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Breathing Through COVID-19

So this is what the world looks like in a pandemic—not what I was expecting.

I cannot even remember the day I heard about COVID-19. It was like the weeds that show up in my garden and take over. I don’t remember planting them. And yet, there they are. And now I have to garden differently.

I have to shop differently, socialize differently, teach differently, and parent differently. All this as the chaos of the news and the daily COVID-19 data continue to swirl. There are, of course, some wonderful silver linings to all of this: the quietness of the mornings and the reemergence of wildlife has a timeless energy I’ve never experienced before.

But the most peculiar new development is that I have been chronically holding my breath. As someone who has spent their entire professional life focused on the importance of breath and all the wonders that deep breathing can bring, somehow all of that is now out the window. Knowing that the lungs are the main target of this vicious virus, holding my breath when I walk by anyone out there in the world seems to be an efficient—and completely reasonable—first line of defense.

The problem is this: I take a deep breath, go out in the world, and attempt to not breathe in a pandemic. Then I get home and I forget to exhale. I forget that exhaling is half of what breath work is all about. I forget that letting go is part of the balance. I forget that I am holding my emotional breath as well as my physical breath. And the two are deeply linked.

The right course of action has become a matter of opinion. It seems there is not one answer to how the world will reopen. And everyone is chiming in. It is difficult to know who to listen to. The same is true for how we begin to heal. Wading through the information and expert opinions about how to ease the pain and stress of a pandemic feels enormous. It’s like finding out that ice might not be good for inflammation, and you’ve been recommending it to your clients your whole career! What now?


Alongside yogis and Pilates instructors, bodyworkers are wise in the ways of breath work. We know that deep belly breathing helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system and dismantle the army we’re building in our minds to defend us from the world. We have practiced this and felt the calm prevail. We breathe, we meditate, and we let go.

This might feel more difficult to do as the tension around us—and inside of us—becomes more complicated. What we are experiencing on a metaphysical level is said to parallel the experience of living during wartime. The uncertainties of what is to come and the barrage of information of how to move forward creates fear. Fear creates anxiety, and anxiety activates the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers shallow breathing. You see the downward spiral.

After talking to hundreds of massage therapists, I know I am not alone in my forgetting how to exhale. We have been able to breathe through school, work, relationships, overly packed schedules, and overly saturated social media. But a global pandemic? Is this something we can actually breathe through? Aren’t we supposed to be wearing masks?

Let’s focus on what we know. The intercostals, the diaphragm, the scalenes, and the quadratus lumborum play an important role in breathing. And that’s only some of the major players. The latissimus dorsi, the rectus abdominis, the pectoralis muscles (both of them!), the serratus anterior—these all start to suffer when we aren’t breathing. But we are bodyworkers. We know how to manipulate soft tissue.


Remember that we can practice our techniques on ourselves, or, if you are fortunate to be quarantined with a loved one, on them. Working through and releasing the tension held captive within these fibers frees our breath to become full and deep. When we can actually start seeing clients again (if you aren’t already) that breath will be your foundation to rebuild. Your steadiness will permeate. Your clients will feel safe. That safety will create stability. That stability will help ease the tension. Then, people will start breathing again. You see the upward spiral.

In this time where we look at the past and long for the way things were, we look at the future and have no idea what will unfold. The present moment is all we have. You are here. You know how to do the work. That breath. That awareness. That is the ultimate guide to healing. If you believe in that, then your clients will feel it.


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