Our Neighbors: Learning to breathe
Kaiilama Morris lays her hand on my forearm, leaning in across the coffee table to make a point, punctuating it with her two quick laughs and the little hiccup in between, her purple sweater bright over her red-striped shirt, her dolphin earrings swimming in sudden circles.
Her hand is warm and strong. It is a conversational gesture, a second's touch through a grey wool sweater and black turtleneck, but I feel loved. I feel safe.
It was something of this generosity and confidence, how a skilled farmer cradles a shaky new lamb, that Kaiilama must have revealed 15 years ago at a weekend workshop on therapeutic breath education.
"I was paired up with a friend and I was so nervous," Kaiilama remembers. She talks like she's riding waves, fast on the wind. "I said to my friend, you lie there and breathe and I'll watch you. I touched her heart and feet, and then Judy Kravitz, the instructor, walked up to us."
Kravitz is the founder of the Transformational Breath Foundation, which offers trainings and workshops on therapeutic breath, or using breathing techniques as a tool for improving physical and emotional health and spiritual well-being.
Kaiilama, who lives in Newfane, wraps a soft turquoise pashmina around her shoulders to deflect the March chill. "So she's behind me, and she leans over and says, ‘You are going to do this for your life's work.'"
The laugh leaps from Kaiilama's belly and the pashmina can't contain her. It falls to her elbows and she hikes it up again. "What! I thought, ‘You are nuts!' But she was right."
She had discovered therapeutic breath about six months earlier when her sister, then a student at the School for International Training, attended a Kravitz-led seminar.
"She came home so excited," Kaiilama says. "She said I had to go. Well, I had three children under the age of 9, so it took a while."
It was a hard time in Kaiilama's life. The intensity and stress of caring for young children and the complexities of a long marriage, coupled with chronic back pain, left her with no small share of unhappiness. She yearned for peacefulness, for joy and health, but the work to find it was rough and slow.
"One night, a friend who was doing the training called me up. The person who was going to be her subject was sick, and she asked me if I wanted to fill in," she says. "All my kids were elsewhere that night, can you believe it? So I went."
Her eyes widen. "It was the most relaxed I'd ever felt. Before that first time, I didn't know how to take a full breath. I didn't know what it felt like to really breathe. I did not know what it meant to relax."
Growing up on Staten Island, N.Y., in the 1950s and 60s, Kaiilama learned to move fast as one of seven kids raised by two hard-working parents. Rest and relaxation weren't part of the family vocabulary. Her natural vivaciousness and ambition pushed her toward rushing activity, too.
"I actually got my Bachelor's degree in criminal justice," she says. "I wanted to be an attorney. I took the LSAT! And I worked as a paralegal for five years, supervising five other people, at a law firm on Wall Street."
She also volunteered in the juvenile court system on Staten Island. "I always knew I wanted to help people. I thought criminal justice would be the way to do that, but I felt like I wasn't helping create real change, or well-being. What I was doing was just a Band-aid."
She left the law and moved with her husband to Vermont, which they had grown to love on camping trips.
That desire to serve the world with the best of herself remained, if subsumed in the day-to-day of making a home in Vermont, and then child-rearing. Years passed before she took, and released, that first deep breath.
"I really believe that so much of life is about timing. I wasn't ready to discover breath work until I was ready," she says.
Within a few months, Kaiilama was a devoted student of therapeutic breathing, training under Kravitz and at the Power of Breath Institute in Spofford, N.H.. She became a Certified Breath Practitioner in 2003.
She was astounded that something so simple as breathing could help her feel so relaxed, so joyful, and so connected to a feeling of love and safety.
"That's the key," she says. "Breathing shallowly reflects this deep fear that we are not safe, that we can't trust people or the world. We learn it as kids, from our experiences, from our parents, and the belief becomes unconscious and the breath stays shallow."
She sits up straighter, her voice big and driven and awed . "So the belly breaths change that. It's a connected breath, without a pause between the inhale and exhale. It returns our bodies to the belief that life can be safe and that we can trust ourselves and others. It happens physically, in the parasympathetic nervous system, and on an energetic or spiritual level. It helps us see and feel our fear or resentment, the ways we were hurt as children,what's stuck in our minds and bodies, and it helps us move through the emotion. And it's such a simple tool. It's breath!"
When Kaiilama began to teach therapeutic breathing, which includes coaching on the connected breath technique, information about the physiology of breath, and thoughtful conversation about the client's experience of and goals for the work, she found the larger purpose and meaning she had long sought.
Her clients came to her in emotional distress, in physical pain, in jobs that crushed them or relationships that hurt. Over time, she saw them touch happiness again. She saw them discover how to care for their children differently. She saw them released from suffering. She saw them become resilient and hopeful. She saw them acquire a tool that could support them in the ongoing work of their lives.
"More trusting and joyful, believing in abundance, feeling loved and safe ..." She laughs again, a dolphin chirrup above the waves. "This is how to live!"
This is when she places her hand on my arm, when the forward rush of the day eddies and rests, and I'm so surprised and grateful I could cry. But she's smiling kindly, with such seeking behind her eyes, I smile back instead. I do what makes sense when you're sitting with Kaiilama Morris. I breathe.
To learn more about Kaillama Morris and therapeutic breath, visit www.breathoftheheart,com, visit 802-365-4469, or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer. To suggest people for this column, write to her at email@example.com.
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