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Learning Not to Suck
Breathing is the most essential aspect of our health, yet almost no one does it properly.
ONE FROM THE AGES
“When the breath wanders the mind is unsteady, but when the breath is calmed, the mind too will be still.”
— Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a 500-year-old yogic text
ONE FROM TODAY
Dr. Andrew Weil, Integrative medicine physician & author, on proper breathing:
“Improper breathing is a common cause of ill health. If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly. There is no single more powerful – or more simple – daily practice to further your health and wellbeing than breathwork. Practicing a regular, mindful breathing exercise can be calming and energizing and can even help with stress-related health problems ranging from panic attacks to digestive disorders.”
ONE FROM US
I used to consider myself good at breathing. Your first reaction might be, “well, duh, you’re alive aren’t you? I bet you think you’re good at peeing and blinking too!”
Of course, we are all good at breathing in the survival sense.
I considered myself an above-average breather because for years I have understood breathing as a vital aspect of athletic training. In high school, I had to learn a breathing technique to prevent chronic side aches while running. In college, I was a competitive swimmer. Now, I regularly do stretches and twisting exercises to improve my ability to expand my rib cage and increase my lung volume. Heck, I even teach kettlebell certifications that include a specific performance breathing technique. But I learned recently that, when it comes to breathing, I suck. Pun very much intended.
Despite my efforts, I’ve still spent most of my waking hours and presumably all of my non-waking hours breathing wrong. All that time focused on performance breathing techniques had little carry-over into daily life. Even years of meditation and learning to “watch my breath” was no guarantee that I was breathing properly.
It’s easy to dismiss the notion that there is a right and wrong way to breathe. As long as you get the air into your lunges, who cares? Right? You might think, as I did, that breathing is a natural process that we instinctively do correctly. However, most people also believe that running is natural and that lacing up their shoes is the only preparation required to head out for their first run. They believe that since running is as old as humanity, they’ll naturally do it properly. This might have been the case a few thousand years ago when everything we did was driven by natural instincts triggered by a natural environment. But we are now isolated, by choice and culture, from nearly all elements of a natural human environment. Today, most people either can’t or don’t run like humans are meant to. The few who do run well have usually worked hard to build this skill and overcome the physical limitations that come from a life of chairs, sedentary behavior, and shoes that have made their feet, ankles, knees, and hips incapable of healthy running form. Breathing is no different. Ignoring our breathing technique is as naive as buying running shoes and pounding out a few harsh miles after 30 years of sitting all day and avoiding the stairs. Given our sedentary lifestyle and deconditioned bodies, there is simply no way we will run (or breathe) well.
My recent understanding of just how poorly I breathe came from an aptly named book, Breath by James Nestor. Most non-fiction books range from entertaining to very valuable information that spurs some kind of change. By this measure, Breath is off the charts. To me, it’s been life-changing. It’s the type of book that is more than just good information. It’s information that you feel compelled to put into immediate practice. It’s knowledge and skills that change your quality of life forever.
Today I’ll give a brief overview of the main takeaways and how they have already begun to affect my life.
1. You Suck Too
Eating is more than just the intake of calories. When you eat, what you eat, how fast, with whom, and what you do immediately before and after, make a huge difference in how that food interacts with your internal environment. Likewise, breathing is much more than the simple act of pulling air into your lungs. How much air we take in, how long we hold it, how quickly we cycle our breaths, and which face-hole we use, affect how that air interacts with our bodies and the type of emotional and hormonal state that our breathing induces.
It should come as no surprise that the same modern conveniences that prevent us from developing the ability to run well and the inclination to eat well, also leave us lacking the physical ability to breathe properly. We know from the fossil record that our early human ancestors had much larger heads, larger jaws in proportion to that larger head, widely flared nostrils, and nearly twice the volume in their sinus cavities. Modernity has changed our environment to push us to evolve away from these characteristics.
Our earliest ancestors had larger jaws and larger mouths because they spent many hours each day chewing. One goal of civilization has been to make calories more readily accessible. Cooking softens food and increases nutrient absorption. Knives and other cutting tools removed the need to tear off and chew large chunks of food. Since the invention of food processors and blenders, we can now consume a completely liquid diet or at least one that requires very little chewing. The trend toward softer, cooked food led us to evolve smaller mouths and jaws bones. Our heads, noses, and sinus cavities shrunk in proportion. Our noses turned downward instead of nostrils facing forward. These changes to structure of our faces mean that nearly every person alive today has some form of airway constriction.
Modern culture has only exacerbated this growing (or rather shrinking) problem. Women today breastfeed their infants less than one year on average, if they breastfeed at all. Early humans typically breastfed their children until nearly age three. This increased suckling duration helps form and strengthen the mouth and jaw and the resulting size and shape of the nose and sinus cavity. Modern commuter/computer culture leads many people to develop a hunched posture, tight thoracic spine, and protracted and internally rotated shoulders (standard typing posture). The resulting shape creates a smaller chest cavity that is less able to stretch and expand properly. Yet another physical limitation to proper breathing.
2. Breathe Through Your Nose
All of these cultural and evolutionary setbacks lead us to breathe primarily through our mouth—a much less restricted and readily available back-up airway. But mouth breathing was meant to be just that, a secondary option used only for times of heavy physical exertion, yawning, or when our nasal passage is blocked.
