Just Breathe: It’s Only a Matter of Life or Death
Our breath keeps us alive whether we pay attention to it or not, but when made a priority, it allows us to truly live.
by Kelly Davis, Maa Karma
Connecting to my breath provided me a foundation from which I was able to rebuild, restore, and finally learn how to respect myself and those around me. It is the most fundamental tool that I use when teaching yoga to at-risk populations. And yet it wasn’t until I found myself sitting next to someone who, without that tool, would never again have taken a breath as a free man, that I fully realized just how powerful the breath has the potential to be.
I recently attended an awards ceremony and fundraiser for an organization called Homeboy Industries. Based out of Los Angeles, Homeboy provides services to former gang members to aid them in their reintegration into society. Engaged in what I thought would be small talk with the gentleman sitting next to me, he asked me what my association was, why I was there. I explained that I was there representing UpRising Yoga, an organization that teaches yoga in juvenile hall, group homes, detention camps, and to communities that need it most. He’d heard of us and validated the importance of what we were doing. And then he shared some of his story with me.
At seventeen he was serving a life sentence. Confined to his cell 23 hours a day, he told me he felt his mind closing in on him, insanity was setting in, and he had exhausted every other effort to be present in his body and accept his situation. Finally, when another inmate told him to, “just breathe,” he listened. And he really heard. He expressed to me how finding a connection to his breath gave him a freedom within the confines of his cell; how his breath enabled him to no longer be a prisoner in his body, but instead to be fully present. He stressed that his ability to breathe consciously changed the course of his life, and how decades later he now has the opportunity to work with at-risk youth who are on the same path that once brought him to his literal and figurative prison.
As yogis, we refer to the process of connecting to the breath as pranayama and there are many ways to practice it. Ultimately, it is our attention to the prana, or the life force, that allows us to direct the flow of energy, bringing our consciousness into a state of natural contemplation, cultivating space to breed wisdom and awareness.
As members of at-risk populations in the western world, who’ve never been exposed to yoga or phrases like, “flow of energy,” “cultivation of space,” or “natural contemplation,” the process might seem a bit absurd.
So instead we break it down scientifically for them and teach them how our bodies benefit from getting oxygen to every part. We teach them how when we aren’t breathing properly, we lose the ability to think clearly, we become short tempered and reactionary, we anger quickly. We educate them about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and the association between rapid, shallow breathing and the body’s fight or flight response. We express to them that taking control of our breath allows us to take control of our thoughts and reactions, feel relaxation and calm, think rationally, and respond positively. We simplify the process, by constantly reminding them to, “breathe in, breathe out.”
We share with them examples of how the breath can help them to remain calm while facing parole boards, gain control of the inner discomfort associated with drugs, violence, lying, cheating, and stealing, by cultivating honesty, humility, and hope. A prisoner who has received this gift shared that “for decades, I believed my victim made me kill him,” and connecting to his breath gave him the “courage to finally stop blaming, rationalizing, and minimizing.”
It has been my personal experience that connection to my breath took a girl who was reactionary, opinionated, argumentative, defensive, and stubborn and transformed her into a woman who is able to pause, honor alternative perspectives, consciously communicate, cease fighting, and yield to the greater good.
So while our breath sustains us whether we pay attention to it or not, I try to carry the message to those I teach that when I really connect to my breath, breathing in acceptance and breathing out surrender, I am able connect to calm amid the chaos of my life, my environment, my thoughts. Life often puts us in situations that are difficult, frightening, and seemingly unbearable, but our first and best immediate reaction should always be to take a moment to just breathe; it could be a matter of life or death.
About Kelly Davis, Maa Karma:
Kelly found yoga during a difficult time in her life. A regular practice afforded her windows of stillness, when she was able to clear her mind and summon the strength to let go of what wasn’t serving her, at the same time filling a void and finding a connection to calm among the chaos. Inspired by the work she was doing in a research lab studying the effects of yoga and meditation interventions, Kelly was motivated to bring the beneficial effects of yoga to at-risk populations. Over the last year, she has completed a number of specialized trainings to teach yoga in institutionalized settings. After spending three months studying yoga therapy in India, Kelly has been teaching yoga on a regular basis to at-risk youth and underage victims of commercial sexual exploitation at Los Angeles’ Central Juvenile Hall with UpRising Yoga, as well as to a unit of incarcerated women prisoners at Twin Towers Correctional Facility with GOGI (Getting Out By Going In) Yoga, and to a group of recovering drug addicts and alcoholics with 1 1st Step Yoga.