Art of Breath

I was listening to a podcast with Kyle Kingsbury from Onnit who was talking with Brian MacKenzie and Rob Wilson. They were talking about the Art of Breath.

Wow, was I amazed. Breathwork, or pranayama in yoga, is something I embrace as a teacher of yoga. In every Rocket class, I approach pranayama from various ways. But this podcast inspired me to learn even more.

Something that really intrigued me was the idea of nasal breathing. It is nearly the sole means of breathing in yoga. And, apparently, it should be our sole means of breathing in all of life. But then you say, how do I get enough oxygen when I run or workout? Awww, still through the nose. And its not just a Fraternity hazing ritual or military rite of passage. There are physiological mechanisms that negatively go against mouth breathing. But can I give you the details? No. I need to study this more.

A little history, I am full blooded Native American. My father is Sac & Fox, the tribe that Jim Thorpe belonged to. My Dad told me about a real rite of passage for boys becoming men. They would have to take a cup full of water into their mouth without swallowing. Then they would have to run a certain number of miles. At the end of the run, they had to spit out the water. It sounds a little strange, but there may be some science behind this.

When I started running road races, it was at the very beginning of the running revolution. People started to see this strange trend of people running all over the place. It was the early 1970’s and shoe companies and clothing brands were just being launched. Jim Fixx came out with his book on running that everyone was swiping up. I have a copy myself. My first race was at an Air Force Base where my Dad had duty. Myself, my little brother, and my best friend all ran our first 10K together. Amazingly, my brother and I had always only breathed through our nose after what my Dad had told us. It was natural for us. While running this race, some nice fella was telling us we should breath through our mouths. Hmmm, little did he know.

The guys on this podcast were talking about negative physiological indicators when you start to breath through your mouth. They were talking about Wim Hof, who is a Dutch athlete who learned to withstand extremes of cold. He could run barefoot on snow and ice for long distances. And the claim is his breathing techniques were all a part of accomplishing these feats.

Breath was a huge part of Kenpo Karate that I took as a kid. Later in Aikido, Tai-Chi, and other endeavors, I found even greater strength in breath. Control of breath is such a huge part of Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, and CrossFit. So its something I find interest in a lot.

So, I’m probably going to bore my yoga students and friends with a lot about breath. I am beginning on a journey into something much deeper. Let me start with discipline.

So, in the podcast, someone replied to them that they didn’t get anything out of cold water immersion. To be honest, I’m a total skeptic myself. But for the same reason as the naysayer, they said "maybe you didn’t stay long enough to learn". [Lightbulb turns on!!!] Its not about the cold. Its about how your breath controls your mind and how your mind controls your body. Awwww, I see!! Back to the military for me.

Do you ever walk into a pouring rain? What do you do? You bow your head and shield your eyes. You may put your hand up or pull a hood or hat over your head. You crouch down and walk like hopping over puddles. You shorten your steps and move faster. But, what if you pretended the pouring rain was not even there. That it wasn’t 40F degrees with 20 mph winds. Imagine you keep a straight face and unsquinted eyes. Imagine you walk upright and slowly with a normal gait and cadence. How would that change how the rain affects you?

Think of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Do the sentries cower to the weather? Do they react to beads of sweat on a hot day? No!! Its the discipline of the mind. I watched Survivor last night and a guy lost a challenge because a butterfly flew in front of him and landed on his ear. What if he trained himself that nothing would get in the way of his success? It takes training to do that.

That’s what breath does. It calms the mind. It makes Ashtanga Yoga possible through an intense awareness of Ujjiya breath. Its what makes a monk able to sit on a bed of needles for hours without experiencing pain. Pain is not real. It is a reflection of the brain’s perception of stimulus. Yes, we feel pain, but it deceives us.

I recall in the movie Platoon. A bunch of newbies went on patrol and ended up sleeping in the bush overnight. They got caught in an ambush and a firefight ensued. Several were injured or killed. One guy who was shot was screaming at the top of his lungs. So the platoon sergeant jumped on him and put his hand over his mouth. He said "Take the pain!". You could see the guy started breathing deeply and was quiet.

The breath is the tool. It leads to so much in life. It can help us control our struggles and open doors to performance and awareness.

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