30 November 2011

learning how to breathe

Three nights a week, I finish up work after the last train leaves. And so I drink sixteen ounces of sparkling water, saddle up, & hit the road. It's just shy of eleven miles from Old Pasadena to Angeleno Heights. It's no century, but it's long enough for me to notice a few things along the way. Like breathing.

I used to be a ballet dancer. One thing I learned through dance is the importance of using my breath in exercise — that the pattern of my breathing could work with me or against me. Let's say I'm doing small jumps (petit allegro*). It feels right to inhale as I jump up, then exhale as I land, with every small jump. It's what my body wants to do, to maintain a perfect one-to-one ratio of jumps to breaths. But the jumps are so fast that I can't get enough air in my lungs if I stick to the tempo. It's not efficient. And when you're performing as one of the Cygnets in Swan Lake, the number one aces top thing you can do to not suffer the fate of Moira Shearer is be efficient. (The number two thing you can do is stay perfectly, exactly in time with the music alongside the three other dancers; if you don't, you'll accidentally kick one of them, ruining the performance, & they will drag you backstage & murder you.)

I'm riding along Fair Oaks, not paying attention to much, when I sneeze. Twice. (I always sneeze in pairs.) I've just expelled all the air from my lungs, so I take a monstrous breath**. And then I let it out. It takes me two 360º revolutions of my pedals to exhale. And it feels pretty good. I slip into shallow breathing again (more or less one inhale-exhale couplet per 360º pedal revolution), but I notice that it feels ... not as good. I breathe slowly again. One full revolution to breathe in, one full revolution to breathe out, so half the speed. Then I inhale slower: once per every TWO full revolutions (& exhale at the same rate). And I keep at it for a while. And it feels amazing. Meanwhile, I notice that, with my current gear ratio, my breathing is just a tiny bit faster than my legs, which means my legs are constantly trying to speed up, to make my cadence match my breath. Which, coincidentally, is the same thing as going faster***. And wouldn't you know it, while I'm focusing on my breathing & my legs are focusing on my lungs, it's easier & more efficient to stay in the saddle instead of standing up, which means I'm using more of my legs, which makes them go faster, which makes me able to slow down my breath even more.

Then it gets fun. So two full revolutions per inhale (then two again per exhale) feels good, but what about two & a half? Two revolutions are easily split into four parts (right-left-right-left), so I just add one. Right-left-right-left-right on the inhale, then left-right-left-right-left on the exhale****. Then I let my cadence & my breathing get out of sync for a bit as I force my lungs to slow down & I try for three revolutions. I become a monster. I tear down hills, I annihilate corners, I chew up the road, & out of nowhere emerges the intersection of Figueroa & Cypress. 

I can't believe I didn't know this. I mean, I knew this once. But I didn't translate it. Did you know this? For me, it's a revelation, a minor miracle, a marvel of physiology, & the most obvious thing in the world. I feel silly & proud at the same time. And oxygen-drunk. It's cool stuff, that oxygen. You should try it.

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* "Petit allegro" — I know, I know, the first word is French, & the second word is Italian. That's what happens when French dance people name stuff using Italian music-notation descriptions. (There's "grand allegro", too.)
** A beast of a gasp.
*** This is where the analogy with dance breaks down. You can't — shouldn't — dance any faster than the music tells you to dance. But you can adjust your breath all the same.
**** Is there a less clunky way of describing the details of one's cadence? I hope so. 

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