Learning to breathe all over again


Bad breathing: like managing a hot air balloon

bootcamp2015-small 2So, the next boot camp task was to practise slow breathing, using the diaphram instead of chest and shoulders. Breathing like a baby. Breathing the way my poor body yearns to breathe. The schedule: breathe in to two counts, breathe out to five. Just for five minutes before sleep. How hard could that be?

Even lying down, it was a struggle to fit my breathing to this pattern. The more I tried, the more I failed. Managing my breathing was like steering a hot air balloon: a little more heat, a bit less puff, go up, now go down, left hand down a bit and hey mind the Eiffel Tower!

Breathing just happens, unless you have a physical problem such as asthma. It’s regulated by the autonomic nervous system and requires no conscious input. Interfering with my breathing was like trying to change my digestion speed or heart rate or blood pressure just by an effort of will. Those things are easy for yogi, I suppose. But for mere mortals, repeated exercises are needed.

That’s what I had faith in: the plasticity of the human brain. Practice makes perfect. Repetition, repetition, repetition.

Changing an old breathing pattern: not easy

But first, get it right. My first attempt to breathe the new way stressed me out, and I rather foolishly announced the fact on Facebook:

“I have just noticed that I am stressed. But who can I tell? My friends will all just say, serve you right!”

Bless them, my friends did not say “serve you right” but offered helpful advice. Sensible, kind, caring advice. And naturally this included the number one classic, authentic tip for stress reduction: deep breathing. Alas, deep breathing cannot be the cure on this occasion because it’s the problem.

I was stressed but not downhearted, because I reckoned I had overcome a comparable breathing challenge not so long ago. Now you mustn’t laugh at this: I know it seems ridiculous, but here goes.

Swim and breathe at the same time? A miracle of coordination!

Until a couple of years ago, I hardly ever swam freestyle. Breast-stroke and back-stroke were a breeze because I could always keep my head above water. Anyway, I mainly swam in the sea, where freestyle seemed somehow inappropriate — too earnest, too intense, too pretentious. And between you and me, in my heart of hearts, I believed that if I swam freestyle, I would drown.

Then I began lane swimming at the Freyberg pool and decided to tackle the breathing problem once and for all. It was a psychic struggle—me against my urge to breathe when my nose was still underwater. It was a challenge of coordination and timing and control. A fight for domination. A fight for life. No approach could be less appropriate for the gentle art of breathing, and yet little by little, week by week, I got over myself. Now I’m comfortable doing freestyle, in my own good time.

So I know I can do this breathing thing! Babies can do it and I will too.

Feldenkrais on breathing: upstairs, downstairs and in my lady’s chamber

My next ploy was to attend a workshop on breathing and voice run by Elke Dunlop, the uncrowned queen of Feldenkrais in Wellington. This was perfect timing.

I’ve been a fan of Feldenkrais practice for some years now but it is extraordinarily hard to describe to other people. In fact, I only began attending in the first place because a friend kept nagging and niggling at me. She couldn’t describe it coherently either:

“Most of the time you’re lying on the floor but it’s quite hard work sometimes. You learn to use your body in unexpected strange movements. The idea is to let go of unnatural habits of moving that take too much effort, and to relearn the natural, effortless way of moving, the way we moved as babies. I think you might like it.”

Well! That wasn’t a great pitch, was it? And my friend is a communications professional! I can’t describe it any better, either. All I know is that Feldenkrais practice is a physical game-changer and most of the time, it makes sense.

So I spent a day lying on the floor moving my chest and diaphram and belly and other bits in strange unfamiliar contradictory ways while breathing in and out in equally strange unfamiliar contradictory ways. This experience succeeded in disrupting my bad breathing habits so profoundly that I’m now doing the exercise that Peter prescribed without stress.

Oh, and I got a breathing app for my iPhone. It’s called Breathe & Relax, and it helps.


If I can swim underwater, I can breathe. I reckon.

