The Accidental Yogi: The Year of Breathing Intentionally

The following was written by guest blogger Susan Heffern-Shelton, winner of our Facebook drawing for a free year of Yoga. Susan will be blogging here about her yearlong journey with us.

My sinuses have always demanded the spotlight. Look at us, they’d preen. Look how productive we are! Who else churns out snot like us, huh? Nobody, that’s who. And produce they did. My poor nostrils never caught a break, trapped in their grueling factory job, shuttling snot up and down, in and out, sniff, blow, sniff, blow. It never stopped.

Until it did. In January, when I finally, finally, waved my white tissue flag at an Ear, Nose, and Throat guy. He did that thing you never want a doctor to do: look closely at your body and say, “Wow.” And not in the good way. But then, he did that thing you always want a doctor to do: He fixed me. Turns out I had “a pretty impressive case of Polyp Disease.” Those sinuses! Overachievers, I tell you. The doctor took what amounts to a tiny immersion blender, frappéd my polyps into a rich sinus smoothie, and shop vacced it all out.

And just like that, I can breathe.

Meanwhile, the amazing Cassandra Benning was whipping up a little miracle of her own. A contest that would give one lucky winner “a full freaking year of yoga.”

And just like that, I’m a yogi.

Ok, yogi is a bit of a stretch. But here I am nonetheless, stretching, strengthening, breathing.

My mother would call the timing A God Thing, and maybe she’s right. I mean, I haven’t exercised on purpose since 1998 and I haven’t breathed without a charming phlegmy rattle since, I don’t know, birth? And within five minutes of getting the ability to breathe, I find myself calmly sitting on a mat, learning how to breathe.

Weird, right?

Breathing is a sort of strange paradox, simultaneously nothing and everything. You could easily go an entire day, maybe even an entire lifetime, never giving a thought to your breathing, despite it being the one thing you do all day every day. Despite it being literally do or die.

But intentional breathing, conscious breathing? That’s something else. That’s powerful. Stronger even than the pharmaceuticals in my medicine cabinet. Adderall can help you focus, in a while. Buspirone can help you calm, in a bit. But breathing is immediate. Breathing works now.

Before and after: Susan’s progress since January, as she breathes while holding a plank pose.

In yoga, breathing can give me strength. Like an air compressor, breathing converts air into power, pushing me through a pose. Other times, breathing creates a quiet space for my mind to retreat when it needs to escape Clay’s stupid plate circles or Cici’s 47th plank. My arms aren’t on fire at all. Nope. I’m just hanging out here, breathing. And sometimes, breathing is just the opposite. It doesn’t take me away from the moment, it pulls me back in. Into my body, into my mind, into the moment. Nothing else matters. Just the gentle flow of air, the rise and fall of my belly, the grounding of body into earth.

This summer, I began training for a new self-regulation program that the Little Rock School District is implementing for all its Pre-K teachers. It’s called Conscious Discipline, and the conscious part is breathing. It is ALL about the breathing. When children (or teachers) are angry, or sad, or anxious, or frustrated, we fix it with breathing. We S.T.A.R (Smile, Take a deep breath, And, Relax); we Drain (fill ourselves up with air and slowly let it out, like a sink draining water); we Balloon (filling with air, and letting it go). The trainer said the magic of breathing is that it keeps you in the present, not in what just happened, not in what you’re afraid is about to happen. You aren’t breathing in the past. You aren’t breathing in the future. You’re breathing now. You’re focusing on now.

Even Navy Seals use breathwork to help them focus and calm before and after battle. Who would’ve guessed yogis, four-year-olds, and Navy Seals all carried the same tool in their tool belts? But there you go.

When I’m dead and gone, I don’t expect to be remembered for my amazing yoga practice, or even my devotion to children. But at least my legacy will no longer be a trail of dirty Kleenex.

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