I'll post again later with more details about Leslie Kaminoff's four-day immersion, more context, more specifics on what I learned about breathing mechanics. For now, this post is about how a sprinkle of new experience changed my everything. I'm writing to those that shared this journey with me.
To you Silk Bridge attendees, thank you for your care, your powerful words, your outpouring of love that held me together on that day. I hope this post starts to answer all the beautiful questions you've been asking me.
Please leave me a comment here? I'd love to know more about what you felt, what you saw, what you learned. Your words here will bolster my healing and help tremendously as I continue to explore. As we learned in our Day 3 partner work, there's nothing like another perspective.
I took a full breath for the first time in 11 years, and it felt totally natural and completely unfamiliar.
When I got home that evening, I was visibly exhausted and confused and overwhelmed. My partner Tony took one look at me and said, "Let's jump in the ocean." I put on my bikini. We walked across the sand and into the water. This is pretty much what I told him.
I started with the pee story, the infinity-pee that happened right after working with Leslie.
It felt like the longest pee of my life. Seriously, I just kept peeing and peeing until I felt hollow. This is not a metaphor. I wobble-walked to the bathroom, clung to the wall as I slowly slid down to the seat and peed and cried.
Leslie Kaminoff made me cry.
How? Wait... why? WHAT?
He asked to work with me as a demonstration. I'd mentioned earlier in the day that I was in a car crash a long time ago that fractured my T12 vertebra.
I said okay.
He had me lie down with my knees over a bolster, and then he put a hand on my belly and mooshed his fingers around. He had me notice the amount of tension in my abdomen and pointed out that my muscles were pretty active for a person lying down and doing nothing but breathing.
We'd learned that breathing is shape change. We'd learned that the abdominal cavity contains non-compressible stuff, so it changes shape but not volume, like a water balloon, while the thoracic cavity contains the lungs (and other stuff), so it changes shape and volume, like an accordion.
When I breathe in, my lungs and rib cage have to expand, which means my non-compressible juicy bits have to poof out somewhere. But whoops, my belly muscles are holding everything in, which makes it impossible for me to take a full breath.
It's been 11 years since the car crash.
My bones and muscles healed beautifully. I worked damn hard on healing my movement ability, too. No one ever told me that maybe I could heal my breathing, or that I'd even need to. My breathing was fine, better than normal according to the machine with the floating ball and tube thingy in the hospital.
In 2005, one year after my spine fractured, I had no reason to believe that I wasn't fully recovered, except I couldn't dance. Specifically, I couldn't pirouette. I told myself "It's okay, you're alive, you can still teach, you love yoga" and I carried on.
In 2007, I had surgery to remove vocal nodes — my otolaryngologist told me the nodes had developed from overusing my voice, and have I ever considered a speech pathologist and a singing coach? No, but sure, off I went, adding to my existing team of physical therapists, massage therapists, Pilates teachers and yoga teachers.
No one told me I wasn't breathing fully.
Then, I learned about the water balloon and the accordion.
This is what I remember happening as I lay there, under Leslie's hand.
- Breathe in.
- Breathe out. Hold the breath out.
- Engage belly muscles, try to push Leslie's fingers out as he pushes in.
- Disengage belly muscles. Relax completely.
- Inhale. (Leslie lets go.)
- Inhale some more.
- Inhale even more.
- Inhale so much it feels like a yawn that is yawning.
The release after that infinity-inhale was like sliding into a warm bath. I feel more soft and relaxed than I've ever been while fully awake and aware. Leslie leads me through a few more repetitions of the sequence, and that's when something in my spine unlocks.
It's sudden and scary and completely unexpected.
My entire history of spinal injury and breath-related trauma is rushing through my subconscious at this point. I'm not thinking thoughts, I'm feeling them run through my body. After more than a decade of restricted breathing, my nervous system has no clue what's going on.
I feel the panic rising.
My body is convinced I'm in danger. My ribs are moving with my breath — that's what it is. I feel unstable. Something is moving that should not be moving, something that has not moved for many years, not since everything around it broke. I start trembling.
Leslie talks softly to me. I can't remember the words. I'm falling through the floor, through space, totally out of control.
Leslie keeps talking and he strokes my forehead. "This is natural. This is expected. You're doing great." I realize I've been sobbing.
My fingertips start tingling after a few seconds. I mention this. Oh, it's the beginnings of hyperventilation. Hold the breath out. Wait for the inhale. That's all.
There's more belly-mooshing with Leslie's fingers, more gentle coaching to let the breathing happen. My bucket handles and pump handles are moving so much that the soft tissue of my upper chest gets an uncomfortable stretch with each inhale.
I am simultaneously freaked out and overjoyed.
Just as my conscious mind starts to enjoy the awesomeness of this newly enormous breath, my belly muscles start to lock down.
I remember practicing prāṇāyāma in the hospital. Lying there unable to move, ujjayi breathing gave me a sense of control. That's what's happening at this point. My get-a-grip survival habits are kicking in, hardening my abdominal wall and constricting my throat.
Leslie is still mooshing and smoothing. I'm sure he can feel me tensing up, and I tell him that I'm trying to relax and not fight it but it's not working.
He says that his hand is having a conversation with my belly that is wholly independent of "what's happening up here," gesturing to our faces. Leslie mooshes a little deeper and wiggles my right thigh, rotating it at the hip joint. "Can you feel that moving under my hand? That's your psoas. Kinda cool."
He keeps going with the mooshing and wiggling, and my body starts to feel more solidly on the floor. As I relax, my breathing gets much less big and deep. Right when I take a purposefully large inhale because I'm trying to be a really good demonstration person, Leslie says, "See how little of a breath you can get away with. You don't need much for just lying here."
The teeny tiny breath, he explains, is the opposite end of the spectrum from the huge breath. There's an obsession in yoga with stretching further and going deeper. Leslie suggests that we spend some practice time at the other extreme to see how that feels and experience a different context.
Everything gets fuzzy after that.
I sit up suuuper slowly and try my newly expanded breath in a different orientation to gravity. It is exhilarating. My vision seems sharper than usual.
Leslie helps me stand, again in super slow motion. I feel like I'm surfing the wobbly earth. He coaches me to roll down and hang out in a standing forward fold for a while. He tips me backwards onto him, resetting my body's relationship to gravity in that shape. He sets me back up onto my own feet and I roll up from there.
He asks if I'm okay. I do an awkward nod-shake-nod, and he says, "It's okay to not be okay."
I'm still processing this new information. There's a great big lot of it, in my nervous system, my muscles, my emotions, everywhere. I'm crying as I'm sitting here typing, feeling grateful and amazed and a little bit pissed.
I know that what I experienced is a high-water mark, not a pivot point, like "Yay, my breathing is fixed forever! Pirouettes for days! Thanks for the belly-moosh, LK!"
There's work to be done. My habits creep back into my body, my saṁskaras of 11 years will die hard, and I will feel every bit of that burn.
This is my new yoga practice. My tapaḥ. My sacrificial fire that transmutes my offerings, fueled by breath.