Learning to breath
I want to tell you about how I learned to breath. It may seem a little strange read about an adult learning to breath. It's so automatic, we all do it. But, like many before me, I’ve discovered that with a little attention the breath is an incredibly powerful force in our bodies. I had a really good illustration of this while camping last week.
I had a lovely weekend away with about 20 friends. We camped on a friends parents property near Gundagai. A few of the guys had spent a lot of time upgrading an old shack into a great makeshift bar. As a result we had running water, lights, ice cold beers, lots of tunes, heaps of food, and a fucking good time.
We like to do things properly and we’re all at least slightly into spiritual hippy stuff, so there was an opening ceremony for the weekend. As part of the ceremony, Laura ran us through a guided chanting mediation. As we all lay on the ground to get started, I wondered what it would be like to do a meditation in a big group like this. Meditation is something I have practiced on my own for years so it felt a little strange. That said, in the past six months I’ve been doing a lot of things I used to do alone with the company of others and generally found I learn a lot from the experience. So I looked forward to what I’d learn from this one.
As with many meditations, we started by taking deep breaths. After a few warm up breaths, Laura asked us to start to allow a hum to escape on each out breath.
“Your aim is to make your lips vibrate as much as possible - make it really loud!”
To make sure I was as loud as possible, I started doing my best deep breaths. I’ve been practicing breathing for a few years using a variety of methods I’ll share soon. I breathed deeply into my chest. I pushed my stomach out to get it out of the way of my lungs and suck as much air in as possible. The out breath was as slow and careful as possible. To do this I slowly squeezed my diaphragm and stomach muscles until every last drop of air was out of my lungs.
“Now open your mouth and make the noise even louder”
So I kept going, focusing on slow and controlled breathing. Each breath got longer as I got used to it. I started to notice that each of my hums (out breaths) were taking place in the same time it took everyone else to do two hums (i.e. breathing in, out, breathing in, then out).
After a few minutes of this, we finished the humming meditation. Almost straight away, two campers approached me to ask if it was me who was humming so loudly and so long! They were impressed by my abilities. It was a strange experience.
I am an asthmatic. I have had not-so-great lung capacity my whole life. So my apparent ‘breathing skills’ at the camping trip surprised me. However, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I have been practicing my breathing for a few years now, working on breath hold times, careful slow breaths out, and most recently the ability to use longer breaths out to help calm my anxiety. But it wasn’t until this experience while camping that I realised I had managed to improve my lung capacity so much. It turns out that all this time I had been making a profound change to my physiology without even realising.
The Wim Hof Method
The breath hold time work started when I stumbled on the Wim Hof Method. I used the fundamentals course to learn to hold my breath for over three minutes and withstand cold more easily. All it took was a simple breathing exercise and a few weeks practice. If you do try this method, make sure you listen to the warnings! It’s possible to faint while doing this, so you need to be in a safe place (i.e. not in water, not driving etc.)
The Box Breathing App is also quite useful. It leads you through a simple breathing exercise where you breath in, hold, breath out, and hold. Each of those four actions is done for the same amount of time. With practice, this helps you to learn to control your breathing even after holding your breath.
As I mentioned, I use breathing to help with anxiety and to calm down before bed. It’s a simple exercise, why not give it a go right now:
- Breath in slowly over 8 seconds.
- Breath into your stomach, but remember your lungs are in your chest. You are simply moving your stomach out of the way to suck air deep into your lungs (don’t just push your stomach out...).
- Hold your breath in for 8 seconds.
- Breath out in a slow and controlled manner over 8 seconds
- This will be difficult, especially on the first few. It’s likely your body will try to expel the air as quickly as possible. I find that the first few seconds are most difficult to control - sometimes most of the air comes out in the first 2 seconds making the other 6 quite difficult.
- Suck your stomach muscles in sharply over 2 seconds to make sure every last drop of air is out of your lungs.
- This means a total of 10 seconds breathing out.
Breathing seems so simple. You do it all day everyday without thinking about it. It’s such an important function that it’s controlled by parts of our brain that don’t have to think to do it. To exist is to breathe.
For something you don’t have to think about, breathing plays an extremely important role in how you experience the world. The fact that you don’t think about it means you tend not to notice the effects of the way you breathe on your physiology. Case in point, the profound change from teeny-tiny-lung Tom to apparently impressively-large-lunged Tom.
You don’t have to pay attention to your breath all the time (in fact, I think trying to do that would probably be bad for you…) but paying a little attention with some of these exercises each day can create profound change for you.