We can learn a lot from our lungs. Lungs know how to take in what we need and let go of what we don’t. Automatically. Without fail, no conscious effort required. Unless, of course, you choose to bring attention to your chest, heart, diaphragm, belly, sides, thoracic spine, notice what’s there, where there’s tension, where there’s space. Then, a whole world opens up!
I guide people in a self-healing practice called breathwork in private sessions and groups (next one is October 12), but I certainly didn’t always trust my breath, my lungs. When I was a kid, we were definitely not on the same side and had a rather stormy relationship, with me often pouting due to the sting of betrayal. It started when I was diagnosed with asthma at the age of 3 and the doctor handed me my first inhaler (the yellow-orange one with the blue plastic expanding bag); my mom and I went home and sat together on the carpet in the upstairs hallway, learning how to put it together and use it. From then on, I didn’t leave the house without pockets and bags full of inhalers, steroids, backup inhalers, emergency epinephrine. Life of the party, right?
What a drag! I resented my dysfunctional lungs and hated having asthma because it made me feel separate from other kids, separate from play, afraid I would have an asthma attack every time I let myself run and be free. I carried around inhalers and medications that kept me going but never helped me get better, and only seemed to constantly remind me, 4-6 times each day, that my body didn’t work. That I would be dead if I hadn’t been lucky enough to be born into a wealthy, modern society where prescription medication could save my life day in, day out. There were many nebulizers, many visits to doctors and allergists, who constantly ran more of the same tests, over and over, and told me useless and/or discouraging things like “your lungs only work at 40% capacity,” and, “don't worry, you should grow out of it!”
Spoiler : I totally didn’t grow out of it. I grew, and my trusted companion, asthma, grew with me. In high school, I stood around with my friends while they smoked, daily, in the woods behind school, in a constant silent anxiety (not good for breathing, btw) about not being able to breathe myself. My asthma never got better, but I also refused to avoid things I wanted to do because of it, probably to my detriment: during college, I wheezed and choked through night after night of concerts in smoke-filled bars (hallelujah indoor smoking is a thing of the past), often alone in the back of a taxi, silent crying in a panic, after french-exiting the party because I couldn’t breathe enough to walk the 15 blocks home. I learned to talk myself down and breathe through not being able to breathe, while burning through inhalers at a rapid clip.
Finally, when I was in my early 20s, I decided that there had to be more I could do to support myself, so I started playing around with my diet, even though my allergist told me that it didn’t matter (not her fault, as her medical curriculum and training had, at the time, included zero minutes on diet or nutrition). Things started to change. Then I sought out every type of healing modality I could find -- living in northern California, that was a long list! -- and discovered herbs and acupuncture, among other things.
I started paying attention to how my breathing was connected to my mood, energy level, work, relationships, activities, stress. Asthma stopped being a disease I was saddled with, and it started being a way to interpret other things going on in my life. I noticed that certain people made me wheezy -- maybe asthma was giving me an easy out to excuse myself from their presence. I noticed that I didn’t need my inhaler as much when I was on vacation -- perhaps asthma telling me I was in the wrong job. There was more going on than just some inflamed bronchioles, as I had been taught. Through my lungs, my body was communicating with me. It had been all along, but now I was finally listening, and I started to heal. Myself.
At one point, early in that journey, I saw an Ayurvedic doctor who told me that the grief of my ancestors was hanging out behind my lungs, calling for my attention by making it hard for me to breathe. While, full disclosure, this is the kind of woo-woo thing I now find myself saying out loud to my own patients, at the time, that sounded nuts to me...and, yet, but, it made so much sense, given what I knew about my family. That concept resonated with me, and I integrated it into the puzzle, the story of my asthma. Later, I learned that grief and sadness are intimately connected to the lungs in East Asian medical theory, and that, in Western medicine, being born early, as I was, is associated with childhood asthma, as the lungs are not strong enough for life on the outside quite yet. (By the way, that Ayurvedic doctor was the first healer -- of many, it turned out -- who told me I was going to be a doctor. I laughed in his face, because it was so far from the path I was on, and it seemed a ridiculous and implausible idea....and, yet, here we are, all the same.)
With every acupuncture treatment, herbal formula, meditation, therapy session, tarot card reading, yoga class, and journaling exercise, my understanding of the signals from my finely tuned, beautifully capable, infinitely communicative body grew. The more I listened to my inner guidance and trusted my intuition, the more my breathing improved, until I was at a point where my inhalers were expiring before I even used them -- kind of a miracle! Things were going well, really well, but it wasn’t until I stumbled upon breathwork 2 years ago that all of the clues coalesced to reveal the big picture : there was just so much sadness, and so much grief, and I was no longer going to be able to journal or herbal formula my way through the rest of it.
Breathwork helped me access all the pain I was carrying, some of which was mine and some of which was from the people and environments around me. Some of which, yes absolutely, was from my ancestors. I breathed, and my lungs processed and released it for me. It was all beyond the understanding of my brain, which is why I wasn't going to access it through yet another therapy session. I didn’t have to think or do anymore; my body knew what to do, how to use breathing to release old emotional energy, belief, patterns. I didn’t need to do anything, except keep breathing.
So, I don’t have asthma anymore. The last time I had my lungs checked, the doctor asked me why someone who didn’t have asthma, who had over 90% lung capacity, was even in his office. ?! And the last time I needed an inhaler was on a trip last year with my boyfriend at the time; on the trip, we started the rapid dismantling of our 3 year relationship, and my breathing constricted. I felt wheezy during the entire breakup phase. Sadness, grief...asthma. Of course. It's not a problem, it's a signal. And my lungs can handle it.
What if you could just trust your lungs to do the work of letting go for you? I hope to see you on Thursday, 10/12 for a group breathwork session, or in my office or through Skype for a private session sometime.
<pic from @the_modern_faerie on Instagram>