May | 2012

Lesson No. 38: Putting on the Oxygen Mask

Mohonk Mountain House sits up on the top of a mountain. Literally. A three-mile drive up a beautiful mountain road; a winding, narrow (and sometimes heart rate inducing) mountain road. I teach two retreats there a year and visit several times with my family for our own retreat time. And while it is our favorite place, I admit, I have often wondered how an emergency is handled when you are three miles up a mountain. Well, I found out in April, while I was leading my Spring Retreat.

After a long day of rock scrambling and hiking among the incredible spring blooms, William’s (my 8-year-old) allergies kicked up, and that night he woke at 1 am with an allergy-induced asthma attack.

Alarmed by his croup-like cough and shortage of breath, we called Guest Services to arrange to see the house doctor. The excellent emergency-trained security guards showed up minutes later, immediately put William on oxygen, and escorted us five floors down to the doctor’s office. And while they were absolutely right in their protocol (and we are super grateful!), the oxygen tank highlighted the severity of the situation, which bred more anxiety in William (and me!). In the doctor’s office, William was put on a nebulizer and the ambulance was called. This was a highly tense situation and while working to regulate William’s breathing pattern, the doctor sternly instructed him to stop coughing and breathe! But, inevitably, the more William felt that he couldn’t get a breath, the MORE he couldn’t breathe.

That’s the thing about asthma (and actually, breathing in general for most of us); the harder it is to breathe, the tighter and more rigid you become, then the more anxious you get, and thus it gets even harder to breathe. And it is a perpetuating cycle. (It is imperative at this time to stop and truly relax and breathe. To put on your oxygen mask metaphorically and sometimes literally.)

Personally, I had to modulate my own anxiety in this moment. And, as I watched William’s tightness escalate, I had to be fully calm and present to help bring him down. I wiggled my way in between him and the doctor, put my forehead on Williams, and started my own slow, rhythmic breathing. Gently, softly, I encouraged him to breathe with me. It was a start. The ambulance quickly arrived and an amazing EMS team put William on a gurney and strolled him out into the thick fog engulfing the mountain top. It was a crazy stormy night, which added even more intensity. The EMS captain, John, eased our 25-minute ride to the hospital as he engaged William with conversation, distracting him from his attack. Slowly William began to shift and even requested to play music on my iPhone. As he sang some Adele, his airways opened more, and he began to enjoy the novelty of being in the ambulance.

Finally, at the hospital, he was given medication to further bring down the inflammation of his airways and by 5 am (and after lots of games and music on my iPhone) he was fine to go home. He was better than fine, he was great, actually. We all were. Phew.

Now of course, this is an extreme situation of how being short on breath begets less breath; how tension and anxiety further progress tension and anxiety. But as I watched William I realized how most of us do this to ourselves all day long.

At first, we begin by bracing ourselves just a little maybe, waiting for something to throw us off-balance; ready to defend or protect ourselves And like a snowball effect, as we begin to lose balance in small ways, we respond progressively by getting tighter and tighter, minimizing our breath moment after moment. Sometimes we get so used to feeling restricted, we don’t even realize how tight we are until it’s too late.

This cycle diminishes our vitality and initiates our stress response. And while distraction may be the antidote for many of us (and like for William, essential, in an emergency!), we also need to learn to interrupt this pattern. We need to have that ability to pause, to put our own oxygen tank. And we can do this! We can create new daily patterns through practices like yoga, conscious breathing and relaxation. When we learn to recognize how we habitually tighten, what situations make us shrink and tense; how we cut off from ourselves or our life force, then we are more likely to catch it before the cycle gets too deep. We can become more skillful in slowing down, relaxing, and opening up. Pausing to breathe. In yoga, we are training our awareness in this way, so that we can shift more and more often, back to openness, all day long.

And then, of course, repeat. And repeat. And repeat.