Breath of Life

“Take a deep breath and fill your belly with air, in through your nose and out through your mouth.” Ally gently guides us through a trauma-informed yoga practice. I notice the rubber mat beneath me and the earth holding me. I am gathered with eight women fighting to find goodness in our bodies, vessels that have bore pain and betrayal. 

I feel tightness in my chest as I try to breathe through my nose, like I’m pushing a needle through my swollen turbinates. The act of nasal breathing feels like a precarious and constricted journey, requiring concentration. My body’s chronic inflammation seems to be rejecting the life-giving force of my breath.

I have been a mouth breather since I was a young child. My jaw would dangle open at night as my chest rose and fell. I awoke each morning with a dry mouth and a spike of cortisol. Breathing through the mouth triggers the fight-or-flight response, which signals to the heart and lungs to stay alert and to other functions, like digestion, to cease. I feel compassion for my little body who rarely felt safe enough to breathe in a relaxed state and equally thankful that it stayed “on guard” enough to keep me alive.   

Ally invites us to send breath into every inch of our body, blessing each limb with the gift of oxygen. I feel fidgety and my heart rate rises.

I am aware of how difficult it is to stay embodied, curious how something as simple as air could trigger so much resistance.  

During a yoga assist, my friend Cathy’s strong healing hands begin kneading through the tightness in my shoulder blades. She attempts to move sticky fascia with her touch, though my tissue has been holding on for dear life. Grateful, I notice my trapezius muscle starting to warm and move. She moves to my feet. I feel pleasure and warmth, not wanting the touch to end. I’m not sure when I will receive this kind of care again. I feel relief when she moves on to the next person. 

Breathing and touch—such simple, primitive facts of life—feel so complex. When I live embodied, I feel more connected to the strength and resourcefulness of my body, but also more aware of my vulnerability and frailty. I have lived most of my life avoiding my weakness, running from the reality of death, and denying my pain by being stronger at all costs. And yet, like all reality, the limitations of my body and the inevitability of death keeps beckoning for my attention.

Four years ago, I was rescued from death during the birth of my third daughter. Unknown to my midwife or me, my placenta was fused to the side of my uterus in a rare condition called “placenta accrete.” As I was pushing Charlotte out, I heard the midwife shout, “Oh shit, I see a foot!” The next minute was pure tumult and the fear was palpable. A doctor, who was also in the room, urgently began searching for forceps while the midwife said, “Hold her in and don’t push her out.”  After a great deal of scrambling, the doctor whose face was a mix of ghost-white terror and the kind of anger that comes from feeling out of control said, “The safest thing to do is put you under general anesthesia and section her out.” Without any idea that death was lurking, I said, “Do whatever it takes to my body to get her out safely.” 

Charlotte’s turn breech saved my life. As I began to shuffle back to consciousness, holding my button of Percocet, I learned that if I had delivered vaginally I would have likely bled out and died since the placenta could not be safely delivered. At the moment of trauma, I had to live disembodied. I was not holding the violence and fear of an emergency C-Section and the physical distress of having to clench a baby inside me as contractions were rapidly pushing her out. My only goal in that moment was keeping Charlotte alive. It was pure survival. The last few years have been a painful process of slowing down and grieving the reality of almost dying. 

I return to the yoga mat and am eager to relax my tense muscles and release my anxieties. “Breath of life, I consecrate my body to you,” I whisper as we move into corpse pose. I have lived with a certain hatred of my own weakness, and now I surrender to it as I breathe.

Embodiment is terrifying because we have to fully acknowledge our vulnerability to God and others. Whether we are embodied for compassionate eye contact, for a tender massage, or for life-threatening surgery, we are connected with the fierce vulnerability of both life and death.

Rachel Blackston loves all things beautiful…rich conversations over a hot cup of lemon ginger tea, watching her three little girls twirl around in tutus, and Florida sunrises on her morning walks. She resides in Orlando with her lanky, marathon running husband and her precious daughters, priceless gifts after several years of infertility. Rachel and her husband Michael cofounded Redeemer Counseling. As a therapist, Rachel considers it an honor to walk with women in their stories of harm, beauty, and redemption.