Mending with muscle memory

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I cannot begin to explain the numerous times breathing has saved my life. Despite my lack of expertise in human biology, I’m fairly certain breathing has saved your life, too. Each one of us entered this world with an inhale, and with an exhale, leave it behind. The very first breath we draw makes us cry, and the last one we take causes tears when we die.

As indispensable as breathing is, the act itself is one many of us take for granted. Our reliance on muscle memory tells us that the inhale and exhale we all know and love will be there for us when we need it. Such is the case for many other parts of our being, as we rest in the comfort of bodily precedents that inform our present and our future. Despite the ease muscle memory may bring us, it isn’t entirely lax and mindless.

Whenever my conscious mind wavers in its steps, the tacitly knowledgeable mover within me unveils a rhyme to reason. This often counters my experience as a dancer, which had taught me growing up that sinking into muscle memory permits laziness to creep into my movements. Thoughtless reliance is especially hindering when trying to breathe through every extension and exhale during a notoriously labored petit allegro. My entire life since the age of 3 has been dedicated to training myself to extend beyond the capacity of what my body knows and to unearth from the ground up what it could be.

Living and breathing dance disciplined me with the mindfulness of a mover and the innovation of a creator. To this day, I attribute much of my character to the daily rehearsals and weekend competitions that had reminded me of how the body bends while also cautioning me on how it breaks. Despite the injuries and soreness I triumphed over, none of them prepared me for the way a body can shatter.

My relationship with muscle memory shifted when side effects of injury morphed my body into a capriciously functional vessel. After emergency room visits due to brain bleeds and hospital stays after neurosurgery, my agency over movement fluctuated. If muscle memory was the blood coursing within my flesh, then my body navigating through pain was an unraveling to just the carcass of bone and strings tying me together.

What was left of my being when I couldn’t move without seeing flashing auras absent of a silver lining?

The only thing my body could do assuredly for a long time was breathe. While walking made me bump into walls and reading made my head simmer, the act of breathing brought me back every single time. With each inhale, my diaphragm recalled the many times my lungs filling with air had reminded me of how truly alive I was. As I breathed out, my chest released the worry that my body was mine no longer. In the most basic element of movement, this dancer accustomed to unlimited bodily access found solace.

Maybe I cried months later as I began to dance again in the same way a newborn wails at the taste of oxygen. My tears could have even come from the breaths I had suppressed many times before without knowing, as muscle memory had led me to assume that they would simply keep coming. Whatever the cause, I had never been so exultant that muscle memory was where my memory was coming from when the poetry of motion greeted me like a lover, reuniting.

My diaphragm continues to work in tandem with my lungs to power the respiratory process. It has done so since my beginning, and it will do so up until the very end. Of all the exercises and conditioning anyone can commit themselves to, there exists only one way to strengthen one’s muscle and its memory. I may not be an expert on health, but I can give you a hint: Breathe in, and when you’re ready, exhale.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members separate from the semester’s regular opinion columnists. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.