Now that we are entering the next phase of the pandemic, I have been searching for the best filters for the cloth masks I wear whenever I leave my apartment. To further protect others from my exhalations in this time of COVID surge (and perhaps myself, too) I decided upon simple tissues, folded double and inserted into the mask’s pocket. A Stanford scientist whose recommendation I trust said this accessible, thrifty option would work just fine, preventing my breath from escaping at the edges and providing further filtration of any particles spewed in my direction. Good enough.
It is still unnerving to think of my breath, my life force, as a biological weapon. After years of yoga and meditation, I have trained my body to breathe rhythmically, in long, slow, deep inhales and matching exhales. “Feel the breath,” my teachers regularly intoned in “the before times” when a roomful of yogis flowed in a moving meditation, breathing audibly and in unison.
The premise was that as long as we remembered that breath connects us, not just to our own ability to survive, but to the shared air that all living beings need, we could cultivate a different sense of time, one measured in breath increments rather than minutes or hours or years. We could be present, sensing more acutely what was happening around us. We could cultivate compassion, experience greater aliveness.
A few years back Goi, my massage therapist, asked me to take one breath in and one breath out as I settled onto the table, face down, my head cradled in a cushioned ring open in the center. I was a bit puzzled by his request, but as this was my first time with him, I complied, taking in air through my nose, filling my belly to low ribs to shoulder blades to back of throat, then expelling it in reverse order as I had been trained to do.
“You do yoga,” he said.
“Why yes. How did you know?”
I secretly hoped his answer would confirm that my toned arms peeking out from the sheet had given me away. Vanity thy name is yogini!
“Your breath is long and beautiful. Please continue,” he replied.
I was determined to keep the rhythm of breath at this pace throughout the ninety-minute session out of pride if nothing more. Getting past my competitive spirit has always been a struggle.
At first all that I sensed was his breathing and my breathing flowing in harmony. It reminded me of the beauty of schools of fish darting and turning as one, or flocks of geese flapping their wings in perfect time. When I lived in my farmhouse on the Potomac River, I was privileged to see the majestic birds in vee formation each morning as they commuted from their riverside nests to points west, only to return at dusk in exactly the same arrangement, this time pointing east.
After a while as Goi pounded into my knotted shoulders and tense neck, my mind wandered, my yoga breathing carrying me inward to a space awash with colors, swirling in time, yet primal in its simplicity. As my muscles relaxed and the almond scent of the massage oil seeped into my nostrils, I was transported into a timeless vortex.
I remembered how during the fever dreams that accompanied my childhood bouts of tonsillitis my bedroom used to feel as if it was breathing around me. I remembered the way we kids would pretend to be smoking as we exhaled frosty breath during winter sledding. I remembered the ache of deep breaths tearing at my lungs after sprinting down the lacrosse field past defenders, racing to fling the ball into the goal.
I remembered gasping for breath after escaping from a rapist in Paris, cursing myself for having been stupid enough to get into such a situation. I remembered holding my breath until purple in the face while trying to obey the obstetrician’s command not to push just yet. I remembered being breathless as I stood in the malachite room of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, marveling at its floor-to-ceiling splendor.
And then I remembered fighting for breath when one dark, starless night (soon after I had exiled my wayward husband) one lens fell out of my glasses into the deep grass. “I can’t do all this alone” I sobbed, gasping as I crawled on hands and knees searching for it. Both of my dogs, alarmed, put their noses next to mine, one on each side, then licked my face. “You are not alone,” said their warm breath.
To be aware of the pattern of breath in another living being is to share intimacy. The snorts and guzzles of a nursing newborn on my breast, the feel of my partner’s chest rising and falling during lovemaking, the wheezing sound emitted by my fifteen-year-old terrier as he slept below my bed, the collective whooshing of a roomful of yogis practicing ujjayi pranayama: each is in its own way an aural reminder that we live — and die– as beings dependent not just upon the air but upon each other. Sharing breath means acknowledging a deep, spiritual connection.
“Thank you very much, I hope you enjoy” said Goi at the end of my massage.
Startled out of my reverie, I realized that the ninety minutes had drifted away, just as my thoughts had. His words broke the unison of our breath. Our connection became attenuated; the intimacy was gone. It was time to dress, time to place his tip in the waiting envelope, time to go out into the cold. I felt a touch of sadness, a smidgeon of loss, a bit of insecurity as I left the warmth of the massage room.
I see those feelings now as foreshadowing, as preparation. It has been nine months of social distance, of containing my breath, of fearing the breath of others. COVID has made us more aware of our co-dependency, but it has at the same time made sharing the breath of strangers, or even loved ones, a deadly intimacy.
We mask our faces to prevent comingling, and in the process, we shield ourselves not just from the virus, but from the spiritual connection that breathing the same air makes us feel if we are truly present, truly in community with those around us. Perhaps that is why after so many months of compliance, some of us are feeling COVID fatigue, loneliness, even depression.
But here I am, still inhaling, still exhaling, still experiencing the reverie that comes with conscious observance of my lungs filling, then emptying. “Where there is breath there is life,” my grandmother used to say. I think of the 300,000 who have struggled for air, lain in hospital alone and in distress, without the soft nuzzle of a dog’s wet nose or the whispered terms of endearment of a spouse, a child, a sibling, a beloved friend.
The intimacy of live beings sharing the atmosphere is replaced in such circumstances by the hiss and sigh of the ventilator as it pushes oxygen into a comatose body. I hold these souls, the exhausted space-suited caregivers of the sick and dying and all who have lost someone in my heart. Sitting on my mat, eyes closed, hands in prayer, I look forward to the day when my long, slow breaths can be shared with strangers in an affirmation of life, once again.