My sister doesn't like New York. "The buildings are too tall," she says.
A statement like this seems silly, but sometimes I get the feeling. Some days, the buildings seem like they are closing you in. Claustrophobia grips you as you walk down a busy street where everyone seems to treat you like the one obstacle between them and the safety of their home. The subways is extra packed on those days, and the air in the train car isn't enough for everyone. You grip your throat, suffocating slowly. No one notices that you are slowly dying. Everyone is looking at their phones. You want to scream "help me!" But you have no air in order to operate your vocal chords into sounds. Terror builds inside. Before you die, the train screeches to its stop. Everyone exits, and you are able to catch your breath again. You had it all along.
On those days, the buildings are too tall.
"Hold for five breaths." goes the yoga teacher mantra. I used to think this was a lie: it takes me ten breaths in the time they count to five. But then I had a thought: Is it their counting? Or, is it my breathing? Are my breaths short and stunted?
Why couldn't I inhale? Was it because I had always been worried about the space I take up in this world? Always feeling like I needed to be tinier, thiner, less? If I breathe in, my lungs fill to accommodate the air. My chest, ribs, and stomach extend. My yoga t-shirt is lifting up to reveal the skin on my belly and back. How shameful.
Perhaps I was afraid of what I would breathe in. The world around me has always seemed so uncertain. The room is full of people I don't know. The class is going to places I didn't expect. The teacher is new. What if I take in something that I can't control?
I try to take a deeper breath, but my chest hurts. It feels as if there is a hand pressing down on my heart. I try it again: letting go this time. Just breathing.
Pranayama is the control of breath. Prana meaning breath or life force. If breathing is my life force, it is surprising how many times I forget to do it or feel like I can't do it.
However, I breathe and I can slip into the pose easier, sending breath to anywhere that gives me discomfort. Suddenly, everything is more manageable.
I breathe and the building shrink. I walk at their level, looking down on their rooftops.