RSS Feed

The Struggle to Breathe

 

I’ve started to practice breathing again. It seems like something I should be expert in, after so many decades of doing it every day, but I’m still a beginner. I was inspired to look for breathing exercises because of the opera singer who stood behind me in the synagogue choir for the high holidays. His Baritone was so secure and well-supported that even the sound of his voice made me feel like I had more air in my lungs. But I’ve also been feeling breathless more often lately, and that worried me. I was diagnosed with some kind of minor respiratory issue a few years ago, but the inhaler only made me cough more, so I decided to ignore the problem for the most part.

54 - wow, what's next

“My breathing is fine, damn it!”

Years ago, when I had more energy, and less pain, I used to do Yoga and Pilates regularly, and breathing exercises were a regular part of the process, without much extra effort from me. And recently I realized that, even though I can’t do yoga anymore, maybe I should still be able to breathe.

I went online and chose three exercises from a long list of options: one breathing through the nose, one breathing through the mouth (like sipping from a straw), and one breathing in until my lungs were as full as possible. That last exercises felt impossible and I gave up on it pretty quickly, but I got used to doing the other two, ten repetitions each, every day.

It was really hard, though. I felt like I was drowning when I had to hold my breath. Even when I gradually built up to longer times, inhaling more slowly, exhaling more slowly, and holding my breath without collapsing, I still felt uncomfortable. And then one day it got really hard again. I could barely breathe in, or hold my breath for two seconds, let alone five, or six, or seven. And I got scared and started to picture a future of carrying around an oxygen tank everywhere I go and gasping for breath between each word. But I persisted with the breathing exercises, and after a few days it got easier again. Not easy, but back to five or six or seven seconds of holding my breath without feeling like I was going to die at any moment. And that’s when I realized that my new exercise routine could not only help me build my lung capacity (and my patience, and my voice), but it could also help me recognize the days when trying harder wouldn’t help. That’s a hard one for me. I tend to forget that weakness is real. I tend to believe that if I fail at something it’s because I’m not trying hard enough. But I knew that wasn’t the case here. I knew that I was trying just as hard to do the exercises, or even harder, but my body just couldn’t do it. And when that happens, rest is the right choice. It’s not laziness, or giving up, it’s about listening to my body.

004

“I always listen to my body, Mommy. That’s why I can’t hear you.”

I still can’t manage a breathing practice that leads to long meditation sessions, and I’m not singing arias at the Met, but I’m more aware of my breathing now, and the ways my body reacts when I have more and less breath available. And maybe I can tolerate one more second of that drowning feeling than I could before, because I trust myself not to let it go on too long. I’m learning, slowly, what’s real and what’s possible, instead of what I think should be true.

Now, if only I could remember the lesson from one day to the next and not have to relearn it every single day.

067

“You probably have dementia, Mommy. And by the way, you forgot to give me my treats.”

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

78 responses »

  1. “You probably have dementia, Mommy”….Cricket, what would your mommy do without you and your little words of wisdom? I think I would love to have that baritone singing behind me. It’s like running a race. When someone passed me, that encouraged me to do better. I think he is a good motivator, Rachel.

    Reply
  2. Listen to the dog, listen to your body and listen to the music.

    Reply
  3. Informative and inspirational. 👍

    Reply
  4. Breathing exercises and very therapeutic too.

    Reply
  5. One day at a time, right? Oh, and the pups will always try to make you think you forgot their treat.

    Reply
  6. Struggling to breathe in Mexico! Pollution and missing family and friends.

    Reply
  7. Cricket knows all. Most dogs do.

    Reply
  8. I found out that one of the things that gave me trouble breathing was the propellant in the inhaler. (Hospitalized for breathing problems/low blood oxygen levels in Nov. 2011 for three days.) One of the emergency room doctors that I saw a year or so later, switched me to a nebulizer, which I still use when we have a really bad air pollution/smoke in the air situation.

    The breathing exercises are good idea, I think. They’ve helped me a lot. Although I still can’t spend too much time in indoor or outdoor bad air. The air quality has dropped a lot in North Dakota in recent times.

    I can’t play a brass instrument anymore, but I can manage singing, again, which I have always loved. Especially choir and small groups at worship services, when I could still attend them.

    Hope things improve significantly as you work on the breathing capacity.

    Reply
  9. It is so encouraging to hear someone else say that pain is not weakness. Like you, I tend to attribute it to failure rather than the message that it is. Thank you for saying what so many of us need to hear.

    Reply
  10. This post took my breath away. :snorf:

    Reply
  11. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. You can flap your arms all you want but you can’t fly like I can. I can want to drive a car but my wings get in the way.

    Reply
  12. Great that you have started paying more attention to your breathing. So important to remember was is real and achievable.

    Reply
  13. Always listen to your body

    Reply
  14. Dogs will let you know when you are ill. They will give you more attention, and not leave your side. I had a cough for three days last week, and that worried Ollie a great deal. He had to sit as close to me as possible, and keep putting his chin on my leg.
    Once he stopped doing that, I knew I was going to get better.
    We can always learn from our furry friends.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Reply
  15. Rachel, There are sooooo many parallels between the physical world and the one we live and experience in our heads. Good for you for seeing the seeing the similarities and trying to apply the lesson of one to the reality of the other. Patricia

    Reply
  16. We do have to understand our strengths and our weaknesses. Love the captions!

