Mohonk Mountain House is a three-mile drive up a beautiful, winding, narrow and sometimes heart rate inducing, mountain road. For almost a decade I've been leading retreats at Mohonk. And, while it’s long been one of my favorite places, I often wondered how an emergency is handled when you’re three miles up a mountain. One April, several years ago, I found out.
After a long day hiking among spring blooms, my son William's (then 8-years-old) grass allergy kicked up. Congested for much of the evening, at 1:00 am he suffered a full-blown asthma attack.
After a panicky phone call to the operator, we were escorted by on-site paramedics to the house doctor office a few flights beneath our room. William was put on a nebulizer, oxygen and an ambulance was called. This was a highly tense situation… and the more William felt that he couldn’t get a breath, the more he couldn’t breathe.
That’s the thing about asthma (and actually, breathing in general for most of us), the harder it is to breathe, the tighter and more rigid you become, then the more anxious you get, and thus it gets even harder to breathe.
Personally, I had to modulate my own anxiety as I watched William’s tightness escalate. I had to be fully calm and present to help ‘bring him down’. I wiggled my way in between him and the doctor, put my forehead on William’s, and started my own slow, rhythmic breathing. Gently, softly, I encouraged him to breath with me. It was a start.
Thankfully the ambulance finally arrived to take us off the mountain to the hospital where he was given medication to open his airways and by 5:00am he was fine to go home. Phew!
CAN'T GET NO AIR TIME
Now of course this is an extreme situation of how being short on breath begets less breath; how tension and anxiety further progress tension and anxiety. But, as I watched William I realized how most of us do this to ourselves all day long. In fact, we can get so used to feeling restricted, we don’t even realize how tight we are until it’s too late. At first, we begin by bracing ourselves just a little, waiting for something to throw us off balance, ready to defend or protect ourselves. And like a snowball effect, we respond progressively by getting tighter and tighter, minimizing our breath moment after moment.
This cycle diminishes our vitality and initiates our stress response (fight or flight reflex), which makes us tense, anxious, and irritable. As well as causing fatigue, compromised immunity, lowered digestive capabilities, diminished vital organ function, weakening our overall well-being.
And while emergency intervention may be essential at times, we also need to learn to interrupt this pattern before we ‘can’t breathe’. With practice, we can reverse this pattern, to pause, deepen our breath and initiate our Relaxation Response (the part of our nervous system responsible for restoring our bodies vital organ function). As we consciously slow our breathing, we bring down our heart rate, relax the body and calm our mind. In this state, our world opens up and we not only feel more health, we feel more connected to ourselves and others.
And we can do this! We can create new daily patterns through practices like yoga, conscious breathing and relaxation.
CONSCIOUS BREATHING PRACTICE
Repeat this conscious breathing practice daily for 3-5 minutes:
- Sit comfortably in a chair, feet resting on the ground or lie down (bend your knees, feet flat on floor or place a pillow under your knees).
- Relax and simply observe the quality of your natural breath without judgment. You may notice your breath is uneven and inconsistent. Just watch it, graciously.
- After a few minutes of observation, shift your awareness to how the ribs are moving with the breath. Feel the movement the breath creates in your body.
- As you relax imagine your breath as a wave, rising and falling evenly. Without inducing effort, mentally count the length of each breathe as it rises and falls organically. Slowly begin to encourage an even count – for example inhale 1, 2, 3, 4, natural pause, exhale 1, 2, 3, 4, natural pause – without trying to consume more air or push air out.
- Stay relaxed and enjoy the rhythm of your breath for a moment.