Breathing Haiku


the mountain
sets my mind on each breath —
thin-air teacher


air rushes in,
but the sinuous seedpod
merits no gasp


in the stillness,
my body skips breaths —
sometimes I notice…


in balance —
my mind clear and at ease
stomach gliding


watching each breath,
none is the same, otherwise,
all of them are



at the seashore
breath syncs to lapping waves
sea teachings

in between
the inhale and exhale
lies stillness

a breath missed
life takes a moment’s pause
mind is void

slow the breath
drawing each instant out
slow your world

breath control
lets one drop the sails
in rough seas

My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Pt. IX [Streaming Poetry]

As I continue to look at variations in consciousness, it occurred to me that poetry writing (or at least pre-writing) often involves an altered state of consciousness. Often, I do an exercise akin to freewriting. Freewriting is an exercise that has been popular for a long time for beating writer’s block. You just write: fast, without judgement, and without concern that you’re taking a reader to any particular place. (It’s somewhat like “brainstorming” in process, but usually solitary and producing sentences or phrases and not bullet-point lists.) The point is to break the grip of self-consciousness and lay waste to the idea that every word has to be pure brilliance to be worthy of your time.

My process begins by quieting my conscious mind, typically with long exhalation breathwork (pranayama.) For those unfamiliar with yogic pranayama or other forms of breathwork, drawing out one’s exhalations (in conjunction with relaxing the body) slows the heart rate and otherwise activates the rest and digest functions of the body. (The curious or dubious can look up “cardiac sinus arrhythmia” or “respiratory sinus arrhythmia,” which is the same thing alternatively labeled by the cause [respiration adjusted] or the effect [heartbeat changes])

After my conscious mind is tranquil, I set pencil to paper and just start writing quickly — without looking back or forward, but just trying to be present with whatever my mind vomits forth. Usually, there is an understandable grammar, but no understandable meaning (at least not beyond the granularity of a phrase.) But building meaning isn’t the point, and I don’t care. Sometimes, I fall into a rhythmic sound quality, but other times I don’t. To give an idea of what the raw feed of this looks like, here’s an example from this morning:

Turn ten, run the nines. I found a fever down the line and could not bend the wall to weep, but heard the conveyor line… beep – beep – beep. Oh, so some fucking wisdom says let live the demons that I dread, but there’s a cold magnolia leaf on the ground and I can hear it skid at the break of dawn, but what sign is that to feel it out. I killed a monk and stole his doubt, but you’ll never blame away the triple frame…

So, it’s a collection of words and phrases that has no discernible meaning collectively. Once and a while, I go through some of these flows of verbiage and underline words, phrases, or ideas that have some spark or merit, and then — if I can — unshuffle and word-cobble until I have a poem.

However, my point in this post isn’t to describe how a poem gets its wings. Instead, it’s to discuss the process by which the consciousness “presents” us with something from out of nowhere. (The conscious mind would claim it “created” it, but I have my doubts. I’ve learned the conscious mind routinely takes credit for many things that are not its doing.)

It’s not like I have an idea (stolen or otherwise) and then I think it through, and then I order those thoughts into an outline. (The usual writing process.) On the contrary, I go to great lengths to make my conscious as quiet as possible as a precursor. I think about the term William James coined, “stream of consciousness” which became a prominent literary device. Is it streaming into consciousness, from consciousness, or through consciousness? Where does it come from? 

You might say, “Why worry about where it comes from because it’s a garbage heap?”

But once in a while there are epiphanies and flashes of insight amidst the rubble and dung. Sure, maybe I grant detritus post-hoc gold status, but there’s something there I feel I have yet to understand.

In consciousness, we seem to have awareness of [something] and meta-awareness (i.e. we are aware of what we are aware of [something.]) Sometimes that meta-awareness is a grand and beneficial tool, but sometimes it’s just another word for self-consciousness. Sometimes having a one-track mind is a beautiful thing.

