Nose No Boundaries- The Case For Breathing as Training

Ask any athlete what it physically takes to become healthy and strong, and they’ll most likely tell you a balance of two things: nutrition and training. The condition of our bodies greatly benefits from regular exercise in any way, shape, or form as long as it’s consistent, and we need a harmony of micro and macronutrients as well as liquids to provide us with enough energy for both physical and mental health and longevity––though there’s one other element that’s conveniently overlooked and arguably more important than nutrition and training combined: air. Mahatma Gandhi famously survived twenty-one days of complete starvation, albeit he wasn’t lifting weights. Water’s an even greater necessity. Most people need it after only three days, granted some have survived up to ten. But air? Try a single minute without it—I’ll be generous and give you thirty seconds—and see how far you can go.

Breathing is the first thing we do when we are born, the last thing we do before we perish, and in between that time, we take about half a billion breaths. We have half a billion opportunities to make each and every breath count and give them the attention they deserve, but the majority of us breathe as mindlessly as we blink––except for when we’re on yoga mats or told to “take a deep breath.” For the rare times when we do breathe mindfully, however, most of us tend to follow the old adage: in through the nose and out through the mouth. I would like to extend an alternative and mouth off about the benefits of nose breathing: in and out through the nose instead.

monk meditating

Instead of parroting the many health benefits of nose breathing, which you can read all about here (there’s an embedded TED Talk about it as a bonus) and here, I’ll talk about nose breathing in the context of dantian. Dantian is loosely translated as “energy center.” Roughly speaking, dantian is to Daoism as chakras are to yoga, just as the concept of meridians is similar to nadis and qi to prana. There are three major dantian epicenters in the body: the lower being just below the naval, the middle in your chest where the heart is, and the upper behind the forehead where the brain is. The lower dantian is for breathing. Most, if not all dantian breathing techniques are performed in and out through the nose, not the mouth, because it’s believed that nose breathing cultivates qi and doesn’t allow it to escape. From a Western perspective, and empirically speaking, nose breathing naturally produces the molecular compound nitric oxide, but mouth breathing doesn’t. Nitric oxide combats harmful bacteria and viruses, regulates blood pressure, boosts the immune system, and more.

Two major dantian breathing techniques are natural breathing and embryonic breathing. Natural breathing is simple and describes the type of unconscious breathing we do throughout the day, but it’s supposed to be conscious, at the very least semi-conscious, and focus only on deep, diaphragmatic breathing, not chest breathing. Embryonic breathing on the other hand is far subtler. It’s also called internal breathing, and best way to describe it is a type of breathing that’s so calm and soft that if you were to hold a feather under your nose, it wouldn’t move. Personally, I’ve found embryonic breathing to be most useful for meditation. All things considered, I wasn’t always a nose breather.

monk meditating in river

I actually first learned about nose breathing after binge-reading a bunch of theory about it a few years ago. I will never forget the night I put it to the test and discovered its efficacy. To make sure I couldn’t possibly cheat, I took a small swig of water and wouldn’t swallow. “Just keep it in your cheeks like a chipmunk,” I told myself while jogging over to the nearest track less than a quarter-mile away.

The beginning laps were experimental as I tried out different breathing techniques to find a fixed cadence. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I didn’t know about ChiRunning at the time despite all my armchair research. So, the first one I tried was the 4-7-8 Breath, which of course isn’t meant for running, nor even nose breathing for that matter, but whatever. I inhaled to a count of four, held my breath to a count of seven, and then exhaled completely to a count of eight. That didn’t work very well for me, even at a slow pace, because after eight seconds of exhaling I had to inhale erratically, which threw off the breathing pattern altogether. I cut the ratio in half and tried 2-3-4. Close, but no cigar. A two-second inhale was too short. I tried 5-5-5 and liked it better. More simple. But how would I compensate my timing for faster and slower tempos? And what about my stride––how many steps should I take in between each of my breaths? There were two separate races going on: one in my mind and one on the track. They needed to come together.

child meditating

I decided not to get caught up with ratios and seconds and yielded to whatever felt comfortable and natural. I tuned out the voice in my head and tuned into my body instead, listened closely to the sounds of my breath, the gentle winds howling past my ears, and the dirt crunching beneath each and every step. It all started to sound like a symphony as my breath and mind and muscles fused into fluid self-propulsion. I had eased into what felt like a state of hypnosis so meditative and relaxing that I almost forgot I was even moving, a soft, half-hovering flow around and around the track. I felt like Hermes, or the T-1000 in the iconic chase scene from Terminator 2 (1991). My enlightenment came to a screeching halt when I finally spat out a steaming mouthful of water spiked with saliva, but it quickly returned during my walk back home, high off the life-changing run.

From that night forward, nose breathing became an established practice, and not just while running but in every aspect of my life. Now I may be a bit biased because my nose is gargantuan and protrudes like a toucan’s beak, but I firmly believe that nose breathing should have a place in everyone’s daily routine whether it be during intensive training, meditation, sitting in class, or at work. Nose breathing knows no boundaries, so find ways to make it work for you.

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