There’s a meme I seem to come across every couple of years that always causes me to pause; it shows a picture of a tree with the text, “Imagine if trees gave off free WIFI signals, we’d be planting them everywhere and probably save the whole planet. Too bad they only produce the oxygen we breathe.”
Perhaps the meme is all the more poignant to me when I stumble across it this time round, because of my current circumstances. After 10 years of working as a naturopath, followed by two years at home nurturing my now nearly two-year-old, I am attempting to return to the coal face of employment. The only problem is, I now have a completely new internal configuration. I have so little energy that there is none spare for bullshit, or should I say pretending things aren’t as they are, and secondly, time has become so exponentially precious that I cannot fathom investing my time, paid or unpaid, into anything that is blatantly futile.
The only thing I’m qualified at is advising people about health, but I’m at an impasse, because there are two truths about sickness and health that I have learned in a decade. Firstly, no matter how good the information is, information alone is not enough to make people change, no matter how sick they are. Secondly, even when people eat right, exercise right, make good lifestyle choices, manage their stress and enjoy good relationships, they still get sick, sometimes very sick.
Why, when we know planting trees would go a long way to saving our only planet, don’t we do it? Why, when people are unwell, can they not take the actions that would lead to their recovery? And why, do we think so little about our breath when it is the golden-vein between life and death?
I’ve had trouble breathing all my life. I was born blue with the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck, I had asthma from a young age, recurrent bouts of crippling bronchitis and I took up smoking at the age of 12, spending the next 23 years suffocating myself. The whole time I tried, and failed, at being an athlete. I ran, swam, surfed and rode kilometre after kilometre, all the time gasping and clawing for breath. On top of all of that, I had a good voice which smoking scratched away at like a dog on a door. I had every reason to stop smoking and I knew all the grim facts, but it did not result in me stopping.
With the wisdom of age and hindsight I can boil the reason down to one word—emotion. In decadent cliché, I started smoking the year my parents got divorced. I carried on smoking through every emotional turmoil, the stronger the emotion, the more the ciggie butts piled up in the ashtray. Not only did I not care about the idea of death, I naively imagined that I embraced it because I was so out of love with myself, so removed from myself, and uncomfortable with my inner world, that death sounded to my innocent ears like a reprieve. A glamorous get away from the hell of reality.
Now, I know my circumstances weren’t especially terrible or at all unique, in fact, they were common to the point of being ubiquitous. I had experienced painful things and had never learned how to deal with my uncomfortable emotions, and felt so ashamed of them that I would rather stuff them down inside me and die, than feel them. And the way I stuffed? By not breathing.
So when the Instagram account of “The 02 Awakening” pops up on my news feed, my attention is suddenly focused. The 02 Awakening is described as, “a series of global events created that bring ancient breathing techniques to the modern world to enhance physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.” As I take the words in, I realise there is something significant here for me.
What I read on their website after registering for one of their workshops offers more: unlock emotions, traumas and suppressed energy, feel and heal to experience true inner freedom from within, profoundly life-changing… Sounds great right? Breathe to be free! Amazing.
But I do not feel amazed, I feel scared shitless. As the date draws nearer I am thinking of ways to get out of it. What have I got myself into? Why would I do this? I’d so much rather just stay home. Things are fine as they are. They are just fine.
However, things are not fine. I have aches and pains that defy diagnosis and my concerted efforts at cure. At the same time, I have seen so much confirmation in my personal life and profession of the emotional roots of disease, and I know that I am not exempt from this. Then one day I have this experience; my baby and I are at odds, it’s really falling apart, I try so hard to parent consciously and patiently, to be caring and consistent, but sometimes, like right now, I lose it. In distress she falls to the floor and her breath becomes the quickened gasps of a dying fish. As I walk the short length of the hall to rescue her I understand that she is internalising this trauma with her breath.
