A Manual to Understanding Your Breath,
Curing Your Anxieties, and Other Faux-Sciences
You don’t know what you expected. Ryan leads you past the neon signs and the green of them turns her face the color of limes, as if you’re seeing glimpses of her skin through the rippling depths of the ocean water. You do not speak. The hallway turns into a staircase and it’s so dark that you have to reach out and touch the walls, just to know that they’re there, just to know that you’re there-- but you’re not choking. It’s not that kind of dark. A bearded man takes your ten dollars and you cringe away from your expectation of his judgment but he is uninterested in humoring your self-consciousness. He opens the door to let you in and you are momentarily given the impression of those cheesy spy movies—the ones where the hero knocks on the door in disguise and a slot opens up, revealing only the eyes of one of the villain’s cronies. Hero gives passwords that he got by kicking ass and taking names, door opens up; we set the scene in the villain’s lair. Cue the fight scene.
You jerk your head downward in a quick thank you as you pass by but do not speak. The password here is your desperation. Entrance granted.
If the entry is reminiscent of a villain’s lair, the interior is a haunted house. The club is dimly lit, but not distastefully so. The walls are made out of concrete—soundproof—and hallways wind away from the room where you’re standing. In the main room, there is a great scaffolding set upon a stage and you feel the phantom burn of ropes around your wrists that tighten as you walk past it.
You trip going up the steps. Your knee hits the ground and you are a scruffy, sweaty mass sprawled on their pristine tiled floor. The man at the front desk eyes you with disapproval tucked away in the edges of his friendly (though not too friendly to be unprofessional) smile. When you speak to him, you are distinctly aware of how your greasy hair clings to your forehead, unflattering even in this lighting, and how you already reek of sweat. He promptly hands you 1. A towel 2. A water bottle 3. A lock and these items are checked off his checklist and you are checked off his checklist and you are promptly dismissed.
The locker room is swarming with beautiful women whose skin is pulled tight against their bones and they buzz around like wasps, their hair flouncing in perfectly coiffed ponytails and something in your head buzzes and the lights are buzzing and you…
You try to open your locker, dropping several of the things that are crowding your arms. A woman tries to push past you and the flesh on your body is swelling like the tides of the ocean and your hip bones and ribs are drowning miles beneath the surface of your skin and you are blocking up the whole aisle and she is a shark and you are the blundering whale and you don’t even know if sharks eat whales but you are smiling apologetically. She shoves her way past. You shove your things into your locker. The edges of your body blur.
You cross your legs and clasp your hands tightly in your lap, trying to compress yourself into something that doesn’t scream when you look at it. Your bright blue dress sets you off from the dark and as Ryan speaks to the group of people, you cringe into the couch, trying to disappear, disappear, disappear, be devoured. They ask questions that echo through the air, who are you—who are you? Why are you here—why are you here? What have you become?
You do not answer but if you were to, you would reply back with only questions. Why did they-- Why can’t I breathe? Why did he-- Why is my skin numb? Why am I-- Why am I numb, numb, tell me, why, why, why, why? Tell me how not to be numb. Exeunt self.
One of the people smiles at you in a way that wraps itself around her whole face in an embrace. She has a nametag that attaches her to the name Sam and she sits comfortably in her body, not rattling inside her shell but existing in every inch of her smooth curves and she is soft and the night is soft and you cannot help but smile back.
You ask to see what’s in her bag and she summons forth from it all manner of instruments—Mary Poppins’s bag of kinky sex toys. She pulls out a set of gloves with bristles covering them and you stroke them with the tip of your finger, looking at Sam with questions in your eyes. She slides the gloves onto her hands and hovers them over your body, hovers them miles away from your skin, holds them back until you nod your consent. She strokes your back with the bristles and you arch into it because it is closer to you than you are used to anything being.
Sam’s partner Tim searches through her bag and pulls out a paddle, hefting its weight in his hands, feeling the power behind it and you wish that you could feel that power, feel power, feel powerful. He asks Sam if he can use it on her and then the gloves are absent from your skin and you are mourning their loss, can feel the ghosts of them still stroking you.
Sam bends over a table, lifting up her skirt. Her expression is one of anticipation and you cannot look away. She cries out as the sound of wood against flesh moves through the room like water. Her fingers dig into the table and they turn white like ice, like burns, like phantoms, and you have never heard someone devour oxygen like she does with her inhalations and she is breathing, breathing, breathing—remember to breathe.
Tim strikes her again, and again, and it is a more intimate ritual from Heaven or Hell than you have dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio. Every time that she lets out a primordial yowl, she demands of him, “Am I still here? Am I alive?” and with every smack he replies, “Yes and I love you for it.” You are aching to feel something huge and alive and painfully close. You feel Ryan’s breath on the back of your neck as she looks on and your lungs match the pace that hers set.
