“Don’t forget to breathe.” It was the early 80s, and I may have been in kindergarten, but I thought to date that was the most ridiculous advice I had ever heard. Mom was doing her Jane Fonda exercises and the exhortations of the leg warmer-wearing ‘Hanoi Jane’ seemed so basic, so trivial, so obvious that the woman must have been brain dead. And that was before I saw Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy.

Who Forgets to Breathe?

Well, apparently me. Because I keep on having to re-learn how. I’ve spent untold hours of my adult life just learning and re-learning how to breathe. Lately, this has been at the Hall of the Peaceful Dragon – the school where I study Kung Fu. There I am currently working on remembering to breathe deeply and effectively while my mind and body try to perform the various body contortions and coordination required. It’s damn hard. After a few minutes of basic stance and form training I find myself covered in sweat. After an hour I am exhausted. And this is entirely because I forget to breathe. Heh, I think even Daniel-san in The Karate Kid had to focus on this!

Recognize the Pattern

But it’s not only Martial arts. I know that my Kung Fu training will soon become much easier because I recognize the pattern. I’ve seen how learning to breathe leads to clarity, composure, and competency. Learning how properly breathe leads to success in all things.

Sports Pattern

This is the actual, physical act of breathing to improve performance. Can you spot the pattern?

“Don’t Forget to Breathe, Daniel-san!”

  • Swimming – Learning how to breathe and relax allowed me to swim 5.25 miles in open water.
  • Lifting – Anyone can throw a bunch of iron around. Focused breathing makes you efficient and effective.
  • Shooting – The first thing you learn in marksmanship (after firearm safety) is how breathing affects your shot. Master your breathing and you’ll hit the target much more often.

Mastery in those sports above and indeed in any sport comes down to the practice of breathing. So easy to understand, so maddeningly difficult to master.

What about outside of sports?


This is part abstraction, part application. You can see how by extending the physical activity of careful, practiced, and conscious breath control can help in any situation where you need to control mind, body and focus. Let’s take something near and dear to the Cubicle; office work.

  • Negotiations – Timing and silence is such a huge portion of negotiations. Try letting their last offer sit for a few breaths before saying anything.
  • Conflict – You’ve heard this before “take a deep breath and…”
  • Focus – It’s amazing how much clarity a few minutes of relaxed breathing can bring you.
  • Deadlines – Have to do something that just can’t wait? Take the time to breathe. The essential priorities and the steps to accomplish them will come to you.

I can go on extrapolating but you get the point.

Take a Man’s Breath; You Take His Ability to Fight

This quote came to me from my Kung Fu instructor George. A different instructor relayed the same sentiment this way; “A human can go weeks without food and days without water but only minutes without breath.”

If someone (boss, peer, client, etc) robs you of your breath, they rob you of your ability to be effective. Don’t let them. Defend your ability to breathe.

If you need to over come an adversary – on the field, on the mat, or across the office – make it so they cannot breathe.

How to (re)-Learn How to Breathe

As I have said, I have learned how to breathe over and over and over again. Each time I try a new endeavor I recognize the patterns from my previous successes and apply them. I am certain that you can do the same thing. Take a look at your own previous successes and build from there.

For a more pragmatic, apply-right-now formula, Leo of Zen Habits has good piece here.

Whatever you do, ‘don’t forget to breathe.’

Empty Your Cup

Empty your cup. I am not sure on the origin of this philosophy or even from where I first heard it. But I like it. You may have heard it before. If not, here’s a primer in the form I remember it in – that of a martial arts student and the master he came to study from:

Student: “Master! At long last I have found you! I have studied martial arts for years and everyone says that you are the best in the world. I have come here to complete my training.”

Master: “Excellent. Let’s begin your training with the horse stance.”

Student: “The horse stance? I learned that years ago. I have studied Martial Arts for years. I only need to complete my education, not start off as some rank beginner.

Master: “Well then you must leave. There is nothing I can teach you.”

Student: “But you are the renown grandmaster. Surely there must be something you know that I do not.”

Master: “There certainly is. But from your vantage point your cup of knowledge is already full. If you are not ready to learn, I cannot possibly teach you.”

Empty Your Cup

This is the approach I am trying to take while studying Kung Fu. I have studied martial arts before and if I’m honest starting out as a beginner is a bit of a blow to my ego. But ego isn’t why I am studying there. Foot rehab, balance, flexibility, exercise (just to start the list off ) is. This weekend I had my first class. It was with the beginner or ‘A Block.’ The 30 minutes of standardized workouts was challenging – especially on all of those items I just listed. Think P90x in intensity. The next few drills were, well, I’ll say boring. Simple kicks and stance training. Some kicking of a bag – which I was pleased to see I could still do well.

But boring or not, it was exactly what I needed. I left the class pleasantly exhausted having worked out well for the day. My technique on even the basics was off. Despite the power I was able to generate, I could feel that my form could be better.

The instructor came to me and asked if I had studied martial arts before. I could have replied ‘yes’ but keeping the empty cup philosophy in mind, I didn’t. Not wanting to lie I said that I had studied so long ago that it didn’t really matter now. I think that is the honest truth! She complemented me and I deferred to muscle memory and asked for help making my technique better. At the end of the 90 minute lesson I felt like I learned something new instead of covering something old.

Other Applications

I’m sure I could apply this philosophy to other aspects in my life. Work, family, gym, etc. I tend to be impatient, especially when people are telling me things I learned before or believe I could easily figure out on my own. Sure, I swam 5.25 miles but all that did was tell me how much I really had to learn about swimming, about how much more practice I needed to get better.

How could you apply this?

Being a Beginner is More fun

A good follow up read about the Beginner’s mind. It covers, among other things, letting go of your expert-ness and having more fun as a beginner.