Breathing with My Body

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

For years, I’ve struggled with “exercise.” I’m big on play and moving and games and chasing, but exercise for the sake of exercise (stationery bikes, treadmills, running, workout routines) has felt absolutely miserable in my body. Once when I was in my early twenties I had friends who ran marathons and managed to muscle through two 5ks, one half marathon and one long relay — two of these ended with me throwing up ON the finish line.

When I exercised in an aerobic way, my body would typically either give up or throw up if I exerted myself too hard. And too hard was a line I never seemed to understand. Either way, I’d usually end exertion with a bad headache and a shaky feeling in my body. Friends were loving and supportive, but confused. I was confused.

Over the past few years, however, I’ve done a lot of healing in my body. I experienced a lot of chaos and emotional abuse when I was really young, and my body had all sorts of complicated and confusing ways of coping. Because of this, I’ve never been able to “push through”; my body collapses instead. I can’t force myself to endure pain, or I can, I guess, it’s just triggering and super uncomfortable.

For me, I’ve always known that I have to be patient with my body. That when she’s ready, she will do it and not before. An example of this is when my friend convinced me to sign up for the half marathon, I first had to learn how to run a mile. I did this by being so patient. I had a mile loop planned and ran until my body said no, then I would walk. And then, when I felt like I could run again, I would run. And then, I would walk again. And so on. I spent a full week slowly jogging a few blocks before collapsing in exhaustion and walking most of the rest of the mile. I can still see the speed limit sign that marked my lung limit during those days. Then one day, without thinking about it, I just didn’t feel like stopping. I kept going and jogged the entire mile. And it felt like an absolute miracle.

I want to add what it felt like in my body. This “I have to stop now” feeling was like a cold electrical fire in my lungs, deep trembles in my mind. If I access it now, it was a deep feeling of unsafety. My body felt wobbly and panicked. It was such an extreme reaction to something so seemingly benign. And honestly, it felt embarrassing.

In recent years I haven’t been great about exercise. I run around with my kids, I jump sometimes, I playfully swim in the Bay, and I go on ridiculously short “runs” when my body really asks for it. I stretch and move and do all sorts of breathwork and embodiment practices, but really, breaking an actual sweat is something that usually brings on a headache and fatigue, so I’ve kind of avoided it…with the nagging worry that as I age this inability to really exercise isn’t going to play out well.

So here’s the next piece of this story. I’ve been doing breathwork for the past couple years as I’ve integrated more and more of my past. It has been gentle and wonderful and I’m still learning exactly the best way this works in my body. I’m about half way through the book Breath by James Nestor and so much of what I’ve read so far is about the power of breathing through the nose and the power of slowing the breath way, way down. There’s all sorts of potential scientific explanations for what I’ve been experiencing with my exertion, but really, I don’t care that much about the why. I’m happy to practice things that feel good in my body and see what shifts.

Nestor talks about Indigenous people from all corners of the Earth passing down the wisdom of breathing through our noses. As someone who used to have a ton of seasonal allergies, I know what it’s like to not have full access to my nose. About ten years ago I did some Ayurvedic work to calm those allergies and have had good access since. But not fully closing my mouth was a leftover from those days, and honestly a leftover from childhood. Even as I would mostly breathe through my nose, my mouth would stay open and the seal just wouldn’t be as tight.

As I read this book, I find myself sealing my lips and breathing slowly, and I can feel subtle shifts. The first shift is power. This one was surprising. I play with power a lot in my body. There’s a subtle somatic difference when you hunch your shoulders versus throw your shoulders back and stand tall. For me, when I embody power, for example when I play with tucking and extending my tailbone, there is also a light feeling of fear that comes up. I have to breath with that fear for a few moments before it passes. It makes so much sense that it’s there, but still, it’s always surprising to find. For me, closing my lips brought that same mix of feelings: power and fear. Keeping my mouth slightly open feels oddly connected to my fawn stress response. Closing my mouth gave me this feeling of immediate power in my body.

Nestor also talks about athletes who train to breathe through their noses. Bicyclists who trained to breathe through their noses found they were able to use oxygen and carbon dioxide much more efficiently and travel faster and father with similar exertion. Which brings me to the entire reason I’m writing this…

Three days ago I tried this out on a run. I closed my mouth and focused on my nose. My body immediately began to heat up, but something felt completely different. My muscles have always been strong, but I never feel like I can access them when I do aerobic exercise, like my lungs explode before my muscles have the chance to support me. I even used to think I had small lungs. (And maybe that was true, but they can expand.) But this time, my body just felt safe. I somehow bypassed the system where my lungs would experience the cold electrical fire. I even opened my mouth once just to see if there was a difference, and sure enough, an immediate cold and painful fire flooded my chest. Closing my mouth and breathing only through my nose felt amazing. Like I was breathing hard, but fully supported by my strong legs. I didn’t need to stop and start, I didn’t get tired. For the first time maybe in my life, I felt good exerting myself.

The most amazing part of this is that when I got home I felt fantastic. I felt like I had turned on the oven in my body. I was heating up from the inside. Normally this has felt like an electrical fire, complete with toaster ovens and hairdryers, a fire full of appliances just sparking in a way that is erratic and frightening — and also oddly freezing. This time, however, felt like a controlled burn, one planned with love and presence. A fire stoked with the most wonderful firewood. I felt unbelievably relaxed , in the same way that I can sometimes access with breathwork. Untriggerable is the word I like to use. Like my irritability melts and the things that normally build and bother me, just have nowhere to land. They slide off. I become this magical person, wife, mother, who can hold so much emotion and flexibility effortlessly. Magic.

I’ve repeated this breathing with exercise a few times since. It feels fundamentally different. I’m not sure exactly what is happening, but breathing hard through my nose is allowing my body to exert without panicking and collapsing. I feel powerful and also so safe, which is the gateway to everything.

The act of learning to listen to our bodies, to find amazing information in the collective wisdom and then filter it down into our present-day experience, is so powerful.

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