You stretch your body out, stretch your skin on the drying rack. You expected this, the stretching, but the heat is a surprise. It inches up a notch until the numbers assigned to it are threefold and they make notches on your back as you stretch, calling out your panic for you and—heat, heat, HEAT—had I three ears, I’d hear thee. The instructor settles into her body at the front of the class and her voice is too loud for your head. The words bounce around your skull and you have to close your eyes to contain them until they die to a whisper, brushing against your brain.
She instructs you all to hold your skeletons carefully and your breasts and stomach jut into the air and you can see them in front of you but you are not your body. Not today. You are a you because to be an I would be too much, to be your body would be too much. You feel the “I”’s pressing against your skull from all sides, battering you with their sharp edges and you cannot acknowledge them and you bite your lip, bite them back and I—
Everyone takes a deep, collective breath and the heat rises and with it the panic that lives so close to you these days tingles under the surface of your skin and the air is sucked out of the room, sucked into everyone else’s bodies, sucked into the void and you can’t breathe. You can’t breathe. You can’t breathe. You can’t…
You move into the first pose and your muscles stretch further in the hot air than they would normally and you imagine them stretching past your bones like taffy. You tell yourself that even in this heat, even with your body that summer has sucked dry of water, you will be fine, you will be fine, you will be fine, but you already had a panic attack this morning and anxiety lives in your every breath this summer, clawing to get through. Lately it feels like your skin is fraying, can barely contain you—you are a quivering pile of neurosis and panic and you are disintegrating and you and you and you…
Your head is spinning and you don’t know if it’s because of the heat or your anxiety.
Every inch that you push yourself deeper into the pose, you imagine the heat climbing, climbing up the walls like you want to and you are clawing your way out of your ribcage like a scream and you are screaming and you are silent and you cannot leave because that would be weak and you cannot be weak, be weak, cannot be strong, holdyourselftogether.
You are instructed to change poses.
A man holds rope out to you, encouraging you to touch it. You pretend to listen as he enumerates the benefits of different types of ropes but there is a question burning behind your lips and it has to tunnel its way through your passivity, tunnel its way through your numbness --are the two not the same?—and when it comes to your tongue, he is surprised—is this the first time you have spoken, first time you have spoken in a thousand years, first time your voice has shattered out from your head?—but he nods and motions for you to follow. Ryan trails behind you because she is a part of this world but you are not and you may have asked to join this inferno but if she lets you go alone, what sort of Virgil will she be?
The man leads you up the stairs to a dim landing. A few people flit about on the side of your consciousness but your palms are sweating and everything feels sharp and crystalline. He tells you to take off your clothes and his voice is low and deep and you are moving your hands to push the strap of your dress off of your shoulder. It slides off and your stomach is exposed to the cool air. You can see your batman underwear in the mirror, black against your pale body, night sky against the moon. You consider laughing at it but no one else does. You wrap your arms around yourself but this is what you wanted and the shape that your body takes is irrelevant to everyone here anyway. You are not your body, you are your body, feel your body, feel something. Ryan smiles in encouragement.
The man pulls out his rope, unwinding it, stretching it taut against his forearm as if it is an extension of the muscles that wind their way around his bones. He assumes the role of dominant and commands you to step forth, hands behind your back, and you do, staring at your reflection and that other self is quiet and calm. He trails the rope around you and it is soft at first, like breath, then tightens as he ties the knots to bind you. He sways around you, his hands everywhere on your body and you are holding your breath as he brushes your arms, your stomach, your shoulders, the rope slithering between your knees. He tells you to kneel and from there he supports your body and lays you on the floor with more tenderness than you know how to feel. You flex your shoulders and legs against the restraints to test them and the ropes bite into your skin like snakes. Exhale.
He lays you on your side and you are once again facing your reflection. Set the scene. Bound up, you are a figurehead on a ship and you are cutting through the ocean and the ropes are cutting into your ribcage and so you breathe deeper to intensify the feeling.
—All the energy in the room collects to me because I am the fucking moon and I am high on this sea, on everyone else’s oxygen, and my cheek presses against the cool concrete of the ground I have never felt more awake—
He wraps his arm around you and you can feel his muscles tensing as he pulls you up to sit on your heels. Deftly, he pulls at one of the knots and the snake around you loosens, then whips away, coiling around the arm of the snake charmer and you are charmed. You rise from the ground and speech cannot pass through the throat that is only meant for breath and the arms-- your arms rise up to test their freedom like wings. Having given you the display you wanted-- needed, the man disappears back down the stairs without another word and you are left, moving through space, feeling as though you might fall off the earth.
Your head is swimming. The heat is sitting on your chest, shoving itself down your throat. You collapse from the pose onto the mat, breathing heavily. The instructor eyes you with disdain from the front of the class. You curl up on your side but your body is pooling out and you can’t seem to condense yourself enough. Too heavy—the air is too heavy and you cannot contort yourself enough to gain relief. You grasp for your water bottle but as the liquid trickles down your throat, it sloshes about uncomfortably. You drag your corpse off the ground and try to arrange your limbs into the structure mimicked by bodies throughout the room. You fling your legs out and they are awkward and ungainly.
