How simple, conscious breathing techniques allowed a young woman’s soul to speak, her truth to come out and reconnected her to life.
I stood up straight in her whitewashed office. I am not sure what craniosacral actually means, but I have gone to see Suzy because the one person I trust, my psychotherapist, has said that this craniosacral lady will be able to help me — and I am sure I need some help.
“You’re barely breathing,” Suzy observes. I am standing with my back facing her being examined, in my full ballet dancer straightness from hours of dancing in frigid church halls. Suzy explains she works with adults just in the same way as she does little babies, and I am relieved at this, though I still have only a vague idea of what her work involves.
It turns out that the craniosacral osteopathy which Suzy practises is not about cracking bones into position. Instead, it is a holistic therapy which uses light touch to heal the nervous system by relieving compression in the body, aiding the flow of cerebrospinal fluid.
I lie down and she places her hands on me. It feels as if she has gently positioned magnets around my body, and my blood has turned into iron filings, that an inner tide is being drawn this way and that.
Somewhere along the line I am finally able to cry, to safely unravel. There are no visions or rainbows, but these undeniable sensations in my body provide me with the beginnings of a new faith. They demonstrate that there is more to be discovered inside, beyond the restrictive loop of my destructive thoughts, that unkind voice in my head.
The experience catches me despite myself. I don´t usually believe in this stuff. Behind my therapist’s back I do plenty of eye-rolling, and I preface things she tells me with, “She’s kind of a hippie.”
But Suzy’s words — “we are all made up of energy,” “your life-force is strong,” “one day you’ll look back on this period of your life as if it was just a bad phase, a nightmare” — reassure me. They ring true in a way I don’t need to debate. Secretly, I am proud of my “strong life-force.” I am later reminded that my name, Zoe, means life.
I am twenty-one, a precarious time where I am questioning everything about myself and my memories, no longer certain what is true and what is false.
This is a bad period of my life, though you might struggle to notice because I have grown adept at hiding pain and chaos. I say ‘I’m fine’ so many times that in some moments I even believe my own lie. It has been building for some time.
As a child, I asked to skip day after day of school, and then moved schools several times, thinking I will find a feeling of rightness in the next place. As a teenager, I drank to numb and belong, tipping into black out and waking up ashamed. Every move was directed by a need for other people’s approval and acceptance. When I find drugs, I am triumphant; they transport me from pain, taking me to where I need to go, but with less of the embarrassing behaviour and memory-loss of drinking. They make me present and unafraid.
But after a while, I notice that the opening sensation I am chasing doesn’t come as often. The aftermath becomes colder and lonelier.
When my friends are sleeping it off at the end of the night, I lie awake for hours in the dark wondering about what it will feel like when I am dead, when there is nothing left. The fear gives me a kind of vertigo, and I need to cry — but my body can’t feel.
In the midst of my nightmare, I sit in a car making its way through London’s drizzle, aware of a growing sensation that there has to be another way to live. “I think I need to talk to someone, maybe a therapist or something,” I hear myself say quietly to my Dad.
Every time we sincerely ask for help is a spiritual awakening of sorts.
My desire for change outshines my politeness. Until then I have been silenced by the belief that to request help is inappropriate and indulgent. My job has been to perform well in school and university, to keep it together. I have learnt that it is unsafe to express myself, or to say no. So, asking for help was a radical act — and the first time I have honored my soul’s calling.
Those tentative words to my Dad turned out to be an invocation to bring in help beyond what I thought possible, beginning with a sober life.
I embarked on what was at first a wobbly and ravenous spiritual exploration, eventually landing on more solid, quiet ground.
I was raw and grasped at any way to heal. I threw myself into this search with desperation. In this vulnerable but hopeful state, I trusted people who I perhaps should not have trusted. I tried many tools and schools of thought, wearing different masks of identity, dress, and convictions.
It became clear that I had been experiencing an emptiness from a life without love at the center. Nothing was really wrong with me; I was just homesick for this love. Flipping between two states of escapism and excessive control (people pleasing, obsessively healthy eating and exercising, efforts to ‘sort out my life’), I had lost the ability to really be myself, and with it the possibility to connect.
Once I realized what was missing in my life, everything became an invitation to connect and to love more deeply.
That’s when I found Breathwork, an active meditation technique that uses breathing as a healing tool. It quickly brings your awareness into your body, freeing you from the dominant churning of the brain. It works in harmony with both yin and yang, clearing the pathway for your intuition to flow.
What this looks like in practise is a two-part inhale, first in the lower abdomen, drawing up energy from the pelvis where much emotion is stuffed down and stored (including swallowed anger and shame that for many of us stays put like armour). The second inhale, in the high chest, opens the heart. The breath flows out in a natural exhale through the mouth, and this pattern continues rhythmically.
Breath is life, a bridge between heaven and our human lungs.
Breathwork can draw you to your edge, a deep inhale invoking all your fire and willingness to move forward. Once here, at the top of the cliff, you exhale in surrender, continuing to soften into your physical sensations, holding yourself with a presence and tenderness that can alchemise the deepest of hurts.
My life-force — the involuntary rhythm of inhale and exhale — kept me here even on days I didn’t really want to stay. The action of my feet, walking into treatment rooms and unfamiliar places, seemed to loosen the grip of the part of my brain which said there was no hope, that I was broken beyond repair. I eventually began to slow down enough to let the sensations in my body point towards the truth (where do I feel safe, lighter, and more open?).
Today I live in a house in the forest with a dog and the love of my life. I wake up and find a quiet place alone to lie down and let my body and breath become soft.
I remind myself that it is safe to turn my attention inside, safe to breathe deep and move out pent-up anger and tears.
I don’t believe in calming down, cheering up, or any moral effort to be spiritual. What I do believe in is breathing — this magical life force that has enabled me to feel and love deeply again, to not be so afraid or ashamed of who I am.
You may also enjoy reading The Sacred Pause: The Art of Activating Healing Energy by Travis Eliot