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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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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?

 

 

Tai Chi

I have tried Tai Chi in the past and found it frustratingly slow and complicated and rage-inducing. But I’ve found that yoga encourages too much flexibility for my injury prone body of late, and I need to work on my balance and managing stress better, so I am trying Tai Chi again. It helps that I found five minute lessons on YouTube, with a very clear instructor (Leia Cohen). I like that she wears loose clothing instead of skin tight body suits like other exercise instructors, who seem to feel the need to advertise the effectiveness of their exercise routines, along with their clear genetic gifts.

Tai Chi is one of the only forms of exercise I’ve found that does not interest Cricket. Yoga inspired her to stretch and paw at me and bring me her toys. Sit ups and leg lifts were a clear signal that I wanted to scratch her back for twenty minutes at a time. But Tai Chi puts her to sleep.

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“I could use another blanket, Mommy.”

I had to stop the Tai Chi experiment for a couple of weeks while the two dogs (and the bird) were visiting. I was getting so much exercise from walking the dogs, and picking them up, and breaking up fights, but also it wasn’t safe to try to do Tai Chi in the living room with three small dogs weaving between my feet.

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There really wasn’t any room for me on that floor.

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Izzy did her version of Tai Chi with a banana chip.

But, a few days after they left, I started back up again, from the beginning, five minutes a day.

I’m not sure why it feels so difficult, or why five minutes seems like my limit. I’m not even sure if the limit is physical or emotional or spiritual. There’s physical pain involved in doing such slow movements, and being aware of each movement and how it feels in my body. There’s discomfort. Maybe that’s the more appropriate word for it. Tai Chi is supposed to be moving meditation, an attempt to center in the body and breath and find some calm. And maybe calm is uncomfortable for me, and attention to the body is uncomfortable.

All of my different aches and pains seem to get air time when I do Tai Chi, like a room full of senior citizens grumbling and groaning. I try to keep them on mute the rest of the time, with medication and distraction techniques, but Tai Chi seems to take me off mute.

My hope is that five minutes a day will lead me to ten minutes and eventually I will feel stronger and more centered, but I don’t know if this will work for me. All I can do is try.

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“You go ahead, Mommy. I’ll wait here.”

Weighty Issues

 

My weight has always been an issue. I was a chubby kid, and then anorexic, and then a compulsive eater, and then on every diet known to womankind, and then mostly normal for a few years. But then, during the trials of endless medications for my body pain and neurological symptoms, we found one that really helped, but also increased hunger and slowed metabolism. And no matter how helpful the medication has been, it hasn’t increased my ability to exercise at any reasonable pace. That means that I can’t maintain the weight I want to be. I don’t overeat, by much, and I do exercise regularly, but I would have to cut or burn at least five hundred calories more per day to make a dent in my weight, and at this point, that’s not possible.

I do what I can. I’ve tried protein shakes and high fiber foods, I’ve cut out refined sugar (and added it back in), and cut almost every other kind of food at one time or another. But if I try to go below a certain number of calories a day, I feel like I’m dying, and if I try to exercise more often or more vigorously, I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck.

And I’m angry about it.

I had hoped that, at some point in my life, my relationship with food and exercise would fall into a regular pattern and stop being a problem. I’ve worked hard on the practical side of eating and exercise, and the emotional and psychological sides too. But it’s all still there, still making me feel like a stranger when I look in the mirror, or making me panic when I open the refrigerator. I want to be one of those people who doesn’t have to think about her weight: someone who exercises because it makes her feel better, or can say no to chocolate frosting without feeling the residual longing for the rest of the week. But I’m not there yet.

Both of my dogs, food obsessed as they are, have zero weight problems. Butterfly can eat kibble all day long – and she does – and it never impacts her weight. Cricket could probably eat a whole chicken without showing any signs of it, except in the stomach upset that she would inevitably pretend she was not experiencing. They exercise when they feel the urge, and then rest most of the day without guilt.

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I keep a food and exercise journal. I drink bottles of water every day. I try out new, healthier recipes, and buy single portion low calorie snacks, but I don’t get anywhere with it. If I could stop taking the offending medication and still function, I’d do that. But I had to make the decision to function, at some point, rather than to maintain my weight. Most days it doesn’t feel worth it, until I try to stop the medication and find myself struggling to breathe, and struggling to walk, and then I remember why I made this decision in the first place.

But it still doesn’t feel worth it. And when I look around me, I see millions of people who believe that a woman should be willing to be sick and in pain in order to look the way she’s supposed to look, and hate herself for eating when she is hungry or resting when she is tired.

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The puppies know they need their rest.

The dogs think this is insane. They believe that how they feel is everything, and how they look is only useful when it gets them more scratches or treats. And even then, they’re pretty sure that it’s their powers of persuasion that get them what they want. I don’t think they even know how cute they are; though I could be wrong about that.

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“You want to give us food.”

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We are not relying on our cuteness to get what we want.”

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“We’d never do that.”

