“Take a deep breath in. Hold. Exhale it out.” I heard those words a lot growing up as an extremely asthmatic child. If I had a dollar for every time a doctor held a stethoscope to my back or chest and said those words, you would probably pass my pony tied up outside the studio every time you came to class. Anyway, suffice it to say that breathing wasn't always easy for me as a kid. I had an inhaler, multiple medications in case I wheezed (which was often), and in the autumn just as the leaves were starting to fall, you could pretty much guarantee that I would be rushed to the pediatrician with an asthma attack. My mother even enrolled me in a class for asthmatic kids. We practiced breath control, worked on strengthening our core, and learned how to direct our breathing to different parts of the body. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
I was fortunate enough to outgrow the asthma by the time I was 13. And even though I didn't start practicing yoga until over a decade after that, I did not outgrow the breathwork. I kept practicing pranayama, even though I had no idea what it was. All I knew was that deep breaths in and out felt good. Doing that helped when I was stressed about school, friends, and life in general. When I would lie in bed at night, place my hands on my ribs and breathe into them, it was a lot easier to fall asleep.
When I did eventually make my way to yoga class, I remember setting up at the end of class and having the teacher lead us through three-part dirga breath. My first thought was, “Did her mother drag her to asthma class, too?” It was almost exactly like the breathing I had done two decades earlier. It was familiar and comforting, and it was very easy to drift off to that Savasana happy place.
Does bringing attention to the breath always lead you to that happy place? Not at all, but sometimes it's worth a try. When you control or direct your breath, you might just be able to control how your body – or even your minds – reacts to certain situations. I'll give you a completely un-yogic example: two weekends ago, my son was wrestling in a big tournament. His last match had three overtimes. He was exhausted, my heart was racing, and all I wanted to do was yell, “Get your hands off my baby!” to the other kid and call it a day. But I couldn't. Nor could I control what was happening on the mat. So I crossed my fingers, took deep breaths, and my pulse slowed down just a little bit. Not enough to make me less nervous, but enough to help me to realize that even if he lost the match, he would be okay. He did lose, and he was okay. (Defeat tastes a lot better after three pieces of pizza and some fried dough.)
You probably aren't watching a wrestling match anytime soon. But I encourage you to see what attention to the breath can do for you, whether you're in a stressful situation or not. It's amazing how a full breath in and a complete breath out can make you feel.
Take a deep breath in. Hold. Exhale it out.