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How Do You Breathe?

Posted by Joseph Anderson

How do you breathe?  Through your nose and out your mouth?  In and out your nose?  Through your mouth only? I figured I’d ask since breathing is the most important thing that all of us do, every minute of every day for our entire life.  You can argue with that if you want, but you can’t argue your point without breathing.  So, if breathing is so important HOW we breathe is pretty high up there.


Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of hierarchy of needs lists breathing as the first need at the base of the pyramid, but he also explains that the way we breathe is a reflection of where we are on that pyramid.  Renowned sports psychologist Charles Garfield argues that the first thing any athlete must train is their breathing.  He states, “Once you master deep belly breathing on a subconscious level, then your pulse slows down and so does the game.”  There are Yogis in India that are said to be able to shift through various levels of consciousness and even raise and lower their own body temperature at will through simply training their breath.  I could go on all day writing about famous psychologists, athletes, mystics and top performers and how they consider their focus on breath as one of their most important practices towards excellence.  But what I am more interested in right now is how do YOU breath?

If you’re like most of us you haven’t thought a whole lot about it.  And that actually takes me to my more pressing question:  Why not? 

If virtually all top mental, physical, and spiritual teachers, athletes and performers through out time tell us that perfecting the way that we breath is one of the most profound paths to a better life why don’t WE learn more about it?

Over the years the how and the why we breathe and all of the little details has slowly become increasingly pertinent to me. More than anything I think it’s because of all the snow. There’s a certain critical point when you’re out in it, studying it, managing it and it keeps on coming down and you come to the conclusion that avalanche terrain management is airway or breathing management.

I’ve eased off a bit and found a better balance but at one point there was literally snow everywhere, everyday. I remember 1,000-year-old trees, trees born during the crusades, crashing in the forest under the weight of the snow. There were days, weeks and years of snow.  To be honest it became irritating.  I woke in the morning and it was all over my face from my breath on the tent, I thought to myself, “this is bullshit”, I just wanted my wife and my kids, I didn’t want anymore snow. But it didn’t stop.  And it didn’t matter anymore.  It didn’t matter because I had asked for this.

Just like any kid that ever woke up and was caught breathless by the simplicity: trees dressed elegantly, all of the strange and dark and dirty secrets of the world totally erased by the beautiful sparkly white.  That’s what I thought about in those split seconds that were divided up into an eternity when my skis were being pulled under.  My legs were being pulled inward, then my torso.  I thought, “This is what I get.  This is what blind obsession gets you” Then the snow started piling up over my head and time slowed even more and I thought about the future. The immediate future, I thought about the snow that would soon be shoved into my mouth. 

“How long until I suffocate?”

There is air in the snow but only seconds of it is useful, maybe a minute if I’m lucky enough to get an air pocket.  But it’s hopeless, no matter what, my breath will then moisten the snow around my face and it will bond together and freeze leaving me incased in an airtight shell.  With one last breath I will pull in all the remaining oxygen into my lungs, down the bronchial tubes, into the alveoli and it’ll be sucked into the capillary beds. 

I become neurotic: “Are my alveoli healthy? Have I destroyed them in my youth with smoking? Have I destroyed the cilia not wearing a mask when sanding drywall?  Why didn’t I wear a mask? I need those last Ohs to stick to the iron in my blood so my heart can push it to all the cells in my body.  Is my heart strong enough any more? My heart will give that final oxygen rich blood one last push hopefully to my brain cells …Have I lead a healthy enough life? How many electrons will that last bit of oxygen realistically be able to grab from available energy and transport to the mitochondria, that’s the part that matters the most.  Shit…how many brain cells can I honestly say I even have anymore?”

But it was too late, everything had stopped.  My last breath of oxygen had come and gone while I was in a panic, and it didn’t matter either because now the oxygen had circulated through my body and was saturated with carbon, so it wasn’t even fucking oxygen anymore it was carbon dioxide.

I surrender.

Now the carbon dioxide, or CO2 is starting to attach excess carbon to the cells throughout my body and in a matter of breaths I will pass out.  But that’s good because the real painful part will be what follows.  My body will attempt to continue transferring energy chemically without the O2 leading to a build up of acid and carbonated water. Every cell in my body will start swelling and bursting, my heart will stop beating and within 10 – 15 minutes my brain will be dead.

But I wasn’t dead yet? Or was I?

“Daddy wake up”

I slowly awoke to the sound of my three-year-old son prodding me. 

“Joseph, wake up,” My wife urged me as well.  “It’s ten o’clock in the morning.”

That’s not so bad, I thought to myself.  After all I had just gotten back from Alaska and had climbed Denali…TWICE…. what’s wrong with just a little more sleep.

“You’ve been sleeping for 2 days” she shouted, “wake up or I’m calling the ambulance.” 

I looked around and there was no more snow…I was safely in my bedroom at home.  I looked out the window and let out a gasp of relief: the trees were full and green.

But that didn’t last long, before I knew it I was back out in the snow.  A year went by and I was marching back up toward the summit of Denali and the air once again thinned, oxygen harder to get. This time was different though; I came prepared, armed with a special little book.

It was a book about trees.  Not a guidebook, but a book about the poetry of trees.  After each day slaving away in my white prison at seventeen thousand feet I retreated back to the safety of my tent and curled up into my green world eagerly reading:

Chapter Two – Taking Root:  On the south-facing slope where our little tree seed has lodged, water, warmth and oxygen are present in abundance. Like particles of dust lit by shafts of sunlight, the insects emerge from the forest floor and flash briefly through the slivers of light filtered through the canopy.  The thrump of their calls fill the green air…

Mmmm, it was as if reading this book in my tent was literally feeding me oxygen.  I didn’t realize how much I missed that book until another year went by and I was on that mountain again:

“I can’t breath!” was all I could get out to my assistant. 

My decision was made. The remaining group members continued onward and I went down as fast as I could.  I was finished for this trip and quite happy about that. All I could think about was getting back to the green.  Back home in Bellingham my Doctor told me I had walking pneumonia, an infection of the lower lungs or more specifically the alveoli.  At altitude, the extreme low pressure of inhaled oxygen already has trouble converting from a gas in the alveoli through capillary beds into hemoglobin in our blood stream.  I was lucky to get down, but regardless of those dire details I was relieved I had walking pneumonia and was forced to rush down in a hurry. I missed the trees but most of all I missed the oxygen.   

It’s been ten years since I was deprived of that most basic of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It makes perfect sense that the way we breathe is a reflection of where we are on the pyramid. 

An analogy I often like to use is that we are just like fire; all of our thoughts, feelings and dreams are just an incredibly elaborate fire.  Like a fire when we are deprived of oxygen, we start to smolder and smoke, barely surviving. We’re left feeling depleted, angry, confused and emotional. 

As you take care of your basic needs and begin to relax so does your breathing, as you relax your breathing you use oxygen more effectively and you feel better and people feel better around you. When you feel more appreciated and a sense of accomplishment you’re breathing naturally strengthens and deepens even further bringing you new waves of rich O2, you burn brighter and stronger and the fire spreads to the people around you.  Eventually, like a billowing wild fire you inspire your surroundings, mix with other fires, accomplishing your dreams and come up with new ones becoming virtually unstoppable.

And so that is why I am asking:

How do you breathe?