Back to Breath

How the pandemic forced us to connect back to our most basic instinct.

Photo: taken by the author

A year ago today, morning greetings were busy: people hustled past each other and extended a hand to passing shoulders. Idle conversations would begin within a two-meter radius, in an attempt to be heard amidst the chatter. And from where I was standing, somewhere close by, laughter would soon break out, and facetiously, an echo would sound along the length of the hallway: “Corona Viiiiiiirus!”

The fear was not real yet. Somehow, the crisis in Italy hadn’t permeated through our armor of illusion. So we breathed on, freely. Until the freedom we never even considered was put into question.

For those with no debilitating conditions, breathing is automatic. Air is jolted into your system like a lightning bolt at birth, and by way of some miracle, your body already knows what it has to do. Conveniently, this gives you ample headspace to think about how to do other things, and so, for most of the day, rather absent-mindedly, you just breathe.

So we breathed on, freely. Until the freedom we never even considered was put into question.

At first, it all felt quite temporary. A strange apocalyptic moment of existence that would last one month. Three? Six months tops! The gravity of the situation was clear by now, but the solution, although unclear, seemed feasible. We sighed, and as we watched the numbers rise, and the time drip by, we breathed. But the breath grew shorter. Shallow. Constricted. And just like that, we saw it. Breath became conscious.

For anyone acquainted with anxiety, this heightened awareness of breath is all too familiar. The body becomes syncopated in its attempt to combat the trigger, and soon enough the threat is gone — or was never there, to begin with — and the body fights on, with the breath at the frontline, tirelessly panting.

The catch with the Coronavirus was in its very nature: respiratory. So there we were, sat around the television screen, as the cases of breath shortage grew, and the number of breath supplies shrunk. The anxious thought: “I could lose my breath” took up a whole new meaning. My biggest fear became that of not being capable of supporting myself with my most basic ability. To breathe.

There is strength in the breath

Once our daily routines had spiraled off their axes to the point of no return, we got used to living our lives on the backdrop of fear. For many, that fear was distant and silent, so it scattered mindlessly. And though we may have been vacuuming our floors free of the dirt from the infectious outside world, we were doing much less cleaning in our minds. We weren’t inhaling the scattered thoughts and exhaling them elsewhere. We were sinking into them when we should have been anchoring in our breath.

Many of us lament today what we “would have, could have” done before we were caged. We would have gone out more, instead of staying home. We would have gone to that concert. We would have saved that extra money. We would have met new people. But we didn’t. Unlike bears, we did not prepare for hibernation. And also unlike bears, we ended up in hibernation for one winter too many…

Still, hibernation is an adaptation to adversity. In our case, an adaptation to a new way of life. A time to reset or, if we so choose, to resist. And somewhere while we tried to adapt in the best way, we lost the point. There is no best way. Forget the “doing it right” or “getting it right”. The point is to focus on breathing right. Breathing to help yourself; breathing to not get in your own way.

The breath works for you, not against you.

Come January, Adriene Mishler released her annual 30-Day Yoga Challenge on her YouTube channel, and faithfully, I showed up on the mat. The theme she selected to represent the new year with was, not coincidentally, “Breath”. Also, not coincidentally, this was the month that my family and I were directly affected by Covid.

Through the practice of yoga (which gratefully my body allowed me to continue), I anchored in my breath. I practiced stillness and surrender. Surrendering to my own strength by acknowledging how much I already had. How prepared I already was. And surrender to everything which was out of my control. Slowly, and consciously, I showed up on the mat to build that relationship with my breath. That curiosity was strength.

Exhaling is an opportunity to release

This has been a year of many losses. A year of suspense. A year of lingering in the pain of anticipation. And in that space between loss and fear, we held our breaths.

Although I got through Covid almost symptom-free, my grandfather did not. And in the long moments of his final breaths, there was a moment of pause. Amidst my mother’s tears, my siblings and I sat meters apart, our faces covered with masks, with our arms and hands outstretched. We prayed in stillness. The only way out was to exhale. To be there fully, in that connection between an end and a beginning.

Inhaling is an invitation for renewal

“With each breath, we have the opportunity to begin again, to arrive in the present moment” — Adriene Mishler

Death meant many different things this year, but it inevitably came with the opportunity for renewal. Whether we claimed that opportunity was entirely up to us, although it was certainly made easier for some than for others. With this in mind, some possible examples may have looked like this:

  • The death of strained movement, in order to recover and move more wisely.
  • The death of productivity, in order to rest and restore and make room for creativity.
  • The death of relationships, in order to remember and commit to the relationship with ourselves.
  • The death of anger and resentment, to make room for kindness and compassion.
  • The death of judgment, to make room for curiosity.
  • The death of idealized individualism, to make room for the community.

“And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been” — Rainer Maria Rilke

Even in the quiet of our homes, where every day feels the same in a timeless question mark, there is something new. A nuance that has never been. A chance to feel joy, and spread it. To attract it. Even when emotions arrive that feel like ones you know all too well, they too are different. They too have never been. So let them arrive. Welcome them with grace.

Breathing is an open conversation

Don’t decide where it starts and where it finishes. From the first inhale of birth, to the last exhale of death, there is a whole story of breaths. So to breathe, is quite literally, to live.

Move and think mindfully with the breath, and forget time by honoring time. Inhale something new: replenish. Don’t just do it for yourself, because if you don’t take anything in, you have nothing to give. Breathing is recycling. Keep it circulating. Keep your space healthy.

“Consider each new breath as an opening. Enter. The breath is a doorway. Stay open.” — Adriene Mishler

During this tumultuous year, I practiced a more trusting relationship with my breath. It really is a practice. Each day is different. A chance to find something new. To return to the strength you already have. With patience, kindness, humility, and of course, humor.

After all, breath is how we connect. It’s the physical life source that connects us to our bodies. It’s the spiritual connection to our higher consciousness. And although we may breathe alone at first, we are really breathing together. In a continuous effort to connect. To something larger than ourselves.

So, if you haven’t already, take a breath. What a blessing it is to breathe!

This story was inspired by the Medium’s pandemic prompt: What Comes To Mind When You Think About The Pandemic Anniversary?

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