Why is this interesting? - The Breathing Edition

On control, calm, and the power of breath

Eric Matthies (EM) has worked as a director, producer, and consultant across a number of genres—from large scale installations to major motion pictures, broadcast specials, web series, multi-platform content packages, site-based VR, world-building R&D, live events, and traditional documentaries.

Eric here. My breath awareness story begins as an introverted and asthmatic boy, shuttled off each summer to my grandparent’s rural property, away from any trouble I might have gotten into in the city. It turns out I was allergic to every type of dust, mold, and pollen. Breathing in nature literally sucked. 

Around the age of thirteen, I took an interest in martial arts, where I learned two important things about breathing. The first was to stand upright and stop staring at my shoes. Suddenly I had a much more direct passage between my nose, mouth, and lungs. The second was to close my yapper and breathe through my beak. That lessens the chance of losing some teeth, decreases tension, and increases stamina. A deep inhale through the nose followed by a long, slow exhale with a partially closed mouth is an incredibly grounding and centering act.

Some time later, I got really into functional fitness. Dynamic movement combined with traditional weightlifting requires many things—mainly, the ability to go beyond the point of perceived failure. Pushing past the brain telling you “I can’t” to the body simply reaching a point of “I won’t” is far easier to achieve if you’re practicing good breathing techniques. In moments of intense concentration, I would catch myself forgetting to breathe. As it turns out, I was doing this a lot, and not just in the gym. 

Breathing calmly and consistently through any difficulty always produces better results. As the stresses of politics weighed on me over the last few years, I started writing angry punk songs, leading my wife to challenge me to sing them better. She bought a package of vocal lessons at our local community music school. Learning how to control the diaphragm and place breaths along a song chart is not much different from managing the breath sparring martial arts or completing a complex HIIT session. I started to see the light about breathing techniques (and that my singing career was a nonstarter).

Soon, I was incorporating a singer’s warm-up exercises into my morning run as a way of tricking myself into a meditative breathing practice before going surfing. Out in the ocean, I started to become aware of how frequently I held my breath. It wasn’t just when I went under a wave, but any time I was concentrating hard on a takeoff, cranking a turn, or simply holding the highline of a wave. I started to notice this on land as well. I was holding my breath to concentrate on all sorts of little actions and behaviors. Correcting this became an obsession.

Why is this interesting?

There is a lot of material available about flow states, with lectures and literature borrowing from special ops and alpha-extreme athletics. At its core, all are people who have trained themselves to practice a disciplined, comfortable, and calming capacity to breathe properly.

In 2019 I was introduced to Augusto Carrara. Augusto teaches a program started by his free diving colleague Augusto Vegas called Survival Apnea. It’s designed to train surfers in techniques used by breath-hold divers and yogis, creating survival confidence when things get critical in the ocean. The training applies to dry land as well and can be incorporated into everything from meditation to endurance sports like cycling and running. Proper breathing technique begins with understanding how your mental condition affects the way the body uses oxygen. 

At rest, we use around 20% of our O2 supply. When spiked with adrenaline, that number also rises. Under stress, when we hold our breath—after a wipeout in the surf, for example—a few things happen. Time gets a bit confusing. We are prone to panic. We think we’re being held under far longer than we really are, even though we have plenty of air in our lungs. That gasping for air sensation is not our need for more oxygen. It’s our need to expel the CO2 we’ve built up. Training your oxygen supply is about building CO2 tolerance and developing the mental discipline to remain or become calmer.

An intense aerobic effort on land is also where the benefits of CO2 tolerance and emotional calmness become a positive factor. A similar adrenaline spike can happen in the home or office. A moment of tension, an argument with a coworker, or a suddenly accelerated deadline can trigger a significant shift in the oxygen supply. The quicker the mind responds to this spike with controlled breathing, the sooner there is a restoring of calmness, rationality, and increased cognition. 

Nose breathing, particularly in concert with modifications to the yoga practice of “square breathing,” is one way to begin a discipline of building CO2 tolerance. The key is a controlled nasal intake of air using the lungs’ full capacity, paused in a brief hold, followed by a slow controlled exhale through the mouth that is at least twice the inhale’s length. Then another short hold, and the pattern repeats. Using the same concept—inhaling and exhaling with single nostril square breathing—is another way to practice and build CO2 tolerance while opening and strengthening the nasal passages.

New practices are best approached with stable steps. Attempting too much change or modification to behavior at once will likely result in frustration or failure. Breathing is life. We do it naturally and mostly subconsciously. Adapting to a conscious breathing practice, incorporated into a daily routine until it becomes second nature, is beneficial to overall well being. It improves physical and mental health while increasing capacity and capability in every other activity. Breathe! (EM)

Meditative Painting of the Day

Freefall by Jeffrey Beauchamp(EM)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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