You notice in the reflection that the pink of your bra is bleeding through your white shirt as the heat sucks all your sweat out of your body. Everything aside from the pink turns gray and you feel as though your brain—gray and pink-- is swaying in the ocean of your body but the mirror tells you that you are holding still.
It has been forty minutes. Your anxiety tells you that it has been hours. The heat yanks the water from your body water gives life didn’t you know water gives life and you weren’t sure that you were alive but the dead can’t panic and—
You consider leaving the room but the idea stays miles inside of the side of your skull. Leaving would be weak and you can’t be weak and you can’t control your anxiety, can’t control the emptiness that devours your body, can control it only by staying numb, but even that’s not your choice anymore—be numb, don’t be numb—you need to be able to control this.
Your mother used to like to tell the story about when you got trapped against the current in an inlet while kayaking but instead of dragging the kayak onto the shore, you dug your paddle into the bank and pushed yourself against the current, for half an hour, until you shattered through it, until you shot out into the ocean and you were free and you were strong and you—
That was when you were talking to her, of course. You shove the memory away, like you do with most things these days and try to solidify your pose. You imagine yourself made of steel and you can command your body if only you are steel. Your legs are quivering.
Set the scene: city block, filled with skyscrapers. Earth starts to tremble. Tectonic plates shift. Sky darkens ominously. Rumbling increases. People start screaming, but we’re on mute here, remember, so they just open their mouths to reveal black holes to nowhere. Everything seems to tilt. Building crashes, crumbles. Enter panic.
You are rubble. You try to force your muscles to get back up to comply but they are melting like burnt rubber. The instructor sidles over to you. Sweat gleams on her skin and she glows. You ask to leave and you feel the shame of it pressing you down into the ground. She tells you no, no, you must stay, it would be a disruption for the class and you don’t want to disrupt the class, do you, and her voice leaves no room for argument and there is no fighting and the hot air fills up your lungs and you try to breathe into the ground because at least the concentration of it will bring your blurry mind into focus. Reenter anxiety from stage left. Instructor leaves. Resume position.
You brace yourself against the wall, the top of your dress hanging from your waist. Behind you, you hear Tim instructing Ryan on how best to flog you. Avoid the spine and kidneys. Butterfly wings stretch out from your spine as targets, fluttering over your shoulder blades. The leather tassels strike you and they are like rain on your back. Again they come and if the world is an ocean of water, then your mind is in a pocket of air and you take shuddering breaths as they land on you, again and again and again and…
I deserve this, the thought passes through your head but you don’t know if it’s what you think or what you believe that you’re supposed to think so you let it ghost through, leaving behind only an echo of itself. Again, the tassels hit you. They are knocking on the door of the home where something used to live—something-- and something deep inside is rising to answer-- Smack! Your shoulder blade is starting to burn from the repeated attacks on it and you relish it and you feel everything seeping out of your body and you can’t control yourself—smack! and you can’t make him love you again—smack! and you can’t make your parents love each other again and you can’t rewind the moments that are stealing your breath, sucking them from your body, but here you can exist because the only way you can exist is through pain and here you hurt but you are real and here—
You have taken to sitting cross-legged on your mat, eyes closed to numb out the world, breathing slowly so that you can suck up every last bit of oxygen from the room to feed your greedy lungs. The instructor opens the door occasionally to tease you with wisps of freedom and cold air streams in and every time she does, you are in Paradise, and your mind is so far outside of your body and you feel yourself deteriorating. You shift your weight a little bit. Your fingertips quiver.
The instructor announces for everyone to take a seated position and finally their bodies match yours, though you can take little satisfaction in that. She commands that you breathe in, breathe out, and you do, because she is the dominant here. As you release yourselves into the atmosphere, it catches in your throats and everyone in the room lets out a death rattle.
When she allows you to unhinge yourselves from your mats, you are not the first to move. Your body does not want to obey you and it sways around your bones as you clamber to your feet, head popping off and rolling to the ground to bump against your toes, against the door, rolling into the changing room where none of the women scream to see a dismembered head and—snap out of it.
You press your forehead against the metal of your locker just to feel the cool of it, leaving a sweat trail behind when you move like a slug. Without being aware of your body, it moves around you, pulling a shirt over your head so that you are all trussed up, sweeping your hair up into a bun so that you don’t have to feel it against your back, heavy and hot and….
You are out the door. You do not speak to the man at the front desk. The oppressive blanket of New York City heat feels cool on your exposed shoulders and you are borne along with the light breeze. Your breath swirls into the wind and as the noise turns on in your brain, sounds of life swell up around you and… and…
…into the city you disappear.