Content Warning: This content mentions abuse and sexual assault.
In July, I earned my certification as a meditation teacher. I discovered meditation and yoga in my youth but did not begin to practice until I was in my thirties. My practice was not consistent and, frankly, I did not really know what I was doing. I was making it up as I went along—imitating what I saw people do on television. For the most part, it was tied to yoga since there was always a brief meditation at the end of class. While I loved yoga, those few moments at the end of class regulating my breathing were essential and sanity saving.
In 2019, Dr. Thema Bryant tweeted “Many trauma survivors hold their breath and their bodies tightly, bracing themselves for whatever is coming next. Staying alert for years takes a toll.” Since I was a child, I have had the habit of holding my breath. Most of the time I didn’t even realize I was doing it until I could not hold it anymore. It took a while to realize it was a trauma response although that was not a phrase being used in the eighties. Having experienced sexual abuse as a child, and later emotional, financial, and physical abuse, it was a habit born out of fear.
When I was afraid, uncomfortable, or uncertain, I froze. And then I stopped breathing. I was convinced that if I was still enough, I could disappear, become invisible; and if they could not see me, they could not harm me. Honestly, I still do it. It was normal to me, but I sensed it was not common and believed I was the only person who did that.
In 1996, before leaving for my sorority’s national convention in Florida, my line sister loaned me a book to read on the plane. It was Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale. I remember sitting in my window seat feeling the chill of the plane’s circulating air and reading the part where Savannah wondered if she would ever be able to exhale. Although she was speaking about finding a man, wanting to feel safe enough to exhale resonated with me.
When I saw the film adaptation on the big screen, I was holding my breath and exhaled with the character played by Whitney Houston. I longed to exhale. I longed for the safety to be able to breathe comfortably. I didn’t want to worry about my partner’s explosive rage, police knocking at the door with a warrant or an eviction notice, or someone wanting to talk to me woman to woman like my name was Barbara. My mind knew I could leave, but my body and mind were paralyzed. I had strayed so very far away from my mother’s teachings that I found it hard to find the path back.
One day I decided to focus on the thing I felt I could control if I really tried, the exhale. If I could regain control of my breath, I could regain control of my life. I was in my twenties and didn’t know what I was doing. Meditation in the way it was presented seemed inaccessible to me. I did not see people who looked like me in the practice, so I did what felt natural to me. I didn’t know if what I was doing was correct, but it felt right.
I didn’t share what I was doing with anyone. I could only do it for a short amount of time, no longer than a couple of minutes. Even that small amount of time was helpful. The ability to inhale and then exhale was invaluable. My practice was inconsistent, but it was completely mine. I began to do guided meditations through apps.
Pema Chodron writes, “Earlier this year I had the opportunity to take Meditation Teacher Training and I jumped at the opportunity. For three months I learned about the history, theories, science, and various techniques all while life was going haywire around me.” Chodron continues, “Meditation is not about getting out of ourselves or achieving something better. It is about getting in touch with what you already are.”
I made it through my training with my amazing teacher’s patience, my group’s cheerleading, and God’s grace. More than anything, I learned so much about myself. I was my greatest teacher and student. I always say that I am always the first partaker of my gifts. This was especially true of my meditation journey. I still hold my breath at times, but now I have tools to handle the fear. I am not worried about being seen. I do not judge my past or my present. My awareness is a tool. I understand that I should be seen and that I have power. I know I am my own safe space. I am no longer waiting to exhale, I just do.