FRESH AIR ALWAYS HELPS
by Janna Leyde
Brain injury shows up in moments. The injury itself is quick, acute, and obvious, but it continues to leave reminders that it is always going to be there, as some separate entity sneakily immersed in our lives. The reminders are the moments. The moment my dad called my mom Sherry (that’s his ex-wife). The moment I knew my mom had lost her partner for life. The moment he told me I cried more than I should. The moment I realized he couldn’t breathe anymore.
It was elven years ago. I was in Spain, perched on the arm of the blue couch, winding the phone chord around my index finger, the same way I did every Tuesday when I called home to let my parents know how my semester in Seville was faring. We shared an awful conservation, the one you never want to have. Gram Mary had just died. Yet, all I could hear over my mother’s words about her mother was my father’s arduous breath. My father was a dexterous man, smooth and nimble. My father was not a man of heavy breath. I cried over a lot of loss that Tuesday.
Since moving to New York, my dad and I have had a phone relationship. It takes patience—on my part. I’ve learned: sit still and do quiet things while on the phone; repeat full sentences, once, twice, three times; slow my speech down and splice words syllable by syllable, all so that he can hear and understand me. Meanwhile he walks around the house creating more static and shuffle than necessary. And when it’s his turn to talk it sounds like he’s running a marathon. Huffing and puffing, trying to fit all of his words into one breath, just like he does in dinner conversations or talking to the guy at the gas station. When he talks he forgets to breathe.
And then came yoga. And then came breath.
All the therapies and changes and new doctors have been great, but the breath, I know, is solely an upshot of his yoga practice. The day I taught him that ocean-sounding ujjayi breath for the first time, he got it. The balance of inhales and exhales through the nose, the constriction of the throat, all came easy to him. It was as if he’d been doing it his whole life and had just forgotten.
“Let breath initiate movement,” says one of my very dear friends and teachers, Lindsay Sullivan. And guess what, it’s tricky. Go for it. Do a whole sun salutation and before every single asana take the inhale or take the exhale before you allow your body to flow into the pose. It becomes so evident that we humans forget to breathe until we are forced to. In the extremes, it’s my gasping, labored father catching his breath over the phone. The non-extremes, it’s all of us.
Brain injury or not, most times breath is an afterthought. Oh, yeah…I should probably inhale about now, I think as I stretch into cobra from chaturanga. And that’s just yoga. Last weekend I was watching the Pittsburgh Penguins in their hockey playoffs (yeah, yeah… this yoga teacher loves her Pittsburgh sports), and I became extremely anxious. Sure, I wanted them to win, but it was just a game. It wasn’t a real life scenario, no real need to get crazy anxious here. What gives?
Breath. As I watched the players zip around, intently focused on the game, I had forgotten to breathe. Kinda dumb, but I do this at other times, too. When I get carsick, I unintentionally hold my breath, which inevitably makes it worse—trust me. When I cut things on a cutting board I forget it. Instead I grit my teeth. Weird, but the exact cause for headaches when I bake apple pies.
Lately, I’ve been trying to pay attention to my breath, so I’m grateful when we yoga teachers take the time out of class to have you sit on your mat and simply do nothing other than inhale and exhale. It used to make me bored, but now it’s practice. It’s fresh air, fresh prana, and it’s so, so good for you. It makes up for all the times we forget to do it. Ten deep, fresh breaths sets the trend for all those other times we’re thinking too hard to breathe. As my mother says: fresh air always helps.
It’s no wonder the other things—walking, talking, thinking, doing—are starting to come easier for my father, and even with a little more dexterity than we’ve seen in years.
Janna Leyde is a yogi and writer living in Brooklyn and the author of He Never Liked Cake, a coming of age memoir that tells the story of growing up with her father’s traumatic brain injury. Oscillations: A Yogic Exploration of the Brain offers her perspective on the practice through the lens of the complex human brain. When she’s not on her mat or at the front of the room teaching, she is working on her second book about yoga for brain injury. You can buy her first novel, He Never Liked Cake, here.