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Breathing Through Fear

by Katie Abbondanza

“Just breathe out of your mouth.”

I think of the years spent practicing ujjayi breathing, which famously mimics the sound of the waves around me. I make excuses for not taking the plunge in this snorkeling lesson: my goggles are leaking, it’s hard to see underwater without my glasses, the mouthpiece feels awkward against my cheeks. But the truth is, I’m just afraid.

When I was younger, my body was limber—the elastic figure of a miniature gymnast who sat in splits in the living room while talking with the family. When I entered my early twenties, life got unexpectedly complicated. My dad was sent off to Iraq with the Army and my college roommate passed away from a rare cancer. Fear swallowed me. On the mat, my hamstrings seized up when I attempted Hanumanasana. Although my back could still bend like a flexi-straw, I often avoided big heart openers. A few years later, I was still trying to peel back the anxiety and learning to appreciate the mental side of yoga.

“Sometimes, you don’t like to try new things,” my boyfriend said, stating a truth I was trying to avoid. He had been patient with me when we started this impromptu lesson, demonstrating how easy it was to inhale and exhale through the snorkel. A half hour later, it was obvious I was clinging to the past and unable to enjoy the cerulean water that surrounded us. The implications stretched far beyond this vacation standoff.

I take a deep breath and clamped my teeth around the mouthpiece. Taking a cue from Nadi Shodhana Pranayama, I place my right thumb and ring finger on either side of my encased nose, to metaphorically block it, and focus on getting oxygen through my tube as I put my head underwater. Below the surface, a school of hologram fish darted past me; a wondrous sight I would have missed had I stayed in a place of fear. We spot a turtle and I relax, finally taking my hand away from my mask to make a thumbs-up sign. Back on dry land, I work to wring out more fear, breathing through the tightness in my hamstrings and extending into a Bird of Paradise—a pose, and moment, filled with sheer joy.

Katie Abbondanza is a writer and certified yoga teacher in Charleston, South Carolina.