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You Don’t Know How to Breathe

April 2, 2014

You know, sometimes it’s easy to write a blog.   Sometimes you’ll be walking along the street and you’ll see something, or something will happen, and you’ll think “that’s it!” and suddenly you’ll have a topic, or good entry into a point, or both and some deep insightful point about personal safety would be just around the corner.

A couple of years ago that kind of thing used to happen to me all the time, travelling around China for a year it’d be a strange day if I didn’t find something I could write about.  These days, sadly, my experiences are not such blog fodder – my horizons have shrunk to England, a regular 9-5 job, a mortgage, a dog.

Well, no dog.

But I like the image.

And I want a dog.

Such a sedentary lifestyle also comes with its own problems – you don’t realise how much you moved in a day until it’s gone, and your commute consists of stumbling downstairs into the spare room (I work from home).  If you’re over 30, this takes its toll – stiffness, low energy, short breath.  If you’re under 30, you bastard, don’t worry you may not understand yet – but you will…

So, to try and defend against my creeping atrophy, I dedicated my early mornings to stretching, and breathing.  Self defence against sloth, if you will.  For me it was Qi Gong, a series of Chinese stretches and diaphragmatic breathing techniques using dynamic tension.

If that sounds a bit confusing, don’t worry it sounds harder than it is but you’re not alone – almost nobody I know knows how to breathe.  Oh sure they think they do, and they manage to do it well enough to not collapse in a dying heap on the floor every 20 seconds, but trust me they don’t.  No offence but there’s a pretty good chance that you, reading this, don’t know how to either.

And you know what, I’m not sure why.  Babies know how to breathe – you watch the wee nappy wearing tykes as they trot along; you can see their belly thrusting in and out as their lungs remain pretty still.  That’s because they’re breathing with their diaphragm.  In fact you watch a running horse or dog, even an angry gorilla – diaphragm, diaphragm, diaphragm.  (although if you are watching an angry Gorilla to be fair the fact that there is an angry Gorilla at close proximity is probably the main thought that’ll be running through your head. Rather than ‘ooh, look at how he uses his diaphragm to do such a fancy roar’).

Somehow, along the way, we forget on our path to adulthood and replace the correct muscle memory for breathing with a shallow, chest-led breathing that only accesses about 60% of our total lung capacity.

Now this is fine for our modern aged sedentary lifestyle of sitting at home, sitting in a car, sitting on the train then sitting at a desk.  You don’t need much oxygen for that, and you’re not getting much.  Job done.

The problem is, when you’re suddenly put into a high-stress situation like, say, being attacked, you’re not going to be able to cope.  As soon as the adrenal response kicks in, your blood vessels dilate so that more blood can be pumped around the body, giving more oxygen to your limbs and organs to function at a much higher rate for short periods of time – to fight back, run swiftly in the opposite direction, or both.  Any which way, you’re going to need oxygen, and lots of it.

The problem is that with all that shallow breathing you’ve spend all that time training your body to do that’s what you’re going to do in a pickle, and your body is making much higher demands of your oxygen supply, you’re just not going to get enough fuel to get the job done.  It’d be like trying to drive a race car with half the sparkplugs, or running a steam train with half the coal.  Or an angry Gorilla with half the bananas.  Or something.

My advice, for what it’s worth, is to learn to breathe properly and then do it – all the time. This is easier than you might think.  Qi Gong does it for me, but you can also get it from most traditional martial arts (with a good instructor), Tai Chi, Yoga, Pilates, a good fitness instructor or even an actor or speech coach

Through QiGong and martial arts I learnt how to access breathing and use it to add power to movement, but I actually learned most about how to actively engage the diaphragm through a speech coach.

Whatever the source they key is to do it.  As much as you can.  When sitting, walking, exercising, everywhere.  Because you need to turn it into a muscle memory, make it normal, replace that horrible shallow lung-breathing I see everywhere with some lovely, deep, diaphragmatic breathing.

Then, and only then, in a high-stress situation, will you will the correct muscle memory response kick in and get your enough of the 02 good stuff to do what you need to do.  Your body will be primed to squeeze every last drop of goodness from the air and turning it to energy to fight back, escape, survive.

It’ll also help you sleep, and concentrate, and reduce stress, and increase energy and if you’re really luck, tenuously link a dull life of lethargy to a fundamental lesson on self defence for a blog promoting an awesome book.

@hownottogethit

 

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