Conscious breathing can be as simple as a mindful practice of knowing when you are inhaling, or exhaling, and as complicated as advanced yogic pranayama techniques involving breath-holding (both in and out) while applying “locks.” Our conscious breath is a source of “medicine,” energy, serenity, rejuvenation, clarity, presence and empowerment. Luxuriate in a deep conscious breath, please, while I share a personal story.
While leading trekking groups in the Andes and Himalayas for over a decade, hiking mountains, and climbing temples, never had I experienced a fear of heights. Yet, I found myself in shock on the top of Temple V, the second tallest structure in Tikal, Guatemala, gazing down across the jungle canopy, feeling completely incapacitated by sudden, full-blown acrophobia.
Earlier, I’d climbed the temple with ease, and nonchalantly, sat on a ledge, watching spider monkeys play an arm’s length away in the tree tops. However, upon returning to descend the ladder, my stomach seemed to leap into my throat, rendering me nauseous and petrified. Momentarily, I felt myself teeter toward the ground, seemingly miles below. Slowly, I inched backwards and sidled into a sitting position with my back supported against the ancient rock wall, as far from the edge as possible.
As vertigo began to subside I realized I’d stopped breathing, an invisible girdle of fear constricting my torso. I reminded myself to breathe as deeply and consciously as possible. I needed to just sit with these sensations for a moment. Actually, I thought helplessly, that was the only thing I could do. “Breathe low in the belly,” I heard myself instructing. “It’s impossible for panic to take over while breathing low in the belly.”
This fear, this terrifying, sudden phobia of heights, had stunned me into paralysis. During so many journeys I’d aided others to climb temple steps all over the globe — Chichén-Itzá, Machu Picchu, Giza, Angkor Wat! And there I was, unable to move. The thought of even approaching the steep staircase took my breath away. Alternate nostril breathing to the rescue! Knowing this form of conscious breathing had always helped me gain a sense of calmness and balance, I commenced a simple variation.
The shock started to dissipate, and as I began to breathe easier I almost laughed at the irony and times that I’d helped someone to ascend or descend some edifice, step by anxious step, always counseling “breathe!” I now understood what true bravery they’d displayed! I doubted then whether I had it myself.
“All right, I must do this! Ca, ca, ca ccourrraaagggge!” I exhorted myself, thinking of the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz. “I must practice what I’ve preached or I could be up here a helluva long time!”
Telling myself that I was going to be okay — it was only irrational fear — I crouched down onto all fours. With a slow, deliberate exhalation orchestrated to each movement, I began crawling backwards to the ladder. In this prostrated position I felt humbled, truly humbled.
Gradually inching to the platform, trepidation gripped me. Before, on this very same temple staircase, I’d practically sprinted to the ground while facing forward. This time my back was turned from the sky so my face could kiss the staircase. With each white-knuckled hand, I tightly clasped the banister as each foot cautiously sought the next step. By glomming on to each stair, I tentatively began breathing my way down. Panic threatening to immobilize me was kept at bay only by each conscious breath, mated to each mindful step. I continually reminded myself of what I had encouraged others: “Allow the life-force in the inhalation to give you the power to let go of the fear with the exhalation and move. If you stay conscious of your breath, and be present in your body, you cannot fall.” Luckily the knowledge that no one had ever fallen helped me believe it.
After what seemed like a lifetime, jubilantly touching earth under my feet, a sense of accomplishment that comes only from great relief flowed over me. I felt like kissing the ground. Harrowing as it was, I could now feel grateful for the experience and the confirmation of what is possible through the power of conscious breath.