I’ve never thought about breath as much as I have in the past year. Unless I was meditating or finishing a workout, breathing wasn’t something I actively thought about. It just happened. My body did it without me having to think about it. It was something that I took completely for granted.
What a difference a year makes.
Breath serves us in many ways and can signal a number of things at any given time. It is how oxygen gets into our bodies to support our muscles, brain function, and vital organs; it’s how respiratory waste leaves our bodies; it may signify when we’re tired or sick; it can be used to help us calm down when we’re upset; it can be a way for us to ground ourselves in the present; but perhaps most importantly, it’s how we know we’re alive.
Within the past year, my ability to think of breathing as a given and as a bodily function that required little to no thought was suddenly under constant threat. COVID was spreading around the world and news of how the disease manifested was everywhere. At the same time news of the lives of so many Black and brown people being taken at the hands of police dominated headlines. My anxiety reached heights I had not dreamed were possible, as my body experienced and internalized trauma after trauma after trauma. Would COVID take away my ability to breathe? When? Living in New York City, the threat was always right around the corner. Would today be the day that my apartment door was kicked in and my breath was taken away at the hands of law enforcement? As a Black woman in America, this has always been a possibility, but the possibility became harder and harder to relegate to the back of my head.
What happens to our understanding and concept of breath as we listen (I’m a big NPR person) to news story after news story of rising Covid cases? What happens to our understanding and concept of breath as we witness someone’s breath being so callously taken from them?
I have a confession. I have not seen the video of George Floyd’s murder. And I likely won’t ever. While there is some part of me that is embarrassed by this, the other part knows that it was the right decision for me to make for myself. I had heard about the murder, read a number of articles, saw the posts, and knew there was a video. At the same time, as an empath, I knew the impact the video was going to have on me and my body.
I am a big fan of Resmaa Menakem, a psychotherapist, trauma specialist, and author of My Grandmother’s Hands, who discusses the historical and intergenerational nature of trauma, as well as its physical embodiment. To put it simply, trauma is passed down in our bodies over generations. So, not only am I carrying the things that I’ve personally experienced in my life, but I’m also carrying the experiences of my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and so on, in my body.
In thinking about all that lives in my body, I’m frankly not sure how much more trauma it can handle. The majority of the things that have the potential to be traumatic for me are completely out of my control. If I can control just one thing, and protect myself from bringing yet another potentially traumatizing experience into my body, I think I owe it to those who came before me and those who may come after me to do so. Knowing that the experience of watching the video of George Floyd’s murder was going to be added on top of the trauma and stress that is already in my cells, I made the choice not to watch it.
Last week, Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd. It felt as though there was a reverberating sigh of relief across the country, and even around the world. It seemed like everyone exhaled and could breathe again. But, do you remember inhaling? I certainly don’t. I exhaled, but it seemed like I had just been holding my breath, and I have no clue for how long.
How often are we holding our breath without realizing it? What’s living in our bodies that we are not taking care of? What are we holding from our ancestors that we are not aware of? How do we recognize and heal from it?
I am working on not taking my body, all that lives within it, and all that it does, for granted. I hope that you check in with your breath from time to time. Inhale deeply, stimulate your vagus nerve, calm your body, ground yourself in the moment, and consider the miraculousness of that seemingly simple (and previously taken for granted) action. I hope that from time to time you notice the impact a particular news story, article, or Instagram post has on your body, take care of yourself, and honor what and who is inside of you.
If you haven’t read anything by Resmaa Menakem, I highly recommend that you do.