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  • Writer's pictureAmy Sosne

The new breath? The new norm? Getting back to our breath, life, and freedom

My research, training, and practice has always been founded on linking mind, body, and spirit through movement-based exercises that directly connect the body with the breath so that we can experience movement and awareness through meditation. Even as a trauma-informed practitioner and someone who has experienced multiple traumas myself, I have been able to find soothing and deregulatory breathing practices that have not been triggering and overwhelming to individuals who have experienced trauma.

I love teaching young kiddos lion breathing to vent and relieve their anxieties and frustrations with one big roar! Bunny breathing to help them energize and focus on their studies. Elephant breathing to help them focus on their breath and be silly as they inhale with their trunks (arms straight and interlaced going up) and exhale as the trunk (arms) go down and through their legs. I love having young students do partner yoga and breathwork sitting back-to-back with their arms in a lock and the partners feeling the other individual’s back expand and contract as the belly fills with air on the inbreath and releases air on the outbreath. Students always try to get onto the same “breathing” rhythm, which fosters partnership, comaradarie, and awareness of another individual. When I do body scans in my classes with young students, one of their favorite progressive relaxation muscles is to purse their lips and scrunch their noses (both under masks now) as tight as they can before letting them relax.

In my adult classes, I love having individuals focus on their breathing as a way of becoming empowered in the sense that their breath is something that they own, can control, and nobody can take it away from them. As long as we are living beings, we are breathing beings, and as long as we are healthy, we breath independent of other individuals or machines around us. This is a gift and through this gift, we also have the power to control parts of our body from becoming too activated and dysregulated. Not every breathing exercise has the same effect on every individual. We all have different bodies, different nervous response systems, different life experiences, and different methods of breathing that might be soothing and helpful. Some individuals really need to only focus on their breathing while they are also moving (connecting breath with yoga poses) or connecting breath with a walking meditation.

I know that I need my body to be active when I focus on my breath in order to feel most calm, because of my trauma history. The breathwork is slightly triggering for me if I focus too much on it, thus activating parts of my body to want to “move” or flee, but if I connect the breath to a meditative movement, not a running movement, then I’m training my body to realize that breathing is medicine and my physical reactions to something that could be triggering become calm; through moving meditation, my body realizes that something that can be a trigger is not always a trigger and I have the power to move, breath, and impact the effects on my body.

Other individuals LOVE lying down or seated meditative breathwork exercises and find that their whole system seems to really relax into the breath as they rhythmically focus on and feel each inhalation and exhalation, perhaps connecting it to a mantra that they recite over and over in their practice such as, “In, I’m strong. Out, I’m filled with love,” or any two-part phrase that resonates.

In my adult practices, I like to lead individuals through alternate nostril breathing as a form of relaxation and activating the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system. I lead individuals through Kapalabhati breathing exercises, which can help to energize the nervous system, strengthen functions of key organ systems such as the liver and kidneys as well as help with asthma and sinus issues. It centers around the idea of controlled short inhalations, a breathing hold, and then a long exhalation, detoxifying the nervous system.

There are so many different breathing practices and breathing is so intertwined with meditation, mindfulness, and movement-based yoga practices as well as other physical exercises (think about trying to breath when you are running or swimming).

Why am I writing about this?

Well, this week was really the first time during the pandemic where I taught yoga inside in-person to both younger elementary students and then to young adults at the college, and my practice was thrown virtually completely upside down! I went to set up the students for lion breathing and realized that wouldn’t work. I went to set the adults up for alternate nostril breathing, which was on my agenda, and I realized we can’t touch our noses. I taught yoga and practiced at the same time in a hot room, and realized how light-headed this made me feel, and how confined the mask made me feel in my breathing and practice as well as quite triggering in terms of making me feel like I was suffocating and entrapped. My “go-to” breathing and thus practices that I have known and done for years and years, were no longer soothing and comforting to me. I felt robbed and I felt like the students in my classes were being robbed as well.

Sigh… yet another thing that COVID has taken away from all of us. It has left us with chronic stress and anxiety, but taken away our soothing exercises and breathwork that we have long known and practiced. Yoga videos and instruction have also not provided us with a “mask wearing” practice and so, this week, I felt stuck and powerless. The only way we are permitted to safely not wear masks when we practice yoga and mindfulness is if we are alone; further exacerbating the isolation and lack of community support that we all feel during this COVID pandemic, which is further fueling the ensuing mental health pandemic.

