Why I Hate Breathing by Scott Phillips

I was driving in my car the other day and a woman comes on the radio and starts telling me how important breathing is!  Not like there was any actual content there, it was just a disjointed emotional rant scientifically calculated to sell HMO Medical Insurance.  That’s when I realized, I hate breathing.

Think about it, animals don’t breathe.  Dogs don’t breathe, they pant.  Cats don’t breathe, they purr.  Pigs snort.  Birds just flap their wings and the sky rushes in and out.  Can you image what would happen if fish tried to breathe?  Whales and dolphins have a special whole for blowing, think about that, they only exhale!

When we sleep we don’t breathe, our whole bodies shrink and expand, either that or we snore.

If you run for a quarter of a mile the pretense of breath control is completely abandoned.

You might as well try to lower your heart rate by watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

When a child wants more air, she moves around, she wiggles, squirms, jumps, rolls, skips…

The Chinese invented breathing in the 6th Century in order to teach children to read and write.  It was a trick to get them to sit still, and the first lesson—As one dips the brush in the ink inhale, then hold as the brush touches the page, and exhale as the brush lifts away from the paper.

And no doubt we could lay a bit of blame on South Asia.  If a guru is going to encourage  his disciples to live in a cave and sit still for 12 hours at a time, then sure, weird permutations of “in” “out” and “hold” may be the order of the day.  But I seriously doubt that yoga, as a movement art, if it really did exist in the forgotten past, had much to do with breathing.

By the way, none of this view comes from a lack of trying.  The problem is that posture and breathe are simply inseparable.  Try to change a person’s posture, and three to five breaths later they are back in the same position.  Try to change a person’s breathing and three jumping jacks and a booty shake later they will have reverted.

The problem of teaching can be divided into two general categories, (1) challenging the  already motivated, and (2) spoon-feeding the wayward.  In the first case it is the teacher’s hope that the student will surpass the teacher in unexpected ways and fortify not just their own experience but the entirety of the art in the world. With the latter it is hoped, against the odds I might add, that the natural curiosity of the student can be stoked with inspiration.

Ba Duan Jin

After many years of teaching I have found only one reliable way to inspire people; grab them by the scruff of the neck and the feet simultaneously and play them like an accordion.   Alternately one can grab the chest hair and the seat of the pants.  Thus, by manual manipulation, inspiration can occur.

Just in case there are a few readers who think they may be able to improve their breathing, the Daodejing has this to say: “To use the heart/mind (xin) to direct the breath (qi) is called forced!” Laozi (chapter 55). 

 And randomized double blind controlled studies do tend to back this assertion.  If the purpose of breathing is to get oxygen into the blood, one might think that better breathing would get more oxygen into the blood.  But it turns out that VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen a given person can get into their blood) is set early in life.  Athletes, even adolescent athletes, plateau in measures of VO2 max after only a short period of training.  Improvement is not an real option.  Which brings to mind a useful adage for handing out items to children which may not be of equal size, shape or color: You get what you get and you don’t get upset!


Inevitably, when a new adult student begins studying with me, they will ask about breathing.  Oddly enough, this question is sometimes lodged as a protest, as in “Why don’t you teach anything about the breathing?”

While babies do not breathe, they do begin to sigh in the first few weeks of life.

For those readers who 1) wish to dive into the unknown with their eyes wide open, or  (2) have more than a year of non-conceptual meditation, or (3) have something on the order of 10,000 hours of internal martial arts practice – I venture this:

There are three types of breathing; The lungs breathe, the body breathes, and the mind breathes.  There is nothing special to know about the lungs unless you are sick.  To develop wild animal flavor in martial arts practice or in life, every part of the adult body must be trained to shrink and expand.  Once that ability is attained, the intent to do it must be discarded.  If the body is empty – meaning (1) empty of intent –xu, and (2) empty like a container- kong, then qi will fill and surround the body. This is the fruition of non-action (wuwei).  Once this experience is discovered and established the spacial mind comes into play.  The spacial mind begins by breathing and gradually becomes more lively and animated.   The body, effortlessly following the qi, will shrink,  expand and spiral seamlessly as the spacial mind moves.

“Heaven and Earth are like a bellows.”–Laozi


Scott blogs here, and he teaches here and his bio is here!


6 Responses to “Why I Hate Breathing by Scott Phillips”

  1. […] have contributed a guest post to the venerable blog Dark Wing Chun. I commend it to my readers. I also wish you all a Happy New […]

  2. Babies don’t breathe? How do they ever grow up to be martial arts students. 😉

  3. My 2nd son was born last month. I enjoy panting with him. As soon as we…ah…move together, puffing and chuffing, he looks at me as if he knows me, and settles down into sleep.

  4. Babies are very high level instructors. They seem to teach without even knowing they have done it.
    Congratulations on the birth Steve!

  5. ctkwingchun Says:

    I totally agree that babies/toddlers are very high level instructors. They breathe naturally, they bend their knees to lift and support their core when lifting over their head.

    We get ‘lazy’ as we age and start bending at the back, get stressed and don’t monitor our internal gauges, etc.

  6. […] have contributed a guest post to the venerable blog Dark Wing Chun. I commend it to my readers. I also wish you all a Happy New […]

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