Twenty years ago my husband and I watched a television show together and somehow just never stopped. That’s how we’ve managed to enjoy all 40 seasons of Survivor.
Near the end of each episode, in case you haven’t been watching, I’ll tell you that Jeff, the host, often mentions that as long as a contestant’s torch is lit, they are in the game, because “fire is life”. When he says this, I find myself thinking, “Actually, Jeff, breath is life”. Because, it is.
Through years of learning anatomy and physiology, administering oxygen, performing CPR and assisting anesthesiologists to intubate patients, I’ve regarded breath, the presence of breath, the lack of breath, the struggle for breath and the ease of breath, as a central aspect of life.
How perfect is it that I love the practice of yoga, which honors and uses breath to guide movement and build strength, balance and relaxation?
Every practitioner comes to yoga from a different place, with a unique set of physical and emotional challenges. They could be looking for respite from a trying situation, trying to improve their health, or simply hoping to stretch out a kinked back muscle. Some are looking for the feeling of unity that comes from practicing yoga in a group.
In yoga, we try to make the mat, or chair, a safe space, where we can be free to perform our asanas, or poses, in the best way for each of us, with no judgement from others.
When I teach yoga, we start by connecting with our breath. Inhaling, allowing the breath to start in the belly and fill the torso, then exhaling completely, then repeating the process.The inhalation, ideally 3-5 seconds long, is followed by an exhalation, which we strive to make almost twice as long.
Inhaling and exhaling through the nose requires a bit more effort and leads to a greater workout for our muscles of respiration, but I assure my yogis that any comfortable breath of any length and type is beneficial.
Sometimes we move through guided breaths in which I ask participants to pause, then resume, an inhale and exhale. Sometimes we try for three brief inhales or exhales to completely fill or empty the lungs. Or, it’s nadi shodhana pranayama, alternate nostril breathing, which can lower blood pressure and increase relaxation.
In my chair yoga classes we occasionally perform laughter yoga, taking very deep breaths and laughing them out. I make faces, tell corny jokes and try to coax yogis into letting their fake laughter become real.
After guided breaths, we go on to movement with breath, moving arms, legs or torso into a pose with an inhale, for example, and releasing a pose with an exhale, always moving within the degree of space and flexibility available to each of us.
In poses that require balance, breath becomes even more vital. Holding breath while attempting a balance pose is counter-productive and can cause distress; using breath while balancing increases the chance of success.
At the end of each yoga class, we perform savasana, or corpse pose, calling on our breath to deepen and slow. During savasana, I encourage inhaling a feeling of relaxation and exhaling that relaxation to every area of the body.
When class is over and we leave the mat or chair, I want each participant to feel like a survivor, having met the challenges of their practice to the best of their ability, relaxation and a feeling of strength gently pulsing through their bodies with every breath they take.
There have been lots of changes since I worked in the operating room, but I’m pretty sure one thing hasn’t changed.
There is a major mission for every surgical procedure, and it’s achieving a safe and positive outcome for every surgical patient.
A diverse group made up of surgeons and anesthesiologists, nurses, surgical technicians, nursing assistants and housekeeping aides are responsible for meeting that goal. It was my good fortune to work with talented people in every role.
The surgeon will work closely with the surgical technician for the next few hours, so as they are scrubbing their hands before a procedure, he might strike up a friendly conversation. Maybe he’ll tell her about his tropical vacation, or mention the newly acquired Rolex he has tied to the drawstring of his surgical scrub pants. Both the vacation and the Rolex, which costs more than her annual salary, are out of reach for the technician.
Later, during the procedure, the technician tactfully mentions something unusual she notices about the patient’s anatomy, preventing the surgeon from making a horrendous mistake.
Mission accomplished. We all move on.
A patient is softly crying as she goes under anesthesia, apologizing to the surgeon, to whom she has asked a question that he had already answered. He rebukes her for asking the question again.
After working with this excellent surgeon for many years, I recognize his bad moods. Later, in private, I call him out for his treatment of his patient. His response is to ban me from working with him. This lasts less than a day, since we have to work together later that evening on an emergency case. We make our peace, and move on.
Scrubbed in to a long orthopedic procedure, a surgeon stops briefly and asks everyone to gently put down what they are holding (in my case, a very large and heavy leg). We breathe and stretch out limbs and move shoulders and necks, and then we all go back to our places and begin again. I will always remember that surgeon as one of the kindest persons on earth.
While a procedure I’m responsible for is ending, another nurse comes in to give me a break between cases. I leave, but while my patient is being moved from the operating table, she narrowly escapes injury when a quick-thinking housekeeping aide who is scrubbing the floor notices and then safely locks the cart she is being moved to.
I find out and thank the aide profusely. Just doing my job, he says.
Mission accomplished. We move on.
She stayed in the kitchen during our visit, as close to the entrance of the living room as she could be and still, technically, be on the kitchen floor. She knew her boundaries, and she may have even known she was subject to removal for any infraction.
Huge eyes fixed on me in what I would come to know was a border collie stare, black and white with classic markings, she was a smart and beautiful dog.
Our friends’ son adopted her from a shelter but could no longer provide a home. She was staying with his parents while he tried to find someone who would take her, and this reprieve was strictly limited.
A possible adoption had fallen through when she needed emergency treatment a day after being spayed, and her next stop, when time ran out at this house, would be the shelter where she had already served time.
Eventually, I found myself sitting nearby, petting her while she sighed quietly but ecstatically at my touch.
I was smitten. My husband was skeptical. I had never taken care of a dog, but, despite his misgivings, our relationship with Eddie began.
It was not so smooth at first. I was unprepared for so many things.
Eddie never begged, but wanted to be included in every snack and meal, watching each bite and looking at us beseechingly, making me incredibly uncomfortable. Although she obediently stayed off furniture, there was more dog hair around than I ever expected. Wet, muddy paws had to be wiped off several times a day, and walks, during a cold and rainy November, were not the pleasant excursions I had anticipated. Border collies love to run, and although she was a medium-sized dog of 50-pounds, I was almost pulled off my feet several times.
After just a few days I began to wonder if dog adoption was for us, and by us I meant me. My husband suggested we look into alternate arrangements before we got “attached” to Eddie. A friend was looking for a companion for her dog, Clancy, so we got the dogs together.
My friend and her dog loved Eddie, so everything turned out great. Eddie had a loving, new home, Clancy had a best friend, and I vacuumed dog hair for the very last time.
My husband and I were oddly subdued, you could even say sad, the night Eddie left with my friend. Was it possible we had already become “attached”?
When I checked a day later, my friend said Eddie was doing well and adjusting. Of course she was adjusting, I thought.
Adopted as a puppy from a shelter, back to the shelter, almost adopted, back to the hospital, on probation at a temporary home and then our home, which had proven to be as temporary as the rest. So far her whole life had been one big adjustment.
I went to get her, to bring her home, and my dear friend, who is still my friend, understood.
Eddie was with us until the day we took her to the vet for the last time, fifteen years later.
During her long life, she was a very good dog. We went to dog training, mostly to train me. We shared snacks, enjoyed games of fetch and long walks along the river. I stopped worrying so much about dog hair. For years we spelled out words like “walk” and “park” in front of her.
When the three of us were together, she kept her eyes reassuringly on my husband and me, watching out for us, her pack.
When Eddie left that final time, we adjusted. But still, we miss her, little Eddie, our good dog.