I have a few big memories from the first grade. It was the year someone brought a dirty magazine to school and showed it to me in the reading center as I sat on a beanbag chair, completely traumatized. It was also the year that I was swinging between two desks and fell straight on my back in front of the whole class. After the ability to breathe came back, I wanted to die of embarrassment. I don’t remember if it was my teacher or one of my classmates who introduced the song “Cindy” to us, but I do remember that the whole class learned it and sang “Get Along Home Cindy, Cindy” as loudly and as often as they could to me.
My other clear memory from the first grade was going into that porn-infected reading center with my friends to see who could hold their breath the longest. I participated in this competition so often that I became pretty good at it. Thanks to my shrimpy stature, I was usually the last to get picked on a kickball team and the first to get called in Red Rover, so “Holding My Breath Champion” meant a lot to me back then.
It makes total sense that I would connect with yoga and all of its focus on breathing. I love working on and sharing different pranayama exercises because they offer immediate relief from tension in the body and the mind both alone and while practicing yoga poses. One my favorite ways to end a practice is to take a deep breath in and hold it at the top, sip a little more air, then a little more. When it’s no longer comfortable, I let the air out of my mouth slowly with control. I fill up, I empty out. Complete relief.
What has taken me longer to see is the parallel that holding my breath has had to how I live my life. It seems that not only did I become skilled at holding onto one given breath for a really long time, I also became accomplished in holding onto ideas, expectations and relationships way beyond a healthy and nourishing point. The body’s physical cue that it is time to exhale is discomfort and lack of ability to think of anything except holding onto the breath. The mind’s cue that it is time to let go, move on, give up, bail out, cry uncle and surrender are just as clear. When we can no longer find comfort and contentment, when we persistently think about the preservation or creation of something more than our gratitude for it, our soul is waiting to exhale.
The descent into a huge, life changing exhalation can feel just like dropping down from the top of a roller coaster. You can feel petrified and like holding on for dear life. Even if you’re screaming bloody murder, the best way to ride the drop is with your hands in the air, someone you can trust by your side and blind faith that you will make it to the bottom safely and ready to climb right back up again.