Recently, a thought hit me, completely out of the blue. It struck me silently, but, like the force of an oncoming train, it compelled me to immediate action.
I’m alive, but I haven’t been breathing.
To an outsider looking into the vast labyrinth of my mind, my thought would seem to be an impossible contradiction. One must breathe to live,after all. But I no longer wanted to breathe to simply survive. I wanted to breathe with purpose.
I wanted to breathe in the way I rarely have since graduating from college.
When I was in college, one of my professors began every class by leading her students in a breathing exercise. We were instructed to breathe diaphragmatically and to acknowledge the existence of any thoughts we may have during the exercise, but then to return our collective focus to the breath.
Those few minutes at the start of every class became my purest form of relaxation. As I breathed, all of my worries slipped away–the stresses of midterms and finals, the prospect of running an honor society, the oh-so-important college drama that now seems meaninglessly petty. In those moments, the classroom became a sanctuary, like a respite from the harsh outside world of papers, projects, and college politics.
But then, the class ended, and so did my habit of breathing. I convinced myself that I was too busy for reflection. I warned myself it was time to become serious about school — and only school — if I truly wanted to graduate Summa Cum Laude. No breathing. No relaxation. Nothing but classes, studying, and obligatory extracurriculars.
Inhale. Hold the breath.
As life became a blur of classes, Mock Trial practices, papers, projects, and club meetings, my stress mounted. I desperately needed an outlet to quell the thoughts and feelings that threatened to overtake my mind. The solution lie directly in front of me, but I refused to implement it. I needed time to make my dreams a reality, and I believed self-care was too time-consuming, too frivolous. To my perfection-focused mind, a meager two-minutes of reflective breathing per day seemed too much to allow.
Continue holding the breath.
Until I took another class with the same professor. Spotting me in the middle of the first row, she asked me, point blank, if I had been doing the breathing exercises.
“Uh… I’ve been kind of busy. I took 19 units last quarter!” I responded sheepishly.
“That’s exactly when you should have been doing the breathing!” she said, with gentle laughter.
I was too proud to admit to her what I knew in my heart: She was right.
I began taking a few moments to breathe per day.
Exhale. Release the breath.
Now, as I grapple with the challenges of my job as a respite care worker, I hear the echoes of my former professor’s voice in my head, telling me I should make time to breathe, telling me to focus on the breath, and I know I need to recommit myself to self-care. I know I need to take a few moments each day — a respite from respite work, a respite from life — and breathe. Just breathe.
You may feel pressure to rush through life, to be “the one who does it all.” You may feel tempted to neglect your own needs in the process of reaching your goals. But, as the stress you feel continues to build, you must not forget to breathe. Slow down, relax, and focus on the steadfast constancy of your breath. As you breathe, you will create a mental sanctuary, a retreat from the demands of life. The weight of the world will slowly dissipate, leaving you in a state of impenetrable calm. You will emerge refreshed, renewed, and clear-headed, prepared to handle all of life’s challenges.
Take a moment to breathe.
Previously published on Thought Catalog.