    Reply
  17. I find it difficult to take a deep breath or breathe deeply when I’m told to by the medical professionals as I seem to be slower than their count! I remember two or three deep breaths and saying I liked cheesecake and how much I loved Hubby and Maggie before my op, then the next thing I knew I was on a ward!
    Hope all is well with you though Rachel.

    Reply
  18. Oh no, I’m sorry you have breathing issues too, Rachel. I’ve just done a mini me update post thingy and mentioned mine on there, what strange timing!
    Do they know what the breathing issues you’re dealing with are, from any tests/scans? I had recurrent chest infections over a year ago that’s led to chronic damage, especially in my lower left lung, some kind of bronchiectasis and also inflammation. I also use inhalers and do find they make me cough more sometimes, but I think that’s a good thing (maybe?!) because it means your lungs are a little looser and able to clear themselves. It’s made me acutely aware of my breathing – and inability to do so easily – too. You can only do what you can manage and you’re so right with knowing the time when to stop and give your body rest. I really do hope things can ease up a little for you with the breathing, it’s not pleasant at all  ♥
    Caz xx

    Reply
    • As with most of my health issues, the doctors don’t really know what’s going wrong. I’m hoping the breathing exercises and a return to tai chi will help. Wishing you better health too!

      Reply
  19. Rachel, sorry for your challenges. I do a morning routine after a shower of Yoga, Pilates, calisthenics and light weight lifting – it is low stress and I vary three sets of routines to reduce the monotony (stand-up routine, laying down routine and light weights). The Yoga breathing is key on all exercises, especially the hold exercises where I stretch and hold for twelve good breaths .

    The exercises help me with my normal breathing. Breathing through my nose with these exercises (I exhale through my mouth, when over-exerting), helps immensely. My wife says I don’t snore anymore, but that could also be do to better-maintained weight and no more drinking.

    But, I wanted to reinforce your pursuit of the Yoga style breathing. Let me add my Yoga includes exercises that DO NOT hurt my back or knees, so they are not too strenuous. Best wishes, Keith

    Reply
  20. Now that I’m in my fifties, my body reminds me with aches and pains and shortness of breath that while in my head I still feel like I’m 21, I am most certainly definitely not. That being said, if we generally still have our health and all our faculties and do not starve or thirst, we must always remind ourselves that we are luckier than many. Even if the human condition blinds us to this for much of every day, a moments perspective can always make us wiser. I wish you good health, always.

    Reply
  21. I’ve found that meditation exercises designed for the vagus nerve are really helpful!

    Reply
  22. Thanks for the post. It’s something I’ve been waiting to understand more of.

    Reply
  23. Considering Cricket’s comment, I will have to make sure Benji does not see this post or I could get the same thing . Benji and I walk some 35+ miles every week ( 5-6 miles a day), so that it more than enough exercise for both of us. He gets his treat and I get my coffee – works well..

    Reply
  24. I am glad that you are understanding what is rather than judging it. My only insight to add is that for me as a PTSD person deep breathing opens up a lot of emotional garbage which then sets off anxiety. Shallow breathing can develop as a defense and when we push further we absolutely need to go, as you are, slowly.

    Reply
  25. I used to do Yoga too and those breathing exercises made me think I never breathed in my life! xx much love to you and Cricket 🙂 x

    Reply
  26. You will be able to get this breathig thing like the singer. i used to sing profssionally and so I was and still am a “trained” breather. I have pulmonary function tests done every two years because I was diagnosed 20 years ago with systemic scleroderma . It has never affected my lungs but they test me anyway and I always amaze them with my breathing .Only one technician spotted that I was a singer and said that singers often do very well on the testing. So maybe you could ask the opera singer for some breathing exercises and try them out .

    Reply
  27. It sounds like you have a good plan. When our daughters were young, we discovered an odd trick to help them recover from post-cold asthma attacks. There are little toy lips with a whistle in the middle. The whistle sounds whether you are breathing in or out and was great automatic feedback of the work they were accomplishing. I keep a couple in the house still if someone has a respiratory illness. We all use them as needed and they really help. 🙂 Breathing blessings, Rachel.

    Reply
  28. Oh no, you have breathing issues. But I am sure you can overcome all your challenges with a smiling face.

    Reply
  29. Thanks for another piece that taught me something. And for another set of reader responses that did the same!

    Reply
  30. Yes, some exercise will be helpful for breathing problem! Take care! 💜

    Reply
  31. The breathing through a straw experience, that’s how they usually explains asthma. I don’t think that much about it, until I’m catching a cold or have to do make a really hard effort and starting to loose my breath. I’m born with it, but I know the struggle. Lately I’ve found it interesting how something most people take for granted is becoming the most important thing for those who don’t. And yes, listen to your body,always. Nothing is more important.

    Reply
    • It must be awful to struggle with breathing on such a regular basis! Sometimes I wish I could ignore my body and pretend everything is fine, but then my body gets really angry and fights back.

      Reply
      • As I wrote I’m born with it, so I can’t really compare. But I can definitely relate to your post. Ignoring your body is never a good idea. We’re all different with different capacity, and the best you can do is making the most of the capacity you’ve got. No one can do more than that 🌸

  32. Frank Sinatra used to swim underwater to improve his breath control.

    Reply
  33. As a singer, I can appreciate this one!! Sometimes when my students couldn’t get that whole diaphramatic breathing thing down, it helped if they lay on the floor, hands on stomach and feel the rise and fall of their diaphragm. That said, it is also wise to listen to our bodies and know when to take a break, hard for me to do as well…good for you!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: