This is not the first entry I have received for our work-in-progress “Essential Americans: the Stories that can be no longer Ignored,” but I choose it to be the first I publish because it perfectly represents the kind of narrations I was hoping to collect. With this submission, I feel vindicated in my belief we could attract thoughtful writers who have no agenda but to help us heal, and to do so by risking a candid portrait of their soul in turmoil. Thank you, Justina, for showing us how it’s done.
On the Practice of Breathing
I’ve been thinking a lot about the breath lately. Pandemic wise, I suppose many of us are. I’ve read that breathing while sick with Covid-19 is like scuba diving with your tank turned off. I’ve heard that within two days you can go from feeling under the weather to not being able to get any air into your lungs. The masks we all wear now make my breath hot against my face. Each inhale takes extra effort, an extra mental conversation inside my head to convince myself that I’m not going to faint, I can still get a breath in, my lungs just have to work a little bit harder.
After spending the first two weeks of quarantine drinking too much, I joined my friend in a daily morning yoga practice. Already the guilt of not doing anything productive during “all this extra time!” was creeping up on me like a snake through the tall grass of my overcrowded brain. Before the pandemic I took a weekly yoga class at the neighborhood place and the teacher often talked about controlling your breathing. But now, six days a week, I am compelled to contemplate my breath. In yoga, Pranayama is the practice of controlled breathing. Our prana is our life force. There are several breathing exercises you can do, all focusing on control and a certain amount of calmness. And throughout every yoga class, any teacher will talk about the breath—in and out, belly breath or chest. To please, yogis, remember your breathing. Come back to your breath. Ujjayi breath—the rustling of leaves in the back of your throat. Breath is a rhythm, a tattoo upon your existence. Without it, there is only stillness. Only the body. The ultimate inanimate object.
Now every breath I take is a deliberate breath. Every inhale fights against the wall of muscle that squeezes my chest so tightly. Every exhale another attempt at ridding myself of some kind of poison inside me. There is a Pranayama to evoke calmness. There is a Pranayama to call up courage. There’s one to energize the brain. There is not one to breathe through police officers pressing their weight into your back and neck.
On Monday, May 25, 2020 a Black man named George Floyd was murdered. The fact that he was Black was, on that day, and I suspect many days, the most important feature of Floyd’s being. It is what cost him his life. I’ve watched the video. I saw him beg for relief. I watched onlookers plead with the cops, telling them that Floyd is, by that time unresponsive. His last breath was a sickening slip into unconsciousness from which he never awoke. George Floyd died on the street, suffocated by policemen while everybody watched. Watched a man being suffocated, helpless. His chest on fire, his neck pressed into the ground like you would subdue a wild dog. What was his last breath like? A small sip of oxygen, slipped in through the weight of the whole country’s racism? Was it a desperate gasp, as his windpipe was crushed?
Each breath I take is a privilege soured by guilt. Mostly, guilt over feeling guilty. It builds upon itself like a Lego tower my kid builds to the ceiling, in our comfortable house filled with our white middle class life, a thousand bricks and counting.
Privilege is the ability to grieve for you without having to be you.
Guilt is knowing that grief doesn’t cost a dime.
The benefits of a Pranayama practice are many. The calming of the nervous system brings stress relief and a sense of well being to the body. A good yoga teacher will tell you that your breathing should be smooth, supple, and silky. Just in and out. In and out. No other thoughts but this rhythm. The basics of life.
Everyday I try to do this, breath with silkiness. I imagine the air filling my lungs effortlessly, the air swirling into my lungs with a ballet-like gracefulness, slipping into each tendril, each capillary. I wish I could end each yoga practice with a pat and positive platitude, a promise out to the world like, “Well, we can all just breathe through this crazy time together!” or “I’ll do my best to breathe for those who can’t!” But the truth is, my breath is jagged, and shallow. And my chest hurts, and I don’t really know why.