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GARY SMITH: Brushing up on breathing

Scotch, after all, can’t always be the answer by Gary Smith | March 5, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

I've come face to face with a certain reality recently. Despite years and years of practice and exercise, I've discovered I don't actually know how to breath.

OK, a bit of qualification here. Yes, I can breathe. I have, in fact and except for those moments when I've held my breath or been underwater, been breathing constantly for my entire life. My expertise has been aided by the fact that, apparently, there is a part of your brain whose sole function is to keep you breathing. So I can't say I didn't have help there. But, yes, I can, have and, hopefully, will continue to breath for some time.

However, as with a lot of things, execution certainly does not equal expertise. I mean, I should know this. I dance and play golf. So, obviously there are things you can enjoy doing without being good at them.

Apparently, according to lots of folks, while I can perform the basics of breathing, I'm not getting the full benefits of breathing techniques. I am, by way of analogy, still in Breathing 101 (which I would suggest is pretty much a "pass/fail" course) and have yet to move on to more advanced levels.

I'd like to offer up some excuses for my less-than-stellar performance when it comes to breathing. Allergies, for one. And the fact that poorly fitted or worn football headgear will provide scant protection for a person's nose (a note: asked if I broke my nose, I say, "No, someone broke it for me." I mean, it definitely wasn't my idea.).

But, excuses aside, I'm assured the reason I haven't realized the benefits of advanced breathing are that I just haven't opened myself to the possibilities, and that learning how is as easy as....breathing in and out. You saw that coming, didn't you?

All this comes up because, as a nation (potentially a planet) we're beginning to realize that the events of the past year have taken a significant toll on our collective mental health. It has been suggested that those events merely intensified feelings of anxiety, depression and stress we've been experiencing for some time. Whatever the case, it seems we're all coming to realize we're not necessarily all fine, it's fine, we're fine.

And if there are any positives to come from all this, one of them is we're starting to see the benefits of attending to our mental state, learning to relax, calm ourselves and distress. And since for 99% of our lives, "Scotch" isn't the answer (oh, but that glorious 1%!) we're going to have to learn techniques that will accomplish our goals and still allow us to operate heavy equipment. Or at least drive to the store. If we're allowing ourselves outside.

That is where breathing, specifically a technique called "box breathing," comes in. Box Breathing is used by people in high-stress situations to calm themselves. In a nutshell, you breath in for a count of four, hold it for a count of four and then breath out for a count of four. Likely more complex than I've described, but that's it in a nutshell.

People, certainly those faced with greater challenges than myself, swear by this. They say it helps them focus, heightens performance and allows them to concentrate, all of which seem like worthwhile goals.

My personal challenge with this is that, while I'm willing to give this the benefit of the doubt, I lack any sense of rhythm (see "enjoying dancing without being any good at it"). So, I find myself holding my breath for longer periods of time than is probably advisable.

And while a lot of practitioners of box breathing feel more focused, I wind up feeling a little light-headed. Not necessarily a bad thing (I mean, it sort of reminds me of a lot of college weekends), but not exactly what athletes, U.S. Navy SEALs, police officers and firefighters were going for.

My poor performance aside, the idea that more and more people are becoming aware of the need to take care of their entire selves, including their emotional and mental health, is a good one. Whether it's box breathing or reaching out for help, while there never should have been any shame, there definitely isn't now.

And I'm going to keep trying. But, given my limitations, if you think I'm going to master box breathing, the best I can suggest is that you don't hold your breath.

You saw that coming, didn't you?


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