Let’s call my type “sympathetic breathers” because we often interrupt our breathing using the sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight/freeze). We tend to hold our breath when we concentrate. Coaches and choreographers have to remind us to breathe and to inflate our entire belly, back and sides, not just the chest.
Making the Best of Social Distancing
Nature, on the other hand, hardwired breathing into the smooth, continuous parasympathetic nervous system (feed/breed, rest/digest), in order to be full-body and instinctive. After heartbeats, breathing is the second-most important muscular activity and the most mechanically complicated because it has to make the body bigger by making some muscles shorter — like an umbrella, sort of. Our bodies evolved for a lifetime of running and climbing, always using the smooth, fluid, baby’s breathing we were born with. Even today, people who use their whole bodies daily — workers, athletes, martial artists, dancers — keep their breathing muscles in good condition. They have better posture and fuller, more continuous breath.
But those of us who push pixels for a living can sit and hold our breath whenever we want and we don’t even notice. Once a brain mixes up breathing muscles with skeleton-control muscles, it learns the habit of either holding still when breathing or holding the breath when doing something important. This is an example of reasonable short-term motor learning leading to a bad, long-term outcome.
As with other muscles, our breathing range of motion gets smaller with age and disuse, as the sympathetic system’s interruptions become habitual. My own body’s habit of sympathetic breathing is ensnared with various other minor maladies like spinal misalignment and pelvic tilt. Since discovering this biomechanical tangle, I have deliberately worked to bring conscious breathing into yoga, walking and meditation, but it’s hard to relearn an instinct once it’s gone.
COVID-19 and Breathing
I’m convinced for two reasons that a more intense version of breathing training — let’s call it “full-contact breath prophylaxis” — could save many lives worldwide, starting soon. The obvious reason breathing training could help fight the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 is that improvements in immune and lung function directly reduce mortality, and even the simplest breathing practices like taking walks accomplish those improvements. So, presumably, super-intense preventative training before people get sick would benefit more people. Already, author J.K. Rowling credits breathing training (see here) with helping her recover from COVID-19.
The other reason sympathetic breathing matters is that COVID-19 impacts the nervous system. If a virus can cause neurological damage to the senses, as COVID-19 damages the sense of smell (anosmia), it might also cause neurological damage to muscular control — partial paralysis.
While I am not a medical doctor, my experience as a neuroscientist suggests that if the novel coronavirus partially paralyzes breathing, it might explain not only the tendency toward pneumonia, but also why so many COVID-19 patients need mechanical ventilators. (A situation known as diaphragm paralysis causes similar symptoms.) And if the paralysis affects the sympathetic system more than the parasympathetic, it might explain why more men than women suffer. (I’ve been told men use our sympathetic “pinger” systems more than women — it’s certainly true for me.)
While this sounds bad, it could actually be very good news, by enabling new forms of diagnosis and preventative treatment that don’t compete with existing ones. Breathing training doesn’t require a medical degree, just physical self-awareness and a willingness to help. So, in principle, it could spread around the world in months, first optimized by dedicated professional teams, then taught en masse by video and finally practiced in person everywhere. Bonus points for making people feel better immediately, as with yoga and exercise.
Right now, the people who best understand the biomechanics of effective breathing — practitioners of “alternative” medicine in all its forms — are stuck at home wishing they could help. Here’s how they can.
Heal Team Six
Imagine a crack team containing the following biomechanical specialties: spine-straightening (chiropractic, osteopathy, massage, Rolfing); breathwork (holotropic, Wim Hof method, Alexander technique, singing, chanting); neuromechanical trust (partner dance, animal therapy, contact improv); fluid motion (dance, Feldenkrais, yoga, martial arts); energy work (reiki, acupuncture, chi-gong); and verbal and non-verbal collaboration (circle meeting, T-group, moderated discussion).
These disciplines are common in the San Francisco Bay Area, but Heal Team Six could be anywhere in the world since their task needs neither medical training, COVID-19 expertise nor money, just the ability to breathe and teach others to do so. The team’s task is to create deployable diagnostics and interventions. The diagnostics might include a language of how the act of breathing and muscles feel inside the body (interoception); homebuilt gadgets to measure the power, volume or speed of breathing; smartphone apps that infer motor deficits from accelerometer data; or any of a dozen human-to-human tricks for seeing or feeling if someone isn’t breathing fully.
The most potent, intense intervention one could imagine would be full-contact prophylactic breathwork, based on straightforward motor training principles. Practitioners would teach people to breathe intensely before they get sick, a skill and habit that then helps both prevent and recover from pneumonia. (I almost died of pneumonia at age 25, and I don’t want anyone to suffer that.)
The “diaphragm” being trained is, in fact, a collection of some muscles that must co-activate to pull as well as others that more crucially must relax to let in air. Once Heal Team Six understands which felt muscular sensations matter most for potent breathing (perhaps the sternum, throat, lumbar spine, sides and pelvis), they can train the client to feel sensation and move those places. Furthermore, they can coach the client to feel and, ultimately, isolate the overlapping suites of muscles in the head operating head tilting, sinus-clearing, ear pressure, swallowing, eyebrows, eyes, vocalizing and sniffing. The more those various actions can operate independently, the larger fraction of the breathing muscles can be recruited while still concentrating on other things, defeating interruption by the sympathetic nervous system.
All of this complex coordination can be trained like any other muscle combination, especially if three intense practitioners are touching all the relevant spots all at once. A single client’s nervous system — surrounded, supported and cheered at once by three eager coaches — will be so overwhelmed that the client will learn much of the muscle-patterning by vibrational entrainment alone and the rest by their own efforts.
Imagine the following scenario playing out over a few days. First, the team would make sure the client’s spine can move and feel. Then, they would find which parts of the torso need more motion during breathing and practice activating those one at a time. Next, they would accustom the client to put pressure on many parts of the torso from multiple people at once. Finally, several people would touch those spots, while breathing deeply and loudly themselves and cheering the client on to do the same. From the outside, it would probably look and sound like a bellowing hippie huddle. From inside, it might feel amazing — just ask a dancer, monk or yogi.
This process would be far more intense, invasive and intimate than almost any physical activity short of military training. But desperate times call for desperate measures. Perhaps the most challenging aspect will be not physical but social because many bad breathing practices result from social pressure not to slouch, push out the belly, stick out the tongue or make faces, and clients will likely need to confront those taboos head-on by making their faces and bodies awkward, embarrassing and ugly, with rolled eyes and creepy grimaces. Against ingrained social aversion, being cheered on will help enormously.
Even unnatural motor patterns can be trained, and breathing is the most natural motor pattern one might imagine training. So, there must be a way to improve our breathing really well, really fast. Heal Team Six will find that way and teach it to the world in time to get us air.
*[Big tech has done an excellent job telling us about itself. This column, dubbed Tech Turncoat Truths, or 3T, goes beyond the hype, exploring how digital technology affects human minds and bodies. The picture isn’t pretty, but we don’t need pretty pictures. We need to see the truth of what we’re doing to ourselves.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.