I said that my practice was “akin to freewriting,” and it might seem exactly freewriting, but the main difference is that it’s purposeless. Sure, once and a while I go back through and rag-pick, but mostly I do the practice just to revel in the experience of being completely with whatever words are streaming. The writing and being consciousness of what is surprising me on the page takes enough of my mental faculties that I have none left to be self-conscious.

Who knows where this journey will take me next month? There’s still a lot of territory left in the altered states of consciousness. Fasting, dance, shamanic drumming, tantric sex, psychonautics, etc. Who knows?

5 Fun Facts about Breathing

Annapurna, Nepal; Taken in May of 2018

5.) The Death Zone may be a myth, or — probably more accurately — everyone may have their own personal death zone:

It’s widely stated as fact that above 8,000 meters (26,000 feet) every human being is dying, no human can acclimatize, and the race is on to get back below that altitude before the body is damaged beyond its ability to repair itself. This hard-limit is widely publicized in reputable, mainstream publications such as National Geographic. There’s a certain logic to such a limit. In response to the diminished pressure of oxygen, the body produces more hemoglobin (that’s acclimatization), but the bloodstream can only take up so much hemoglobin.

Mark Horrell, in his mountaineering blog, challenges the idea of a one-size-fits-all hard limit, and provides anecdotal examples that contradict the 8,000 meter cap.

4.) Sticking one’s face in water allows one to hold one’s breath longer:

Sensory cells in the face and nostrils sense wetness and this sensation triggers a slowed heartbeat (bradycardia) and constriction of blood vessels (vasoconstriction) so as to reduce blood flow to the extremities.

A more detailed explanation can be read here.

3.) Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation works because our lungs only capture about 20% of the oxygen in each inhalation:

If we had super-efficient lungs, our exhalations wouldn’t contain enough oxygen to sustain the patient receiving cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR.)

This and many other fascinating respiratory facts can be found on the Crash Course videos on the subject.

2.) In two weeks time the breath you’re exhaling right now will have spread out around the globe.

Sam Kean’s book, Caesar’s Last Breath, discusses this subject in great depth. In fact, the title is a reference to the fact that in each breath it’s likely that one inhales a molecule of Caesar’s dying breath.

1.) When you lose weight, most of it (84%) is lost in exhaled carbon-dioxide:

This may not be a question that ever occurred to you, but I bet you find it fascinating once it’s brought to your attention. It’s not like when you cut 5 kg, there’s a fat pile sitting somewhere. More about this subject can be learned here.

Nadi Shodhana; Alternate Nostril Breathing

BOOK REVIEW: Perfect Breathing by Al Lee and Don Campbell

Perfect Breathing: Transform Your Life One Breath at a TimePerfect Breathing: Transform Your Life One Breath at a Time by Al Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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It’s not an exaggeration to say that there is no set of yogic practices with a greater power to transform one’s life than breathing exercises (pranayama.) With this in mind, I’m always on the look out for new sources of insight into breathing – be it from free-divers, Buddhists, sports scientists, yogis, martial artists, or else-wise. This book provides an overview from a diverse set of experts with descriptions of a number of different breathing practices (e.g. Taoist qi gong, yogic pranayama, a practice for runners, etc.,) but it takes as its central tenet a six-second breath that it recommends as the titular “perfect breath.”

Breathing practices are often underestimated. People, after all, figure that they’ve been breathing every day of their lives, so who can teach them anything on the subject. The idea of reading a book on breathing is right up there with watching the paint dry or the grass grow for excitement. Unfortunately, in parts – many densely pack up front – the authors do too little to dissuade readers of this belief. In early chapters and sprinkled throughout, the book is rife with truisms and banal comments that will leave the rankest neophyte thinking they aren’t going to learn anything of value. That said, I’m glad I kept with it, because the authors convey some powerful insights by telling the stories of people from various walks of life who’ve achieved great things by improving their breath.

