Step One in Listening to Your Physical Body: Breath

By Jazmin Branch. Photography By Deun Ivory.

What is my physical body telling me? And do I listen? This is what read on the cards every Self Care Sunday attendee grabbed as they entered into the final January session of 2019. During this particular SCS, the intention was on the physical body. Rather than a strenuous fitness session one might expect entering any space focused on the physical body in the new year, practice centered around the breath. BGIO founder/CEO, Lauren Ash, led the group through a series of breathing exercises and affirmations that helped answer this question.

The first time I noticed my breath was during childhood. Though I cannot recall the age, I do remember the distinct moment I realized how seamless it is to breathe...until you notice your breath. Even now it is difficult to make out the circumstances that led a more carefree version of me on a journey to "find" my breath. Perhaps I was in my Chicago winter armor: a thick bubble coat, several layers of clothing, and a scarf wrapped around my face (and mouth). Maybe I just finished an arduous physical fitness test during gym class. Whatever the case, anyone who has ever lost their breath knows the difficulty in trying to regain the seemingly simple rhythm of breathing. Once your attention focuses on the breath, you suddenly become acutely aware of how amazing the body is to keep up with such a task 24/7.

Soon after this first moment, I began to make a game of it. I would focus my mind on my breath and, by focusing on it, I would stop breathing at my normal pace. The game was to get back into the motion by controlling my breath. As a child, I never mastered this final step. I would often have to create a distraction that would take my mind off of the game, forcing my body to kick back in to do the heavy lifting.

The breath connects to so much of our existence and yet we are often unaware of it. Think of how your breath moves in uncomfortable or tense moments. Often, we stall the breath by holding it in until we realize our bodies were literally waiting to exhale. The inverse happens during states of fear or shock. The breath may become erratic and choppy with a ratio of 2:1 exhales to inhales.

Now think about your state of peace. If you are like most people, you probably are unaware of what the breath is doing in those moments. Our body is designed to take that weight off our shoulders. The breath is the human body's first gateway into the conversations our physical body is trying to have. And once the language to this conversation is understood and practiced, we can begin to control when and where we experience this state of ease in our physical bodies.

Years after I set the breathing rules in my childhood, I would finally learn how to hack the game. In middle school, I took voice lessons at the infamous Chicago All City Choir and I learned the importance of honing your breath to produce the notes you desired. In high school, the breath was important for sustaining long cheerleading routines and projecting the voice in football stadiums. I began watching yoga on Youtube and started meditating by myself in college. After graduating, I found my collective breath within a community of Black women in Self Care Sunday sessions. The breath, I found, could literally change my response to my environment and I was in complete control of that.

As someone living with a chronic illness affecting the nervous system, I have to go through MRIs frequently which involves staying still in a narrow space for over an hour. This task can be daunting for even the least claustrophobic person. The thought alone of having to do this regularly made me tense up physically. A few minutes into my first MRI exam, I went to my center: my breath. Using this focused breathing has transformed these appointments into a time for rest where I both quiet my body and my mind. Whether I channel my breath during stressful days at work or at a much more private, intimate moment with a loved one, the breath, anchoring the physical body, can always provide insight on what

the body feels and needs in the moment. We just have to get more into the practice of focusing on that conversation.

Though my path to finding my breath eventually involved organized practices, anyone can start this activity at any moment. Whether you do so in an upright seated position inhaling for four counts and exhaling for another four, or you do so while walking around your neighborhood, noticing is the only rule. Of course there are tons of resources that can help guide you (and I'm more than happy to direct you to apps and books that started me off) but the only way to master it is to practice. Take time to notice your breath and make up your own rules along the way.

Jazmin Branch is a Chicago born and bred story teller. After being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in college, Jazmin set out on a mission to make wellness accessible to all (including herself). Through her time as an Energy Exchange member for BGIO's Self Care Sundays, she has been inspired by all the ways we can show up and show out for Black women. Currently, Jazmin is showing out for Black women through her voice. Catch some of her writing on her personal blog or say hello at the next SCS!