Write Into Life

Learning to breathe all over again

Bad breathing: like managing a hot air balloon

So, 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