As a yoga teacher, I'm always counseling students remember to breathe.
The simplest yet most important practice I teach, the one I turn to repeatedly myself, is the full, three part breath. Relaxing and breathing into the belly at the beginning of the inhale; moving the breathing up into the side body and rib cage; ending with the expansion across the chest and collar bones at the very top of the breath. The exhale reverses this pattern with the very last bits of stale air squeezed out by the action of the abdominal muscles pulling in towards the body.
A variation is full-body breathing. The breathe we all knew as a baby ... spacious, full, vast, and effortless.
This is the relaxed, natural way our bodies were designed for respiration. Unfortunately, it is rarely people's habitual way of breathing. And this is why practice is so essential.
Most of the time, we breath without thinking. It happens without our attention or effort. But there are times when all of our energy is focused upon claiming that next breath. And the next ... and the next.
This past weekend, my elderly mother phoned me up, complaining she was having trouble breathing. I sat by her side, stroking her back, trying to coax her body to relax. She was so panicked, she was taking short, shallow chest breaths, like a panting animal. Her attempt to breath was exhausting her while also triggering the stress-response in her body and in her mind.
I took her to the hospital and she was admitted immediately. Even with oxygen on, she continued to struggle to breathe. I was powerless to help, understanding as I watched her utilizing just a fraction of her breath's capacity, that I could not undo decades of a habit.
This is why we practice. There will come a time - possibly a multitude of times - when it will take all of our resources just to keep afloat. The mind becomes agitated, clarity lost and we lapse into autopilot. Practice - whether it be a breathing practice, yoga asana practice, meditation, or mindfulness - has taught me to find the tiny sliver of space in which I can choose how I want to respond, rather than reflexively reacting.
One explanation of the practice of yoga postures - asanas - is to consciously place oneself in awkward positions so we can learn to relax.
Standing in a hospital, watching a loved one struggling, is certainly one kind of awkward position. Watching my mother grasping for each breathe, I had to remind myself to take full, deep breaths and to release my fear with each out breath. It became a kind of mantra for me. Inhale - open to support, open to connection with source; exhale - release the fear, release tension and toxins. Each breath kept me anchored in the moment. I was watching my mother die.
I don't know if one truly can be prepared to support a loved one through dying. I certainly didn't feel ready. I took my mother into the hospital on a Sunday morning and 48 hours later, she was gone. There was little time to think. All I had was the space and presence of each breath. Mine and hers. A crazy duet of contrasting tempos and rhythms. All I had was the gift of my years of practice, supporting me in staying focused, staying relaxed (as much as possible) and keeping my mind flexible and ready to respond with love and care.
My mother brought me into this life, and it was my privilege to repay the favor and support her as she transitioned out of hers and into whatever transformation awaits us all. We sang, I read her poems, we shared stories and remembrances, laughs and tears. She was deeply afraid. So was I ... but I had to be strong for her. I had to draw upon my practice, my faith, and trust that the words and actions appropriate would flow from me to her.
My mother rode each breath like a wave, through what appeared to me as choppy seas that brought pain and anxiety, but breath by breath, she made her way to the other shore. As I held her, as I breathed deeply for her, I was grateful for all of the gifts and blessings she bestowed to me, not the least being this experience in calling upon all my guides, all the inner resources gained through practice and finding myself supported and held. Her final gift to me was to show me I am stronger than I ever knew, that in love and through love I can endure anything ... including saying goodbye to my own mama.
I miss her. I miss her hands holding mine, comforting me.
I think about how as a small child, my daughter would reach out her hand knowing I would always reach down to receive it. I hold out my hand - which looks so much like my mother's - and I wonder "Who will comfort me now? Who will hold me?"
But I know - because my mama just taught me - that a mother's love is a continuous circle flowing backwards and forwards across generations, across time, across any perceivable boundaries. It holds me, it holds her, it holds my daughter, my nieces, my spirit-sisters and the grandmothers in a huge embrace. I just have to remember to relax, breathe, and surrender myself to that embrace. I can let go ... for I know I am always held.
Saying good-bye is the hardest thing to do. The thing we must do the most is the thing we care to do the least, and so it keeps coming around the bend. It is, in the end, life's only lesson.
- Karen Maezen Miller, Momma Zen