Breathing Into It

Beneath the currents

True to form, and the reason for the title of this blog, what I am interested in trying and interested in writing about changes with great frequency. Believe it or not, this blog is much more linear than my daily life, at least in terms of what catches my attention and causes me to want to dive into something. Try being around me… it certainly looks frustrating sometimes!

One consistent thing that I have been thinking about is breathing. Last night at jiu jitsu we drilled a variety of ways to pass someone’s attempt to take guard and to end up in side control. We then drilled using these techniques- 2 minute rounds, one person on their back defending, the other on their feet trying to pass into side control. It was fun, great practice, and my final round was with black belt and fearless leader of the school, Jimmy. After about a minute I realized that my breathing was tight, so I forced myself to pull a couple of deep breaths from my diaphragm, and went back at it. And guess what?

He still tied me up in knots. Because he is a black belt, more experienced, more relaxed and has an understanding of the game light years beyond my no-stripe white belt self. But here’s the thing- I didn’t panic. I didn’t wear myself out against him. I didn’t go into White Belt Deathmatch mode (thanks Jocko Willink for that one.)

The other day heading in to a cold shower, for some reason I wasn’t in the mindset for it, the cold water caused a pretty intense gasp reflex, my muscles bunched up and I started to shiver. I yelled myself (in my head) to “breathe, motherfucker!” a la Wim Hof, and it worked. One deep breathe and the gasp reflex stopped. The second deep breath smoothed out the shivers, and by the third I was relaxing into the water.

Yoga? Movement is centered on your breath. Meditation? It almost always starts with the direction: take in a few deep breaths. Angry? Take a breath (or six). In almost any endeavor I have attempted, there is usually some sort of reminder to breathe, to breathe deeply from your diaphragm, to put your mind on your breath. Even as an actor, with that art’s requirement to be able to produce appropriate volume and articulation, I trained in vocal and physical techniques that focused on proper breathing.

In the moments of greatest stress or loss in my life I have also been mindful of my breath. During my separation and divorce I took up running (for the first and only time in my life) partly to put all the emotional energy somewhere other than moping and beer, but mostly because it forced me to really breathe. Otherwise my breath stayed trapped in the upper third of my chest, and by the end of the day I would be in pain from clenching my abs and holding my breath. Running demanded that I breathe to the bottom of my lungs, pull the air in from my gut, and with all that breathing some of the pain, anger, and disappointment leeched out. When I have lost family members or friends, the urge to scream at the sky or yell across the water has left my voice raw. It has also allowed the loss and the joy, the memories and the emptiness, to attach itself to the exhalation and slowly empty out of me.

To paraphrase a metaphor one of my acting teachers used: your thoughts are the boat, your emotions are the waves and the changing currents, and your breath is the tide. The surface may be affected by winds and currents, but beneath that is always the tide. The breath, which always returns to its simple cycle regardless of what is happening on the surface.

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