Holding the breath

Originally posted 6/15/2020 on Native Appropriations as part of the Indigenous Stories of Uncertain Times series

Life is sacred. This conviction is nothing short of revolutionary when those in power are calculating how many Black, Indigenous, and Brown lives society at large will quietly accept in order to go “back to business” and reopen the economy. I write this as hundreds of thousands of people across the U.S. are refusing to accept the loss of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black lives stolen because of the terror of white supremacy. I have hope that the compassion muscle we have been strengthening to support our communities and our broader human family in this time could mean that back to business is not business as usual. Business as usual is not freedom for all of us.

Breath is a gift, but it’s not true that you don’t have to learn how to breathe. In truth it can be a struggle to be able to breathe well and with purpose. We are born with the breath of survival. It is our birthright to learn the breath of thriving. In the time of this pandemic that uniquely attacks the lungs I have been learning about my own.

I started jogging two months ago and before I could even get out of breath my feet would creak in pain trying to carry my body across the pavement. Two weeks later my feet were stronger, but then my side would scream out before I could tire. Through trial and error I realized it was because I wasn’t breathing frequently and deeply enough. Once I noticed my breath I realized I was practically holding it. I was starving my muscles of oxygen as if air were in short supply.

I hadn’t run since I was a child on a soccer field. I would run hard easily for 15 minutes at a time–my face red and hot, but my body resilient. For a few months I did have what I’ve come to understand as stress-induced asthma, probably from the loss of my father as a parent due to his  tranquilizer habit. I would learn later how my body could express heartache even when no other part of me could when last September after my father’s passing the skin around my eyes inexplicably was constantly cracked and dried. I thought perhaps I was crying in my sleep but I never determined the root cause and it cleared up by the end of the year. My “grief skin” took some time before it was shed.

This recent experience jogging and getting tuned into my body brought back to memory years ago trying to hike in Yosemite. This was the last time I tried to do strenuous physical activity and my body seemed to refuse. My ears would fill with the blood of my own heartbeat before I could get very far up a hill. I had only moved to San Francisco in the past year. Walking up hills isn’t a regular occurrence growing up in Anaheim. I thought maybe I didn’t have enough practice or it was the altitude. I was relatively fit, but had just finished up a course of Accutane in my desperation caught between teen and adult acne. I worried pumping this poison through my body had weakened me. Walking uphill this past month in Redwood Regional Park, I applied my new knowledge of my need to consciously breathe and found my heart did not have to work so hard when I called on my lungs in support.

I’ve also been playing music again now for about a month. Off and on in my life I’ll pick up my guitar and sing. I’ll play covers of the music of my teens and twenties, sometimes more recent music, but mostly the old rotation: Neutral Milk Hotel, the Decemberists, Elliot Smith, Gillian Welch, etc. My finger calluses have nearly returned to effectively hold down the strings and my hands feel strong. My voice is finding its way back but I can hear whenever I waiver since I’m not singing along in a car, the place I used to get practice, the time when traveling used to be possible.

I loved to sing all my life. There were recordings of me as a toddler singing as my dad played the country songs he wrote. The only good part of Wednesday chapel at my Lutheran elementary school was singing together. I joined choir in high school and I would get chills that would bring me nearly to tears when our voices resonated. A few years back I took a singing class and after the exercise where the instructor determined my range, I was told that though my range was wide, I needed to put more power behind my voice. I already know intellectually that this means taking in breath in preparation and effectively pushing out breath to support the sound of my voice, but this takes practice.

We know breath as spirit, and that the act of breathing creates a sacred connection between our world inside our bodies and our world outside. This connection is our birthright, to every moment feel what we give to the world and what we receive. To know that we are worthy of both takes practice for those of us who have received consistent messages in our life that we should not exist, or that some part of us is inconvenient to others or should remain hidden. What it is to be sure of the next note you are about to sing, to draw power behind your voice?

In my work as a community organizer and activist, many meetings begin by grounding in the breath. Participants and facilitators are invited to breathe into the full length, width, and depth of their bodies, to take up space in the present moment and to see the dignity in themselves and others. This particular practice is rooted in generative somatics, but many cultures have a practice of grounding in the breath to slow down and be present.

We are born with so many tools that come to us free with the gift of life that many of us don’t know how to use. Stimulating the vagus nerve is recently being recognized in popular culture as key to our mental and physical health. Breathing deeply is an accessible way to stimulate the nerve and it really does work. What a wonderful thing for me to have known as a child. To know that I had the ability to calm myself when the world felt chaotic. We are taught so little about our own bodies. Imagine being an octopus that doesn’t know how to change color or a squirrel that doesn’t know how to hide acorns.

We are born into a world and a dominant culture of white supremacy and patriarchy that does not recognize the sovereignty of human life, that does not allow each of us to exist in our full length, width, and depth, that does not honor our boundaries, our NO in the face of racial terror, environmental degradation, mass homelessness, and gendered violence. Overworked and underpaid, expected to show up and serve white supremacists who don’t wear face masks in a pandemic: Black, Indigenous, people of color, womxn and essential workers are putting their bodies, their lungs, their spirit on the line because they are forced to do so.

This reality requires us to meet it, not to look away, not to distract ourselves, but to meet it with  compassion and conviction. We can take a deep breath in to meet the world and all its pain in the present moment. It can feel like too much but we can do it and find that we survive. We can let our breath out to extend ourselves into this world, to bring what we can offer to ease suffering. We can breathe in to fill our lungs with the capacity to shout, to sing, to yell at those who have profited off this suffering, those who would rather send more people to their deaths than extend unemployment benefits or cancel rents. We must demand more from those who hold power, who have taken power from us. We must practice to be sure of our own voice and our right to exist.


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