Breathing on the First Day
In a lot of ways, the practice of breathing was the first inner safety I knew. I hadn't left my apartment in a long time; the compression of agoraphobia a harrowing side effect of depression. Breathing, I moved shakily down the stairs, my breath just as tremulous, the to the door, outside and managed 17 sidewalk squares, almost to the store. Safety to me was everything; my core need, the absence of which ended friendships, relationships, and almost my life.
When I knew deeply from felt experience that breathing worked, the earliest iteration of Breathing Room was born. Shortly after, a new teaching semester was alive - 80+ new teens, expectations both low and high, nerves of who is in my class from both them and me. Like walking 17 squares, promise and possibilities were loud and at the forefront; the eager kid waving its hand in my face to ask and answer its own question.
I was like a teenager wanting to share a hundred songs in 10 minutes for the desperate and straightforward truth music is life and hearts will burst. Each moment felt so short. It was a soul prayer of mine to wake the sleeping rivers of 'wow this shit works' in everyone. The impatient "it really works - we have to do this NOW."
You see, I teach in a school where the income disparity is enormous, where cultural experience and pending immigration status can take you around the world in seconds. It's a classroom mixed with first-generation youth with parents missing their old lives, languages, and people, competing with children who want to fit into Canada's norms. It's a class where students live in shelters, public housing complexes or the houses in the valleyed neighborhood, south of the main street not north, the choice of which only affluence can afford. It's students in gangs and those on travel hockey teams. You see all this within minutes of stepping foot in the door. You know all this if you're from around here.
Day 1, 9:10 am Let's do this cool breathing thing. Okay so sit…
Day 1, 9:12 am Please just open your books. It didn't work.
I'm somewhat accustomed to feeling of perceived failure, which of course is just an illusion, but the fragility of the human ego is prickly and pings off the emotional cell towers locating exactly where the heart and mind meet making logic and sight battle until one claims the rightness of victory, leaving the other just exhausted. It hadn't worked. Breathing is a sham.
Safety, however, is not fiction and breathing isn't a falsehood, and really neither was my intention. The problem was, I didn't know their names, let alone their needs - whether they were hungry, sleep deprived, lived with smokers; I didn't know their personalities, their relationships to others, themselves, their environments - I knew as little as I possibly could and expected them to breathe englightendly and feel amazing.
For a short moment, I misplaced the truth of vulnerability and the ask for it of the people we share breathing practices with. I simultaneously forgot that to feel both vulnerable and strong, one must feel as safe as possible.
The truth is, it's just not safe to teach breathing on the first day of school. Safety is ever changing and when we don't know its baseline we cannot successfully, authentically, or with any sustainable favourability bring the practices to others. Safety is incredibly multifaceted and needs earnest preparation.
Before I had considered walking out of my apartment towards the store, I was learning to breathe; I practiced in the safer space of living room becoming the timid boss of my own experience. The misstep in the classroom that day was that I had not granted the same to my students and had expected them to have great resonance with the practice.
Breathing for All
We want everyone to feel the gift that purposeful, intentional breathing can offer. We want settled minds and bodies, focus, compassion, leadership, sharing, strength, and vulnerability. We see paths to less conflict and violence. We see altruism's U before I, and we know that the breathing practices can help, greatly at that. We have learned that none of this can happen if we are not taking care of each other. Enthusiasm is great, excitement is needed - but if it happens at the cost of safety, it's not.
I no longer dive into breathing on the first day of class; it sometimes takes a month of witnessing and learning before even 3 breaths can happen in the challenges my school and its people face. This has become part of my own practice. I observe myself with others, in this case, the dear souls that walk into Portable 1; I see as much as I possibly can then slowly, carefully, I am able to craft classes where even the most vulnerable in the room can join in.
Know yourself. And practice hard.
Know your people.
Prepare more than you ever thought you would need to.
Then, humbly, go for it.