Mouth breathing may be sufficient to keep us alive, but breathing in this way bypasses many of the mechanisms that help us thrive. Nasal breathing cleans the air as it passes the mucus and cilia. It also warms and hydrates the air, preparing it for contact with our lunges. Mouth breathing, by contrast, allows air to remain more cold and dry and thus much more abrasive to the sensitive tissue in our airways and lungs. Nasal breathing begets more nasal breathing as the consistent airflow both prevents congestion and pressurizes our sinuses to keep them expanded and ready for the next breath. Consistent mouth breathing allows blockages to build up in our sinus and allows the tissue in our sinus to go lax and collapse.
Even more important than the quality of the air that we bring in, nasal breathing has an intimate relationship with our hormones, mood, and other internal processes. Air passing through our sinuses stimulates our vagus nerve inducing a vast array of different internal reactions based on the pace and depth of our breathing. In Breath, Nestor discusses his experience as a subject in an experiment that tested dozens of different biomarkers during a ten-day period of exclusive mouth breathing compared to a subsequent 10-day stretch of only nose breathing. With his nose blocked by silicone plugs and tape, his blood pressure skyrocketed, his sleep quality plummeted, he spent several hours each night in sleep apnea, he had low energy, foggy mental focus, and a sinus infection. Within 24 hours of replacing his nose plugs for tape over his mouth, he was sleeping better, had almost no sleep apnea, his blood pressure reduced by half, and his sinus infection cleared up without medication or other intervention. His mood and energy level mirrored the complete turn-around in his measurable health markers.
By a combination of habit and airway restriction, most of us walk around breathing almost exclusively through our mouths. This has a very detrimental effect on our overall health.
3. Breathe Less and Breathe Slower
Nestor gives us an accounting of what happens when we slow down and breathe deeply:
“The lungs are covered with nerves that extend to both sides of the autonomic nervous system, and many of the nerves connecting to the parasympathetic system are located in the lower lobes, which is one reason long and slow breaths are so relaxing. As molecules of breath descend deeper, they switch on parasympathetic nerves, which send more messages for the organs to rest and digest. As air ascends through the lungs during exhalation, the molecules stimulate an even more powerful parasympathetic response. The deeper and more softly we breathe in, and the longer we exhale, the more slowly the heart beats and the calmer we become. People have evolved to spend the majority of waking hours—and all of our sleeping hours—in this state of recovery and relaxation. Chilling out helped make us human.”
In his research, Nestor continued to find the same prescription for optimal breathing cadence from both ancient and modern sources. Many traditional and religious practices such as Buddhist chanting or Catholics reciting the Rosary share similar timing. These ancient practices induce the same breathing rhythm and volume that modern research has found optimal. This “perfect” breathing centers around the number 5.5. A 5.5-second inhale followed by a 5.5-second exhale results in roughly 5.5 breaths per minute. Oddly, this also leads you to take in roughly 5.5 liters of air per minute.
We can improve our strength and endurance performance by consciously deviating from this pace, but most of our daily breathing should follow the rule of 5.5. This feels deliberate, methodical, and almost excessively slow at first. But soon you’ll come to value the feeling. Nestor again, says it best:
“I realized then that breathing was like rowing a boat: taking a zillion short and stilted strokes will get you where you’re going, but they pale in comparison to the efficiency and speed of fewer, longer strokes.”
I’m a Whole New Man
I thought it would be instructive to briefly share how I’ve brought these lessons into my daily life.
I tape my mouth shut while sleeping. Thousands of people built better breathing habits and improved their health by simply forcing themselves to breathe through their nose while sleeping. I have always had a post-nasal drip and chronic congestion, particularly upon waking up. I’ve been using mouth tape for about 8 weeks and now wake up with perfectly clear sinuses. I’m also waking up more refreshed and find that I’m better able to breathe through my nose throughout the day. Mouth tape feels intrusive and extreme at first glance. But after the first few nights, I’ve come to look forward to it as part of my sleep ritual.
Any tape and taping method that holds your mouth shut will work. I used Nestor’s recommended tape—Nexcare Durable Cloth Tape, a generic medical tape available for a few dollars at any drug store. I also began with Nestor’s recommended taping method of just a very small strip across the center of my lips (Hitler mustache style). This wasn’t strong enough so I tried one horizontal strip that completely covered my mouth. This did the trick but felt a bit claustrophobic and tugged on my beard. I’ve found my ideal compromise with a horizontal strip about 1.5 inches long that leaves only the very corners of my mouth uncovered. (Pro-tip: Tuck the upper edge of the tape under your mustache for less irritation and better adhesion).
Practice Nose Breathing
I constantly catch myself taking shallow and rapid mouth breaths throughout the day. I’ve developed a compulsive tick for noticing this and consciously switching to longer and slower nose breaths. I always feel amazing after the switch. I’m still far from perfect but my habits are moving in the right direction.
Learn to associate your moods and physical sensations with your breath. Next time you feel a little light-headed, grumpy, lethargic, or down, take note of your breathing pattern. Then, take several long, slow breaths through your nose.
Practice the Rule of 5.5
Every morning when I meditate, I’ve added just one minute of conscious nose breathing by the rule of 5.5. Occasionally, I’ll add an extra few minutes throughout the day—before or after a meal, in moments of transition between tasks, and when the idea strikes me. I also follow this rule during bouts of low-level exertion such as a brisk walk or my bike commute to work.
These last two rules can be difficult with mask-wearing and cold weather, but they will have a profound impact over the long haul. The better that you convert nose breathing and slow breathing into habits—the more you merrily row your boat—the better off you will be.
Thank you for being with me this week—the week that winter decided to strike everywhere all at once. This is the snow that I watched collect during the writing of this. I hope you’re staying safe on the roads this week!
I’ve also opened up a few more slots for remote fitness coaching. If you might be interested in some guidance and direction to your training, please get in touch.
Life is too short to be normal,