The book is organized around a central structure of breathing as a tool for improvement of body, mind, emotion, and spirit. This is sound approach to covering the topic, and the discussion of breath as a means to emotional control is particularly beneficial and welcome. It could be argued that the coverage of the topic of spirituality could have been jettisoned without much loss. The authors talked around the subject in away that was vague and insubstantial. To be fair, they may have been trying to avoid running afoul of individuals who were either secular / scientific (non-spiritual) or who had strong sectarian beliefs on spiritual matters.

The book has seven parts. Part I consists of two chapters that offer an introduction into the topic. These could have been pared down without substantial loss of value. Part II (Ch. 3 – 8) is entitled “Your Perfect Breath” and it discusses developing awareness of breath, body, emotion, spirit, and introduces the fundamentals of how one should breath the “perfect breath.” Part III (Ch. 9 – 12) explores the role that breathing practices can have on improving health outcomes. It’s well established that the body puts healing / rebuilding on hold under high stress, when the sympathetic nervous system is engaged. Breathing practices can help trip parasympathetic (rest and digest) activity. Part IV (Ch. 13 – 15) is of particular interest to athletes and those who want to perform better at some physical or mental activity. In addition to discussing both physical and mental performance, the authors devote a chapter to what is sometimes called Flow (Csikszentmihaly) or The Zone, and how breath can play into quieting the mind to facilitate said state. Part V (Ch. 16 – 19) is about breathing as a means to take control of one’s emotional life. People in the throes of emotional turmoil are unlikely to notice how that turmoil influences their breath, but it has a major impact — and it’s a two-way street, i.e. one can help mitigate excessive emotional response through breath. Part VI (Ch. 20 – 21) is devoted to spirituality and the nexus of breath and prayer or meditation. The final part (Ch. 22) explores the idea of the final breath. I thought this was a valuable discussion, given the tremendous anxiety of coming to one’s last breath and its impact on people’s lives.

There are no graphics in the book. They aren’t greatly missed, but might have been useful in places. (It’s probably more accurate to say the authors could have gone into more depth if they’d used graphics and not stayed in such vague territory.) There is an appendix that lists and briefly describes the included exercises, and the e-book / Kindle version includes hyperlinks to the detailed description in the book’s interior. Having a link to the practices is a useful feature. There is also a short section of recommended readings.

While it took me a bit of time to get traction in reading this book, once I did, I learned a great deal. I would recommend it for anyone who is interested in an overview of breathing practices for health, emotional control, and increased physical performance. The authors transmit expertise from a broad range of experts from various walks of life.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Way of the Iceman by Wim Hof and Koen De Jong

The Way of The Iceman: How The Wim Hof Method Creates Radiant Longterm Health--Using The Science and Secrets of Breath Control, Cold-Training and CommitmentThe Way of The Iceman: How The Wim Hof Method Creates Radiant Longterm Health–Using The Science and Secrets of Breath Control, Cold-Training and Commitment by Wim Hof
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Wim Hof is often presented as a freak of nature. If you’re flipping through the science channels, you might see a segment that shows him subjecting himself to extremely cold temperatures with no ill effects. This book is an attempt by Hof, and co-author Koen De Jong, to counter the proposition that he’s some sort of mutant (or—worse–that his demonstrations are cons) by offering a method by which anyone can achieve the same feats. It should be noted that long before Hof and YouTube came on the scene, there were people [notably Taoist and Tibetan Buddhist monks] performing similar acts.

Hof’s method (called the “Wim Hof Method” or WHM herein and in this book) consists of three components: cold training, breath exercises, and commitment building. The book explores this three-legged stool from both the scientific and practical dimensions. There’s one chapter on each of these elements that describes what it does to the body and how it contributes to well-being, and later chapters both describe what scientific studies have found so far and outline the approach by which the reader can explore the WHM on their own.

