“If you know the art of breathing, you have the strength, wisdom, and the courage of ten tigers.” Chinese adage
Don’t we all know how to breathe for goodness sakes? Else we wouldn’t be here.
A number of people including physicians, fitness trainers, and even the Navy Seals claim we can do breathing much better. As we practice various breathing techniques supposedly we can lower our blood pressure, calm ourselves, make better decisions, generally perform better, increase our lung capacity, improve our vagal tone, manage chronic pain, optimize immune functioning, and even help our digestive system.
According to people like Dr. Andrew Weil, breath is the key to wellness and self-healing. Weil says the chance of being a healthy person if we do not breathe well is “slim.” The functioning of all of our systems requires delivering oxygen and removing carbon dioxide. The more air we move in and out, the healthier we become.
We get better at breathing by practicing a few techniques. It doesn’t take much time. And it’s pretty easy to do once you get the hang of it.
Weil suggests that we start by learning to take more air in. We take more air in by first moving more air out.
When you start your breathing practice, just start by exhaling a little longer. Eventually you get to the place that you can exhale slowing and deeply - you see your abdomen move in toward your backbone.
After those deep, slow, abdominal out-breaths, you will be able to take in much more air. You will naturally breathe the air in from down deep in your belly. Try to make your out-breath as long or even a little longer than your in-breath.
Eventually you may want to practice what’s called square breathing or box breathing. (the best video on box breathing I’ve seen is done by past Navy Seal Commander and director of SealFit, Mark Divine. You can easily find it online.)
Box breathing is done in four steps to create the box. First you breathe out (side one of the box). Second you hold your breath (side two of the box). Third you inhale (side three of the box). Fourth you hold your breath (side four of the box). Then you start the box again.
The length of each side is usually to the mental count of four. But people often start with the count of two and often work up to four or even five or six.
Breathe out - mentally count one, two.
Hold your breath – mentally count one, two.
Breath in – mentally count one, two
Hold you breath – mentally count one two.
Draw boxes on paper with your eyes open, or mentally with eyes closed, or set a timer. Start small drawing four boxes or so; if you are timing yourself, go for a minute or two.
Box breathing is done primarily to practice controlled breathing.
There’s another breathing technique, the “tactical breath,” for when you are having a meltdown – perhaps preparing Thanksgiving Dinner; or you’re preparing for a “dogfight” as Navy Seal Commander, Mark Divine, calls it. It’s very simple.
The tactical breath involves breathing in to the count of four and breathing out to the count of eight. The ratio is important – breathe out twice as long as you inhale. If you can’t count, just try to make the exhale longer.
Weil says it’s impossible to be anxious while taking deep, slow, breaths. You will see yourself respond increasingly better over time. Both the box breathing and tactical breathing are done in and out through the nose.
When I was first introduced to breathing years ago, it felt totally foreign despite the fact that we all belly breathe as babies. Nevertheless, I gave it a whirl for a time or two, but it felt so unnatural that I didn’t think it was worth the trouble.
Later, about twenty-one years ago while undergoing a certification in emotional intelligence, I was introduced to the enormous benefits of breathing. I became a believer.
Over the last couple of years life was so hunky-dory for me, that I gradually let my breathing practice slip away. Then, bam.
I will spare you the personal details, let’s just say, recently I had a gut-wrenching emotionally charged encounter, a melt-down. My heart beat raced and skipped, I wanted to scream, hit, cry – jump off a bridge.
Immediately, I knew I needed to get back to my breathing practice to increase my emotional stability and better regulate my emotions.
Then, a few years ago I was hit in the head by a hockey puck which peeled my skin back to my skull. Both square breathing and tactical breathing helped me remain calm while figuring out what happened to me, awaiting the ambulance, and getting stitched up.
If someone asked me today, “What can I do with my body to live the good life?” I would answer, “You know about exercise, sleep, diet, even posture, but learn to breathe.”
Now I practice box breathing for at least a couple of minutes every day. I do the tactical breath periodically throughout the day or as needed. I imagine breathing like a baby. And nothing beats a good ole deep sigh now and then.
May we have the strength, wisdom, and courage of ten tigers and enjoy the good life.
How might we journey to The Good Life by being more intentional with our breathing?