BREATHING: ASTHMA, THE BIG BLUE , AND BRAZILIAN JIU-JITSU

     There was a video on WIRED I watched about holding your breath under water. The video is here: Why It's Almost Impossible to Hold Your Breathe for 24 Minutes 

A Freediver practices their technique in a pool. Photo by WIRED

A Freediver practices their technique in a pool. Photo by WIRED

     The video inspired me to share my stories and experiences with "Breath Holding". I like to think I'm uniquely qualified in this department called "breathing" because I'm an asthmatic and Leukemia Survivor. My parents would tell you, in my early years, I was in the hospital more than I was home. My Mom always kept me close and inside which probably propelled my creativity and my lust for knowledge. Despite these facts, later on in life, I became a very active kid and athletic. She was always hanging on to me trying to keep me from danger, while I ran towards it. We couldn't afford for me to play Little League Sports, so I played outside a lot.  When it got cold in the winter and I would get sick, things got really scary for me. One of my most memorable experiences was when I was about 12 years old. I had gotten sick and I was desperately trying to breathe in the backseat of our car as my Father sped us to the hospital. It was a harrowing experience, as I was taking super deep breaths and I was probably getting an 1/6th of the air I wanted/needed. It was exhausting too.

   It was the scariest time I could remember.  While laying on the cold leather seat, I wasted no energy and was laser-focused on just getting air into my lungs. When we arrived, they immediately gave me a Nebulizer treatment. Back then, the Nebulizer was a really big machine, nothing like the mobile units today. I'm forever thankful my parents had great Health Care Coverage for us. I remember being smaller and having attacks, but this one changed the way I thought about it. There was a sense of urgency and purpose in trying to beat my ailment or at the very least building up a resistance. Then I saw a movie. There was a movie that came out in 1988 with Jean Reno, Rosana Arquette and it was Directed by Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, Leon: The Professional, The Fifth Element). The film was called The Big Blue and to me it was amazing. It was a movie about two childhood friends who became rivals in "Freediving". 


I was fortunate my father loved watching foreign movies and would always bring home something different. It was filmed in English, but I think it got here by way of Italy or France; I remember there being subtitles on the film. You might be able to find it on Netflix, but if you can't, somebody uploaded the entire movie in a Drive-In Theater frame on Youtube: ) If you're a Cinefile, you'll appreciate watching one of Luc Besson's early endeavors and recognizing his signature style. 


    Besson had learned how to Scuba Dive early in his youth, which would explain why one of his first big features was about diving. The way he presented the character was fantastic. They were underground celebrities because of their superhuman skill. They were freaks of nature already, but they hyper-developed their breath holding into superpowers. I was amazed a human could hold their breath that long.  I became obsessed. I immediately started researching how to get a longer breathe hold. I was already practicing how to slow down my heart rate so my pulse would be undetectable (saw it in an 80's Ninja movie).  We had a community pool where my friends and I would spend most of our summer days. For weeks, you could find me in the deep end holding my self under water near a ladder. I was already a good swimmer, athletic, competitive, and good at research. Now I was learning how to discipline my breathing and all the associated thought processes. 

      My Mom had always made sure we had Library Cards and would take us there frequently.  So I read, practiced and then practiced some more. Just like was stated in the Wired video, there are ways to trick your body into doing what you need it to. I had no idea about the physiological science behind the techniques, I was interested in the mechanics and increasing my "breathhold" to aid my fight against asthma. I tried to move as little as possible and to help me slow time I thought about making a hamburger. For reals. That's how I started achieving breathe holds up to 2:45 and 3 minutes. I would think about the entire process of making and cooking a hamburger; from getting the meat from the freezer-all the way to getting the burger on the bun.  After that experimental summer, I had developed ways to control my breathing and expand my breathe-hold. The techniques helped me so much, I was able to play as a Defenesive Back on our Championship Highschool Football Team and become an Highschool All-Star in Lacrosse. 

     Which brings me to Jiu-Jitsu. One of the first things I ever learned in Jiu Jitsu, was how to breathe. I had always been in fights and found myself wrestling with wrestlers. So much so, that I often get accused of being a wrestler when I roll with others on the mats.  There wasn't a move I can remember learning first outside of breathing, because before I stepped into the gym my buddy talked to me about it.  I was lucky enough he gave me a technique on how to breathe while doing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. He gave me that gift and I ran with it. Coupled with my knowledge of breathing techniques I learned in my youth, it was the first piece of my "Jits" game. My utilization of "air" helped my "gas". It allowed me energy and time to learn how to efficiently escape when I would become "uncomfortable". It is so important. So much so, you can see it evidenced here by Gracie Jiu Jitsu Grandmaster Rickson Gracie: 

Grandmaster Rickson Gracie explaining the components of his style and how breathing is one of the most important.

     After class one day, I was speaking with my Gracie Jiu Jitsu Instructor as we mopped the mats. He knew I had a Garmin VivoSmart + and asked me what I used it for. I explained to him how I can track my steps, running, and bicycling, but mostly I try to keep track of my heart rate. Then I explained how I used to read Ninja books and then I told him about the hamburger. He looked at me like I was ridiculous. You only have so many moments with people and sometimes you aren't able to have in-depth convos to explain. Especially when you have a whole blog post like this, dancing in your head, and on the tip of your tongue. You don't get the time to talk to people in depth about your experiences and first-hand knowledge. All that comes out is, "hamburger." Having rolled with him, he is the greatest "energy vampire" I ever encountered. His technique was amazing, but I was fixated on how he made me expend energy; how he disrupted my breathing. He didn't allow me to make a "burger."

     This was an opportunity to make sense of what I learned, how I learned it, and why I learned it. Whether you have asthma, a walker, runner, cyclist, swimmer, or a cancer fighter/survivor-learning breathing techniques will help you for the rest of your life. 

-Digital Ninja® out. 

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