#25. Breathing

Last week, when I was musing about what counts as necessary consumption, I went off on a tangent, as I am wont to do. I mentioned that if we were listing the things a person actually needed to survive for seven days, food doesn’t even make the cut. It made me wonder what was necessary to stay on the right side of the dirt for a week. Turns out that, barring any acts of God, freezing temperatures, unrelenting sun exposure or abandonment in a cool body of water, there are two things one truly needs: oxygen and water. And this got me thinkin’, which is usually the first sign of trouble. I’m not particularly good at drinking water. It’s not that I don’t like it. It’s just that I get most of mine through Diet Coke and I don’t think that’s what nature intended. I need to hydrate more.

I read that the human body is 60% water. If I had to guess, I’d say mine’s probably about 20% water. (That leaves 70% fat, 2% brain cells and 8% undigested bubble gum from childhood.) So I decided to commit myself to drinking the recommended eight glasses of water a day. However, that didn’t seem like it would make for the most fascinating blog post, especially considering that for the following seven days, I mostly forgot about it.

I have an excuse though. I was too busy breathing. That’s right. I chose to focus instead on the other of those two necessary items. Because in addition to not being particularly good at drinking water, I’ve also come to the somewhat disturbing realization that I’m not particularly good at breathing, either.

A little perspective: I’m not terrible at it. Obviously. I clearly do it enough to get by. But considering it’s likely the first thing I did at birth and I’ve been doing it quite a while, one would think I’d be better at it. It begs the question: how can a person be bad at breathing, barring some horrible respiratory condition? It’s supposed to be automatic, right? You’re supposed to do it without thinking, right?

So then how come lately I’ve been noticing throughout the day that I’m holding my breath? I mean, I’m not breathing. I’m just sitting there. And I have no idea how long I’ve been doing it. Probably less than three minutes, or else I’d have passed out. In fact, it’s probably not more than ten seconds at a stretch. Still. I’m no medical expert – as I’ve proven repeatedly on this site with my various cockamamie theories – but I’m pretty sure the brain needs oxygen to work. I heard that once. Also, possibly other organs need it too. Again, no expert.

A conundrum, though: how do you make sure you’re breathing when you’re generally not aware that you’ve stopped breathing? This seems like Ninja-level stuff, requiring a higher level of awareness than I’m equipped with. Clearly. I can’t even breathe on my own!!! For the purposes of this experiment, as with many others, it seemed a little mindfulness would be a good start. And if regular readers know anything, they know I am fully committed to the good start. The good ending – or any ending at all? That’s another story.

I decided to try to pay more attention to my breathing and, when I noticed I was holding my breath, to counter it by taking several deep breaths. This is all highly scientific. I don’t even know if you can “catch up” on oxygen intake, but that’s basically what I was going for.

For the first couple of days, I was kind of alarmed by just how often I noticed I wasn’t breathing. I started to wonder if, in fact, I breathe at all. Maybe I’m some sort of super-human creature who doesn’t need oxygen to survive. It’s more likely, however, that I’m just an idiot. So I breathed. In and out. Remembering a little bit of yogic breathing, I filled my diaphragm, exhaled. Repeated.

I’ve no idea how many times I did this because, invariably, I got distracted. This may be because I wasn’t exactly giving deep breathing my full focus. I was deep breathing while typing emails. Deep breathing while engaged in animated conversations. Deep breathing while doing cartwheels. (One of those examples is not true, but I won’t tell you which one.)

Plus, let’s face it: when an effort to change is boring me while I’m doing it, the odds of it putting my readers to sleep are pretty high. And if you’ve been struggling to get your z’s lately, may I just say: “You’re welcome.”

I figured there had to be some other breathing exercises out there. Maybe some sort of fancy breathing, like the kind celebrities might do. I think that if you want to find the best approach on any subject, you just Google a few pseudo-relevant words, then link to the first thing that comes up and does exactly what it tells you. This might explain a lot about me. (I should note that I have NO idea what I typed in during that first search, since I haven’t been able to replicate the results. Not once. I’m guessing I put in “dubious breathing exercises” or “breathing for idiots.”)

The first site I went to was WikiHow. Now, if that name alone doesn’t scream legitimacy, I don’t know what does. It’s a wiki – meaning random folk can share their made-up wisdom – and it tells you “how.” Say no more! I’m in! The first exercise provided was basic breathing. It goes something like this: breathe in, then breathe out. That sounded suspiciously like what I’d been trying all along, but it was on the interweb, so that made it more official.

Then came belly breathing, which only served to inspire someone like me – that is, someone with the attention span of a gnat – to fantasize about whether maybe the reason I wasn’t lung breathing was because I’ve been breathing through my belly button all this time. But, it will surprise you to learn, belly breathing is not about that. It’s basically just a way of breathing which makes your gut stick out. Like I need any help there.

After a few rounds of belly breathing, I figured I was ready for some “alternate nostril breathing.” The instructions said to inhale through the ida – which, as everyone knows, is your left nostril. Naturally, you’ll be holding your pingala shut while you do this. (Oh, get your minds out of the gutter! It’s your right nostril.) You’re supposed to inhale the air until your abdominal cavity is full. That part’s fine. I got that. But then the next step is to “Retain air (kumbak) by bringing it up to the third eye – 4 counts for every 1 count of inhalation.”

Oh, sure. I’ll get right on that. Because a person knows how to bring air to their third eye. So I sucked in my tummy and tried to, uh, flex my lungs (?) in order to get the air to go up to my, uh, third eye. Or either one of my two main eyes. Seemed like that would be an acceptable start. Instead, the effort just made me feel like vomiting, never mind the math part – four counts of one of what the hell? I exhaled through my pingala (tee hee), pretty sure that wasn’t remotely relaxing.

If that wasn’t enough to make me question the insanity of it all, the website offers up this gem in the “warning” section: “May cause one to become calmer and more centered.” Or it may cause one to become confused, nauseous and slightly resentful.

Yeah, I’m willing to accept that this may all be user error. That maybe deep breathing just isn’t meant for people with bad attitudes. Perhaps that’s as it should be – a self-selection of sorts. Those of us with poor concentration skills and a lack of willingness to give something a real try run out of oxygen and croak. Leaving the rest of the world filled with patient, loving individuals. It makes sense on a theoretical level, but I have to say, anecdotally speaking, it doesn’t bear out. Take a look around you.

There’s no way for me to quantify the impact a week’s worth of middling effort at breathing more had, although I think the scientific term might be: not much. That said, I do have a tad more awareness, but mostly that I’m not breathing much more often than I thought of that. And, frankly, that makes me wonder how on earth I’m still alive. Which could inspire a better person to feel grateful for her ability to survive on what I conservatively estimate is three or four breaths per day. But I’m me. So I think I’ll panic about it for a while, until I lose sleep and then eventually find something else to panic about and forget about breathing entirely. In other words, I’ll return to normal.