Breathing to Write
Jennifer Sinor | April 2020
Amanda’s father learned that she had left the Mormon Church when he came into her bedroom unannounced and found her posting to an ex-Mormon discussion board. He was furious. Could not speak. He called Amanda’s mother to the basement bedroom and the two of them yelled, begged, and threatened their nineteen-year-old daughter for hours that day, then for weeks and months afterwards. She had fractured the Eternal Family. She had turned her back on the Truth. Upon death, she had guaranteed her place in Outer Darkness. On the day that Amanda cried in my office, it was not because she was upset that her parents had found out or because she doubted her decision. She was crying because she could no longer find a reason to live. “I don’t believe in the Church,” she said. “But I have nothing else either.”
In my Introduction to Creative Nonfiction class that semester, Amanda was writing about her decision to leave the Church and her ensuing depression. The same semester, I had a student describe being assaulted years earlier in a park, another who wrote about being raped by her ex-husband and how long it took before she named it so, and another who devoted pages to the way her body ached every day while medical professionals pointed to nothing irregular in her bloodwork, her scans, her tests.
I have been teaching creative nonfiction for close to twenty years at Utah State University. In those two decades, I have witnessed a dramatic rise in the number of students who suffer from anxiety and depression. I don’t need the newspapers or the latest studies (one in five college students, one third of college students, one-fourth of the state) to tell me that anxiety/depression is the number one health concern facing young people today. I see it in their writing. Every semester. When asked to write about what matters, the stories they tell are crippling stories of depression, addiction, abuse, and abandonment. They shake in my office. They shake on the page. Panic climbs their brown eyes, hazel eyes, blue.
As a creative nonfiction teacher, I may see more of my students’ anxiety expressed on the page than teachers in other genres or in other departments. For example, a calculus class might present few opportunities for a student to address the fact that he cannot recover from the suicide of his girlfriend or to describe, through scenic detail, how pornography is destroying his life. But that doesn’t mean that the student is not bringing all of that into the calculus classroom. Too often, I think that in higher education we are concerned only with students’ minds, even in creative writing, where the work itself provides more opportunity for students to share. To believe that students can check their anxiety at the door like luggage is both impossible and damaging. They carry those burdens from classroom to classroom, from kitchen to bedroom, from apartment to campus. Anxiety and depression, illness, trauma, and abuse haunt their lives. Our choice, as faculty, is to address the fact that this generation of students is struggling with mental health in unparalleled ways or to pretend that our classroom somehow exists outside the Age of Anxiety—some crazy kind of bubble where we are only looking at the relationship between scene and summary or the pleasures of enjambment. Especially ironic for us as creative writing teachers is the knowledge of how hard we push for difficulty and complexity in our students’ poems, stories, and essays even as we often refuse to embrace such struggle in their actual lives. We must teach the whole person. To deny students their complete identity as human beings is to sever them at the neck.
I have long believed that the goal of higher education should be to create good citizens, members who can contribute to the world in creative and thoughtful ways. Years ago, as a graduate student, I was influenced by Parker Palmer and his insistence that “good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness.” At the same time, we are not therapists. My PhD prepared me to teach writing at the university level, not diagnose addiction or OCD. Colleges and universities are putting more and more resources toward mental health services because they see the need. But the effort to address anxiety in our students does not rest only with the ten professionals at the counseling center. It cannot. The situation in which we find ourselves is unsustainable. Look at the campus suicide rate, the campus police incident reports, the binge drinking, the sexual assaults, the national opioid addiction. Ten counselors cannot serve 45,000 students. As teachers, we have a responsibility to do what we can in our classrooms to address what has become an epidemic of anxiety.
I realized that I needed to do something in my own classrooms about five years ago. That spring, I had a class of twenty students in advanced creative nonfiction who collectively wrote the most difficult and charged work I had ever read. The essays pushed way beyond the issues that I had been seeing in the previous five years—eating disorders, cutting, binge drinking. Each week, the workshop gathered around essays that were so raw and painful that we often just sat in silence, recognizing that words did not exist. I felt very alone that semester, laid awake night after night, carried their pain like a backpack with me during the day. No one in my department or larger university knew what those students and I were going through. I told the class that we were in a boat together, on a wide and drifting sea. And we all knew the boat and its occupants intimately. We shared what no one could understand, and in that sharing found grace.
