Everyone and everything breathes, all the time. Taking a breath was the first act of your life, and will likewise be your last. You can’t stop breathing, even for a minute (unless you want to end up dressing and sounding like Forrest Gump). Breathing, like thinking, goes on for every moment of your life, even in your sleep.
Since breathing is so essential, how you breathe is important. Well, let me tell ya. You inhale air through your nose and exhale through your mouth, repeatedly, forever. Good luck, have fun, and thanks for reading.
But seriously, I didn’t use to know how to breathe properly. When my wife gets really mad at me, she huffs and puffs like an angry bull, her eyes flaring with homicidal charisma. That’s when I start to feel nostalgic for those days long ago, when she was sane. (I’m kidding; she’s actually sane most of the time, even when she’s mad at me; but when she loses it, boy, you don’t want to be anywhere near her. Of course, those are the times when she won’t let me leave the apartment for an emergency beer. I have to stay and weather the storm. Time to break out the lead-lined poncho. Sunblock is ineffectual against a mushroom cloud.)
A long time ago I took an excellent class in kundalini yoga for fifty bucks, a once-only deal for four hours, and the teacher, a robust, tubby, bosky-bearded fellow in a turban, told us how he once managed to mollify a friend of his who had just shifted into anger mode. He poured him a tall glass of water and said, “Here, before you say or do anything else, please just drink this glass of water–the whole thing.” The friend did as requested. “You know what he did next?” the teacher asked us. “He took a deep breath and immediately started to calm down.” He went on to explain that his friend then stabbed in the chest with a butcher knife–wait, no–he chilled.
This same teacher, I think it was (I used to dabble in yoga classes back in the old days, before I made the mistake of getting married and relinquishing my freedom to a puritanical control freak–again, she’s gotten much worse over the years, but I should have seen the signs ahead of time), said that when most people inhale, they pull their stomach muscles in, and push them out when they exhale. This, he said, is exactly the wrong way to do it. The reason is that when you push your gut out (and he stressed breathing through the nose as “it’s a polluted place out there” and nose hair filters out much of the crap in the air), it enables your diaphragm muscle to come down like an elevator, which in turn allows the lungs to expand to an ever-greater capacity.
Once you’ve breathed in as much as you can, almost like a balloon that’s about ready to burst, you can gradually breathe out, reversing the process by pulling your stomach muscles in until you feel them pressing against your spinal disks (you might want to stop if you start bleeding internally). Again, you want to push out every single drop of air, practically till your lungs are inside-out; that way you’re getting more bang for your buck and recycling the elements more thoroughly.
Dr. Andrew Weil has a great audiobook called, simply, Breathing, and in it (on it?) he offers some jim-dandy techniques and breathing methods, several of which I’ve been using for years. One in particular, which I won’t bother to spell out here as you can read about it on his website or else pick up the book, relaxes you and acts as a substitute for painkillers, all of which have toxic side effects, ranging from liver damage to stomachache to wear and tear on the heart muscle.
Dr. Weil emphasizes in this breathing exercise the importance of making the out-breath twice as long as the in-breath. This deprives the brain of oxygen (what a great idea!) enough to make you sleepy, but not enough to kill you or make you Forrest Gumpy.
Another one of his greatest hits is making your breathing quieter, deeper, slower, and more regular. This is a good thing to do if you’re standing waiting for the bus or subway, or stewing in traffic and wishing you could kill someone and get away with it instead of having to be a shnook for your whole life controlled by evil forces beyond your influence or reach (again, I kid, or at least exaggerate).
A pleasant side effect of deep breathing is that it clarifies your vision and gives you a sudden gust of peace of mind. If you meditate, try just watching your breath without trying to change or modify it at all (kudos to Sharon Salzberg for that one), which you may find at first is harder to do, since if you’re a Type A douche bag and perfectionist like me or my wife, you’ll want to control everything (the main difference between her and me is that she has vowed absolute obedience to God, whereas I’m an American Indian trapped in a white man’s body who wholeheartedly worships nature, even though I’ve made the same deal with the devil most people have by choosing to live in the city, I guess because it’s where all the beautiful women go, nature’s two-legged masterpieces. They give me something to live for, even though they’re probably too busy thinking about cosmetics or which plastic surgery operation to devastate themselves with to acknowledge my admittedly tenuous and irrelevant existence).
So, happy breathing, and feel free to share any suggestions you may have; I know I’ve probably left a lot of stuff out.