“In attempting to control stressful situations, we often contract our muscles in a way that blocks movement instead of creating it. Those muscles then become a kind of armor that prevents us from moving freely. Muscular armor limits the motion of your joints. When muscles on opposite sides of a joint contract at the same time, the joint in question stiffens. Under stress, this kind of antagonism can occur anywhere in the body, even in the body’s internal core.” The New Rules of Posture, p. 22

I have exactly one year of formal vocal training. I like to sing, even though I rarely perform for anyone other than my dog. Beyond being a member of a small touring choir at school, I never pursued music professionally, but that year of voice performance sticks out in my mind for another important reason: it was the first time someone paid attention to how I was breathing.

Almost 30 years later, I am reading through Mary Bond’s classic The New Rules of Posture, and I have set a goal for myself to improve my body awareness and posture. The very first chapter is about breathing. As a certified yoga teacher, I somewhat arrogantly assume that this will be more of a review and that I’ll quickly be through this “introduction” and on my way to more advanced concepts before long. 

To my surprise, there are no long-winded explanations of pranayama, no meditations or mantras. She begins with a simple, straightforward explanation of how breathing works, followed byseveral simple exercises to facilitate tuning into one’s own body. I am able to visualize the action in my mind, connecting what I feel with the anatomy and physiology theory in my head. For the second time in my life, breathing becomes important; this time, however, I am the one taking ownership of the act of attention. 

No arbitrary metering times my inhalation and exhalation (take a breath on this beat, at the end of this measure). No external agenda or schedule requires my focus (xyz client needs their deliverables by end of day). The act of choosing to notice my own body somehow feels sacred. Eyelids gently closed, tuning out random distractions, I focus on the ebb and flow of air, the rise and fall of my chest and abdomen.    

The question shifts from Am I doing it right? to How does it feel? What are the sensations, the attributes, the hallmarks of my experience? Until I’m able to identify the nuances of my own body, understanding healthy breathing will always feel awkward and stiff, like trying to fit into someone else’s coat, and remain a theory instead of a practice. Making the science meaningful is all about making it personal. 

Immediately, I encounter feedback from an old injury that compresses my left side. Healing is happening more slowly than I would like. I have been working through it, but part of the process is accepting circumstances that are less than perfect, adapting my practice to the body I am working with today. It will not be the same one I work with tomorrow.   

Something about breathing puts my people-pleasing, perfectionistic nature front and center. I am dismayed by how often I breathe on someone else’s timetable. 

I live and work in a culture preoccupied with an increasingly punishing pace of life. I am constantly bombarded by impossible standards of perfection from mainstream and social media. I have an internal monologue dedicated exclusively to reminding me how inadequate I am and how meager are my resources. ‘Keeping up’ is an exercise in futility, but I often find myself trying anyway and left depleted, out of breath for my efforts. Generous, full, deep breaths often feel like a luxury I can’t afford, yet I can’t afford not to take them.

Fear and anxiety cause me to exert control where I have none and expend effort where I don’t need to, causing breathing to become shallow, urgent, and tense. At its core, connecting to my breath is about rejecting ‘keeping up’ as the premise of my life.  Healthy breathing is about walking my own path at my own pace, adjusting the amount of ground I cover in a day to fit comfortable breathing, not the other way around. The point is to explore my internal landscape a bit more and fret over my external progress a bit less.