This is an excerpt from Breathe, Focus, Excel by Harvey Martin.
As you start to understand your breath and how you can use it in your athletic performances, you must start with awareness. As an athlete and high-level performer, your main objective is to improve. What you can measure, you can progress, and as humans progress in activities, they go back to them. Think of a person starting a weightlifting program who finds immediate results in that process. As their muscles grow, they find the weight room less intimidating and more attractive, making it easier to continue and to improve.
So how do you create progress in your breathing? Start with the diaphragm. It’s the key muscle used in breathing and needs to be worked just like any other muscle, but working this muscle can be frustrating because you can’t see or feel that it grew like you can with the biceps after a series of curls. Therefore, you must go deeper into how you perceive progress in breathing.
Breathing, like anything else that athletes do, is a skill. We can improve our breathing, just as we can improve our squat. The beauty of breath practice, however, is that it is more than a mechanical skill. It also contributes to improvements in overall health. In recent years, we have learned that practicing breathing can control our autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary processes. Control over this system allows us to regulate other automatic systems in our body, such as heart rate, digestion, and blood circulation. All of these play a tremendous role in our health and natural ability to build immunity. By mastering the breath, we can take ownership of our health, which is a human superpower.
Beyond improving the mechanics of physical performance, breathing gives us direct access to our brain. Three main systems in the brain are directly affected by the breath: the brainstem, which is the most ancient part of the brain; the limbic system, which controls the emotional center of the brain; and the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for reasoning, problem-solving, comprehension, impulse control, creativity, and perseverance—the things that make us human and separate us from other animals (see figure 1.1).
Regulation of breathing is an instinctual function that takes place in the brainstem and is mainly unconscious. Its main role is to keep the body at homeostasis, which is keeping the physiological systems in balance. Although the involuntary mechanism of breath control is not entirely understood, we know it involves neural signals in respiratory centers that are located in the medulla and pons, which sit just above the spinal cord. These centers control the movement and timing of the breath as well as the rhythm. Overall, this area of the brain fine-tunes the ventilation rate. The respiratory center in the brainstem is affected by high levels of carbon dioxide and low pH, which will be discussed further in chapter 3. These levels are why this area of the brain focuses on homeostasis. If the body feels out of sync, the areas in the brainstem will work to correct that.
The limbic system generates emotional ripple effects that are affected by the way we breathe. Shallow, rapid, inefficient breathing can put us in a weakened, reactionary state where we can’t control our emotions. Deep, slow breathing can create a controlled, responsive state where we have a grip on our emotions.
Finally, the prefrontal cortex, which is where decision-making and reasoning take place, allows for voluntary and intentional control of breathing. Voluntary control moves breathing from an unconscious state to a conscious state. This is where breathing becomes the ultimate separator in human evolution: We have the unique ability to control our lives by how we breathe. When we focus on our breath, we start to control our ability to think better, and thinking better gives us, as athletes, a competitive advantage. In later chapters we will focus heavily on breath control and ways to alter the mind.