Image from “Airships past and present, together with chapters on the use of balloons in connection with meteorology, photography and the carrier pigeon” (1908) Hildebrandt, A. Public domain. Photo of underwater swimmer by Rachel McAlpine. CC BY 2.0

13 thoughts on “Learning to breathe all over again

  1. I knew someone who went to Feldenkrais sessions years ago. She raved about how it lowered her stress. Good for you for trying such a variety of therapies!

    1. I love Feldenkrais in general and often refer to the principle of “Do less, try less hard”!

  2. Val says:

    I’m glad it is all helping you, Rachel. And well done for ‘getting there’.

    The ‘breathe in for two, breathe out for five’ exercise does one thing: it increases intake of carbon dioxide and reduces oxygen and it’ll only work on stress – or insomnia – if you’ve been hyperventilating (which makes you take in more oxygen than carbon dioxide by taking in large deep ‘gulps’ or short fast gasps of air via the upper part of the lungs – in other words, by breathing in the upper chest area.) An alternative to *2-in/5-out* breathing, if you’re in bed, is to duck your head under the covers, seal them from the outer air, and breathe in there for the same length of time: that also cuts off oxygen and enables you to breathe carbon dioxide. Breathing in through a paper bag has the same effect. Done for more than a few seconds, though, is dangerous as I’m sure you know. 🙂

    Alas, I am asthmatic (albeit more mildly than in the past) and I can only use this technique for extremely short periods and only when I’m well. The deep breathing your friends recommend, actually can get rid of hyperventilation as what happens, if it’s done properly, is it switches the breath from the upper chest to the lower part of the diaphragm. I was taught the correct type of deep breathing, by a physiotherapist, when I was a child. But it needs to be done in a very steady way which also takes practice.

    I had a very bad stress/panic disorder years ago, and have been asthmatic all my life, so I know quite a lot about all this. One of these days, I must find the self-help sheets I wrote out for myself (of meditation and breathing exercises, some of which I adapted from ones I’ve been taught and some I came up with myself) and do a post in my blog including them.

    I know of Feldenkrais but have only done a tiny bit myself from a tape I was given by someone whose back pain was helped by it. The best description I’ve seen of it is on Youtube via these two videos: https://youtu.be/ZSletIPIN30

    (And – sorry for very long comment. I seem unable to explain things in few words!)

    1. Oops, I think I just lost my reply to you, Val. Starting again! I think asthma is a terrifying affliction, and have the utmost sympathy for my friends who live with it. Panic would be a natural response in many circumstances. Management, I imagine, is paramount, and you now have decades of experiences — so nothing I can say about breathing is particularly relevant to you. I’ll be very interested to read your self-help strategies when you rediscover or remember them all. As for Feldenkrais, even a video can be useful, but to attend a class regularly is quite an intellectual adventure as well as a physical one. I owe to Feldenkrais many valuable techniques, especially how to stand up easily after sitting on the floor.

      1. Val says:

        I could do with the last technique, though my knee ligaments, I suspect, are the cause of my problems with that. I used to be able to get up from the floor with ease (from a cross-legged position which was my life-time favourite sitting position!) but no more, alas. Thanks, Rachel. I’ll see if I can find those meditation and breathing techniques when I’ve finished my (seemingly never-ending) task of sorting my cupboards!
        Ps. A tip to help you not lose comments: copy (as if to copy and paste text) what you’ve typed before hitting the ‘send’ button. Then if it goes awol, you can just paste it back in. 🙂

      2. Best of luck with the cupboard sorting. Very satisfying!

  3. Robyn Haynes says:

    I’m glad something is working for you Rachel. I’ve often been tempted to attend Feldenkrais so I’m heartened by your endorsement.

  4. Have fun and let us know how you get on.

  5. Bun Karyudo says:

    I hadn’t heard of the Feldenkrais method before your post. I’m glad it’s so helpful for you, though. 🙂

    1. It’s useful, interesting … and a bit weird!

      1. Bun Karyudo says:

        I guess as long as it works! 🙂

      2. Don’t get me wrong, Feldenkrais is built on sound principles. But it’s kind of different. Check out some videos…

      3. Bun Karyudo says:

        I’ll take a look. 🙂

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