Michiana Chronicles: Breathing Lessons
April Lidinsky remembers lessons from her mother.
As a child in the early Seventies, I learned alternate nostril breathing by watching my mother watch public television’s “Lilias, Yoga, and You.” My mom was born too early to catch the Women’s Liberation wave, but the health trends of the moment? Those were her jam. She early-adopted jogging until it felt unsafe to be out in the pre-dawn hours of her Denver suburb. So, she began her at-home Hatha yoga practice on a yellowing foam strip cut from an industrial roll. Following Lilias, whose heavy braid draped over one shoulder of her modest monochrome unitards, we positioned our right hands as if playing our noses like castanets. Using first the thumb and then the ring-finger to depress one nostril at a time, inhaling through the left and exhaling through the right. Slowly, calmly, on repeat. As my friend Kelly says, “It’s free Xanax.”
In the gloom of this past midwinter, my friend Cyn posted that science writer James Nestor’s book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, was “life-changing.” I have since read it twice over, gobbling his physiological factoids like popcorn. “Mouth breathers” are in more trouble than you might have thought, for example. Sucking in raw air dehydrates us, drops our oxygen levels, and skyrockets our blood pressure. In contrast, athletes who train to breathe just through their noses cut exertion in half and boost their performance. Nestor offers data that supports what ancient cultures from China, India, and indigenous peoples on our continent knew for millennia: Breathing through the nose supports almost every aspect of our health.
Some theorize that breath has sacred elements, with letters attributed to the name of God, “YHWH,” possibly representing breathing sounds based on aspirated consonants in the Hebrew alphabet. And the counted rhythm of many breathing exercises matches up with the pacing of meditative prayer in many traditions. If that doesn’t speak to you, consider how five minutes of humming a day boosts the release of nitric oxide, which widens your capillaries and increases oxygenation (223). Channel your inner Winnie the Pooh and hum for your health.
When we had sore throats as children in the Seventies, my holistic mom refused us the wild cherry Luden’s cough drops that sweetened and stained my friends’ tongues. Instead, she prescribed gargling with warm salt water and rounds of yogic Lion’s Breath, done in a kneeling posture punctuated with a roar of an exhale, fingers spread wide, eyes bugged, mouth stretched open and tongue stuck way out. It works.
When I started practicing yoga at home as a working mother of school-aged kids, I memorized 15 minutes of poses and autopiloted through them while the coffee dripped and I listened to NPR. When I smugly shared my multi-tasking “hack” with my mom, she TSK-tsked: “You’re missing most of the benefits of yoga. Are you paying attention to your breath?” I felt ashamed.
Then, during the second year of the pandemic, weary of teaching classes in the moist, garlic-scented terrarium of my after-lunch mask, I discovered Adriene Mishler’s YouTube yoga channel, and she has become my Lilias. I started with her series titled “Breath,” and found my way back to my mother’s early breathing lessons, this time with the maturity to focus.
Last month, during my weekly FaceTime calls with my mother, across three state lines, I heard the rasp of fluid in her lungs. So unfair, I thought, that her body, which wrung the liquid from my own infant lungs so I could take my first shuddering breath of earthly air, would fail her. This time, I teased her into doing Lion’s Breath with me, and we roared into our tiny phone screens, tongues out, until she laughed silently, shaking her head.
And so, in this poignant season, with sorrows the world over, but somehow, still, buds swelling on branches, my mother’s practice ended, gently and at home, where she exhaled her last breath a few weeks ago, on the cusp of springtime. Now, in the silence of my early mornings, adrift in grief, I tether myself to breath. I picture her energy and wisdom as atoms inflating my lungs, as I take my reciprocal turns, for now, breathing in our greening cosmos.
For Michiana Chronicles, with music recommended by Jessica, I am April Lidinsky
In memory of my mother, Jo Ella Hunter, August 22, 1938 - February 21, 2022.