Experiments in Breathing
by Lisa Pletzer
How hard could it be to practice pranayama (yogic breathing) every day for a month? In this personal essay, Kripalu staff member Lisa Pletzer shares the ups and downs of a month of intentional breathing.
In another life, I was full of breath. Lots of friends, fun lots of life! Then some major events knocked the breath out of me. I’m sure everyone can relate to going through a bad breakup, illness, financial problems—or all of the above, and more. For almost a decade now, my lack of breath has been a struggle and has manifested itself in obesity, depression, and other issues.
One of the many benefits of my job at Kripalu is access to programs, workshops, healing arts, and, best of all, the people. Our holiday gathering isn’t really an office party; it’s more a time of reflection and intention setting, and one of the highlights this past year was a visit from Dinabandhu (at the time Kripalu’s CEO). He said something I haven’t stopped thinking about since.
“Breathe for just 10 minutes a day—it will change your life.”
Hmmm. I breathe 24 hours a day and my life is well, it just is. I was intrigued by his proposition. I didn’t start a daily practice but I took a few pranayama classes and read some articles. Then my boss asked me to take on a 30-day breathing assignment. I felt equal parts excitement and fear. To be honest, I was scared to breathe. But I was willing to give it a try. Here’s what happened.
Day 1: I set my alarm 30 minutes early last night and after hitting the snooze button twice, I finally remember why I set it so early and force myself awake. This is it—the big moment.
I prop myself up in bed, close my eyes, and spend a couple of minutes just observing my natural breath and clearing my mind. Then I take a complete breath. Dirgha pranayama—three-part breath. After a couple of rounds of filling and emptying my lungs, it happens. I notice I can sort of feel my stomach touching my thighs.
“Argh! I’m so fat. Why am I so fat?!”
Shhh, I’m trying to breathe here. In, 1-2-3-4, out, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.
“If I could just cross my legs more. It’s hard to breathe.”
Shhh. Push all thoughts from your mind. Just hear and feel the breath.
“I’m scared to breathe, I might lose weight.”
Huh? Where the heck did that come from? I want to lose weight and, anyway, what would breathing have to do with it?
I get up and go take a shower. I cry the entire time I’m in there.
Day 2: I lie in bed and listen to my breathing, feel it cool in my nostrils, hot out of my mouth. I’m relaxed, focused. Deep breath in—fill the belly up like a balloon, expand the rib cage, draw it into the upper chest. Exhale—let the breath go from the upper chest, then from the rib cage, and finally from the belly, drawing the navel back toward the spine.
A few intruding thoughts—why didn’t I get our clothes ready before bed last night? What is that noise coming from the living room? I hope there’s a bagel left—but for the most part 10 minutes of relaxing bliss. Delicious and uneventful.
Day 3: I hit the snooze button a few too many times. I’m a night owl. Maybe it would be helpful to breathe at bedtime, to relax.
Day 5: Nighttime. I lie on my bed and for a couple of minutes just breathe naturally. It’s very quiet. I can hear my older son snoring softly in the next room.
“I’m turning 43 in a couple of weeks.”
So what, let it out &
“I’m almost 43, a twice-divorced mother of two young children, and fat.”
Enough about fat! Shhh worry about it later. Relax.
“I’m scared to breathe.”
I’ve gone from breathing to sobbing.
Days 6–9: I attempt to breathe every night and end up falling asleep. I don’t consider it a complete failure because I’m getting more sleep than ever and it feels like good sleep. I am sobbing myself to sleep, but I’m interspersing it with some great three-part breaths.
Day 13: My boyfriend is coming to visit in six days. He loves all of me, just the way I am, but he knows I’m unhappy at being so unfit. Having another person in the house is stressful.
Day 14: I’ve spent the last few days researching breathing techniques and exercises and downloaded some guided-breathing audiotapes. My main criteria is how pleasant the voice is. I lie down and turn on my mp3 player. A calming voice starts me on my journey with some slow breathing. So relaxing I wake up to the alarm going off the next morning.
Day 16: For two more nights, I have great success falling asleep within minutes—but that’s not my plan! I want to breathe! I want to connect the breath to my mind! I want to change my life!
I do a little online reading on “how to sit in pranayama” and prepare for day 17 by doing some stretching to get myself ready for the Lotus pose— or at least my version of it. I’ve avoided any type of sitting since the beginning, when sitting seemed to draw my awareness to how overweight I was rather than lend itself to relaxing.
Day 17: I can do this! I sit on my bed and cross my legs and prop everything that needs propping so I’m comfortable.
“I can feel my stomach on my thighs.”
Shhh. We’ve been over this.
“I can feel everything just hanging, pulling. My arms aren’t even sitting comfortably.”
Shhh. Focus, Lisa. Don’t engage your thoughts, just let go and breathe.
“If I lose weight ”
What is it about sitting in bed??!!
I spend the next half hour in that position, crying. Crying for all the mistakes I’ve made in my life. Crying for the people I’ve hurt and the people who’ve hurt me. Crying about my inability to get past things that happened 10, 20, even 30 years ago. To be honest, it doesn’t feel as good as I want it to feel, but I feel it.
Day 18: My breathing research introduces me to the practice of kapalabhati. It’s not the relaxing breathing I thought I wanted, but I find the forceful exhalation very therapeutic. According to my reading, its benefits include “purging the system of accumulated emotional debris.” Oh boy, do I have debris. I start each night with some stretching, move into kapalabhati, and finish up lying down performing the three-part breath. I might have a practice!
Day 19: My boyfriend arrived just as I was finally getting into my routine. I had to relocate my nightly breathing to a different space. He was very interested in being a part of it all, but to be honest, this is “me time.” The only alone time I get. So I said no. I find the living room couch much more conducive to a straight back, and the spaciousness of the room feels more relaxing than my small bedroom.
Days 20–29: Another thing that Dinabandhu told us during our breathing lessons early in the year was something along the lines of, “When you do it right, you’ll know it.” You’ll feel it and it is amazing. Over these days, in addition to the sobbing sessions, the critical self-talk, and the missed days, I’ve also had many moments like that. When it just feels perfect—my mind and body and breath are all connected and I can make anything happen.
Day 30: I made it! Thirty days of breathing.
In the end, I’d have to agree with Dinabandhu: I’m changed in some small and important ways. And the journey is continuing to unfold. I haven’t lost physical weight, but I’ve cast off more than 100 pounds of mental and emotional cellulite. Through this 30-day pranayama practice, I’ve faced some entrenched patterns and not-great-feeling emotions, and gotten a lot more honest—and compassionate—with myself. Just by breathing.
I’m now planning to add meditation to my practice. I’ll let you know how that goes.
Lisa Pletzer is Kripalu’s Web Content Coordinator and the mother of two boys. When not translating copy into HTML markup for our website, she loves spending time with her sons, doodling, and playing World of Warcraft.
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