01 Apr How Do I Breathe?
Shya and I went for a walk one summer morning. It was bright, cool and early. I wanted to get a jump on the day and stretch my legs before the heat hit. I had a 7:45am meeting, so we set off at a brisk pace in order to get back in time for a shower. Our route would take us to the bottom of nearby Gravel Hill Road. On an outing there the week before, I had spied a newborn fawn on the edge of the woods and had taken a sweet picture of the baby while its mother stamped her foot and huffed at us from behind.
On this particular day, though, we set a brisk pace rather than a more leisurely one. I wanted it to be an aerobic event as I had been on a mission to build stamina for an upcoming fishing adventure. Wading in a river and climbing up and down its banks is much more fun when my legs are strong, so I had been walking longer routes, going faster and choosing terrain that was steeper, too.
Traditionally, when walking Gravel Hill, we go slower on the way down and speed up on the return. This often seems counterintuitive to me as the grade of the hill is quite steep. But by the time we get to the bottom our legs are warmed up and when we head back toward home we are already moving with momentum. On this morning, though, we had started out at a clip and had kept up our pace so when we reached the bottom, we were already really moving. Turning around at the stop sign at the end of the road, we started back up the hill.
“Soften your steps,” Shya said, and I realized I had inadvertently begun pounding my way up the rise.
I immediately brought awareness to the sound of my feet and did my best to silence my footfalls.
“You mean I don’t have to stomp my feet?” I asked with a grin.
“Nope. That’s extra.”
We kept moving, climbing that hill with vigor. We checked our Apple watches and as usual, my heart rate spiked. By the time it reached 140..145…148, I couldn’t catch my breath. I had the feeling I wasn’t getting enough air and a tinge of panic began to creep toward the edges of my awareness. I still had the energy to move at this pace but my breathing was becoming a problem. I knew Shya, who once trained for a marathon in the high Sierra Nevada mountains where the air is thin, might have the answer. All I had to do was ask.
“Shya, how do I breathe?” I asked.
He looked at me.
“I mean, I feel as if I can’t get enough breath and I feel the edges of panic.”
“Breathe out faster.” He said. “Taking a breath happens on its own.”
Immediately I tried it. He continued, “Until you breathe out fully, you can’t take in more air. This isn’t a breath group. Go ahead and push it out.”
I did as he suggested and before I knew it, things calmed inside. We began breathing in rhythm with our steps, taking longer on the inhale and speeding up the exhale.
Through it all we continued to chat. We spoke of many things including my familial culture and its relationship to panic, and the times when the two of us had indeed been truly unable to breathe – me by inhaling a piece of candy as a child and him by aspirating a piece of food as an adult.
Up the hill we went and as the grade lessened, my heart rate slowed and breathing eased. Suddenly I heard birds again and saw the play of light through the trees. Spontaneously my attention had been redirected to the world around me.
I described the experience to Shya.
“You are perfectly describing an upset,” he said. “When you have a threat to your survival, real or imagined, you disconnect from the world and turn inward. When you come out of the upset, or purposefully move away from it, you reconnect with the world once again.”
I realized then that stomping my way up the hill had been a sign of the oncoming upset, too – a protest march of sorts. If there had been a baby deer standing at the treeline at that moment, I would likely have marched my way right past it.
The rest of our walk was easy. We chatted once more about inconsequential things, listening to one another and the birds, aware of the trees and later, aware of the oncoming cars when we reached the main road once again.
I returned home, warm, sweaty and invigorated. After stretching my legs on the steps to our front door, I took a nice deep breath, let it out and stepped up to continue on with my day.
Thanks for the inspiring blog – it reminds me of myself when I’m hiking and it’s opening up new possibilities for me <3
Thanks for this! I caught myself surveying the option to step into an upset – “where is my phone?” – and realized I had stopped breathing, I’was holding my breath without being aware of it! Refreshing my awareness of my breath, and exhaling the air I’d been gripping, let me relax, and see there was also an option to step away from the upset. The facts didn’t change but my attitude could, expressed as I – exhaled! The phone had fallen off my bed, I only had to look – with fresh awareness!