There’s a lot of front matter in this book (two forwards, a prologue, and an introduction), but the book more-or-less consists of seven chapters. The first of these is a mini-bio of Hof. It describes a fascinating event in Hof’s youth in which he was exposed to cold, as well as his travels to India in an attempt to find a yoga teacher. [As is the case with most people who come to India seeking to find that quintessential guru—i.e. a half-naked, weather-beaten, and forehead paint-streaked classical guru—he found that he had to wade through a sea of charlatans and shysters while never finding the true masters who are likely hidden away in caves in the Himalayas. Note: this is not to say that one can’t find excellent yoga instruction in India but it’ll likely be by someone fully clothed and not someone smoking pot on a ghat in Varanasi.] This resulted in Hof taking an experimental approach in which he studied the effects of various activities on himself (and such experimentation is what he advocates for others as well.) It should be noted that Hof didn’t invent this method from scratch—e.g. the breath component is based on Tibetan Tummo meditation.

As mentioned, Chapters 2 through 4 explore the three components of the WHM, i.e. cold training, breath exercise, and commitment building, respectively. These chapters describe the science of how these three elements generally (as opposed to a later chapter that describes studies in more depth) act upon the body. The commitment section describes a number of arduous feats such as climbing Kilimanjaro in a T-shirt and shorts, but also describes the role of diet (with particular emphasis on the fast-5 diet which is similar to, but not precisely, what Hof came to practice organically.)

Chapter 5 dives more deeply into the science than does the preceding chapters, and focuses on the studies in which Hof has participated in his attempt to facilitate a better understanding of his method.

The penultimate chapter suggests what the WHM might do for people in various classes, including: healthy people, athletes, and people suffering from various physical and mental ailments. With respect to the latter, there is discussion of exemplary cases as well as the possible means by which the training might act.

The final chapter is a brief outline of how the WHM can be put into practice by readers. There is also a sample log by which practitioners can chart their experience.

There are a range of graphics including line diagrams and photographs. Most of the photographs are inspirational shots of Hof in action, but there are diagrams and other graphics used to convey scientific ideas. There’s a recommended reading page as well as a works cited page. Both lists are small and confined to a few key sources of information, with the latter being the more scholarly works. There is also a glossary that may prove handy for some readers.

This book is illuminating and many stand to benefit from it. I found the approach of the authors to be sound; it’s basically “see for yourself.” This book could easily have been a sales brochure, and in some ways it is, but the fact that it emphasizes the science and the suggestion that the reader try the practice lends credibility. I’d highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to expand and explore the limits of their capability.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Science of Breath by Swami Rama et. al.

Science of BreathScience of Breath by Swami Rama
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is an oldie, but a goody. The first edition came out in 1979, but as its intent is to provide an overview of the anatomy and physiology of breath for yoga practitioners, the fact that it doesn’t access the bleeding edge of respiratory science isn’t all that detrimental.

This short book consists of four chapters. Two chapters are by the famous yogi Swami Rama, and the other two are written by medical doctors. The first chapter is an introduction to breath from the yogic perspective. It both explains why it’s so important to understand and work with breath and introduces the mythic physiology (prana, nadi, chakra, etc.) that has historically been used to explain pranayama (breath exercises.)

The second chapter is written by Dr. Alan Hymes and it explains the mechanics of respiration. While Chapter 2 focuses on the anatomy of breathing, it begins with an explanation of cellular respiration to introduce the role of breath in powering muscles. There is a fine explanation of the operation of the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles in breathing.

Chapter 3 is written by Dr. Rudolph Ballentine, and it delves into the role of the nose and nasal cavities in respiration. Breathing through the nose is emphasized in both yoga and many other systems of breath training (e.g. the Buteyko and Wim Hof methods.) This is because the nasal cavities perform many useful functions such as moisturizing and warming air, capturing pollutants, and extract heating and moisture from exhaled breath. Besides exploring nasal anatomy and physiology, Dr. Ballentine describes jala neti shatkarma (nasal cleansing with salt water) and nadi shoudhana (alternate nostril breathing.)

The final chapter, written by Swami Rama, mostly describes various techniques of pranayama (breathing exercises) and related practices bandhas and mudras (locks and seals in which bodily parts are contracted or constricted.) However, the chapter begins with a mix of physiology and mythic physiology. That is, it explains some topics not addressed earlier–such as the interaction between the nervous and the cardiovascular systems as well as chakra.

