Breathing with the Wrong Muscles

I’ve spent the majority of my adult life struggling to breathe.

No, that’s not a metaphor. Since I was in middle school (possibly before that; I can’t recall), I haven’t been able to consistently take a deep breath—not without feeling an intense pressure in my chest that cuts off air at the top of each inhale. In seventh grade, my doctor assumed this was asthma. I’ve assumed the same ever since, despite the fact that inhalers have never worked for me.

For decades, I’ve downplayed this problem to myself. I figured: At least I don’t have life-threatening attacks like most poor souls with asthma! I just can’t exercise without turning into a wheezing fool. Or enter a cat house without feeling like my chest is on fire, regardless of how much Benadryl I’ve ingested. Or, y’know, just breathe normally. At all. Ever. No big deal!

I’ll survive, has been my unspoken mantra.

Now that I’m a wizened 33 years of age, abject survival has started to lose its appeal. It sure would be nice to breathe normally, I thought to myself a few months ago. (Why I didn’t think this five or ten years ago, I cannot tell you.) It sure would be nice to exercise without seeing stars. (I’ve also started meditating regularly, a task that becomes self-defeating when 90% of the common wisdom is “focus on your breathing!” and doing so tends to makes your anxiety spike.)

So. In May, I visited an asthma specialist for the first time ever, hoping to get the kind of help that doesn’t involve ingesting steroids on a regular basis.

That’s when I learned I don’t have asthma. I have something called vocal cord dysfunction (VCD), a condition where my vocal cords abnormally constrict, cutting off airflow. The solution? A speech therapist.

Why a speech therapist? It turns out that I’ve been breathing using the wrong muscles. Two to four weeksless than a month—of practicing the prescribed breathing exercises is all it takes for most people with VCD to reverse their symptoms.

Gobsmacked would be an understatement.

But wait, it gets better (or more damning; take your pick): My speech therapist warned me that it might take a bit longer for me to see results than the average patient, since most folks with VCD address the problem within four to six months of onset, and I have been dealing with it for … 20+ years.

That was the magic moment when my breathing problem did turn into an Actual Metaphor for the rest of my adult life.

So far, I’ve found breathing with my abdominal muscles (a major feature of the assigned exercises) exceedingly difficult, probably because I have never breathed that way naturally. Those muscles have gone unused for so long that forcing them to participate in the breathing process requires extensive concentration from me. I can feel the muscles shaking and straining like my legs do after a long hike. It’s intensely uncomfortable. And yet afterwards, like magic, my airways open up—longer and longer the more often I do it. My poor, deprived brain must be so unaccustomed to getting this much oxygen, because I tend to end up dizzy and light-headed after a focused practice session. And relaxed—so very relaxed. Apparently, human bodies accumulate a lot of tension when they can’t breathe right. Shocking, I know!

I’m still a long way off from doing it without thinking, though. Yesterday, while attempting centering prayer, the difficulty involved in the process heightened for me. I was trying so hard to breathe right that I couldn’t focus on releasing my thoughts or returning to Presence or any of the other things you’re supposed to do during CP. All I could think about was the deeply physical sensation of those abdominal muscles struggling to be used in this strange new fashion.

While I was busy getting frustrated at myself for “botching” my prayer time, the following question rose up in me with piercing clarity (so you can guess Who posed it):

What’s more important to you? Having a “spiritual experience” or learning how to breathe?

Ha. Er.


Confession: On bad days, I tend to see prayer/meditation as a chance to mentally escape reality, rather than an opportunity to be more fully embodied and present to it. (Welcome to the life of an Enneagram Nine.) I’m already far too good at the former. The latter is the kind of spiritual experience (discipline, rather) I really need. Not just breathing; breathing right. Even—especially—when it’s uncomfortable. I must do this carefully and consciously, because my body has spent too many years doing it the wrong way.

The thing is: As I work to solve this problem, I’m learning more than just how to supply my lungs and brain with adequate air under physical duress. I’m getting a crash course in how to recalibrate other essential cycles in my life, as well, from the give-take of healthy relationships to Sabbath rhythms and work routines. All of it suffers when I neglect myself, when I stop listening to what my body and spirit are telling me they need. By teaching myself how to be conscious and deliberate instead of hurried and half-hearted with everything—by leaning into the unease I feel and recognizing it for the atrophy it really is—I am practicing how to live, not just survive, until it becomes as natural to me as …

You know the rest.

How I pray is breathe.

Thomas Merton

(And yes, that Switchfoot song has been stuck on repeat in my head.)

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