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Don't Faint: On the Art of Core Breathing

If you’re not breathing, you are pretty much dead. Trust me. I was an ER doctor for over a decade. If you’ve ever taken a class on basic CPR, you would be familiar with the ABC’s of resuscitation - Airway, Breathing, Circulation. Not having any one of these components is what we call being incompatible with life.

During my earliest training days as a “baby” doctor, while walking briskly to a resuscitation room, one of my mentors, in his wide slow Southern drawl, while coaching me used to say, “Don’t forget to breathe and check your own pulse first.” And so I did, literally, and it did serve me well in all the years that followed. I found that exhaling slowly and deliberately while securing a breathing tube into someone’s airway kept both my hands and my mind steady regardless of what chaos there was around me. When I started doing yoga as a form of exercise to stay healthy during my medical training, I realized that I’d actually serendipitously been practicing core breathing.

Core breathing is the first of 11 foundational elements in our BFF (Barrier Free Fitness) program here at Nola Lightspace. Our goal with BFF is to teach you well-founded exercise principles in a logical sequential order to make exercise more effective, and help you learn to adapt movements for musculoskeletal differences and skill level. We believe that without conscious breathing, exercise can be ineffective.

Have you noticed that when feeling nervous or stressed we tend to hold our breath? Perhaps for this reason, although breathing is thankfully for the most part an unconscious process that just happens without us having to use our brain power, when we actually do something challenging like exercising, we often forget to, well, just breath. Therefore, sometimes when challenged, it’s necessary to make the unconscious conscious and deliberate, even with something that seems as natural as breathing.

There is a phenomenon called breath holding spells that sometimes happens with children, toddlers for the most part, where they hold their breath when frustrated, angry, or in pain, and then they just pass out. All this is to say that we as a species seem to forget to breathe when the sympathetic nervous system gets activated into fight or flight mode. Sometimes what actually presents itself in these moments of desperation is that darn freeze response. As an interesting side note, we may not be the only ones. There is a particular breed of goat that just faint immediately when frightened. There are videos of these on the internet and it is startling to watch.

As we never want you to faint during any type of exercise, especially yoga, one of the most common cues you’ll hear in any yoga class is, “Are you still breathing?” It’s an important reminder because breathing fully and effectively delivers much needed oxygen to your blood to feed your brain and your muscles during exercise. When you inhale, the diaphragm, a dome shaped muscle that sits at the base of your lungs and ribcage, contracts and moves downward. This causes the belly to expand and provides more space for the lungs to expand and draw in more air. As you consciously engage your core muscles to exhale, you stimulate the magical vagus nerve which activates the parasympathetic nervous system and the body’s relaxation response. This is how we train the body to move with some ease and the mind to stay steady. This is yoga. This is what helped me remain equanimous when faced with precarious situations in the ER. But there’s more, and it has to do with what Darra calls developing a motor plan.

In the medical field, we really believe that practice creates competence. While in training, we are put through a number of “mock” emergency events and scenarios, we attend simulation labs with breathing talking manikins, and we practice, practice, practice. My particular training program elected to summon us sometimes at a moment’s notice to these mock codes. I distinctly remember being a fresh first year trainee heading towards these events at a respectable pace because you were supposed to when the code pager went off, but walking not too fast in case, God forbid, I were the first doctor arriving at the scene. I had some bravado based off of book learning, but had yet to gain true confidence from real life experience.

It really takes a lot of practice and repetition to acquire skill in anything. It takes even more practice and repetition for anything to settle into your body as something second nature. For instance, consider the very first time you drove a car. It was most likely slow and awkward. It certainly was for me. However, once you have driven for a number of years, you don’t contemplate the movements, but rather you just sort of do it because it has become automatic. It has become a motor plan. This is what we want to happen when you practice core breathing, or any of the BFF principles for that matter, during exercise.

What we focus on expands. What we practice often flourishes. Conversely, what we ignore eventually becomes obsolete. I try to focus on what I want to grow and build habits that support that growth. It’s not always easy because I often have established habits that work against that desire, but I have hope because I know that repetition will create new paths to what I want. Repetition essentially rewires our brains. There is a popular quote from Lao Tzu that goes, “Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”

Practice everything. Want to establish an exercise routine? Practice. Want to get healthy? Practice. Practice being kind. Practice being consistent. Practice being brave. Practice showing up in the world as the person you want to be even if it seems awkward and unnatural. Practice showing up in the relationships you want to nurture, including your relationship with yourself. Nourish yourself with healthy foods, nature, and exercise. Soon enough, all these little actions seem to happen on their own like breathing and it just kind of becomes who you are. It might seem difficult, even impossible, at first and if your mind or body freezes into a state of inaction at the overwhelming threat of the unfamiliar, don't sweat it. I've been there. It's all normal. You can scale back and try again, and again, and again. Yes, and again to infinity. I've learned too that it helps to surround yourself with supportive people, maybe a mentor or two. Whatever you aim to do, if you find that you become triggered or are struggling for confidence, remember to breathe fully and to check your own pulse first. Trust me. It will serve you well for years to come.

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