Breathing. It’s your basic bodily function, right? So easy even newborns can do it? Not me, apparently. Oh sure, I managed to survive to adulthood despite, when I was 7, being 100% sure that I was going to stop breathing in my sleep but things got trickier as a grown-up. I don’t know if I forgot how to breathe properly or if I never knew but either way air and I have a rough history.
The first time I remember noticing not being able to breathe was at the State Science Fair – oh yes, I was that geeky – and my homemade (with LEGOs!) magnetic-levitation train was up for Grand Champion. There I was sitting in my green velvet drop waist dress with the lace collar and matching velvet scrunchie when all of a sudden it happened. At first I just felt really hot. Then nauseous. And then I couldn’t breathe. So I did what every child should do when they can’t get air in their lungs – I ran to the bathroom to be alone, ostensibly to die alone too. Instead I got diarrhea. And then I threw up. After that everything was kosher and I marched up on that stage to get my ribbon like nothing had ever happened.
That was my first IBS attack.
IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome, is the label they give you when you have excruciating stomach pain and they can’t figure out what’s wrong with you. It’s a label I wouldn’t get for many years though. Before I knew what to call them, I just called them “my attacks.” I had them all throughout middle and high school, even making a trip to the ER on the eve of my first homecoming dance to get rehydrated due to all the pukeage. (I probably don’t need to explain this but there would be no kissing that night.) Over and over again, I’d get the hot flashes, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. Occasionally I’d even faint just to keep everyone on their toes. At the time I chalked it up to food poisoning or dehydration or a too-constrictive hemp choker – but it never once occurred to me that it was psychosomatic.
The attacks peaked in graduate school. My youngest sister had just died, I’d gotten married three weeks after that, moved, was still being stalked by the boyfriend who had assaulted me and I was in my last semester of grad school where I was both taking classes and had a teaching assistantship. Oh, and I had my first miscarriage. Stress doesn’t even begin to describe it. That semester I think I was in the ER almost every weekend. I tried every pill on the planet – anxiolytics, anticonvulsants, antiemetics, antispasmodics and enough pain pills to fell Ferdinand – but all I got was loopy. (Want to know how they make you take pills when you’re throwing up every 5 minutes? In the backdoor. Uh huh. Help me with my suppository honey? Welcome to newly wedded bliss!) And yet there I was on the day of graduation giving my valedictory address with hospital tape still on my arm from my ER trip the night before. Nothing worked. Nothing.
And that was the worst part of it. I felt doomed to a lifetime of surprise pain attacks that would bring my whole life to a screeching halt and would only end when I either passed out or was drugged out. Finally a doctor sat me down and gave me the dreaded life sentence: IBS. He explained that it just meant that the peristalsis in my intestines got out of whack when I got stressed or ate the wrong kind of food (he specifically forbade grease and peppermint), the muscles working against each other until I felt like I’d swallowed glass. Nobody really knew what caused it or why some people had it worse than others. There was no cure. Although he did give me about 20 prescriptions with which to dose myself every day.
“Isn’t there anything else I can do?” I wailed, imagining the rest of my life as an intermittent invalid.
He shrugged, “Find a way to relax. You need to learn to just chill out.”
I don’t “just chill out”. No, I like to work myself into a nice frothy frenzy! So at first his advice was as cryptic as if he’d told me to “just sing opera”. I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t have the skills. But I was determined to learn. I chucked the pills in the toilet (Dear environment, please accept my sincerest apologies for dumping toxic waste into you. In the meantime, enjoy the Vicodin. Everyone else sure seems to.) and signed up for yoga.
I’d taken yoga before with my sister in high school and enjoyed it. Although then we did it more for man-watching purposes (Helloooo Brian Kest!) than for any intrinsic value. But I knew yoga was supposed to be relaxing and I was terrified of pain so in I went. We spend the first ten minutes sitting on our mats single nostril breathing. That is exactly what it sounds like: taking turns holding one nostril shut – with your thumb, that part’s important! – and breathing in and out through the other nostril while counting. It was like Sesame Street but you weren’t allowed to eat your boogers at the end.
But then I noticed something. My heart had slowed down. The crease between my eyebrows wasn’t there. I wasn’t gritting my teeth together. I was actually relaxing. Just by breathing. Over the course of several years and yoga teachers I learned many things about breathing from yoga. I learned that there are different ways to inhale and different ways to exhale. I learned to breathe deeply while moving. And, most importantly, I learned how to breathe through pain. It takes a lot of practice to regulate one’s breathing when one is hurting but it can be done and I was learning it.
My husband even learned it so that at first he could help remind me how to breathe. When I felt the onset of an attack, I’d lay on my side with him cradled around me and he’d count for me. “One, two, three, hold. One, two, three, release.” Over and over again until the pain subsided. And subside it did. Eventually I got to the point where I could do it myself – I didn’t even need to lay in a dark, quiet room! I could even do it while driving! I got my life back. It was a miracle.
I tell you this story because I often hear people debating whether or not yoga counts as a “real” workout. First I must say that your level of exertion – if that is what you measure a “real” workout by – depends entirely on the type of yoga class you are taking. A gentle Hatha class will not get your heart rate up much. Bikram and Vinyasa classes are definitely challenging and then there are the hybrid classes like Power Yoga or Fitness Yoga or Yoga Strength or PiYo that have been some of the hardest classes I’ve ever done. In addition to giving you a good burn, yoga is excellent for stretching out tight hams, releasing tension from shoulders and loosening hips. Why is it important to be flexible? Cosmic implications aside, it’s good because it helps prevent and rehab from injury. With that out of the way, however, what I really want to say is that it doesn’t matter to me if yoga gives good workout – to me, yoga is a life skill. It’s a way of learning to be quiet and to trust and, most of all, to breathe. I’m in love with yoga.
And – in one of the gosh darn funniest clips I have ever seen – here is another way exercise can save your life:
Remember ladies, if you are threatened by a rogue gang of central-casting creeps, you should back-layout them to death. Because “That’s some superhero action, yo!”
Has exercise ever saved your life? Anyone else ever had IBS? Can’t breathe? Tell me all about it!
PS> That whole “breathing through the pain” thing? Didn’t help me at all during childbirth. Nope.