Thursday, April 16, 2020

Searching for breath and balance

Ever since this pandemic hit us, breathing easy feels like a thing of the past.

Lire en français

So far, the posts on this blog titled “Life Is a Tango” have been reflections on tango that also apply to life.

This post is a reflection on life that also applies to tango.

One of the hardest things for me during this time of social distancing has been finding a new balance in my days and my life. Compared to those who have lost loved ones or who are totally isolated in quarantine, my hardships are minor, but still they have taken their toll on me.

First, ever since this began – since the day we decided to close the doors of our tango school just over a month ago – I have been unable to breathe quite right. I tend toward anxiety and am accustomed to having days here and there of feeling breathless or tight in the chest – like I can never quite fill my lungs – but it’s pretty clearly affected by monthly hormonal fluctuations and I usually know that I will breathe normally in a day or two so I don’t worry about it. Once last year it persisted for five days and, like now, no amount of relaxing, yoga breathing or focusing on the exhale would change it, but it did finally get better after five days.

One time, six or seven years ago, I had an outright anxiety attack, which was very scary. I think I had had a big argument with both my son and my spouse and was just beside myself with anger. I decided to clear my head by going for a run, something I did regularly, and when I had gotten about three blocks from home suddenly I just felt my lungs close up completely. I was unable to breathe beyond the tiniest wheeze, and I was terrified. I stopped, put my hands on my chest and bent over, and someone who had just happened to step out on his front porch asked if I was OK. I managed to sort of gasp that I couldn’t breathe and he sat me down on the ledge of his walkway and asked if he should call an ambulance. Once I sat down, it didn’t take long for the tension in my chest to start to release and I slowly felt I could take in air again, a little more with each breath, so I told him not to call anyone, that I didn’t live far and could walk back home. The whole episode was probably over in less than five minutes, but it felt a lot longer and I sure hope it never happens again.

Back to the present, I have been struggling with this almost constant tightness in the chest to varying degrees but pretty much every day since March 13, and I spend a good part of my mental and emotional energy trying to find both causes and solutions.

I’ve stopped drinking caffeinated beverages (let me tell you mint tisane in the morning is nowhere near as satisfying as an espresso!), I’ve tried both exercising less and exercising more (I started running again – short distances – two weeks ago and it seems to help or at least not harm) and I spend less time on social media. I also make conscious efforts to have significant down time every day.

I know for some people the challenge in isolation is to find things to do. But in my case, I am far from isolated: I’m not in quarantine so I get out to run or walk every day, I live with three other family members and several animals so there is plenty of life and interaction to be had in my daily life. We grocery shop for my parents and my uncle, which takes up a day a week and allows us to see them, too – briefly and from a couple of metres away, of course – and I speak to friends by phone, email and videoconference. Wolf, my partner, and I teach some classes online so we still see some of the community we miss, albeit not in the flesh.

I don’t lack for projects. As I said, we’ve been teaching a little, and it takes up time to prepare, organize and teach classes in this new way. (I definitely prefer real-life teaching to onscreen!) I also DJ online once a week, which meant installing, setting up and learning a new DJing program. And at home there’s plenty of cleaning to do and lots of mouths to feed and cook for, not to mention rooms we’d like to repaint and other fun stuff like income taxes.

I’ve been meaning to use this newfound “free time” to start writing seriously, but this rambling blog post is my first serious attempt. My mind has felt full and kind of jumbled through these weeks so it’s been hard to find the mental space to gather ideas and get creative. So usually I watch Netflix when I don’t have the energy to do anything else.

All this to say, boredom and confinement are not likely the underlying roots of my breathing issues.

This morning as I walked the dog I thought that maybe my inability to find balance is the problem. As a small-business owner of course my work/life scale is always heavier on the work side, but that imbalance is balanced by the fact that I am passionate about what I do and get great pleasure from most aspects of my work. The thing is, I am so used to being 10 times busier than I am now, to knowing I will finish every day with an even longer to-do list, to having an extreme, driving sense of purpose every single day, that I think I don’t know how to both slow down and retain my sense of purpose. I give myself permission to take a break on Sundays: no projects, no media. But on Monday, the tightness in my chest is as bad as ever.

