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In and out. Down to my pelvis and up to my collarbones. I move the breath around now, using its energy to flow deeper. I can hear the exhalations of the older woman behind me. I can hear the inhalations of the pierced and tattooed guy on my left. He is a forceful breather, and moans sometimes on his exhales, loudly like a teenaged tennis player. We are strangers, for the most part, and only know each other in this class. It is a comfort, to know that we're all in this small, pleasantly warm studio together. Like so much else, this is new.

Breathing and I have never been close friends. Sure, I do it, just like everyone else, but I've never spent a great deal of time examining it, just like almost everyone else. But, now, I can't escape thinking about the simple movement of air into my body and back out again. I can focus simply on how air feels like when it moves and what temperature it is as it glides over my upper lip. It's odd to think so hard about something that is so firmly hardwired into being alive.

More than a decade ago, massage school gave me my earliest breathing lessons, which I failed. Somehow, to my physically-bound brain, isolated in its hard shell of bone and fascia, something so simple as what one's lungs were doing felt divorced from the earthy and concrete anatomy of the human body. My in-class massages were described as excellent in terms of manipulating soft tissues and understanding muscular structure. What was missing from my bodywork was my heart, my spirit. Both stayed locked in my chest, unwilling to travel down my arms to my client. I quit learning just short of being licensed, citing an unwillingness to make my living touching naked strangers. While that was a large part of it, granted, I also was afraid of being that open, of not being able to hide behind my knowledge of how humans were assembled and suddenly being jerked into the vulnerable space where humans feel.

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Time, as it does, passed. Eight years and a developing writing career later, though a series of kismetic events, I found myself taking yoga. We were a solid match, Iyengar-style asanas and I. Iyengar's devotion to proper form and physiology overcame all of my initial reluctance about the ethereal spiritually espoused by some yoginis. My first yoga teacher would speak casually of "pranayama," the practice of moving breath and new-agey energy around. But, apart from reminders that one should think about breathing in every pose, no matter how active, we didn't spend much time tinkering with the energy itself. I learned the nuts-and-bolts of the basic asanas as best as I was able, then started to think about integrity and flow. Breathing, I thought, was something to be dealt with much, much later, when my anatomy knew what it was doing. Just as I was ready to graduate to the next series of classes, where, I assume, the focus was less on form and more on function, I packed up my house and trucked it 800 miles away to a small town where yoga instructors are as difficult to find as decent Thai food.

Again, like a housecat searching for a head-scratch, the cosmos nudged. The local daily paper ran an ad for a free yoga class in a studio I had not previously known of that also happened to be just a few blocks from my new home.

It wasn't Iyengar, to say the least. Part of my brain was convinced that all yoga was the same and I was slightly stunned to discover that not every school moved the same limbs the same way. My new instructor is a devotee of Vinyasa, a style more concerned with flow rather than hard-assed about form. That first day, we spent the first ten minutes breathing -- really breathing -- feeling what it is like to fill your lungs and empty them again. No postures. No fiddly adjustments to same. Just in and out, while we sat in Simple Cross-legged Pose in a small room filled with natural light. It felt like coming home.

Week by week, pieces fit into my understanding of pranayama. While I still feel like a big doofus when doing it, my Breath of Fire (kapalabhati) ignites some long untouched well of energy and my alternate nostril breathing clears my head of all of the goo that accumulates during a long, northeastern winter. I can apply them with enough integrity that I can feel my own energy roiling in my belly (its existence still feels amusing to discuss, like I should change my name to Rainbow and buy some crystals). It is a surprise, this awareness of what a little breathing can do, how it fuels my practice and moves it comfortably into the places that I find uncomfortable. My feelings. My spirit. My heart. My journeys are buoyed by the breathing of my fellow students, even the guy who grunts make me want to giggle and point. Their breath twines with mine and fills the peaceful studio like waves. We are all breathing, in and out, touching without touching, moving nothing more tangible than air.
About the Author:
Adrienne Martini has been a theatre technician, apprentice massage therapist, bookstore bookkeeper and pizza joint waitress. Eventually, someone started paying her for her words and an editorial mercenary was born. She has written theatre reviews and features for the Austin Chronicle, blurbs about tofurkey and bottled water for Cooking Light and a piece about knitting summer camp for Interweave Knits. She is a former editor for Knoxville, Tennessee's Metro Pulse and recently picked up an AAN award for feature writing. During the day, she fields freelance gigs and crams knowledge into the heads of college students in Upstate New York. At all hours, she is mom to Maddy, and wife to Scott. Email Adrienne at: shaken@austinmama.com


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