Volume 1, Issue 19: On Breathing

When I was a child, one of my aunties would have strategically placed post-it notes throughout her flat. They’d be on walls, cabinets, bookcases, and mirrors at the height of her face. They would all say, “BREATHE” or “Don’t forget to breathe!” or “Breathe into this space” with a little plus sign underneath.

I recently put one up myself:

<image of a blue square post-it note with the word, “breathe” in black pen. It is on the edge of a book shelf, with crammed shelves of books above and below. There is a string light bat to the left that has red, glowing eyes>

I think my aunt was in her early 40s, around the age I am now. That means I must have been around 9 or 10. I remember asking every time I was over, “Why do you have notes everywhere that say breathe?” She would reply, “Because it’s good to stop and breathe.” Given that I was a child, I  accepted that answer as a weird, quirky grown-up answer and shifted my attention to something else.

Flash forward to last week. I was on an evening Zoom call with fellow alumni from Alive & Free, formerly the Omega Boys Club. I was a part of their program as a teen and I was happy to show up for virtual “Family Night,” where not only alumni show up, but current students and collegians as well. Dr. Marshall, Co-Founder, Executive Director, and one of the people I love most in the world, went around and had all the alumni give an update of where we are, what we are doing, and what it was like to go to the club as a teen.

When it was my turn, I shared where I did undergrad then grad school and meow meow meow. But when I started to describe what it was like for me to go to the club every week, I started crying, like an asshole.

“Coming to the club,” I said, “was like being allowed to exhale. Or like finally getting my head above water and filling my lungs with oxygen. Most of my life has been in primarily white spaces. My high school class had 3 Black girls out of 250 girls. My colleges were primarily white. I was in a constant state of holding my breath. Coming to the club meant being able to breathe.”

(Note: Alive & Free staff, students, and alumni are primarily Black)

As I reflected on my present, my social groups (mom’s side of the family, friends, work) are also primarily non-Black spaces. Bursting into tears on Zoom the other night made me realize that I’m still in a constant state of holding my breath. Less so, now, that I’m working from home and Nicole and I are the only ones here and she is an exception.

After I signed off of the Zoom, I thought, “I get it now. I understand my auntie’s post-it notes.”

The ironic thing is that I am well-verse in breathing. I’ve had training in breathing. I have a degree in breathing. Okay it’s not “breathing” it’s actually “singing” but you cannot, CANNOT sing properly/safely/sustainably if you don’t know how to breathe. Like really, really breathe. I would often be dizzy from my classical vocal lessons because I would be high on oxygen.

Most people, who haven’t had voice lessons, when I say, “Take a deep breath,” you suck in a bunch of air through your nose, your chest pops out, you sit or stand a little straighter, your stomach sucks in a bit because you think that breathing just happens in your lungs so you’re trying to fill those.

That’s not what I’m talking about when I talk about breathing deeply.

To breathe deeply, you can’t suck in your stomach. Actually, you should push out your stomach. Relax your jaw, and breathe in slowly. Breathe down to your pelvic floor. Push out your stomach, lungs, and rib cage in every direction. Visualize pushing your diaphragm down and pulling breath so far into you that it goes down to your toes. It helps if you can stand while breathing this way. Visualize air filling every inch of your body. Breathe life into yourself.

Would a visualization help? Here’s one I like:

<animation of shapes growing larger then shrinking back to nothing. As they grow larger, the text, “Breath in” appears. As they shrink, the text “Breathe out” appears. This animation repeats endlessly.>

I can only speak for myself, but breathing this way for a full minute or two without interruptions and my mind fully focused on my breath helps to alleviate a bit of the weight of this year. It may not help everyone, but I do hope that it’s something you can add to your self-care regimen.

That’s it for this week! If you enjoy this newsletter, feel free to subscribe, share it with a friend, and/or give me a tip!

You can donate to Alive & Free and help kids go to college and so much more at https://stayaliveandfree.org/donate/

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