Then, of course, there’s the persistence of this laboured breathing that in itself makes me anxious. At first I couldn’t help but think: “Maybe I have COVID-19!” Silly, really, and I knew it – no other signs of illness, I’ve felt like this before and it’s gone on too long – but whose mind is rational when lying awake at 3 a.m.? Mostly, though, it’s just hard to relax and enjoy my newfound free time when I’m constantly making an effort to either breathe properly or ignore the fact that I can’t.

I know the uncertainty about the future is weighing heavily on me (classic anxiety definition, I guess). I wonder when and how an activity like tango will be able to resume. Our type of business will most certainly be among the last to reopen and when it does, will things pick up where they left off? Will dancers embrace or fear the abrazos they so miss? Will society come out of this more reluctant to get close to strangers? Will an economic downturn mean people have less money to spend on things like tango lessons and milongas?

And while I understand that this is as new and difficult for our leaders as it is for us (and overall they’re doing a good job), I have found some of the vague and conflicting information we receive from them frustrating. Last week, our provincial and federal leaders both gave forward-looking speeches that, in my opinion, were full of contradictions: Normal life will not return until after Christmas (i.e. until there’s a vaccine), one said, but some things will return to normal! Okay, well that’s clear. Here in Quebec, we are about to reach our peak, the other said. This is considered good news, and so we will soon be able to reopen businesses – as long as we keep respecting the two-metre rule. What businesses, then? Certainly not tango. Or gyms. Or hair salons. Or bars. And how can we be thinking of reopening businesses soon when the number of confirmed cases in this province is 700 times higher than it was when businesses closed? And what about schools? My teenage daughter is home from school, supposedly until May 1. I cannot imagine schools will reopen in two weeks, but we haven’t had a peep from either our governments or the educational institutions since they closed. Will classes resume this school year or not? If kids can’t go to school, tangueros sure can’t go to tango school.

So yes, the future feels very unsure and yes, that bothers me. But intellectually I’m actually not that worried. I have confidence we – my family, my business and my country – will pull through, even if we don’t know exactly when or how just yet. So I don’t know if taking in the uncertainty is what’s limiting my ability to inhale.

What does all this teach us – or me – about tango? Well, first of all, it reminds me of the healing properties of tango. I’ve written about some of them before, notably in my post comparing tango to meditation, and I once gave a conference on tango for stress relief. In short, one of the things that draws me to tango is the fact it’s one of the few activities in which I can truly let go. When the music and the connection are just right it takes no effort to just abandon myself and let all my worries evaporate. It is wonderful – and wonderfully therapeutic.

These days, no matter how much I might relax I am always able to think and to remain aware of the fact I can’t breathe with ease. Yoga should help, and I do it every single day, but the problem is, in yoga we are focused on our breath most of the time, so while I can and do work on my breathing in many different ways, I remain aware of the struggle. Some distractions help: an intense episode of “La Casa de Papel,” a satisfying teaching session and a good night’s sleep all offer temporary relief, but nothing quite removes me from day to day realities and stress factors the way a great dance does.

And back to the idea of balance – or my current lack thereof – well, while balance is an essential ingredient in tango, tango is clearly an essential ingredient for balance in my life.

Postscript: Now that I’m writing again, I am reminded of its therapeutic powers: I have been working on this post for three days and since yesterday I am breathing easier. Could these two things be related?

Related articles:


  1. of course they are related you once you take the distance necessary to write down your e-motions they stop express themselves through embodiment ...

  2. Absolutely! Makes me realize I should « follow your lead » and get back to it, myself ;)
    P. S. Thank you for sharing your reflections and wishing you well, greater balance and ease of breath. May I suggest my favourite mantra? « May I feel safe. May I be happy. May I feel strong. May I live with ease. »