Coach Caleb’s Corner
Asthma and My Personal Experience with Breath Training
Coach C, here, and I’m taking over Kati’s Fit Kit. I had to shanghai the newsletter this time because Kati was going to talk about breathing in preparation for our Breathe and Restore Seminar next week. I’m sure she wanted to say lots of great things about training breath, and relating recovery strategies etc., but I’m afraid I have some things I need to say. Sometimes I get to be indulged. So, here goes.
I’ve been asthmatic since I was a kid. As such, breathing was not something I ever wanted to think about, because just thinking about it would provoke an asthma attack. I know that must sound a bit silly, but I’m not really exaggerating all that much. If I left the house to go out and about for a day without a rescue inhaler, the moment I realized I didn’t have my safety net, I would begin to panic a bit. The little panic response I’d get would start me thinking about my breathing; was I going to be okay? If I had trouble breathing and had no medicine, would I just wheeze all day until I could get back home? Just thinking these stressful thoughts would then affect my breathing and before I knew it I was wheezing and coughing already. It’s embarrassing to even admit this, but it’s the truth. This would happen to me as an adult just as much as it did when I was younger. Stressing about having asthma problems would cause me to have asthma problems.
As a fitness professional, I’ve trained hard to overcome this annoying condition and have been able to keep it in check a bit better by improving my physical preparedness. In recent years I’ve got my inhaler use down quite a bit (by my standards) but environmental and allergy triggers or tough cardio sessions still had me habitually using medicine several times per week. Well, all that changed this month. I still have a hard time believing it myself, but in the last three weeks, I have only used my inhaler… once!? How can this be?
The answer is both simple and complex at the same time. The simple part of the answer is just that I finally spent some quality time actually learning and practicing the skills of breath regulation. As simple as it sounds, this was something I really did not want to do. Having been involved in choral singing since I was a wee lad, and spending many hours studying vocal performance techniques at Calarts getting my BFA in acting, I’d had my fill of teachers trying to get me to breathe this way or that way. Although much of what I was taught might have worked well for my peers, it only forged a more antagonistic relationship between me and my own breath. As I’ve described already, I often felt betrayed by respiratory system. For me, spending time in a class focussing on getting air in and out of my lungs was perhaps akin to someone with dyslexia being asked to read aloud. So what was different about this time? Why was I able to change this relationship? That’s where the answer gets a bit more complex.
First of all, I did not voluntarily decide to attend an intensive breath-focused workshop. Kati signed me up for it and that was that; the less I thought about it, the better. So earlier this month we found ourselves spending three days in an immersive training led by the amazing Jill Miller of Yoga Tune Up fame, called “Breath & Bliss.” We used these days to learn about everything from the anatomy and physiology of breath function, to the mental and physical techniques for breath regulation. All of this practice was done in the context of the pioneering work of Dr. Stephen Porges and his Polyvagal theory. This game-changing theory is far too big for me to try to get deep into it here, but I’ll at least try to convey the essence of how it relates to my asthma condition.
The Polyvagal Theory concerns the vagus nerve and the autonomic nervous system, which they teach you in school as having two branches; the sympathetic (this is where the “fight or flight” response to stress comes from) and the parasympathetic (associated with resting, recovery and digestion). Dr. Porges proposes a third branch, however, run by the vagus nerve which autonomically responds to a threat by shutting down the metabolism; causing a decline in heart rate and breathing. This primitive response is one which we share with our most ancient ancestors (the ones with less developed brains), and it’s important to note that it is an uncontrolled survival tactic and not our own body just “giving up” on us at a critical time. In the context of this theory, during an asthma attack the vagus nerve might respond to the threat of suffocation by perceiving the circumstances to be dangerous enough to trigger a shut down; constricting the bronchial tubes further. But, if instead of an autonomous shut down, we could somehow provoke the parasympathetic nervous system to take its calm control over respiration, then it might be possible to stave off such an attack. That’s where breath training comes in. It’s not just about getting air in and out, it’s about understanding how to use breath to trigger a desired response in the autonomic nervous system; effectively giving us some control over something we can’t actually consciously control! We can learn to breathe in a way that causes arousal of our sympathetic system and we can also learn to encourage a parasympathetic response, promoting relaxation and recovery to occur. Now that is some powerful medicine.
Obviously the ability to promote recovery and relaxation has much larger implications than just helping me out with my asthma condition, but this one example of the power of breath is so personally transformative that I had to share it. Consider what might be possible with better recovery between training sessions, reducing the damaging effects of stress, increasing our capacity to experience joy. These are all connected to our ability to trigger a parasympathetic response. We can do this with breath. That’s without even getting into the connection between the physiology of breath and our other hard working muscles! Reduced back and neck pain, greater mobility, the ability to be alert but calm, the list of benefits is too long to ignore. If you want to start tapping into these features that come standard in your own body, then join us at our upcoming Breathe and Restore seminar on April 6th.
In the meantime, I encourage anyone reading this to also learn a bit more about Dr. Porges and his Polyvagal Therory. Here’s a link to an excellent interview with the good doctor that will get you started.