This week in class we viewed the documentary, Resilience. This documentary outlines and clearly identifies adverse childhood events/experiences (ACEs) and how they effect long-term development, sense of self, emotional and psychological wellbeing, as well as the effects on physical wellbeing as a result of long-term stress. The documentary was made in 2016 and chronic stress, societal inequities, domestic struggles, food insecurity, violence, neglect, and other adversities were, pre-pandemic, widespread! But, in the documentary, pre-pandemic, healthcare workers, family support caseworkers, teachers, and community centers were open and interventions focused on support groups, social interactions, check-ins with families and children in person, and teaching coping skills in person and with the support of the physical presence of a group of people. Watching this documentary was extremely difficult, but hopeful in the sense that there seemed to be support; it seemed that families and children might not fall through the cracks because they were being checked on, identified in school, at the doctor’s office, and given space to talk that was in person.

Fast-forward four years later after this documentary – 2020 – beginning of the pandemic. The adversities are the same, but only magnified; food insecurity, child abuse, domestic violence, neglect, grieving over sickness and loss of loved ones to COVID, substance use problems, but there is less support. We are masked, reluctant to check-in with individuals in person, many students are not able to attend school and have that safe space, physicians are burnt out and consumed by COVID patients and do not necessarily have the time or have the routine appointments to check-in with families and children. Physicians become aware of behavioral problems only when they have reached a crisis point and are more likely, at times, to treat the behavior as oppose to delve into the cause of the behavior and the environmental factors. Mental health specialists are overwhelmed and burnt out as well and where telemedicine may be a doable alternative for adults, it is not a therapeutic alternative for young children. Finding alternatives to give support and help vulnerable populations is more difficult now than ever.

I mention the documentary and the comparisons between possible interventions in 2016 and the harsh reality of trying to find helpful supports and interventions for the past 2 years, because in a way it parallels how I felt teaching yoga with a mask and unable to teach breathwork. What was a soothing exercise, for me, had become a trigger. I felt the real loss of not seeing the faces of my students, their calmness as they did breathing and my calmness as I naturally connected my breath to my yoga flow. There was nothing natural about breathing into the mask; it was stifling, but this is our reality. While I love having the physical presence and sense of community with in-person classes, I felt in many ways that zoom had not prepared me for the disconnection and the difficulties with practicing and teaching while everyone was masked.

One of the therapies that I have studied (and need to adapt myself!) is Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT). Now more than ever, the ability to accept that which we cannot control (having to wear a mask, having fewer in person interactions) and the commitment to changing behaviors and flexibility to adapt to new circumstances in order to have a positive outcome is of upmost importance. We can use mindfulness techniques to increase our awareness of our surroundings and changing environment as well as awareness of our body and mind’s reaction to these changes. Once we identify the changes and identify our body/mind’s reaction, we can accept the changes and then identify if our reactions are adaptive or maladaptive. If they are adaptive, we can continue our current behavior, and if they are maladaptive, we need to commit to change.

Though wearing masks is inhibiting and stifling at times, for right now it is a reality, and I realize that what I need to work on is accepting this while being aware of just how it is upsetting and difficult for my mind and body. Like so much throughout this pandemic, we have been required to face discomfort, disappointment, new “norms,” isolation at times, anxiety over germs and for many of us agoraphobia. It is my belief and what I want to try to instill in young individuals (children, adolescents, young adults) that while we are forced to face these many difficult situations that give us great physical and mental discomfort at times, we will only be able to breath and be alive again if we accept that which we cannot control, be mindful of our reactions (mind and body) and adjust our behaviors in order to create a new soothing, comforting, and different life and “norm.”

After class and the next day as 30 or so students meditated in the same room spread apart and with masks, I came to this realization that while it may be a long time before we physically can rely on breathwork as an exercise to calm the nervous system and anxiety, we can find new ways to metaphorically breath and be free from the oppression and entrapment symbolized by the face mask. After a long two years of complete exposure therapy for my routine oriented, regimented obsessive-compulsive self, I accept the challenge of reclaiming breath, reinvigorating mind and body, and refreshing the sense of self by committing to new freedoms and feelings of empowerment.

As a side note, I’m completely open to any and all suggestions of what you find has been working for you during these uncertain and difficult times!

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