At the end of that semester, I was ruined mentally and physically. I wondered how I could keep teaching. I wondered where my life in creative nonfiction would take me next, if it would only grow more fraught and tragic, if I needed to quit the profession. Luckily, I was on sabbatical the following year, and during that time I became a certified yoga instructor. At that point, I had been practicing yoga for fifteen years, but I wanted to deepen my practice through intensive training. I had no intention of ever teaching yoga. I already had a more-than-full-time career, but when I finished the training I knew that I had to offer what I had learned. I began teaching twice a week at the local yoga studio, but, more importantly, I found ways to bring yoga practice into my classroom.
When I returned the following fall, I began to breathe with my students, eyes closed, every day, from the very first day of class, before roll was even taken, before the syllabus was handed out, before I even introduced myself.
Focus on the breath, pranayama, is one of the eight limbs of Patanjali’s Ashtanga yoga. Prana, or breath, is at the very heart of yoga practice, and most yoga classes focus on moving with the breath, using the breath to get into and out of both the postures and our minds. Patanjali tells us early on in his ancient yoga sutras that yoga is the stilling of the mind (Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah) largely through one-pointed focus (dharana) on, among other things, the breath. We can use the breath, focus on the breath, to quiet the chattering in our heads—those voices that tell us to be afraid, the ones that say we aren’t good enough, or that we are damaged or that we have failed. For Patanjali, the physical practice of asana, what constitutes the bulk of what westerners think of when they think of yoga (tree pose, warrior pose, down dog), is a very small part of the path. Of his 195 sutras, only four even address posture and those only speak to seated postures for meditation. One-pointed focus, through the breath, is yoga. You never even have to stand up.
Physically, attention to the breath, prolonging the inhalation and exhalation specifically, activates the parasympathetic nervous system in our bodies, the part of the nervous system that self-soothes. Attention to breath, then, counters the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system. Those who suffer from anxiety disorders are living in bodies where the sympathetic nervous system is activated constantly—so that a decision about whether to walk to class or take the bus creates in the body the same fight or flight response engendered by a snake or a bear. Ordinary decisions become filled with fear. You cannot get out of bed. The parasympathetic nervous system, activated by extending the exhalation, quiets the body, just like the act of nursing did for us as infants.
Attention to the breath also lowers the heart rate and the breathing rate and begins to align the cycle of the breath with other rhythms in our bodies. In addition, complete exhalations empty the capillaries in the lungs and make room for new oxygen to enter the body, completely removing waste and allowing the maximum amount of oxygen to infuse our blood. Attention to the breath, even just one complete cycle, will instantaneously calm us.
We breathe some 28,000 times in a twenty-four-hour period, taking in thirty-five times more air (5,000 gallons on average) than food and water combined. Most, if not all, of those breaths pass without our attention. Most, if not all, occur at the very top of the lungs, shallow and hurried. In my classroom, we refuse to let all of those breaths pass unnoticed. We refuse to pant our way through the day. We use the first three minutes or so of class, before anything else happens, to breathe with our eyes closed. It is non-negotiable time. As the stress of the semester increases, our time spent breathing increases rather than lessens. I tell students on the first day that we are using the attention on our breath to bring us fully into the classroom space, to disconnect us from all the other things happening in our lives so that we can be present to each person in the classroom and fully meet the work brought before us. Each of us as human beings deserves to be “fully met.” The work we bring to the workshop deserves to be fully met. More so, we all deserve to be fully present to our lives as they are actually unfolding—rather than living in a past riddled with regret or a future plagued by what hasn’t even happened. In the present moment, this very moment right now, everything is okay. In the present, you are entirely free. I also tell my students that focus on the breath is a tool that I offer my students just like scene reconstruction, dialogue, and the flexibility of the semicolon. Routinely they say at the end of the semester that the practice of breathing with intention is the most important skill I have given them. Abi Newhouse, a former student, says, “Breathing before class helped me forget that the world outside demanded my attention, so I was able to give all my energy into learning to notice the things I could write about.” A current graduate student, Alyssa Witbeck Alexander, says, “Taking a moment to recognize that my breathing is worth paying attention to helped me reconnect with myself and allowed me to work from a more creative space in class.”
