It’s something so simple, yet something I never take for granted.
Something I am more conscious of.
I began running at age 13. My breath would in-out-in-out rapid fire, heat spreading across my chest. As I’d sprint around the sharp curves of the track, I’d say to myself, “Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.”
In college, I’d gulp spoonfuls of Robitusson after running. Somehow, my post-race cough never got better. I went to the student health center on campus, which was notorious for misdiagnoses and their overzealousness in checking us for STDs. They diagnosed me with asthma. I laughed.
But they were right.
The medicine freaked me out. I cried trying to take my inhaler for the first time. I found it disgusting and didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to be asthmatic.
But somehow, I tried the medicine. And I discovered I was no longer coughing. No longer wheezing. No longer gasping.
I could breathe.
Years moved on. My asthma was mostly managed. Occasionally, I’d get flare-ups, usually after a cold or the flu or in the dead of winter or in stressful times. But I never took it for granted. Seeing people smoke, I just thought, “I can’t even breathe normally, and you are putting smoke and chemicals in your lungs? Why?”
Every night, I took a pill and sometimes a puff. And before my runs, two more puffs.
Things got really bad. It was the coldest winter of my life, and my grandmother died. It was too cold at the funeral to hold the ceremony outside, so we cried inside an impersonal building. I sucked on my inhaler. Tears and gasps of breath became intertwined. I emailed my pulmonologist regularly. She wrote me things back like, “Well, Ms. Yanek, I don’t know what to do next…” I took too many rounds of prednisone, the only thing that seemed to help me breathe.
Everything seemed bad. Work was awful. I was miserable and cried every day at my job. I was stressed. I missed my grandmother.
Breathing was so hard. So hard.
Finally, it all came apart. There’s only so long you can go on being miserable. I quit my job. I signed up for a yoga teacher training and packed my bags for four months of yoga in India.
I hoped my asthma would be okay.
It was. I barely needed my inhalers. Days I spent practicing yoga, studying yoga, or reading about yoga, though sometimes I traveled, seeing a culture so very different from my own. During yoga, we practiced pranayama, or breathwork. I found myself holding back…my asthma. I didn’t want to irritate it.
But I was okay. Sure, maybe I couldn’t hold my breath as long as others, but I could do it. I could breathe
As I traveled through some of the most polluted cities in India, my asthma was okay. Every day, as I’d inhale-exhale through my nose, coming back to my breath, I thought about how far my breath had come.
And how far I had come.
Adjusting to being back home was hard. Injury and illness were there, but I persisted, and overcame. I called Sybil Luddington my comeback race. It was a 50k I was planning on running nice and easy – surviving was number one. I also found Sybil herself inspiration – a teenager during the Revolutionary War, she rode on her horse 50 kilometers, warning Americans that the British were coming. I could do this.
There were hills and I was fine. I just focused. Up, down. I got this.
Cherie Yanek is a writer, yoga instructor, and school librarian living in Brooklyn, New York. She is also the Race Director of the Burning Man Ultramarathon. You can find her at www.cherylyanek.com, Instagram, or Twitter.