 

Yoga Shabbat

 

The junior Rabbi at my synagogue has been developing a yoga class for Saturday (Shabbat) mornings. She did her yoga teacher training last summer, and started the monthly classes last October. I was curious about what the class would be like, because I’d always been bothered by the feeling that, even in the most secular versions of yoga, there are remnants of the religious culture it comes from. The history of Jews being forced to convert or conform to the dominant religion of given societies is a big part of my discomfort. I see a lot to like in every other religion I’ve ever come across, but participating in another religion is a completely different thing. It feels like a co-opting of my Jewish soul, but more than that it feels disloyal, like you would feel if you were in love with one man and yet kissed someone else. Prayer, and yoga poses, are not just thoughts or feelings, they are actions, and they count.

My hope was that the rabbi had found a way to make yoga feel a little bit more at home with Judaism, or at least less at odds with it. But I put off going all year long. I told myself that the classes were too early in the morning, or that I would have to rush to get to therapy afterwards, or I just had too much school work to do. But really, the idea of sweating and stretching into strange positions in front of my fellow congregants brought up a lot of old fears. When I finally decided, no excuses, that I would go to the last session of the year, I spent the two days leading up to the class flooded with awful memories of gym class in elementary school, and ballet classes, in my ill-fitting gym clothes or mismatched leotard and tights.

But I fought through the anxiety, and went to the class anyway. I took a spot near the back of the room, up against a brick pillar, both to hide, if necessary, and to have a stable wall to lean against, just in case. I brought my own Pilates mat, which is a little bit more cushioned than a yoga mat, and has a few holes in it from the dogs. At home, yoga means trying to stretch while scratching Butterfly with my arm twisted behind my back, and tossing a tug toy for Cricket, while trying not to lose my balance. But at least they haven’t peed on the mat, recently.

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“This is my idea of good yoga, Mommy.”

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Cricket can’t talk here, but she agrees with Butterfly.

The rabbi started the session by summarizing the weekly Torah portion, and then she turned on her iPhone, attached it to a speaker, and played variations of the Saturday morning prayers as the background music for the class. She started us off with “Shalom breaths,” and then we did a lot of Sun Salutations and Downward Facing Dogs, with more advanced poses in the middle of each flow. I pushed myself a little too hard to keep up, because I’m not really up to an hour and fifteen minute yoga class, but I didn’t want to seem weak or lazy. I had to skip a bunch of the advanced poses, and come out of others early, and I ended up resting in child’s pose a lot of the time (though it still took me four days to recover from overdoing it). I missed having the dogs with me. Focusing on them takes some of the pressure off of the need to achieve something beyond my abilities. Having Butterfly with me, sniffing my hair or licking my arm, would have reminded me that it’s okay that I can only do what I can do.

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“Om, Om, I mean, Shalom, Shalom.”

But most importantly, the feeling that I was doing something wrong just by being in a Yoga class on Shabbat was still there. There is a school of thought among Orthodox Jews that yoga is avodah zarah, worship of foreign gods, which would be a big no-no. Some people say that if you avoid the mantras, and chanting, and skip the Sanskrit names for the poses, and maybe skip prayer pose entirely, that would make it okay. But the rabbi kept the Sanskrit names for the poses, and used prayer pose, which upset me. Child’s pose doesn’t bother me, even though it looks very much like a Muslim prayer pose, because I think of it so completely as a child’s protective pose, making myself safe like a turtle in a shell. But yoga’s prayer pose, palms together at chest level, feels so clearly like what it says it is; it forces you to breathe differently and focus your attention in a specific way and it is a very good physical representation of open-hearted supplication.

A lot of yoga is meant to put your body in a position to teach your mind something. Warrior pose is meant to activate not just physical strength, but emotional strength and resolve. Child’s pose is not only a rest from exercise, it is a self-protective break from being confident and open and visible. These emotional and physical experiences are meaningful to me and make sense to me, but I cannot find a reason other than prayerfulness and supplication for me to be in prayer pose, and that feels too much like praying to a foreign god, and being disloyal to my Jewishness.

There’s a lot of talk, both in yoga and in liberal Judaism, about “intention.” You need to be aware of your intention when you say a certain prayer, take a certain action, or do a particular pose, in order to make it meaningful. The assumption then, is that your intention is all that matters, rather than the intention of the original creators of the prayer, or pose, or series of rituals. But, if yoga is part of someone else’s religious culture, what right do I have to take it for myself and strip it of its history? Is it really okay to take yoga poses and imbue them with your own intentions, like flavoring your ice cream base with vanilla or chocolate or salted caramel? Religion, to me, is cultural history, communal ties, rituals and behaviors, and the stories of my people. If Yoga comes from Buddhism and Hinduism, is it fair to take it out of that context and try to imbue it with Jewish feeling? Is it even possible?

Maybe I should just ask Cricket and Butterfly to create some fresh poses for me, like: Begging-for-treats pose, which really strengthens your core; and Barking-at-strangers pose, which gets your anger flowing and makes you feel at least three times your original size.

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Begging-for-treats-pose.

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Barking-at-strangers pose.

That could work.

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Butterfly’s idea of a resting pose.

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Cricket’s version, on Grandma’s lap.