self-consciousness and at-times debilitating negative thoughts.

Breathe: (v) command form of the bodily process of inhalation and exhalation; a reminder to regulate the flow of oxygen in your body.

“Go. I don’t want to. You should really go; you know if you don’t go now, you’ll think about it all day. But I’m tired. You should go, you have to go. If you go now, you’ll be able to stop thinking about it. Come on, get going already; you’re wasting time. If you miss that class, your whole day’s ruined. I really don’t want to go. You know you have to go or—”

I’ve been asked why I bother paying for yoga classes. “I mean, don’t you know enough by now to just do it on your own?” friends ask. Yes. Sort of. I mean, I do, but the beauty of going to classes is that you don’t have to do anything. Yes, the physical workout is intense and a full 60 or 90-minute session can be excruciating, but you don’t have to think. You just have to follow directions. I like following directions.

Inhale, mountain pose. Exhale, forward fold.

For someone with a tireless voice in the back of their brain, someone with general anxiety disorder, someone like me, having things planned out can be tantamount to being able to leave the house.

Inhale, halfway-lift. Exhale, forward fold.

With instructions to follow, there is none of the nagging, “what now, now what?” And, “then what, what if, what now?” My brain so much enjoys. As long as I am on course and have a plan I am accomplishing the things and the voice quiets. Without them I’m at risk of spiraling down, deep into a pit of self-doubt that swallows all the air, leaving me panting, gasping for breath.

Inhale, halfway-lift. Exhale, high-to-low plank.

If I do yoga on my own two things happen: one, I do not practice for more than half an hour. I just don’t. Time stops between asanas and I swear it’s been 20 minutes when really five have passed. Two, I spend so much time thinking about what I should do next.

Inhale, up-dog. Exhale, down-dog.

When I practice on my own I am responsible for the plan, the one writing the directions. Trying to follow a plan I’m making up as I go along is too much like the rest of my life to be enjoyable.

Inhale through your nose. Exhale, let it go.

Anxiety is a curious and energetic creature. It’s like a beaver and a Schnauzer got together for drinks and wound up doing it in the bathroom. Months later a yappy, tenacious beast that gnaws on everything is born. It persistently seeks new things to badger you about: that exchange with a coworker seemed to go well, but he could have been making fun of you; your shirt might be too tight, you should check in every window you pass by or better yet, go buy a new one before you meet that guy for dinner; remember that thing you did five years ago? Yeah, feel shame about that.

Inhale, look up. Exhale, travel to the top of your mat.

“You’re here. You made it here, that’s the hardest part. All you have to do for the next 60 minutes is be right here. And don’t forget to breathe,” the instructor always says at the start of class. “The most important part of yoga,” she says, “is to breathe.”

Inhale, halfway-lift. Exhale, forward fold.

I don’t always buy it. I’m there for the movement, for the instruction, for the positions and postures I’d never think of on my own to coax drops and then sprinkles and then entire storms of sweat out of me until rivulets run down my arms, my neck, my legs and for those thoughts—the should have, could have, why didn’t you’s—to run down with them.

Inhale, chair pose.

But breathing—breath—helps us get through things we wouldn’t think possible. Childbirth, a panic attack, a halffolded-double-bind-arm-balance that threatens to break your spleen. By focusing on your breath, by intentionally controlling the inhales and exhales, the mechanics of pushing and pulling air out and into your lungs morph from reflex to responsibility of the cerebral cortex, the part of our brain connected to attention, perception, and consciousness. Thoughts, pain, and emotions are literally blown away when you breathe with intention.

Exhale, forward fold. Inhale, rise up. Exhale, fold down.

Inhale, halfway lift. Exhale, low pushup.

When your mind rebels against you, turning everyday dalliances into labyrinths of double-meaning and possible missteps, you must learn, and then choose, to trust the part of you that speaks up in your defense.

Inhale, up-dog. Exhale, down-dog.

The part your breath connects you with.

Inhale, look up. Exhale, travel to the top of your mat.

Because that’s the part that’s real.

Inhale, rise up. Exhale, hands to heart center.

So don’t forget to breathe.

Namaste.