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Elizabeth McGuire Headshot

Learning to Exhale

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I was closing in on 40 when I learned that I didn't know how to breathe.

This came as a bit of a surprise, because I was pretty sure I had been inhaling and exhaling, exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide -- all that -- every day of my life without fail.

But the truth came out, as it often does, in the midst of a wee crisis. I had been suffering through several months of chronic neck pain and had found little relief from traditional, khaki-pants-wearing physical therapists.

A friend recommended a woman who worked out of her home garage-turned-studio. "She's a whole-body therapist and a little... witch doctor-y," she warned. Now THAT, I thought, is right up my alley.

It turned out her studio was only a few blocks from the first home my husband and I owned -- on a quiet, shady street where I had walked our first-born dog and first-born child a million times. The studio was light and bright. The tall, lithe witch doctor greeted me in well-worn yoga pants and a cotton tank top. She was in her 50's and her slight German accent, like her overall demeanor, was both graceful and forceful at once.

Less than five minutes after our introduction, she placed me in front of a full-length mirror, stood directly behind me and, without warning, pressed her thin body into my back and wrapped her arms around me just below my breasts. She squeezed her forearms firmly into my ribs and commanded me to inhale.

"Breathe in," she said. "Slower, slower... now STOP! Breathe out. Farther, farther. Blow it all out. Now in... now STOP. Now out... slower slower. All the way out. Start the breath low. Expand your lungs."

I expanded.

"Stop it, stop it, stop it," she snapped as she let go of my ribcage. "Do you see what you're doing? You are using your neck to breathe. Every single breath. No wonder it hurts so much." Her voice suddenly softer, she said. "You are trying too hard."

Yes, yes, I thought. I've always been really good at trying too hard.

The hour-long appointment flew by in much the same manner. At one point, I think she did actually touch my neck, but mostly she commented on my running and sitting postures, my inadequate nasal passages and my too-muscular quadriceps.

I left with a laundry list of breathing exercises and an arsenal of velcro wraps and stretchy bands. I also carried a renewed sense of motivation and hope that I could say goodbye to my nagging neck pain forever. All I had to do was breathe deliberately every chance I got, but yet without trying so damn hard.

For the next several weeks, I spent so much time BREATHING -- in the car, at my desk, on the couch, in check-out lines and during carpool -- that my breath became my every metaphor. One afternoon, sitting cross-legged in the middle of my living room focusing on my lungs and diaphragm, I decided that learning to breathe at age 39 was a lot like becoming a mother at age 30.

The comparisons were uncanny.

Lesson #1: Instincts only get you so far.
There's no such thing as just breathing and breezing through motherhood. Even though I was convinced I would be a natural at the mothering gig, I soon found myself studying late into the night on sleeping, feeding and eventually, the importance of motivational sticker charts. The love might come naturally, but the logistics of motherhood was a process that required true effort and knowledge. Though my instincts were still my first go-to adviser, at some point I realized I would need many more coaches along the way.

Lesson #2: Listen to your breath.
How many times during those early, foggy years did I place my hand on a newborn's chest to feel if she or he were breathing? How many times over nine years of parenting have I checked in on a sleeping child? Sat staring into the dark, listening to every raspy cough or troublesome snore? They are breathing, I would reassure myself. But during all those years, how many times did I check in to see how I was breathing? Not nearly enough.

Lesson #3: Find a physical reminder.
My witch doctor/coach taught me that during those moments when I'm short of breath, to place my hands on the outside of my upper ribcage to remind myself to use only my lungs to breathe. "This is where the breath goes," she reminded me.

And now, when I'm having one of those moments with my kids, when I'm tempted to pull out their toenails, yell something regrettable or storm out of the room, I instead put my hand on my heart to tell myself to approach them from a place of compassion, not anger. This is where the love grows, I remind myself.

Lesson #4. Embrace the practice.
It's not enough to just practice. We mothers must practice in the most extreme situations. This is an unfortunate truth. Just like it's easier to breathe deliberately and rhythmically in a quiet bedroom than in a car during rush-hour traffic, it's also easier to practice good parenting during a relaxed weekend morning vs. during a shopping-spree-induced meltdown at Target. There's no way around this type of hard. But it's this kind of painful exercise that builds the most strength and endurance.

Lesson #5. Trust.
Over and over again, I heard from my coach that I must trust my lungs to do their work. "Why is your big strong neck stepping in?" she once demanded. When I mother inadequately, the big strong neck that interferes is almost always my insecurity and my lack of faith. So my aim in this journey is to trust my mothering instincts, trust my kids' personalities, trust my chosen advisers, trust the entire process.

Sometimes that's so much easier said than done. And sometimes it really is that simple.

More and more I find myself trying, but not so damn hard. And in those moments of pause and trust, my job as a mother becomes as easy and as fulfilling as a good long breath.