The Big Breathe: Soft Moments Between The Breath
Why do we close our eyes when we pray? When we cry? When we dream? Or when we kiss? Because we know that the most beautiful things in life are not seen but felt with the heart.
When my son was only four years old, he came to me and asked me why he was born with cystic fibrosis. In his young mind, he couldn’t understand why he had to sit through hours of treatments every day, swallow a handful of pills before each meal and even occasionally worry about being admitted to the hospital. All he knew was that his friends, and even his younger sisters, did not have to do these things. Like any other child his age, he didn’t want to be different. He felt frightened and alone, and wanted those feelings to go away.
I remember closing my eyes for a few seconds and thinking about my response. After all, how do you explain the complexities of a disease to a child still in pre-school? How do you teach someone to look past the fear, pain and disappointments of life in hopes of finding the silver lining? How could I show my son that life is as complex as it is fragile? Regardless of the set of instructions that he might have been given, his life was still meant to be explored, nurtured, and most definitely, lived to the fullest extent.
In those few brief seconds, a million thoughts flooded my heart. I knew that this was a pivotal moment in his young life. And I wanted to get it right. In his four short years on this planet, I had (among other things) already taught him the basics of reading and writing, the importance of saying please and thank you and the skill of occasionally getting both shoes on the correct feet. Because of his disease, I also had been forced to instruct him how to swallow a pill without water, to set up his chest therapy vest machine and even pronounce the multi-syllabic names of all his medications, as well as explain their purposes. Those were important things. But this singular lesson really mattered. While, he didn’t have the vocabulary to fully express his thoughts, he wanted to better understand life. To be honest, I didn’t know exactly where to start. So I did the only thing I knew how to do. I took a deep breath and followed my heart.
The first thing I told him was that he was loved. I then made sure that he understood that he was also extremely brave, smart and strong. It wanted him to know that inside of us there was a huge collection of amazing qualities. How we use them is what makes us all different. But is also what makes us so special. The funny thing is that we often don’t even realize these qualities exist inside us until we actually need them. Whenever we are feeling sad, scared, lonely or upset, we simply needed to turn our focus inward and find a way to make ourselves feel better. He possessed so many wonderful qualities that would guide him through his life. And while I reminded him that I would always be there to help him with anything he needed, it was important for him to know how to manage them on his own.
During the entire conversation, I was careful to be completely truthful with him. I told him that I didn’t know why something like cystic fibrosis (CF) existed in our world. It did not make sense to me. But, being born with something like cystic fibrosis was not something that was in our control. Unfortunately there are no magic wands in life. I didn’t possess the power to erase CF from my son’s world. But he and I did have the power to choose how we wanted to handle it. In the kindest way possible, I explained that there would be many other challenges that he would have to face. Some of those things would also be beyond his control. However, he would always have a choice. He could fight those things or make peace with them. Then I bent down close to his ear to emphasize the importance of my next sentence. That there was also a third option. “Sometimes,” I told him, “You can choose to do both.”
Fast forward an entire decade. My son is 14-years-old and being admitted to the hospital for decreased lung functions. Part of the admission protocol requires him to have a PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter) line inserted into his upper arm. This is not an easy procedure to watch and certainly can’t be easy to endure. Lying still and draped with surgical sheets, I notice my son starting to breathe slowly in through his nose and out through his mouth. He was using the yoga techniques that he had learned from a class we had attended together earlier that year. Through measured breaths, he was able to reduce his anxiety, as well as minimize his pain. More importantly, he had found a way to dig down inside himself and survive the moment. Just the simple fact that he was sitting through this medical produce proves that he was willing to battle his disease with every resource available to him. He wasn’t going to give up. But he has also accepted the fact that sometimes you need to walk through fire in order to get to the other side. In that moment, I knew that he has finally discovered the fine line between fighting and acceptance. He had found his balance.
Prana. It is the life force inside all of us. Allowing us to channel our energy, whether it is through the act of vigorous movement or simply letting go in quiet acceptance. The duality of effort and surrender is a vital concept in yoga. It is equally important in parenting. For me personally, I am determined to raise my children in the same manner in which I practice yoga. Both require focus, strength, resilience, and stamina. However, if I remember to plant my feet firmly on the ground and allow my movements to follow my breath, I will always find the momentum to keep on moving forward.
When my son, Sean, was diagnosed with CF at the age of two, my husband and I thought that our lives would never be the same. That our son’s disease would permanently cast a shadow on all our hopes and dreams for our future. But after living with a chronic illness for over 13 years, we have been surprised to find how “normal” life can be at times. We still laugh, love, smile, and celebrate. Just like any other family. We just have a few extras thrown in. The biggest difference is our daily routine. As a sophomore in high school, Sean wakes up at 5:00 every morning to do his treatments before going to school and squeezes in another set between homework, sports and chores. He swallows up to 30 pills a day, takes four inhaled medicines and injects himself with insulin before most meals. In addition to CF, Sean was recently diagnosed with CF Related Diabetes which is a common complication of the disease. He has been hospitalized ten times, endured two CF related surgeries and is well aware of the fact that the average life expectancy for someone living with CF is only 37. At the age of 15, Sean is almost considered middle aged.
