Author Blog: Learning to Breathe
Earlier this week, Jessica Soffer wrote about a precious treat from the Passover seder plate. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
I needed something. Everyone was dying. Or at least a lot of people were dying and it felt like everyone might, including me, die at the drop of a hat. I was having panic attacks on the subway. I was avoiding elevators and scaffolding and spinach and caffeine and planes and hospitals and graveyards.
I couldn’t breathe.
My parents are not religious. Someone told me to try yoga.
I was a gymnast for the great majority of my childhood. Yoga came easily. I breezed through the ranks.
I ended up in an Ashtanga class in Amagansett and had no idea what I was in for.
Ashtanga doesn’t bill itself as the “yoga of forced breathing,” but it might as well. It’s the same series, “system” of movements done (or supposed to be done) every morning, every day. It is strenuous and sequential and smart. At the core of it is the notion of synchronizing breath with movement. For every movement, a breath, which sounds nice enough but is challenging. Very. Because of the intensity of the poses, most people sweat. A lot. It’s different from Bikram in that the heat you create is from the inside out. It’s all you. Ujjayi breathing, or “victorious breath,” consists of steady inhales and exhales through the nose, equal in duration, accompanied by the “ocean sound” made by constricting the throat as one does to whisper. Ujjayi’s purpose: improve endurance, decrease distractions, release tension, warm the blood, which improves circulation and cleanses toxins and regulates heat. Too, and most importantly to me, Ujjayi calms the mind. Breath becomes a rhythm, a lullaby. In and out and in and out and in and out.
My first Ashtanga class nearly killed me — and got me completely hooked. My first Ashtanga teacher has been my only one really, or at least the only one that’s really mattered. She’s a die-hard. If she cannot hear your “ocean sound,” she says so. If she sees your mouth open, she says so. And if you cannot breathe, in and out and in and out and in and out, you cannot. You just cannot. It took me many months to get a place where I was comfortable with the poses, and then even longer to a place where the breath was as crucial as the positions. But eventually it was. So much so. In and out and in and out and in and out.
At first, I stopped thinking about dying because I was focused on the movements, on not messing up. After a while, I stopped thinking about dying because I was trying to do the movements better. When I became halfway decent, I stopped thinking because I was focused on the breath. On better breath.
I am aware that I said “better,” regarding yoga. Kill me. I am no longer afraid. On a plane, in turbulent moments, I practice Ujjayi. Elevators don’t paralyze me. Bring on the spinach. I am better.
In Ashtanga, I didn’t find God. I did, however, learn to breathe. I breathed like I meant it and then I breathed because I had to. You have to. In and out and in and out and in and out. And by breathing I realized that I wasn’t dead yet. Just the opposite. I was all breath.
Win a signed copy of Jessica Soffer’s debut novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, here.
The Jewish Book Council is a not-for-profit organization devoted to the reading, writing and publishing of Jewish literature. For more Jewish literary blog posts, reviews of Jewish books and book club resources, and to learn about awards and conferences, please visit www.jewishbookcouncil.org.
MyJewishLearning.com is the leading transdenominational website of Jewish information and education. Visit My Jewish Learning for thousands of articles on Judaism, Jewish holidays, Jewish history and more.
"This holiday we take for ourselves, no longer silent servers behind the curtain, but singers of the seder, with voices of gladness, creating our own convocation, and leaving ‘The Narrow Place’ together."— E.M. Broner
"The idea of opening the door is that we hope Elijah might actually be there this year – that we might actually have done enough to change the world to have had him arrive. And, if we don’t have even the tiniest bit in us that thinks he might be there, that thinks we have tried our hardest to bring around a messianic time, with no hunger, no war, no conflict, no pain – if we don’t believe that we have tried to end those broken parts in the world – well, then I tell my students – don’t do any of it."— Rabbi Leora Kaye
"The whole seder, for me, is the tension between two statements: We say, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and now we’re free,' but before that, we pick up the matzoh, we invite the hungry in and we say, 'This year we are slaves, next year may we be free.' We are the most fortunate, liberated Jews in history. But on the other hand, there are lots of things that enslave us."— Rabbi Arthur Green