‘A breath of love that takes you all the way to infinity.’ Rumi

As we grow older many of us lose our appreciation of the mysteries and wonders that constantly surround us. It often takes a negative event like a serious accident, or the loss of a family member or loved one, to remind us just how blessed we are. Walking, for example, is something that as adults we don’t need to think about, but once upon a time this took all our focus, effort and attention. We journeyed towards walking with mastery; we did not just land there.

The fact that we sleep at night and wake in the morning is a wonder, a daily resurrection. A brand new life awaits us every day and with it the chance to start over. Kids get it. They haven’t lost their connection to the marvels that surround them. They get up early before sunrise because they just can’t wait to celebrate life. But I think the most forgotten blessing we all enjoy as adults and as children is the very thing that makes us divine: our breath.

The martial arts and wellness coach Scott Sonnon has developed a system of five levels of breath that I have trained myself to listen for carefully when leading a martial arts class, and adapt the format accordingly. ‘No one can hide their fitness level or stress level,’ says Scott. ‘Breath is the polygraph.’

The five levels are Fear, Force, Discipline, Flow and Mastery. Fear breathing describes when we inhale and hold our breath with our bodies tense from something we do not understand. Force is when we force our breath through a movement, inhaling and pressurizing in order to push through the effort. Discipline is training our breathing to coordinate with our movement. In this, we exhale while exerting effort and we inhale passively during the recovery. Flow breathing is when we fully adapt to a level of challenge. We exhale when the body compresses and inhale as it expands, almost without thought. Mastery comes from sustained periods of flow. It is the most efficient and precise breathing event in human performance, and is the focus of much study.

When I work with a student and hear their breathing drop to a Fear or Force level then I simplify the movement so that they can regain Discipline. Conversely, when I see a student consistently rising to Flow or Mastery I increase the complexity of the movement until they revert to Discipline. In this way the body is challenged to grow and adapt, with the right amount of pressure and stress.

Breath is a measurement, like an X-ray giving vital information to the qualified trainer. To train without awareness of breath is like driving a car with no speedometer.

On a deeper level one can think of the different levels of breath as a metaphor for how we live. For many of us we are in constant fear, of the boss at work, of an authority, or of losing a loved one. Others live a forced life. They force themselves through work and occupations, and get no joy or get enrichment from it. In other words, they live in a manner that is not in agreement with their true selves.

Many of the people I most admire live a disciplined lifestyle. They are coordinated in what they do, they know when to be active and when to relax. Very few people I know live a life of flow, although I am lucky enough to know and train with a few. Those who have lived a flow life for long enough transcend into sages. They become masters who seem to do things effortlessly that most of us would find impossible.

The journey of elevating our breath and the life connected to it starts through physical movement. To do this successfully we must live and train in a manner that connects us with our divine nature.

In next week’s final installment of this series I will be shedding light on some counter-intuitive truths that will help you better deal with the number one killer of humanity in this modern day and age – stress.

Until next Friday.