Some people unwrap presents on their birthday. Others go to Vegas for a night of debauchery.
I geek out with physical therapists and learn cool shit that I can share with you. Like how to use a fast-food straw to fix your crappy breathing patterns, improve mental focus, and feel better in five minutes.
Quick backstory: A few weeks ago on our way to Seattle to eat sushi and look at sea otters, I stopped in Issaquah, WA to hang out with Dan Swinscoe, one of the top PT’s in the country.
After an assessment that included standing on one leg, bending over backward as far as possible, and other totally benign but innuendo-packed movements, Dan gave me a handful of exercises to help my body move more efficiently.
But the best piece of advice I got from Dan was something he got from Pavel Tsatsouline, kettlebell-master and former physical trainer for the Soviet special forces.
That advice was to breathe through a straw for five minutes every morning.
Why Breathe Through a Straw? (A Quick Primer on Diaphragmatic Breathing)
Pavel learned the straw technique I’ll share with you below while in a Russian special forces dive school. The goal, as he put it, was threefold: more economical use of air from the scuba tank, greater breath-holding time during free diving, and, most important for us, “a tremendous activation of the diaphragm.”
Most people (i.e., you and I) tend to breathe shallow, sucking air into the chest by using the intercostal muscles rather than filling the lungs with air via the diaphragm.
Over time, this shallow breathing pattern can cause neck, shoulder, and back pain while keeping the nervous system in the stressful “fight or flight” mode.
Diaphragmatic breathing, on the the other hand, helps to:
- Deliver more oxygen to your body
- Reduce lower back pain by stabilizing your spine
- Improve your posture
- Take your nervous system out of the sympathetic “fight or flight” state and into the parasympathetic “rest and digest” state.
But perhaps the best way to put it is this: Breathing through a straw will help you relax and feel better, while teaching your body to not breathe like an idiot.
How To Breathe Through a Straw
- Steal a few straws from a fast-food place. Or, you know, buy some.
- Set a timer for five minutes.
- Lie on your back, put the straw in your mouth, and relax.
- Pinch your nose closed with one hand.
- Breathe through the straw.
Be warned: the first time you do this, your body will likely freak out due to the reduced air flow. Don’t worry about it. Just continue to breathe deeply through the straw. After a minute or so, your body and brain will relax and you’ll automatically start breathing through your diaphragm (for perhaps the first time ever).
Once one straw feels easy, you can get fancy and tape two straws together, end-by-end, thereby lengthening the amount of space from mouth to air-hole and forcing your body to work just a bit harder to get air.
According to Dan, once you can breathe easily through three taped-together straws for 5-10 minutes, you’re likely at a point where your body has successfully adopted a new, healthier breathing pattern.
Try it out and let me know how it goes.