Almost nothing is ever counseled on the subject of breathing at either the beginning or advanced levels of training. Occasionally one will receive the obligatory disclaimer, “Exhale while lifting,” or “Don’t hold your breath!” Most clients typically show an understandable level of annoyance when instructed to “breathe,” with objections invariably following. “If I wasn’t breathing I’d be dead,” they’d say, or, “My body knows how to breathe. I’ve been doing it since I was born.” Of course, the body itself knows how to breathe, when it’s left purely to its own devices; it’s the mind that always gets in the way!
A rare, personal aside…
In the Fall of 2014 I underwent elective double jaw surgery, or radical maxillofacial reconstruction, to correct a progressive and disabling malocclusion of my lower jaw. The details are rather gruesomely unbecoming, but after a 7 ½ hour operation, at the hands of an extraordinarily skilled surgeon, my mouth was fitted with a plastic guard and wired completely shut. Breathing through my nose was impossible, as blood leakage had coagulated and sealed my sinuses shut. On top of that, my lower face was swelling rapidly under the pressure of a massive hematoma, and my respiration was slowing down as a side-effect of the opiate pain-killers. To put it bluntly, this was a breathing catastrophe with no escape!
As panic set in, I begged the doctors to cut open the surgical wires and free my only airway. But, when they checked my oxygen saturation it was near perfect, 99%; I was fine… supposedly. The surgical precautions would not be abandoned just to satiate the intense anxieties of my mind. Therefore, two possible outcomes could ultimately restore my breathing to a baseline, “survivable” state: 1) a quick shot of the anti-anxiety drug Valium; or 2) a complete nervous-system collapse, where I pass out and begin to breathe involuntarily through the tiny spaces at the base of my teeth. In the end, it was something between a little of both that pushed me through the night and into day 2 of recovery.
The important point of this horrific story has been somewhat over simplified in order to highlight the powerful, utterly devastating, effect the sympathetic nervous system has over one’s internal state. The mediator between controlling the stress of the ordinary and the panic of extraordinary is the breath. In fact, it is one of the very few autonomic, and involuntary, functions of the body that can be directly, and voluntarily, manipulated. Breathing is the de facto liaison between the conscious and subconscious levels. How essential it is, therefore, that it is incorporated into the proper training regimen!
It seems women have a marginally better handle on the rudiments of proper breathing. Maybe it’s more intrinsic or maternal, but in general the gross majority of the training population are subliminal breath-holders. This is not the “pinching-of-the-nose-while-jumping-from-the-deep end” type of breath holding, typically practiced in the isolation ward of a psychiatric hospital. These commonplace breathing interruptions are subtle, incomplete, stress fueled, staccato-like suffocations that go completely undetected throughout the rigmarole of one’s daily life routine.
Therefore, the “first” step toward more proper breathing is to make sure that the breaths, themselves, are complete and deep, that is that they are allowed to naturally occur. The “second,” and most practical step, is to consciously use these breaths to fill and guide every exertional movement the body chooses to undertake.
Breath training, in and of itself, does not belong to any specialized religious or martial arts practice. People often comment, “This is yoga,” or “I remember my wife doing this in Lamaze.” No system has the authority to claim ownership over the most fundamental, automatic, and intrinsic process of human life. However, the prevalence and wide diversity of breathing methodologies found across continents is just such a testament to the importance of this unique “exercise” technique. If mastered, no secondary exercise can prove either harmful or lacking in benefit.
So, “breathe… and do whatever you want.”
(Part 2 - Breathing Principles - Next Month)