September 5, 2007

Ready? Inhale...

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I've noticed recently that when I'm at work, or at almost anytime that I'm seated for long periods, my breathing is incredibly shallow. Of course, the shallower your breaths are, the more of them you have to take, but as long as the air is dribbling in and out of you regularly enough, you probably won't even notice.

It's taken me a long time to realize the extent to which this is affecting me. Lately I noticed that it wasn't until I left work that I ever truly breathed deeply, and how stifled and threatened I felt throughout the day under even fairly benign circumstances. My job isn't hard, and the people aren't so scary, so why am I gasping?

A little research informed me that shallow breathing is quite common. It occurs when you draw air just into your chest area using your intercostal muscles, instead of throughout your lungs using your diaphragm. Experiment with this. When you are watching a movie or working on the computer, or doing anything in which your body is at rest but your attention is focused elsewhere, do you unconsciously operate on the bare minimum of air? As you are reading this, does even half of a full breath seem uncharacteristically deep compared to how you were breathing a few minutes ago?

I was also able to confirm that one's tendency toward anxiety, stress, and asthma and panic attacks can all be affected by shallow breathing. I don't know whether a general sense of dissatisfaction caused me to unconsciously tighten my breathing, or if the act of simply sitting in a chair for so many hours has changed my breathing, resulting in more and more associative feelings of anxiety over time. Most likely, it's just another of life's unfair vicious cycles (I collect them). Either way, after a year and a half, it's time to acknowldedge the toll this is taking on me and how rotten I feel a lot of the time.

It is so hard to be a permeable being in a city where the very air you breathe can seem like a personal assault. My bike rides to and from work are a time when I should be breathing as freely as possible, but so often I'm very busy protecting my healthy pink insides from the visible clouds of exhaust hovering over the pavement, or from the grape-formaldehyde fumes emanating from the fresh coat of paint they're spraying onto the Queensborough Bridge (a disgusting, and frankly baffling shade of tan. TAN. Who paints a bridge tan?). There are the fumes from the creek, clouds of grit thrown up by construction crew jackhammers, and tremendous steam vents. On the sidewalks you get trapped behind slow-walking cigarette smokers or pass shoulder-high bunkers of garbage. There is always something adversarial to guard against, until eventually a squint or clench or held breath becomes more than instinctive-- it becomes reflexive, pre-emptive, triggered all the time to protect you against threats both real and imaginary.

I have my own way of working this out, but as usual, AskMetafilter is running to the assist in the rescue: someone requested links to guided meditation mp3's. Whether you're unfamiliar with meditation or merely out of practice, guided meditations can be a big help, and many of these are worth downloading. I have been relying on my kung fu practice to compensate for the meditation I used to do; while there is a focus on breathing in kung fu, there is so much else to pay attention to (and so much work to be done) that it really doesn't serve the same purpose. Being easily frustrated these days by the effort it takes me to sustain meditative breathing on my own (it used to be so easy!), I am looking forward to playing with these guided sessions as an welcome opportunity to escape my own thoughts.


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