Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Paralysis of the Breath

This blog has focused a lot on the breath. It sounds so easy to say – Just Breathe! The breath is always there, it is always available to us, it is always a guide for how we are doing and feeling. And sometimes the breath gets stuck. Have you ever been in a situation where you are a bit tense and then realize you have not actually breathed in several seconds even when you think you are trying to relax? Have you ever tried to take a deep breath only to feel as though every muscle in your body is fighting against it?

 Yoga leads us to deeper and calmer breathing in several ways. There is pranayama, which is specifically different breath control techniques. During asana practice, breathing helps us release more fully into any posture. In meditation, our breath keeps us focused. Breath is, therefore, the center of yoga, and it permeates all we do.

Being a lawyer provides ample opportunities for us to hold our breath with anxiety. Whether a deadline is fast approaching or a judge is telling you to get to the point, lawyering is a stressful profession. But it is more than stress that leads us away from the breath. Stress can be managed and understood, and generally we can find the breath with the right training even in very stressful situations.

Stress always has an underlying cause. Sometimes we just have too much on our plate, but why does that lead to stress? Recently, I have recognized that much of our stress comes from fear. Are we afraid we will not finish everything? Are we afraid we will not do a good enough job? Are we afraid we will not give enough time to our families if we focus on our work and vice versa? And it is when the fear becomes overbearing that we lose our breath. Fear can become debilitating.

I have heard fear and excitement as the same emotion with a different intention. We describe them somewhat similarly – butterflies in the stomach, shortness of breath, slight agitation, etc. And they arise in similar circumstances. What gives one person fear – public speaking – very much excites someone else. Similarly, excitement can be called eustress, which is defined as healthy or good stress. I do not particularly like the idea of good vs. bad stress, but it gets the point across. Sometimes, we need stress to get us excited enough to help us do great in a particular situation.

But sometimes that stress/fear overtakes us and completely paralyzes us. And it becomes obvious when even with conscious awareness the breath cannot slow and calm. It is a cycle that is difficult to break. As a yoga teacher, I want to believe that taking a deep breath relieves all situations and brings us back to our center. But as a modern human being, I know that is easier said than done. Deep down I still know and believe that coming back to the breath is the single greatest healing technique every one of us has. But using that technique is, at times, nearly impossible.

And what do we do in those moments? In those moments, it is important to recognize that we are not lesser beings because the breath is difficult. It is but another lesson. It is a window into helping us more fully understand that which causes us our greatest fears. Easy? Absolutely not! But those moments are also some of our most honest. Those are the moments when we recognize that it is okay to be afraid, it is okay to be human.

Of course we do not want the breath to stay paralyzed forever. But if we get caught up in being worried that it has momentarily stopped and that we should know better, we can get caught up in a worry that we are somehow less than. Less than what? Less than whatever your biggest fear is. Sometimes the breath being stopped by fear is a wake-up call to what is calling out to us. It is a wake-up call that something needs our attention. And when we provide that attention, the breath slowly (and sometimes quickly) returns to its prior glory.

 Our breath truly is our greatest teacher. It tells us where we are, and when we can concentrate and bring awareness to it, we are able to slowly begin to learn the lessons it has to teach. Have you had moments where your breath felt paralyzed? What do you do in those moments?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

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