Breathing in Bali

Photo Credit: Katy Roach

Winter 2017 | Katy Roach

As a respiratory scientist who specializes in progressive lung disease, learning how to breathe has not appeared on my to-do list for a long time. In fact, until recently I was pretty sure I’d successfully crossed breathing off my list as a mastered skill many years ago, a few moments after I was born. And yet, earlier this year, sitting cross-legged on a yoga mat about 8,000 miles away from my lab on the balmy shores of Bali, I found myself being told by some “ammmmmmm”-ing yoga teacher that for the past 30 years I’ve been doing it all wrong. Needless to say, I suppressed a snigger.

Opening one eye and sneaking a glance at the instructor, who was seated at the front of the class against an exotic backdrop of palm trees and breathed in silence with her eyes closed, I was already halfway to deciding that this soothing waffle about breathing, flow and energy had been nothing more than a cunning career move and a surefire way into unsuspecting wallets.

My silent grumbling was made only worse by my misunderstanding that yoga is all about intense stretching and strengthening. Until that moment I’d been preparing myself for a grueling but rewarding session of planks, downward- dogs and sun salutations, so a lesson in alternate nostril breathing (Nadi Shadhan Pranayama, for the yoga- literate among you) seemed nothing more than a frustrating disappointment.

But after several minutes of disgruntled thoughts, perhaps realizing that my wallet was evidently one of the unsuspecting ones and therefore it was my own money being wasted, I eventually gave in and started to listen. I sat still, closed my eyes and focused on following the softly spoken instructions. No sooner than 2 to 3 minutes later, my opinion of the breathing lesson had been overturned. I really did need to learn how to breathe. Better yet, I realized that something as simple as a breathing exercise could make a real difference to my life.

My day job as a postdoctoral researcher, by definition, means my brain never switches off. Whether considering potential theories, contemplating yesterday’s data or reshuffling tomorrow’s experiments, my mind is never quiet and the days fly by without me even taking a moment to notice.

Before I dabbled in yoga I relied on an intense workout for some relief. There are, of course, many benefits of exercise: endurance sports such as cycling and long-distance running increase cardiovascular and respiratory capacities, and more specialized training such as weight-lifting improves muscle strength and bone density.

But perhaps most importantly, and admittedly subconsciously, exercising gave me valuable time to switch off and reset. At the end of each session I’d be exhausted and dripping with sweat, but revitalized nonetheless.

Being present, existing in the now, is not something I have ever given much thought to or practiced. The word “mindfulness” is thrown about in the occasional well being-oriented conversation I’ve half-listened to, but before yoga I had never deemed it to be particularly important in my vocabulary.

The Oxford Dictionary defines mindfulness as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations”. Several pages after this the definition of stress can be found: “A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”. Having survived five years of postdoctoral research, I’ve since decided that those very words, “postdoctoral research”, would not look out of place as an alternative definition of stress.

The fast-paced nature of research often pushes me into a habit of either living a few days ahead into the future to plan what I need to do, or revisiting the weeks gone by to reassess what has already happened. This is only intensified by the overpowering pressure to generate data, to publish, to write retaliations to that harsh reviewer, or to wonder whether my hard work will keep me employed in the same lab next year. The unfortunate reality of these conditions mean stress is a heavy weight that I carry on my shoulders each day. As burdensome and draining as this is, I’ve always assumed stress was an unavoidable accompaniment of research.

Chronic damage inflicted by stress occurs when stress is both uninterrupted and persistent. As I sat on my yoga mat, observing my breaths and being blissfully aware of the tropical sounds around me, I realized this yoga lesson was not about learning to breathe, but for me was about letting the knots of stress unwind and bringing my focus back to the present.

Focusing on each breath was surprisingly challenging – my thoughts were relentless. But with each breath, focusing on where the air flows and how my body feels, I found myself not keeping the thoughts at bay, but instead allowing my thinking rate to slow and eventually come to an almost complete stop. The release this provided was immense and immediate.

Returning to the now, the very second you are existing in, and allowing all anxieties, stresses and unnecessary thoughts to dissipate is more cleansing than any sweaty workout or even a long deep sleep, and certainly more effective than working longer hours to squeeze out more data. By focusing on each breath you eventually reach a moment in which you are wholly consumed by being you, with absolutely nothing to contemplate, worry about or even feel, other than exactly where you are right now.

At the end of the session, as I rolled up my yoga mat, my rate of thinking began to steadily increase to its usual speed. The difference was that as the thoughts flowed in I felt as though they were entering an expansive space, rather than piling up on top of an already overflowing mound.

Several months on from this experience in Bali and I am a significantly less stressed individual and I have redesigned my approach to exercise. Yoga has taught me that giving my brain a break makes my work and life far more enjoyable and sustainable than ploughing on incessantly, dragging a weight of stress along behind me.

It took an expensive holiday in Bali for me to learn a lesson that has undoubtedly changed my life for the better, but hopefully by reading this you’ll save a few pennies and realize that it really does pay to take time out, and to just sit still and breathe.