Breath is a deep subject and a major area of exploration for me. In lieu of writing an epic piece about some of that exploration, for today it'll be an anecdote about breath from training earlier this evening.
I had driven out to the UNC campus with the plans to teach, but it was one of those nights with no students. When this happens I make a point to practice rather than head straight back home—a habit that I created when I was teaching multiple nights every week as a means to maintain my own practice, otherwise at risk of becoming forgotten. These sorts of training sessions are more spur-of-the-moment than usual, as I had students' training plans in my head, not my own. The upside is that I'll often default to working on the basics or exploring some movement(s) that are currently piquing my interest.
Of the basics the one movement I always practice when I'm out, even if just once, is the climb-up. Even after seven years of practice I still have improvements to make on it, and greasing the groove makes for steady progress over time. As I walked up the hill towards my practice spot for climb-ups I was reminded of a challenge: do 25 of each movement you know within a single training session...Completing the whole thing was out of the question today, a combination of recovering from a long weekend of contact improv workshops and needing to return to finish some work (this writing included!) meant I knew immediately I wasn't going to attempt it, but I could modify it to suit my current constraints.
The wall I headed to, a frequently visited spot, has a set of stone walls, one at chest height set at an angle, and a taller wall about seven or eight feet high. While I wasn't going to do every movement I knew, I came up with a sequence of three I could do using these walls: a jumping grab from the low wall to the high, doing a climb-up to get on top of the higher wall, and executing a drop jump back to the lower one; a good mixture of physical and mental challenges— climb-ups are always physically taxing and drop jumps are one of the skills I have the worst flinch responses to, regardless of the size of the gap involved.
I got started without planning to focus on anything in particular during the challenge. After about ten repetitions though I was beginning to feel a combination of minor fatigue and the slight jitter of adrenaline from working through the flinch on the drop jumps each time. To manage both I shifted my focus to my breath, taking care to have full slow breaths between each round especially as I stepped up to my takeoff point, setting my sights on the edge of the wall I wanted to grab. When I succeeded at doing a full inhale, without excess tension or anticipation, right before beginning the jump I noticed two unexpected changes. The first was that my first go success rate was higher. Many of the 25 rounds of this jump, climb-up, drop jump sequence included getting caught at the last moment by a fearful hesitation to begin the jumps—which from experience I use as a signal to abort the attempt rather than half-ass it. But if I maintained steady and full breathing and kept my body relaxed until the exact moment I exploded into motion that fear stayed out of the way of clean execution.
The second was a change I'm surprised I hadn't noticed before. I've known and advised for ages that you should exhale as you begin explosive movements. Yet it's one of those tidbits of knowledge that's easy to preach, but also easy to forget to practice. The exhale as you take off aids relaxation of the body in preparation for landing. In this case I was landing on the side of the wall, with the goal to use the force of the landing to rebound into a fast climb-up onto the top of the wall. When I wasn't attending to this breathing pattern those climb-ups often had a slow transition from the landing on the wall to the pull to get over it, making for an okay but clunky feeling technique. When I had the breathing dialed in, with a full exhale on the jump, I would make contact with the wall, spring immediately out of the landing, and casually end up standing on top as if I'd floated up.
Practicing breathing might not seem exciting or sexy, but the benefits of doing so certainly are.