Ear­li­er this week, Jes­si­ca Sof­fer wrote about a pre­cious treat from the Passover seder plate. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

I need­ed some­thing. Every­one was dying. Or at least a lot of peo­ple were dying and it felt like every­one might, includ­ing me, die at the drop of a hat. I was hav­ing pan­ic attacks on the sub­way. I was avoid­ing ele­va­tors and scaf­fold­ing and spinach and caf­feine and planes and hos­pi­tals and graveyards. 

I couldn’t breathe. 

My par­ents are not reli­gious. Some­one told me to try yoga.

I was a gym­nast for the great major­i­ty of my child­hood. Yoga came eas­i­ly. I breezed through the ranks. 

I end­ed up in an Ash­tan­ga class in Ama­gansett and had no idea what I was in for. 

Ash­tan­ga doesn’t bill itself as the yoga of forced breath­ing,” but it might as well. It’s the same series, sys­tem” of move­ments done (or sup­posed to be done) every morn­ing, every day. It is stren­u­ous and sequen­tial and smart. At the core of it is the notion of syn­chro­niz­ing breath with move­ment. For every move­ment, a breath, which sounds nice enough but is chal­leng­ing. Very. Because of the inten­si­ty of the pos­es, most peo­ple sweat. A lot. It’s dif­fer­ent from Bikram in that the heat you cre­ate is from the inside out. It’s all you. Ujjayi breath­ing, or vic­to­ri­ous breath,” con­sists of steady inhales and exhales through the nose, equal in dura­tion, accom­pa­nied by the ocean sound” made by con­strict­ing the throat as one does to whis­per. Ujjayi’s pur­pose: improve endurance, decrease dis­trac­tions, release ten­sion, warm the blood, which improves cir­cu­la­tion and cleans­es tox­ins and reg­u­lates heat. Too, and most impor­tant­ly to me, Ujjayi calms the mind. Breath becomes a rhythm, a lul­la­by. In and out and in and out and in and out. 

My first Ash­tan­ga class near­ly killed me — and got me com­plete­ly hooked. My first Ash­tan­ga teacher has been my only one real­ly, or at least the only one that’s real­ly mat­tered. She’s a die-hard. If she can­not hear your ocean sound,” she says so. If she sees your mouth open, she says so. And if you can­not breathe, in and out and in and out and in and out, you can­not. You just can­not. It took me many months to get a place where I was com­fort­able with the pos­es, and then even longer to a place where the breath was as cru­cial as the posi­tions. But even­tu­al­ly it was. So much so. In and out and in and out and in and out. 

At first, I stopped think­ing about dying because I was focused on the move­ments, on not mess­ing up. After a while, I stopped think­ing about dying because I was try­ing to do the move­ments bet­ter. When I became halfway decent, I stopped think­ing because I was focused on the breath. On bet­ter breath. 

I am aware that I said bet­ter,” regard­ing yoga. Kill me. I am no longer afraid. On a plane, in tur­bu­lent moments, I prac­tice Ujjayi. Ele­va­tors don’t par­a­lyze me. Bring on the spinach. I am better. 

In Ash­tan­ga, I didn’t find God. I did, how­ev­er, learn to breathe. I breathed like I meant it and then I breathed because I had to. You have to. In and out and in and out and in and out. And by breath­ing I real­ized that I wasn’t dead yet. Just the oppo­site. I was all breath. 

Win a signed copy of Jes­si­ca Sof­fer­’s debut nov­el, Tomor­row There Will Be Apri­cots, here.

Relat­ed: Iraqi Jews Read­ing List

Jes­si­ca Sof­fer earned her MFA at Hunter Col­lege. A Her­tog Fel­low and recip­i­ent of the Bernard Cohen Prize, she teach­es fic­tion at Con­necti­cut Col­lege. She grew up in New York City, the daugh­ter of an Iraqi-Jew­ish painter and sculp­tor who immi­grat­ed to the U.S. in 1948. This is her first book.