My standing complaint about books that weave together science and pseudo-science is mitigated a bit herein. My problem with putting these ideas together is that it can be difficult for the reader to determine what concepts reflect reality and which offer models to help one visualize energy. However, except for the last chapter, this book does a good job of keeping these ideas separate. The chapters by the medical doctors present the science with minimal intrusion of unscientific concepts. Swami Rama does present science and mythology together, but not so much scrambled together in a confusing mish-mash.

Chapters 2 through 4 use a number of graphics to help present the material. In the middle chapters these largely consist of line drawings to convey the relevant anatomical features or physical actions. The last chapter adds photographs to demonstrate relevant postures. There is a page of recommended readings, but it’s more of an advertisement for other books put out by the Himalayan Institute than the recommendation of books on the science of breath.

I found this book to be educational. It packs a lot of useful information into a concise package and is readable to a layman. I’d recommend it for yoga practitioners and others who are engaged in breath work.

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BOOK REVIEW: Light on Pranayama by B.K.S. Iyengar

Light on Pranayama: The Definitive Guide to the Art of BreathingLight on Pranayama: The Definitive Guide to the Art of Breathing by B.K.S. Iyengar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is B.K.S. Iyengar’s A-Z guide to breath and breathing exercises (pranayama.) It’s meant to do for pranayama practice what “Light on Yoga” did for asana (postural) practice. That is, it presents all the classic techniques, offers variants to meet individual needs, and provides the background necessary to put pranayama into the context of a balanced yoga practice.

Let me begin by discussing the book’s organization, and this book is organized to the n-th degree. There are parts, sections, chapters, and even the paragraphs are numbered (though–near as I can tell–the latter serves no purpose for a typical reader and may be more for the help of the writer and his assistants. It does create a somewhat biblical scheme, so maybe it was assumed there would be a need to quote this guide “chapter and verse,” as they say in Bible study.)

The bulk of the book consists of the first of two parts, and Part I is divided into three sections. The first of those sections is “The Theory of Pranayama,” and it puts pranayama in the context of yoga’s entirety. If you’ve read other B.K.S. Iyengar titles, much in these nine chapters will be familiar (e.g. discussion of the eight limbs.) However, chapter 4 offers a nice description of the anatomy and physiology of respiration. There are many anatomical drawings and diagrams in it to help convey the complex information. There’s also additional information about the traditional Indian notions of breath encapsulated in the concepts of prana, nadis, and chakras.

Section II is entitled “The Art of Pranayama” and it covers those topics necessary regardless of what technique of breath exercise one is practicing. It includes seated postures, mudras, bandhas, inhalation, exhalation, retention, etc. This section, too, has nine chapters. The final section of Part I describes the various techniques of pranayama. The chapters of this section are arrayed in lists, and they systematically build from the basic technique towards more advanced variations (e.g. by inserting retentions.)

Part II covers meditation (dhyana) and the corpse pose (savasana.) With respect to the former, it suggests how one’s body, mind, and sense organs should be conducted in the act of meditation. In the case of the chapter on corpse pose (after cross-legged seating position, this being the most common position for practice) there’s an extensive look at the details of that pose.

There are a number of helpful features incorporated into the book. In addition to the drawings mentioned in Chapter 4, there are black-and-white photos throughout to clarify the textual instructions. There is also a glossary of Sanskrit terms and an Appendix of courses of pranayama (i.e. recommendations as to how to sequence breathing techniques for optimal results with guidance as to how many sets or repetitions of each to use.)

My major criticism is one I’ve offered about previous books from this author and others. There’s a muddle of science and mythology that makes it hard to know how much weight to give particular instructions. It may be that a given piece of advice (e.g. a contraindication) is based on repeated observations of the physical or mental effects, or on a sound understanding of anatomy & physiology. In which case, it makes sense to heed such advice. However, advice can also be based on myths and the desire to preserve a way of thinking about the human body which is wholly unsupported by evidence. In which case, if one has no dog in the fight to preserve egos, it makes sense to disregard said advice. I suspect the vast majority of statements of what to do (or not to) fall into the first category, but some may fall in the latter, and it’s not easy to tell which is which.