I am lying on my back on a black yoga mat on the wooden floorboards of a large, open, airy, wall to wall white painted loft, with the delicate light of amethyst LEDs beaming up the walls. The wind is slashing and the rain gnashing at the arched Victorian windows, the violet-grey sky behind them, a juxtaposition of the calm inside this room. Uplifting beats play while Helle and Lukis begin pulling back the curtains, sharing themselves, their stories, easing us into the information, the process.
Helle Weston and Lukis Mac, the people behind The 02 Awakening, are modern-day prophets of breath work and the guides on our journey today. The first thing I notice about both of them is their enigmatic presence and their beautiful, tanned and tattooed skin. This first impression swiftly dissolves as I am struck by how unusually present and real they both are. It is a strange, potent gift to be with someone who is being their real self, no guardedness, no pretence.
“It’s okay to feel your feelings,” Lukis explains. “It’s okay to breathe. I know some of you feel anxious, uncomfortable, I get it, but it’s okay, you’re going to feel better afterwards, trust me. You’re safe here.”
We’re in deep now and there’s no going back.
We do a sort of warm up breathing exercise. There’s so much resistance in my body. My mind is running a million miles an hour, my ego is shouting for me to feel shame, my body is stiff, my fear is afraid of dying. But there is some part of me that knows that something big is about to happen and it’s exciting. It’s time to do the breath work. We lie down on our mats and begin.
My breath guides me into the realms of past events and times, moments of stuck pain, of smothered happiness, events of the past that might have only occupied an hour or a day now saturate the landscape of my mind. One by one I am presented an emotion or experience that has become caught like cloth between the rocks, it’s lurking presence in the depths of me penning the road map of my life. As each outcast is shown to me I say its name out loud, I speak the truth of it until it rolls through me like thunder, until all the shame is gone and there is only acceptance of what is. As the emotion is free to run like rain down the hills and soak back into the soil, so do I become free to walk on, untethered. It’s hard work, it hurts at times, and then it is exquisite release, the pain melts into beautiful light and I’m laughing and crying for the beauty of it all.
When I open my eyes and draw myself back into the room an hour later, I am half a meter off to the side of my yoga mat, sweaty, reverberating, energy fizzing inside me, exhausted, insights fading rapidly like those from a dream. I take my pad and pen, and write. I feel like I’ve just been re-born but this time with a super power, and it’s as easy as breathing.
I know this might all sound a bit woo-woo. Perhaps it is woo-woo, but it’s also the coolest shit out. I’m aware I might sound like someone who just ‘found God’ and now there’s no going back, and yeah, it is like that, and it’s hard not to rave about something so big. I would like to play to the same scared part of others that lives in me and give a more detailed, juicy, armchair-traveller blow by blow of my experience that day, so that the comfort zone never has to be left in order to experience it, but I can’t do that, because each person has to experience what I’m talking about for themselves.
What I need to tell everyone instead is that they should go and do an 02 Awakening breath workshop. I know, I know, I shouldn’t be ‘shoulding’ and what do I know about everyone else anyway? Well I know this:
I know we live in a world where we teach our babies the alphabet, how to use the potty and to use good manners, but that it would be rare to have a single conversation with them about how to process their painful feelings. I know we haven’t lived a life free of pain. I know that statistics of mental illness and suicide are so high in New Zealand because we are incapacitated when it comes to having, processing and talking about how we feel. I know that ‘knowing’ isn’t the same as ‘feeling,’ and that feeling is much more liberating, it might even set us free.
As soon as I could after the workshop, I slept. When I awoke my eyes were the clearest, shiniest and bluest they have been in a long time, they looked just like my daughter’s brand-new baby eyes – unclouded. Eventually I could verbalise my experience to my husband, he listened patiently, with an open mind to what was largely indescribable, and when I’d finished talking he said, “It reminds me of when someone has found God, or something so profound has happened that is has changed everything.” And I couldn’t agree more.
Breath work is going to change things, big time. It’s going to come like everything good does, from the fringes, and at first it may be ridiculed and opposed, but eventually it will be accepted, and finally it will become mainstream, and then one by one it’s going to change us until it has changed the whole world.