Breathe or Die

One of the most under-appreciated bodily processes is the simple act of breathing.  Without breathing, our body literally does not function.  The average person takes between 20,000 and 30,000 breaths in a day.  And like most things that happen automatically, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that every breath is a small miracle.

Classic forms of exercise, from yoga to martial arts, have always emphasized the breath as a doorway to awareness of the body.  And even in the results-oriented fitness industry of the West, good breathing mechanics has become a topic of interest to many of the brightest minds in the field.

Proper breathing is particularly important if you breath fire.

Because our breath is so intrinsically linked to the way our body functions, if we breath dysfunctionally, it has a number of deleterious effects on our body.  Although proper breathing should involve an expansion of the musculature below the ribs, most people breathe by slightly shrugging their shoulders up towards their ears.  Often times, this “chest” breathing is linked to tightness of the muscles of the shoulder girdle and the neck.  This makes perfect sense when you think about it.   With 20,000 to 30,000 breaths in a day, these muscles wind up doing a lot more activity than they normally would.  Our generous shoulder girdle muscles are supposed to be secondary muscles in the breathing process. When they wind up running the show, it often makes them overworked, knotty, and tight.

Furthermore, consistently breathing in a shallow manner signals to your nervous system that you’re in a high stress situation.  Certainly people who live high stress lives can develop the chest breathing pattern.  But it also can work the other way around.  Even if you’re shallow breathing isn’t being caused by stress about a blind date, work deadline, or impending robot apocalypse, you’re still “telling” your body that it needs to be on high alert because danger is near. Consequently, dysfunctional breathing can lead to a number of undesirable, stress-related adaptations, even in someone who is otherwise pretty laid back.

And lastly, without going into the nitty gritty details, if breathing function is compromised, it’s a fair bet the core isn’t functioning properly.  You can do all the crunches you want, but unless the “inner unit” of the core is working right, you’ll never achieve your true performance potential.  This means suboptimal form and lower loads.  This means higher injury risk, less muscle built, and less calories burnt.  This means… less health and hotness.

This dude’s probably not breathing properly.

And as someone who spends a lot of time working with a wide variety of people, it’s been my experience that most people have some level of breathing dysfunction.

Happily, a little attention to detail can help reset your body to its preferred breathing pattern.  I recommend pretty much all humans spend a few minutes a day quieting their mind and bringing their awareness to their breath.  It’s not uncommon for me to have a client start their session by doing an exercise called “crocodile breath” which basically consists of lying on their stomach and focusing on breathing properly.   By having them work on their breathing before the session begins, not only do they get a chance to let go of the rest of the day and psychologically prepare to get after their health and hotness goals, it allows the body to get in the habit of breathing properly right before vigorous exercise.

One of my most fundamental philosophical beliefs is that the body is inherently healthy.  Even if you’ve spent a lot of your life breathing with less than optimal mechanics, you’d be amazed at the return you will get with just a few minutes a day.  And since there’s mounting scientific evidence supporting the value of daily meditation, as well as centuries of anecdotal evidence… methinks the benefits of a daily practice of breath work and meditation are well worth the time cost.


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