I would recommend this book for students and teachers of yoga. It’s a good reference for one’s pranayama practice.

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BOOK REVIEW: Let Every Breath by Scott Meredith

Let Every Breath: Secrets of the Russian Breath MastersLet Every Breath: Secrets of the Russian Breath Masters by Vladimir Vasiliev
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This book presents an introduction to breath exercises employed by the Russian martial art called Systema. Systema is one of a number of drill & spar-centric (as opposed to technique-centric) martial arts that have developed in modern times in an attempt to cast off the unrealistic and needlessly complicated elements that tend to grow within traditional martial arts (e.g. Krav Maga is a well-known exemplar of such a martial art.) Among the unique aspects of this system is its focus on, and approach to, breath—and breath is crucial in the martial arts, in a fight, and in life.

I had mixed feelings about this book. I’ll begin with positive aspects and then get into what I found off-putting. First, the book offers a clear explanation of principles and drills that are straight forward and will increase one’s awareness of breath. That is laudable. Are these particular principles and drills the end-all-be-all that will take one to heights that no other approach to breathing could (as the book suggests?) No. But is it a solid approach to breath that will yield benefits by making you more aware of breath while helping you to use it more effectively? Yes. Second, the book doesn’t have a lot of competitors in the “breathing for martial arts” space, and so it fits into a substantial void. (Note: the book doesn’t get into martial arts / self-defense drills or techniques, and doesn’t claim to.)

Now, here’s the other half of the open-faced shit sandwich. You’ve likely already gotten a hint of my problem with the book. This will seem like a two-part criticism, but it condenses into one problem with the book’s attempt to sell the reader on Systema. The starting point, as another reviewer noted, is that this system isn’t as completely novel and unmatched as is presented. Is that a damning indictment? It wouldn’t be. Just because this approach shares concepts applied elsewhere and is constrained by the nature of the human body doesn’t mean that it can’t offer its own unique value-added. The problem is that we are told how unique and completely peerless this system is so often that it becomes a bad info-mercial.

I get it. Systema is a product that has to compete in an intense market place with the likes of Krav Maga, MMA, Total Combat Systems, Defendu, and a ton of other self-protection oriented martial arts. It’s Pepsi, and it has to carve out a market share by convincing us of the unlikely fact that Coke products aren’t even in the same ballpark. The problem is that when it dismisses systems like yogic pranayama and Taoist chi gong, it does so in a way that shows virtually no understanding of those systems. When the author is telling us how the Systema approach to breath is superior to pranayama, he describes an asana (posture-oriented) class. If you’re going to convince us that the several thousand year old yogic tradition completely missed an approach to breath so groundbreaking that it will take one on an e-ticket ride to self-perfection, at least have some idea of the scope of what the yogis learned and how they present those lessons to their students.

The second half of this rant is that there is a lot of hagiography to delve through before one gets to the meat of the subject. Now, in general, authors of martial arts books tend to pay homage to their teachers and lineage. It’s not unreasonable that there is some near-deification of teachers in this book. However, at some point it becomes hard to tell whether the book exists to inform readers or as a monument to someone’s ego. This book gets disconcertingly close to the line. (The arrogance issue is made worse by confusion about authorship. It’s said that Meredith wrote the book, but Vladimir Vasiliev takes the by-line. This creates an odd situation because the book tells us how Vasiliev is both an exceptional human being, and humble as well. You can see my problem. Without evidence to the contrary, I can easily accept that Vasiliev is exceptional. I can also believe that he is humble. But when a book with his name on it tells me both of these things, I’m forced by the dictates of logic to reject at least one of them [and doubt is cast upon both.])

If you are looking to expand your understanding and awareness of breath, you may want to give this book a try. I certainly wouldn’t endorse every claim it makes, but there are some interesting ideas presented.

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