“Michigan educators have stifled plans to teach a breathing exercise as part of a health course, bowing to opponents who worried that deep breathing could promote devil worship or mysticism. Other stress management techniques will be substituted, said Don Ben Sweeney of the Michigan Model for Comprehensive Health Education. “People look at it and say it’s ridiculous. Other people will come and testify like mad that it creates out-of-body experiences and undermines Christianity,” he said.”
–cited from a newspaper article – 1990.
In yoga there are many ways to breathe. The full breath that comes from the diaphragm, the shallow breath used through the nose, or the one where you pant like a dog. Breathing techniques are like tuning your engine, changing the air in your body. Breathing in, one after the other and focusing on the breath is one way of being mindful of the present moment. The breathing that brings an awareness of the body and calms the mind. An anchor in a storm.
Mother used deep breathing techniques when her doctor recommended that she incorporate breathing into her day to help her relax. She listened to him and started taking deep breathes in and then blowing them out with her lips formed as if she were preparing to whistle. She practiced it religiously several times a day. It was as if she was searching for a piece of sanity within herself. So much of her life was insane, partially from her own doing. But now, as the cancer swept through her, shrinking her already petite body, the breathing was the one thing that brought her peace, a realization that she was still alive.
For my mother, who lived so much of her life in the past, mindfulness may have been beyond her grasp. Since I could remember, she relived all of the injustices in her life, over and over again. Most recently it was having lost her husband, although she always worked back from that place to when he was alive. It was there she had dumped the rest of her unhappiness on him over the years.
I remember as a teenager seeing her awake and alone when I would come home late in the evening. There were many long nights spent at the dining room table with only her Camel cigarettes, a cup of Folgers, and a bouquet of plastic roses that lit up in front of her. Eventually, one by one, the rose bulbs burnt out and she sat in darkness.
During one of my visits to the nursing home that year, I found mom standing alone near the side door. She stared hazily out at the air in front of her, as if she could see something I could not.
I never felt so far away from her than on that day. Even as we sat in a small lounge on the upper floor near her room, she talked very little. She looked off into the middle distance. Sometimes she’d comment on my son Ryan; how big he was now at two. How she wouldn’t be able to lift him. I wanted to tell her to be happy or to stay busy. But I knew that wouldn’t work. It never did. If there was any happiness in her life, it was with my dad. She had lost interest in life, in everything. She made small talk that day, in brief spurts, in between long silences of finger picking and distant glances. I knew I was losing a grip on the one person who symbolized my family, the one person who still nourished the child within me, the person who I always wanted to understand but never could. I wanted to get to the core of her unhappiness, to the place in her past that formed her. But locked in every breath she took was a thought that remained hidden from me.
When I left that day, she walked me to the door and stood in the same spot. Her breath formed tiny gray clouds under the misty November sky.
I imagined during her breathing practice that she was looking ahead on the ‘in breath,’ looking behind, at the past on the ‘out’. She was alone to face her fate. How can you live in the now when what you have around you is nothing but pain? She was pulled like a game of tug o war – the painful past, the looming, suffering future. Was there peace in the middle?