Teaching the Exhale
It was decades in the making, learning to breathe, for even as a young girl without the language or acceptance to express the gravity of my anxieties, my heart would quicken, my breath would shorten, and my mind would repeat ‘be quiet and focussed, be quiet and watch everything.’ Because anxiety’s primary job is to be seen, at a young age I developed a nervous cough in nearly all social situations, and my legs learned how to bounce unconsciously - a low-level movement to combat the adrenaline and cortisol. The ordinariness of a stressed body was routine as was my need, unlike other kids my age to go to bed early every night. Looking back and forward, I am the adult version of the exhausted kid, even now. Presently, I have coffee. Thank the universe.
Then came the yoga boon with the promises that I would be a less stressed, more capable, hell, even more, enjoyable to be around, young adult. With my parched nervous system ravenously drinking at the open bar of stress in my body, I went. “Calm Heart, Calm Heart, Calm Heart” I repeated to myself. Calm (inhale), Heart (exhale). Mantras were cool, right? I saw a video once.
The class opened with a meditation, and I opened with the knowledge that this, my first ever instructor was goddess-like: put together, with apparently no stress, perfect relationships, a house crafted by Anthropologie, serving the masses, drinking turmeric ginger tea in bohemian clothes when not in ‘yoga clothes.’ She was not in it for the money, because She. Was. Yoga.
Immediately I knew I was a yoga failure. I couldn’t even manage the first instruction to breathe in. It would only get more complicated. Great.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I wasn’t ready for the inhale.
The deep inhale is an invitation. It is an invitation to open up your heart, to literally take up more space in a room and to allow yourself the uncontrolled vulnerability of expression. It is an invitation to be kind to yourself when you feel unworthy, to express excitement, to respond to fear, to learn, and to create memories. Add in anxiety, and the inhale feels like a grave impossibility and, for me, a gateway to self-ridicule.
I couldn’t keep up with the breathing in that first yoga class for a few reasons. My anxiety influenced inhale was dramatic and short and holding my breath waiting for the cue to exhale was too long, making me dizzy. I got behind in the very present tense breathing pattern I was to be doing in that room. It was disorienting and frightening; I saw my failures narrated in life-like storytelling, on that mat, in front of me. Too socially anxious to leave the class and feeling like I was about to hyperventilate, I went back to the only breathing I had known; quick and fast, a familiar proto-hyperventilation.
The slow exhalation is also an invitation and is the gentler of the two. At almost any point in the breathing cycle, one can exhale. This, for many of us, can’t be done on the inhale with many benefits. Exhale is an invitation of renewal and rebirth, a letting go to ready oneself to do. We sigh in empathy, love and at distasteful jokes. We exhale when tasks are complete, and we transition to what’s next. We exhale when hard moments are over, when we see beauty, when we experience Love, and when we laugh. We exhale to begin again, to choose again, to learn still.
The exhale is the entrance to the inhale; the access point to all breathing. It slows the heart down in grounding, and builds capacity for the inhale - this is one way in which breathing helps people build capacity. When teaching breathing to start on the exhale, we are able to include everybody: the anxious and panicked for whom the inhale is hard, the tired as the exhale acknowledges the need to rest, and the energetic and the well adjusted among to slow down and begin again.
An Invitation to Safety
For me, as is real for many people I’m sure, the invitation to start breathing on an exhale, is the invitation to take care of oneself; an invitation to safety.