Lately, there has been a proliferation of books, manuals, advice, studies, pamphlets and courses all about breathing. Wouldn’t you wonder what we need to be told about what comes so naturally? Why do we need refresher lessons on filling one’s lungs and reminding as to the advantages of moving air in and out through the nose? Babies take about a year to walk unaided, after two years they can cobble together a sentence, and by the age of three they might be using a spoon to feed themselves. Walking, speaking, eating – that covers the basics, but the fundamentals of breathing (please God) come built in with no learning required. Breathing is elemental and effortless; hopefully it’s the first thing a baby does. Yet, as the last year has shown us, when breathing becomes a trial, it is the most debilitating thing of all.
Wim Hof, Dutch extreme athlete who has become famous by extolling the virtues of cold-water swimming, puts controlled breathing exercises at the heart of his endurance and his wellbeing. He says if we can’t bear to jump into the North Sea (which is my closest venue, were I to opt for his form of health torture) or if we cannot countenance a cold shower in the morning (I’m still a firm no), then a spell of daily deep breathing will reap rewards in terms of reduced headaches, stress and anxiety. But we always knew this, right? Women were deep breathing their way through childbirth for millennia, well before James Young Simpson (an Edinburgh physician, by the way) pioneered the use of the anaesthetic in the birthing room.
Before I got married, my soon-to-be husband presented me with a slim volume, published by Hulton & Co in 1919, called ‘Housewife’s Guide’. The inside cover lays out its intention as, “a handy guide for the young and inexperienced housewife who contemplates setting up a home with the man of her choice.” Why thank you, darling! What could be more suitable, I said to him, as I read another line aloud: “There is art in homemaking just as there is in everything else in life, and unless the wife thoroughly masters this art in all its branches, the matrimonial ship is likely to come to grief.” Phew! Sometimes you don’t know you need something until it has been handed to you and suddenly it is indispensable. The chapter entitled ‘A Hundred ways of Removing Stains’ did not appeal to me (my mother knows why), and the particulars of ‘Guarding Flannel Against Shrinkage’ was less interesting than the counsel as to how hot cornflour is excellent for cleaning ermine. However, the section that captured my attention most was that entitled, ‘How to be Beautiful’, and its sub-section, ‘Beauty in Breathing.’ It succinctly outlines how one maintains one’s husband and looks through, you’ve guessed it, breathing. “A great deal can be done towards brightening the eyes by systematic breathing for ten minutes each morning and evening. Breathe slowly and deeply to the fullest capacity of the lungs. You should stand erect by an open window. The corsets should not be worn during this exercise.”
You might think one such manual would have been enough to prepare me for matrimony, indeed, I was of that notion until a second gift of a similar nature was made. This time, he had discovered a much more up-to-date guide, thicker too, with a broader scope, advice that extended beyond just keeping the home. This book, published in 1942, was called, ‘The Woman You Want to Be: Margery Wilson’s Complete Book of Charm’. And, to be quite honest, I cannot believe I have not opened it for ten (charmless) years because, believe me, Margery knows a thing or two. From ‘Pointers in Persiflage’ (what do you mean you don’t know what that is? It means light and slightly contemptuous mockery or banter, which every charming woman should, of course, be skilled in), to the oft-forgotten ‘Salt can be insulting’ (“do not criticize your hostess’s food by vigorously adding salt and pepper as though it were a great deal of work to make the food edible. If you must use salt, do it quietly. There is always a charming, kind way to do everything.” Quite right!) However, indispensable as these sections may be, yet again I found myself lingering on her advice concerning breathing. There is a gap of twenty-three years between the publication dates of two books – which is perhaps why Margery makes no mention of corsets – but she pauses over a number of pages to dissect and emphasise the elemental necessity of controlled breathing. “Your breath, coupled with the emotional force back of it, is, then your power. Control of it is necessary for smoothness, for poise and continuity that hold the interest of others. An uncontrolled breath spills the meanings of words and their emotional force, just as carrying a glass of water in a wobbly fashion spills the contents.” But that’s not all. Suddenly, Margery comes full circle to Wim Hof’s wellbeing outcomes when she says, “When we are greatly stirred by beauty, laughter or sorrow we nearly always breathe from deep in our bodies. Fear, dread, hurt, feelings of inferiority and inadequacy are invariably expressed in shallow breathing. Therefore, if we always wish to give the impression of living fully, of being keenly sensitive to life, of being greatly alive, we should cultivate deep and rhythmic breath.”
There you have it, the same old goods are back in fashion presented to us in a new package, and if we want to go back even further, to the middle of the nineteenth century, there was Walt, loafing and breathing for all’s he content!
Song of Myself, Walt Whitman (Canto 2) The smoke of my own breath; Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine; My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs; The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore, and dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn; The sound of the belch’d words of my voice, words loos’d to the eddies of the wind;