I first learned to hold my breath in elementary school. My friend Amy had a pool, and every summer I’d spend as many hours as possible doing underwater somersaults and handstands on the precipice where the shallow end dipped into the deep end. I would dunk and spin underwater, twirling and flipping and spinning before I emerged, gasping, grinning, hungry for air and anxious to slip back under again. I wanted to swim more than I wanted to do anything – more than I wanted to read Babysitters Club or the forbidden Sweet Valley High books, more than I wanted to watch TV, more than I wanted to secretly play doctor in her basement. I wanted to swim so much that I happily paid the price of swimming, which was to stand at the side of the pool with Amy and try to touch our toes, while her mother, a Weight Watchers counselor, clucked her tongue at our bellies rolling under our swimsuits and our straining fingers almost – but not quite – grasping our feet.
Ilayne was always concerned about our roundness. At sleepovers she fed us weight watchers desserts, and she’d limit us to one piece of pizza. Both Amy and I were slightly-more-than-normally-pudgy little kids. I was probably eight when I first realized this about myself, that I was a different dimensioned person than most of my friends, and ten when I realized my sloppy, strong body was bad. Shameful. With Amy, I felt normal, united in roundness as well as badness. Her mother’s concern about our bodies was evident, and she encouraged us to diet together when we got to fourth grade. Ilayne was in the business of taming bodies into more acceptable packaging, and as elementary schoolers we were certainly not exempt. My own mother’s concern was quieter but just as evident, not in words she spoke to me but in words she spoke about herself. She fretted over her petite frame, named her size eight hips “disgusting” and her appetite “out of control.” Mom loved to be “bad” by eating dessert, and was always mourning her weakness when it came to chocolate.
It was in fourth grade that I learned to suck my stomach in, holding my breath up in the highest lobes of my lungs and keeping my core engaged in the business of holding back my belly’s bulges. Long before I discovered control top pantyhose or spanx girdles, I was an accomplished sucker-inner. I learned that you never take a picture without smiling and sucking in, and in our photo albums from this season you can see self-consciousness creep into every expression I provide the camera. Neither the dieting nor the sucking in made me actually lose weight – if anything, I gained. I started sneaking food – stealing cookies from my neighbor’s kitchen while she cared for us in the mornings before the bus. And I stopped moving, conscious, always, of my body’s unacceptable size and capacity.
In sixth grade I started singing in the chorus, and was shocked to discover that by then I had forgotten how to breathe. My teacher had to teach me to expand my belly with my breath, an exercise that was humiliating because my full roundness showed. I sacrificed intonation for physical flatness, straining my throat to achieve the pitch that collapsed under my lack of breath.
As an adult I’ve noticed my breathlessness in many shapes and seasons. When I first tried yoga, I found myself filled with rage at the thought of the three-part breath. After decades of only allowing air into the upper parts of my lungs, pushing out my belly and back with an inhale felt terrifying, disgusting. In my thirties, anxiety and panic attacks have often left me breathless, gasping. Making love with my husband, the breath catches in my throat and I hold, pressing through my usual brainandheart numbness into a burst of pleasure made more intense by depriving myself of oxygen. And now, my newest habit – meditation – reminds me always to come back to my breath, focus on my breath, use the rhythm and depth of my breath to bring me back to my physical self. I desperately want to claim this returning, and yet the practice is hard. It comes against nearly three decades of habitual breath-rejection. For years I’ve tried to reduce myself to a floating head, disconnected from my body and heart, the air slipping into my nose and holding there, detached. It is nothing short of revolutionary when I sit and breathe deep. My whole self roils at the audacious thought of taking up the space I’m in, of filling my belly full with centering breath and not apologizing for it sticking out or staying round.