And yet, he displays courage on a daily basis. Sean talks optimistically about attending college and even following in his father’s footsteps to become a doctor. If asked, he will tell you that he enjoys science and is fascinated by the human body. But I also know that his true motivation is his own heart. Like all of us, he wants to make a difference in this world. And in his mind, there is no greater gift that the power to heal another person’s pain and suffering. Already at his young age, he knows these concepts all too well. There have definitely been times in which his own disease has seemed like too much to bear; yet he has consistently found a way to shoulder the burden and move past his fear. While I practice yoga to remind myself to take life one breath at a time, he incorporates his own version of yoga to give him the strength to look far into the future.
But it is important to remember that other children with CF are not always as fortunate. I have a friend who son Daniel only has 60% of his lung function remaining. He is only 12 years old. While Sean is admitted to the hospital about once a year, Daniel is in and out of the hospital on a regular basis. He has celebrated birthdays, holidays and other special milestones of his life inside the walls of Radys Children’s Hospital. To him and his family, living with CF is not only physically demanding, but emotionally exhausting, as well. When asked how she manages to stay positive despite the constant demands of her son’s health, Daniel’s mom replied, “You never know how strong you are until strong is all that you have.”
Strength. Balance. Prana. Breath. These elements are inside all of us. We simply need to find a way to quiet our minds and realign our hearts. The key to it all is perspective. With or without a disease like cystic fibrosis, life comes streaming at us from all different directions. But we always have the ability to stop and break down our present situation into smaller, more manageable pieces. Not much unlike a series of movement in a vinyasa flow or the concentrated efforts of pranayama breathing.
The ironic part about my son’s question was that at the time he only knew about the inconvenient aspects of his disease. He didn’t know the really scary things about CF. The statistics and facts that sometimes haunt me in the middle of the night. But similar to my son lying on his hospital bed or any other stressful situation, these are the moments in which the breath truly matters. Through yoga, I now know that I have a choice. I can lose track of my breathing and allow fast, shallow breaths to catapult me from one meaningless thought to another. Or I can allow my body and mind to resonate with the rhythms of my breath. Focused, present , healing and deep. In actuality, it is those soft moments between the breath in which I feel the most alive. There, poised after the powerful draw of the inhale and before the quiet release of the exhale, is where we find our balance.
The duality of CF has played a huge role in my perspective, as well. While I wouldn’t go as far as to say that CF has made my life better, it definitely has enhanced certain aspects of it. My son’s disease has made my family laugh a little louder. Hug a little tighter. And definitely enjoy the people who surround us just a little bit more. Through CF and yoga, I have learned that there are always two sides to everything. The stretch and the pull. We just need to occasionally extend our reach slightly beyond our personal edge in order to find them.
On October 26, I would like to invite you to expand your yoga practice by joining the Cystic Fibrosis Community in a revolutionary fundraiser that incorporates the concept of simply breathing for a cure. The day offers three classes, lunch and a market place all geared towards raising awareness and funding CF medical research.
The line-up includes:
The Big Breathe 2013 Yoga Day (located at the Seaside Center for Spiritual Living, Encinitas, CA)
8:30 – 9:30 a.m. Morning Medication led by Chopra Center’s Davidji
10 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. Yoga Basics led by Mark Whitwell
12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m. Lunch accompanied by Luke Williams
1:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. Invigorating Flow let collectively by Michael Fukumura, Amy Caldwell and Bethany Orheim
3:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. – Restorative Class led by Kristen Olson. Music by Girish
Register online. Tickets are $50 before the event and $65 at the door
And because there is always a second choice in life, you can also opt to participate in the virtual event
Purchase a t-shirt for $30 and pledge to wear it on October 26. Go to your regular yoga class, practice yoga at home or simply stop and remember to breathe sometime during the day. Either way, you will fund vital medical research to help others breathe more freely. There are over 30,000 adults and children living with CF in the United States today. But on October 26, we can all take a collective breath to cure this disease
Purchase your t-shirt.
In so many ways, and on so many levels, CF has given me countless opportunities to cry, pray, hope and love. It has opened my eyes to the harsh realities of life, but is has also taught me to close them and quietly search for the beauty and strength within. I know that I will not always see the things that I want directly in front of me all the time. And yet, I know I will eventually get to where I need to be. All I need to do is close my eyes, listen to my heart and remember to follow my breath.
~Katrina Young, Parent of Child w/Cystic Fibrosis