You don’t have to be a certified yoga instructor to sit with your students with your eyes closed for three minutes. We all breathe. Every single one of us. We have been breathing our entire lives. I “teach” my students in the first few weeks how to focus more deeply on their breath. Specifically, I teach them three-part yogic breathing, but I don’t call it that. I have them close their eyes. Since we sit in a circle, we are all facing one another. I admit that it is scary and uncomfortable the first time, the first many times, but I ask them to trust me. We rest our feet on the ground. Hands in our laps. After we close our eyes, I tell them to breathe through their nostrils, drawing the breath deep into the belly, feeling the belly fill with air, navel drawing away from spine. I ask them to follow the inhalation up the body to the mid-lungs where the ribs spread open like birds’ wings, then to follow the breath to the very top of the lungs, collar bones pulling away from one another, breath simmering at the rim. This complete inhalation is then followed by a long, slow exhalation, through the nostrils, emptying the lungs from the top, down through the mid-lungs, ribs pulling in, down to the belly, drawing navel back to spine, expelling every last bit of air. Inhalation and exhalation are even, deliberate, and slow. I often have my students count to four (to themselves) on inhalation and count to six on exhalation, trying to inhale and exhale the same amount of air on one as they do on four or six. Three-part breathing allows us to access our entire lung capacity, and it gives us a focal point, but there is no magic to three parts. The magic happens when you simply close your eyes and follow your breath. I like three-part breathing because it creates a pattern that they can use in calculus, at the grocery store, or when they worry their decision to leave the Church necessitates leaving this life.
I can imagine faculty saying they don’t have three minutes of class to “give up.” To that I would only say that the point you want to make about Hopkins’s use of meter that day can only be received by a mind that is open and ready to listen. If you want your students—the students you are teaching right now, in this 24/7-media-blitzed-pandemic-riddled-fake-news world that we find ourselves teaching in, then you need to create a space where they can listen. And three minutes of breathing will begin to create that space. Not just for your class but for a lifetime.
I breathe with intention at the start of every class. Whether five students or five hundred. It feels awkward at first—we rarely close our eyes in public, so it can be vulnerable—but it sets the space in which to learn, to risk, to share, to grow. Breathing creates a community, one that breathes together, the bedrock of the workshop. It establishes a pause, before starting class, signifying that we are about to enter collectively into a genre, a conversation, into art. It gives our students, and quite frankly ourselves, a way to help still both mind and body so that we can address the work in our lives and the work immediately before us.
As the semester progresses, I offer other breathing patterns for students to practice. Sometimes I have them focus on their hearts or send love to others. Sometimes we grieve or celebrate an event happening in the world around us. But mostly we just breathe, and they do it on their own. In each class, when we have sat together breathing for however long, I tell my students to open their eyes. At that moment, I open mine as well, with a smile on my face, making eye contact with whomever is before me. Then I say, “Welcome to class.”
We can pretend that the students in our classrooms are there only to learn about craft or hear our advice on the writing life, or we can fully welcome the students who come into our classrooms, students who live complicated lives, and who, for any number of reasons, find themselves increasingly incapacitated by feelings of inadequacy, fear, and failure, and who have come to creative writing to be changed, to be challenged, to be given the tools that will make them more competent and successful, not just in laying down their lines but in living their lives. Change can happen, but it is always incremental and local. It is happening in my classroom through the breath. It is my deep hope that someday the attention to the breath will be as ordinary and commonplace in the classroom as saying, “Hi, my name is Professor Sinor, and I am your teacher this semester.” For we are indeed in this boat together, and in that fact we find grace.
Jennifer Sinor is the author of several books, including Letters Like the Day: On Reading Georgia O’Keeffe and the memoir Ordinary Trauma. Her forthcoming essay collection, Sky Songs: Meditations on Loving a Broken World, will appear in the fall of 2020 from the University of Nebraska Press. The recipient of the Stipend in American Modernism as well as nominations for the National Magazine Award and the Pushcart Prize, Jennifer teaches creative writing at Utah State University, where she is a professor of English.