Breathing and walking through the pandemic

Daily, we are informed of the number of new coronavirus cases, of people who have died from the disease, and of the many who are presumed to have recovered. These figures provide a general picture of the toll the pandemic is taking on our population.

We are less aware of the lingering health problems that COVID-19 continues to inflict on many survivors. We hear about them, but they are not in the official register. Hopefully, somebody in the country’s health system is collecting data on so-called “long COVID” sufferers.

All this, however, does not give us even a glimpse of how the pandemic is affecting our people’s mental health. We need only reflect on how children and the elderly in particular are holding up, to gain some idea of the barely visible and less reportable effects of this catastrophe. They must be at least as serious as the disease’s physical manifestations. For, there is no precise separation between body and mind.

No quick treatments are available to help us regain our equilibrium and move on. Getting vaccinated may allay our anxieties about being seriously ill or dying, but so long as the virus is out there, and new cases continue to pile up, the uneasiness stays with us. And we realize we are pretty much on our own.

Beyond avoiding places and occasions where the virus lurks, we find ourselves trying out various regimens that help us deal with boredom, psychosomatic pains, and creeping depression. The point is to find a way of living under these dismal circumstances without being overwhelmed by nagging existential questions.

As ludicrous as some of these may seem, there are life strategies, many of them drawn from Eastern traditions, that have been proven to yield beneficial effects. They have worked for me, I think. They have given me a general sense of well-being, freed me from binge-watching on Netflix or YouTube, and helped me get through the day without feeling that I have accomplished nothing.

At my age (75), I am ever conscious that the time that remains for me is terribly short. Thus, whatever I’m doing, I tend to rush. I eat fast, I walk briskly, and I fast-forward predictable movies or programs. When I ride my motorcycle on long stretches, I need to remind myself that I must slow down to permit my aging reflexes to catch up with the bike’s speed. I make more stops than usual to stretch, rehydrate, and, yes, breathe.

From Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and author (“The Art of Living”), I have learned the whole purpose behind slowing down. It is, first of all, to allow us, literally, to catch our breath, to feel the life-giving gift of every single breath, and, in thus slowing down, to help us perceive and appreciate the seen but unnoticed things that surround us. Today, in the context of COVID-19’s assault on breathing and the desperate resort to ventilators to save lives, I think I now have a better appreciation of the intrinsic superiority of our lungs, and of how vital oxygen is to the functioning of the rest of our organs and tissues. As often as I can, I now pause to breathe slowly through my nose, and to exhale as unhurriedly through my mouth.

This effort may at first seem awkward, in addition to being worthless, since breathing is something the body does for us anyway without being commanded. But, therein lies the whole idea. Occasional deep and conscious breathing not only strengthens the lungs; it also clears the mind, calms the nerves, and relaxes the muscles. Indeed, it affects all things.

There are now breathing classes that teach people how to breathe correctly. They are primarily meant for patients with pulmonary impairment, but increasingly they are drawing in people in pursuit of simple wellness. The art of breathing may have started as a byproduct of yoga exercises, but its growing popularity has prompted the recent publication of the New York Times 2020 bestseller “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art,” by the science journalist James Nestor. There is definitely a science behind correct breathing.

When you walk, and you spot a straight line on a pavement or a trail, try to follow it as closely as you can, advises the Indian yogi Sadhguru, in his book “Inner Engineering: A Yogi’s Guide to Joy.” The trick is not so much to help you keep your balance, he writes, as to compel you to slow down and focus on your breathing. Walking and breathing are brought together in synchrony by Sadhguru and Thich Nhat Hanh. You can keep count and gradually increase the number of steps you take on a single breath, says Nhat Hanh. I have tried it, and I am amazed at how much it prolongs my energy and makes walking more pleasurable.

I personally like taking long walks in wooded trails, surrounded by trees and plants of all kinds, alert to every sound that birds and insects make. I used to scoff at the New Age idea of aspiring to be one with the universe. But, I think I now see what this means—that that’s where we came from, and that’s where we are returning. This timeless reminder, born of conscious breathing in my case, has helped me cope with the lingering pain of losing my wife. I don’t see her, but I feel her presence everywhere.

I think we all need a philosophical or spiritual outlook to be able to accept the finality of death without succumbing to the temptation to view our ephemeral lives as pointless. We are all sprung from the whole, even as we spend our lives differentiating ourselves and becoming who we are. In the end, we merge back into the whole. And the cycle goes on: From decayed matter, the soil brings forth new shoots.