In Praise of Breathing

I had a series of head-colds, exacerbated by allergy problems, for over a month. As is usual with head colds, they made breathing rather challenging. Not “I’m having an anxiety attack and can’t slow down my breathing and this is terrifying” challenging, or “asthma attack from h-ll” or “Wasp sting! Grab the Epi-Pen!” challenging, but difficult. It reminded me that I take breathing easily for granted. I sing semi-professionally, so I tend to pay a wee bit more attention to breathing than many people do, if only because composers like either putting really looooooong notes down low, and quiet, where I have trouble, or write loooooong phrases withe instructions to the effect of “carry through – don’t even think about grabbing a catch breath or else.” I also play piano and organ, but “wind control” there is adjusting valves in the instrument, not on the player.

So, with a stopped up head, sore throat, congested lungs, and generally dim view of whoever passed their cold on to me, I started thinking about breathing.

As an aside, there are some plants that cause suppression of parts of the autonomic nervous system. If your heart goes, too bad. But sometimes it is the breathing that is most affected, and people have described having to lay for hours making themselves inhale and exhale, until the toxin wore off. Scary, yes?

People who sing, who do public speaking without benefit of a mic, of who do yoga and certain other disciplines, become aware of different kinds of breathing. Most people tend to breathe mostly with their chest muscles. Singers and others learn to use more of the diaphragm and abdomen in order to get the most inflow and outflow. Exhaling thoroughly feels really strange at first, as if you are a little short of breath, and you want to rush the inhale.

Once you get used to it, it makes an enormous difference in how much “air power” you have available, either for volume or duration. In my case, since I sing choral music, duration is more important.  I actually have enough breath control to “whisper sing,” to produce tone at a very, very low volume. This is useful for practicing quietly, and for getting even with conductors and teachers who demand ever quieter sounds. “Yes, ma’am, I’m still singing,” and the people on both sides nod in agreement.

At the worst of the cold, before I gave in and took something to keep my nose open, I was dreadfully aware of breathing and my inability to do same with the usual ease. It was as if I’d flown from San Diego to Santa Fe (7000′ above sea level) , then drove to Los Alamos (8000′ ASL). *gasp, gasp gasp, cough cough, gasp*

It affected my singing, in part because my throat stayed dry and sore, or was irritated by drainage, or both. And not being able to breathe through my nose, plus having crud in my lungs, really cut down on my staying power. “Sure on that shining night of *GAAASSSSSP* stars and shadows made.” Not too melodic, as you can imagine.

And then one day in mid February I inhaled and realized, “Hey! I can breathe normally! Yeah!”

And it was very good.

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5 thoughts on “In Praise of Breathing

  1. Breathing is one of the most underappreciated joys in this life. Sweet sucking air is a thing of wonder and beauty… usually only appreciated by people who’ve just had to go without. Glad you can breathe again!

  2. 3 surgeries scheduled for May, hopefully I’ll actually be able to breathe ‘correctly’ for the first time in, oh, forty years… sigh Color me envious!!!

  3. I’m on a fitness program for the first time in…45 years. I’ve been walking almost every day, for four+ weeks now, and I’m hoping the breathing comes back. My left lung is paralyzed, or rather, the left side of my diaphragm is paralyzed, and years ago, the doc told me that if I could lose weight, I wouldn’t even notice the loss. Well, I’m not there YET, but I have hope!

  4. I have pretty bad asthma, so I know what you’re talking about. I remember the first time I got a steroid inhaler. It was really strange to not wake up with chest pain because I couldn’t breath during the night.

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