When we Can't Breathe

By Michelle Johnson

DECEMBER 16, 2014 

As a yoga teacher I have been trained to talk about the link of the breath with the various postures or movements we make with our bodies.

Students come into my classes, roll out their mats, set up and then find a comfortable seat. The first instruction I give after they have found their seat is to ask them to let go of their day, to let go of anticipation and to start to find their breath.

Often I say, “Perhaps, this is the first time you have noticed that you are breathing today,” and ask, “What does it mean to actually feel the breath, the inhale and exhale?”

Once I sense that they have connected to their breath and have settled down a bit I instruct them to sit and let their bodies breathe. I utter these words: “Sit and let your body breathe.” They set some clear intention for class or offer a dedication of their practice and then we begin to move. We begin to move with the breath.


In vinyasa yoga, movement is intentionally linked with the breath using the Ujjayi breath. This way of breathing calms the nervous system while building heat in the body. When vinyasa students start the Ujjayi, I can feel the energy in the room intensify. The breath carries the class and supports the practice.

After we’ve built some heat or “tapas” to burn away the impurities, and to connect to the experience of perseverance, we move toward a cool down and then a deep rest in savasana or “corpse pose.” This is the place where people go to die, to let their practice wither away, to let their thoughts, identities, stories, and worries, wither away. After savasana, they rise up into their seats, return to their intentions or dedications and we close the class.

I remember the first yoga class I attended in which I was instructed on how to breathe Ujjayi. For me, breathing had never been a tool to calm my nervous system. I’ve been a lifelong asthmatic. I’ve been on medication since the age of 4 and was in and out of the hospital several times between the ages of 4 and 14. I had always responded to the lack of breath or air by using my inhaler to calm everything down. It was transformative when I learned how to breathe.

Our way to freedom

I once participated in a yoga training with internationally recognized yoga and anatomy teacher Leslie Kaminoff. He offered to us this adage: “If you want to cut off someone’ liberation then make them stop breathing.” This resonated so loudly and deeply because asthma attack after asthma attack had given me the experience of liberation being cut off in my body. The breath, this expansive allowance of air in and then release of air out is in essence our way to freedom. When we aren’t breathing we are dying.

Eric Garner, a lifelong asthmatic, struggled for his last breath and uttered the words, “I can’t breathe,” 11 times. He lay there lifeless as six men placed him a stretcher, leg hanging off, head flopping from side to side, eyes rolled back in his head. A person in the background can be heard asking, “Why ain’t nobody doing CPR?” to which there was no response.

Ain’t nobody doing CPR because we are disposable. Black lives don’t matter.

How are we supposed to learn to breathe if the system that we are residing in was never meant to let us breathe or survive? How are we supposed to dismantle a system that won’t hold the people accountable who take away our breath?

White supremacy isn’t going to allow us to breathe because it relies on our oppression. When we are in a relationship like this one that relies on our lack of breath, our death, our immobilization, what are our options?

I don’t have answers for these questions. Really, I don’t know.

For me, my most intentional actions come from a place of centeredness. I believe that if we sit in the space of urgency and use our breath as a guide some answers might come.

Sit and let your body breathe.

Michelle C. Johnson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, registered yoga teacher and member of the Carrboro Board of Aldermen.

*Photo Credit:  Sublime Apertures

Michelle Johnson