Monday, August 13, 2012

Learning to Breathe . . . Again

On my 30th birthday, I posted that after being lucky enough to focus on myself for the past decade, or so, it was time to focus on others. My new job (new back then), put me into that world full force. For the past 7.5 months, I have been representing children removed from their parents by child protective services. Intense is only the beginning. But it also means I get to serve children and families.

But focusing only on giving means the yoga bucket gets drained . . . and fast. I was lucky enough to be able to take a wee vacation. For a glorious week I was back among the mountains, and they looked substantially similar to the Remarkables in Queenstown, New Zealand. My four days in Queenstown were some of the most profound and moving of my time in New Zealand. If it is not abundantly obvious from previous posts, I love mountains. I also love trees. My trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Teton National Park was full of both.

The Grand Tetons

But it also brought me back to another aspect of yoga – the breath. Long before I started writing Is Yoga Legal, I had written another blog through Xanga (remember that company?). It was nothing special, and I believe I only shared it with my friends and only had about 6 posts total (whereas this is post 180 on this blog!). I cannot even find the posts I wrote for Xanga. But I remember one of them, and only one of them. Not surprisingly, it focused on the breath. I remember laying down one day and feeling as though I had finally learned to breathe. Those were my early days of yoga practice, about a decade ago. And it was a profound moment. It was the moment I realized how powerful such a simple movement can be. It was the moment I realized the healing potential of the breath.

The label, “breathe” is the most cited label on this blog. Breath is the foundation of all yoga. It brings us to awareness and helps us gauge how we feel and how we are currently functioning. It is a bit ironic, therefore, that my breath has shortened and become more shallow these past few months. I have noticed it even when actively practicing yoga, either at home or in a class.

But I took some time to get away. Interestingly, I went somewhere with a lot less oxygen than Tucson. The highest point you can drive in Yellowstone is 8,859 feet (2,700 metres). Our hotel was at over 8,000 feet (2,440 metres). I have never done well at high elevations, and the headache hit me pretty hard. In addition, I could feel my breath shortening as we went higher up.

But that was probably the best thing to happen. I had to pay attention to my breath. I had to pay attention because I needed all the oxygen I could get.

Paying attention was like relearning all over again. It seems almost silly to talk about learning to breathe. After all, our first action on this Earth is to inhale, and our last action is to exhale. The breath is usually completely unconscious. Our breath will happen whether we will it to or not. We can live days without water and weeks without food, but only a few minutes without the breath.

And yet, we can learn to harness the breath to our benefit. We can learn to make the breath work for us. We can learn to notice when we are holding the breath. We can learn to take deeper breaths. We can learn to use our diaphragm to breath and not our shoulders. In short, we can learn to breathe effectively.

Learning to breathe was the first indication I was on a yogic path. I remember the moment as though it were yesterday, which is surprising because, as I have mentioned before, I do not remember a lot. But learning and practicing are different things. Some days the breath comes easily, and other days it can be a struggle. Removing the oxygen from the air by going up mountains forces us to slow down and pay attention in order to ensure we get the oxygen we need. It forces us to relearn to breathe.

It was also a reminder that no matter how shallow the breath gets, we can always refocus and relearn to breathe whether the shallowness is from a lack of oxygen or a stressful day. We do not need to wait until it becomes painful to breathe to learn this lesson. Instead, we can take it with us every single day.

Have you taken the time to learn to breathe? What has been your greatest teacher?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.


  1. Thanks for the reminder about breathing. It was a joy being on the trip with you and watching you love the mountains and the trees. Reading this post was a great reminder of my need to stop, breathe, and relax when I get worked up.