How I Learned the Importance of Breathing Well

The Life Changing Day

As an aspiring young fitness professional in the early 90s, I stumbled across a gentleman named John Douillard from Boulder, CO. He was a presenter at a convention in Copper Mountain and I was fortunate to get some one-on-one time with him.  He took me out to the running track and asked me how many times I thought I would breathe while running a 50 meter dash. I think I said eight. This was a set up as I had actually never paid much mind to the mechanics of my breathing. He knew this, most people don’t. I ran across the field and as I did it I realized I didn’t actually need to breathe, except for a couple of times on my way across the field in a full sprint. When I got to him he said, “Now catch your breath by breathing just through your nose.” It was here that I first witnessed what is called oxygen debt. I thought my head was going to explode! I actually couldn’t do it and had to breathe through my mouth to regain my breathing composure.  Point well made! What he showed me was that I didn’t actually need to breathe to get myself across that field, meaning there was another energy system at work during the short, quick outburst of a 50 meter sprint. So this was my first actual experience of the anaerobic system and aerobic systems both at work. Nothing proves a point quite like real-time experiential learning!

Next he said,”Ok now let’s begin running slowly and breathing through your nose with an emphasis on pushing the exhale with your stomach muscles”. 

“Hmm” I thought. 

“Exactly!” He said.

So we took off and after about a quarter lap I realized the nose breathing became a little labored and I had to push the air out a little harder with my stomach muscles so I could get more air in. He said,”Ok now just slow way down until breathing becomes comfortable again.”

I felt pretty hypoxic but noticed after a few breaths it became more comfortable.  

He said ” We’re going to do this four more times. It’s called the Listening Phase.”

I noticed each time I was able to make it a little bit further around the track before needing to stop.  

He said, “Breaking Point is the point at which you begin to feel a little discomfort (hypoxic) so you slow down”.

After the fifth Listening Phase effort he said, “Ok now find a rhythm that you can maintain continuous nasal breathing, comfortably. This is called ‘Steady State.’”

We ran together easily and I noticed that I was able to go at a pretty good clip and stay in my nose comfortably. After a while he said, “Now I’m going to time you for one minute and I want you to count your breaths. The limit is 12 breaths per minute,” he said. 

“That’s the sweet spot and there is one more parameter. You need to keep your training heart rate while you do this to 120 beats per minute.”

It happened that I was at 15 breaths per minute and when I took my pulse it was at 135bpm. He said I should stay within the parameters he stated and treat these workouts as a specific modality of exercise called mind-body breathing.  It was the beginning for me of what I call fusion workouts. When I go out to do this it is my intention to combine meditation/mindfulness with exercise. 

How this Transformed My Approach to Fitness

That workout was a benchmark for me.  It was actually the beginning of what has now represented the last 25 years of my life, basically what I consider my meditation career.  It’s fascinating because I have a total recall of that single exercise session. This is easily explainable and understandable because he went on to explain about how the technique is actually utilizing Ujjayi pranayama breathing, a yogic technique that is thousands of years old and one of the most powerful meditation techniques there is. It’s all about creating coherence in the mind. 

To me it is simply a must that everyone gets to have a chance at the “real time experiential learning” of this technique in order to ‘grock’ the experience. Grock means getting it then rocking it and the experience I had that day would never have been as profound and memorable had I not done the actual workout as he gave me the explanation of it.   That day forever changed my perspective on working out. 

The Science Behind This Method

The mechanism of mind-body breathing is based upon what happens in our nervous system when deep diaphragmatic nasal breathing is done properly.  Nose breathing saturates the entire surface area of the lungs, making the 12 breaths per minute possible during exercise. Usually with conventional mouth breathing (a.k.a chest/clavicular breathing) we average at least 35-40 breaths per minute, so you can see the profound difference in breaths per minute alone. This is due to the radical difference in the efficiency and effectiveness of using the nose for what it’s designed to do. 

It is important to note that chest/clavicular mouth breathing is characteristic of the fight or flight response of the nervous system.  This in mind, it isn’t hard to understand why so many people equate exercise as being a stressful experience. When the deep diaphragmatic nasal breathing technique is employed staying within the parameters we have outlined above, the characteristics are aligned with a coherent, calm and alert meditative state, a totally contrasting experience. This technique alone quite literally has the ability to transform your relationship with exercise, it has the potential for a total shift of your perspective, a totally different experience for you while exercising. 

But you’ve got to practice doing it. 

The real magic of the technique is the result of attention to the exhale of the breath and utilizing the abdominal muscles to push air out. This action has the effect of stimulating the vagus nerve,  the 10th cranial nerve ending in the base of the lungs. The forceful exhale of air tickles that nerve ending. The vagus nerve is considered the primary parasympathetic nerve responsible for calming us down, keeping us at ease and relaxed. It’s actually the interplay of the mechanism of the inhale with the mechanism of the exhale that creates a coherent brain wave pattern.  The healthy interaction of the two is ideal for creating health and happiness. Mouth breathing alone lacks the balancing part of the equation because chest/clavicular breathing doesn’t involve vagus nerve stimulation. That’s why we generally consider exercise stressful. It doesn’t need to be, you’ve just been missing a key ingredient. 

Now It’s Your Turn

You know better now. 

Get it?

Now go rock it then grock it!

The explanation above is sufficient if you can just put it into practice for yourself. 

Find a track, a spin bike, or any piece of aerobic equipment that you can practice on, taking care to stay within the parameters explained here with the steps explained above.

 Remember

  • 12 breaths per minute, max. 
  • 120 beats per minute, max.

 

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