06_San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge in Fog

It’s not always easy to breathe.

Breathing—the intake of oxygen and the exhalation of carbon dioxide—is life’s essential force. It’s the first step our physical bodies take towards making all other actions possible, including thinking.

In swimming, the rhythm of breathing is essential: you only have a few opportunities to catch a breath; it’s about timing your intake with your arms, kicks, and rotation. Without air, you can’t work the water.

Breath happens before anything.

Out in the open water, in the waves of the ocean, with the salt water sprays and the swells that take over, sometimes I turn my face upwards and a wave slams me in the face. I close my mouth, pass by that opportunity, hold the air in my lungs, and try again on the next cycle. Sometimes it takes a few turns before I get to suck in some oxygen.

My relationship with breathing has always been tenuous: when I was eleven, I was diagnosed with asthma. I learned my lungs were restricting my airways—and it would jump on me like a sudden cold, onset in minutes, causing breathing to be painful.

I would hide my inhalers, because I didn’t want something that gave me a crutch or a reason that I couldn’t be as good as anyone else. I learned how to push my back open against a floor, to rub my lungs to clear them, and how to hold my breath to stop my body from panicking.

I also learned how to hold my breath for a really long time. Getting into the pool every day gave me an intimate familiarity with the ways my lungs worked.

Swimming actually taught me how to breathe again.

Today, three years later, I’ve become an open water swimmer, chasing longer distances with each ocean adventure I find. I will routinely be late to work or leave for long lunch hours just to spend those hours in the ocean, my friend, the place where my soul is restored.

I need to touch the water, to splash, and to feel the curve of a wave beneath my hands. I’ll grab a board, and float out to sea, heart and head against the board, listening and feeling the rhythm beneath my body. My breathing will inadvertently sync up with the ocean swells, and the anxiety of my digital, corporate life gets left ashore. I’ll get up early, earlier than the sun, wander down to the ocean, and get into the water just to tune my body back into the rhythm of the earth.

But I had to learn how.

Your breath: check in with yourself:

First, right now, as you’re sitting at the computer or staring at your screen to read this post: what does your breath pattern look like? Do you notice it? Are you breathing? Some people stop breathing while they are reading, and they raise their shoulders and hold tension in their bodies while at the computer. (A telltale sign is if you let out periodic sighs. Listen to others if you’re in a room, or set an audio-recorder on yourself for an hour. You’ll forget about it and can then listen to the breath sounds play back. It’s fascinating.)

Next, find a space to lie on the floor. Take a deep breath. Take ten slow breaths, with your eyes closed. Push the air all the way in and out of your lungs. Where are the bottoms of your lungs? Where are the tops of them? Can you fill the space entirely?

Practice changing the cadence of your breathing. Take 10 very quick micro-breaths. Feel your rib cage move in and out. Feel your heart race, your pulse jump, feel the reaction.

Breathe again, slowly.

Your breath is the foundation on top of which every other activity takes place. You can train it, just like you can train everything else. Change your body rhythms by controlling your breath.


sarah signature

I originally wrote this post for Julien Smith’s Homework series during the epic campaign to swim naked from Alcatraz to San Francisco. Breathe is powerful, so I’m reposting as part of this November series while I’m away in Bali