I have been relearning how to breathe.
I've been taking in oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide like a good little human should, but not quite as reliably as we're meant to. I could blame the issue on being born with only one working nostril, but while that's an odd story, it's not at all the issue. What the hell, I'll tell it to you anyway.
Nostril is a hilarious word, and a totally embarrassing one to have to say to your friends when you are twelve years old, so when I had to have the surgery I told my friends that I was born with a bone blocking one side of my nose and I still use that terminology to this day, if I don't catch myself. Anyway, I was born prematurely, and a piece of cartilage that blocks a fetus' sinuses didn't get a chance to dissolve like it was supposed to, and I lived with it for twelve years. I couldn't breathe out of my right nostril (hehe omg ew nostril) and it led to years and years of sinus infections, colds, and chronic bronchitis, and intensified even the mildest allergy and asthma symptoms. I remember being at my daycare in maybe first grade and having a cold, like I usually did, and trying to eat a snack with a completely blocked nose and realizing that no one around me was holding their breath while they ate, and rushing to chew and swallow before they turned blue. I sure was, was swallowing whole chunks of bread in my desperation to breathe with a full mouth of food, and had been almost as long as I could remember. It occurred to me in that moment that something was wrong with my nose. It just never cleared up. I tried to tell my mom a few times, but either she wasn't listening or I wasn't articulating well enough until I was eleven. I decided enough was enough, stalked up to where she was sitting with a friend in the backyard and told her I'd never been able to breathe out of "this side of my nose". Ever. This other side, sure, it clears up on occasion, but I could never, ever, EVER remember breathing out the right side of my nose. She paid attention that time and booked me an appointment with an ear, nose and throat guy and that was the beginning of the end of my life as a child snot-machine. I still seemed to get sick more often than other people, but at least I didn't have to hold my breath while I ate anymore.
So, nostril stories aside, breathing isn't the perfect autonomic response that biology classes would have me believe. As a weirdo only child, I used to pay attention to my breath and lose the rhythm of breathing entirely. I would be struck (every time) with a mildly amusing panic that I might not be able to breathe easily ever again. I'd try to think of something else, let the automatic processes take over again, but my mind was noticing every little hitch of my chest, how the air flowed into my lungs, how it filled my body and how my torso rose and fell, and breathing was certainly not a normal action that I'd been performing without thought since birth, but it was a phenomenal, complicated, probably supernatural, bizarre sequence of events that were completely impossible to keep straight. It was almost like when you say or write a word so many times over and over that it loses all meaning; I could no longer let the autonomic functions of my body just go, the analysis had ruined breathing, and possibly forever. So, resigned to a life of concentrating on inhaling and exhaling, I'd breathe as best I could, trying not to show my worry, even miming the in-and-out inhale-exhale motions that the people around me were making with their bodies, and hoping no one around me could hear how I was totally failing at even breathing. After several agonizing eons that were likely only seconds, I would inevitably be distracted and my body would continue breathing without my obsessing, miraculously. Muscles expanding and contracting when they should, with no prompting from me whatsoever. I grew out of this quirk, and hooray for that, because while it was never scary or really stressful, it was seriously annoying and made me feel like a total weirdo.
And a third breathing anecdote: As a child, I loved to run. I was the fastest in my class for a year or two, but I was always more of a sprinter, and found distance running to be rather horrible. I never questioned my preference until recently when I realized while hiking that I'd never learned to breathe properly. My body can take care of the basics (as long as I don't think about it too hard, haha sigh), but when I really push myself or if I'm focusing very intently, I often hold my breath. I never noticed this before migraines, but now holding my breath often bites back immediately with major head-pounding, truly it's one of my worst triggers. Relearning how to breathe through focus, pain, intent, tension, anger, fear, and excitement has been a constant challenge, but it's probably good for me to be breathing through these things anyway.
When I was first trying to push my stamina and strength while hiking, I was so easily tired out, I'd have to stop every ten feet or so. At first, I continued to rest when I needed to, but at some point I noticed that that my muscles weren't at all tired, I was just breathing too desperately to keep going, which eventually led to be the revelation that I wasn't just exercising inefficiently, I was HOLDING MY DAMN BREATH. So, I started practicing breathing. I typically start out my hikes with an inhale every two steps, even if it feels fast. As I continue up the hill, my body uses the oxygen quickly, and about halfway up my brain starts sending out Exhausted signals, but instead of resting, I speed up my breath to an inhale on every step. It feels unnatural at first, but I was shocked by how easy exercise was when I was getting all the oxygen I needed, I really couldn't believe it. I could exercise until I was tired, and then keep going! My exercise-induced migraines are MUCH less frequent when I'm breathing properly, and increasing my time and distance has increased my stamina by about a billion-fold.
So, this breathing practice is starting to bleed into my regular world, too. I notice when I'm holding my breathe from stress or concentration, and forcing myself to breathe through these things that normally make me clench up has been eye-opening. Instead of my body clenching up and powering through whatever stress, I'm learning how to work with it, let my body feel the stress and also feel how we can keep breathing if we want to.
We can keep breathing if we want to.