Have you ever sat in a meeting with your heart racing, sweat starting to gather on your brow, wondering how on earth you are going to get through this challenge in front of you? You take a few deep breaths and find a way through.
Many different traditions use breathing as a practice to regulate the mind and body, to lower stress, to become more present in any given moment. There are ancient traditional breathing techniques such as yogic pranayama, Taoist breathing, or Shaolin Qi Qong breathing. And there are newer techniques which borrow from the older traditions such as Coherent breathing, Soma breath, Transformational breathing, Wim Hof breathing and many more. In fact you just need to search your app store to find literally hundreds of apps that support better breathing, probably because a regular breathing practice can help you to make better decisions in difficult situations.
Many different traditions use breathing as a practice to regulate the mind and body
How can bringing awareness to breathing, which we each do automatically 22,000 times every day, help our health and wellbeing as well as our overall performance? In simple terms, the physiology shows us that when we need to run away from a tiger (fight or flight mode) we breathe more quickly to get more oxygen to our muscles, and when we are safely away from danger then our body can breathe more deeply and less frequently to aid repair, digestion and rest (rest and digest mode). We can change our neurophysiology by changing our breathing.
Studies have shown that breathing practices improve Heart Rate Variability (HRV), a measure which demonstrates your heart’s ability to change appropriately and quickly in different situations. (De Couck et al, 2019). Elite athletes tend to have very good HRV rates indicating they can go from high performance action, to rest and recovery quickly and effectively. Furthermore, the heart research organisation, The HeartMath Institute, contends that regulating breathing “facilitates a body-wide shift to a specific, scientifically measurable state called psychophysiological coherence.” This coherent state allows for optimal functioning of body and brain. We can perform better by working with our breath.
Particular types of breathing exercises can help us to shift into a rest, repair, relax state
Additionally, research suggests that the detrimental effects of stress and negative emotions can be counteracted by different forms of meditation and breathing techniques by changing the dominance of the sympathetic autonomic nervous system, the fight or flight state (Jerath, Crawford, Barnes, 2015). In other words, particular types of breathing exercises can help us to shift into a rest, repair, relax state.
Breathing practices are simple tools that we can carry with us wherever we go. They can be used quickly, effectively, and quietly when needed. No one needs to know you are counting your breath during a challenging meeting! And as with anything, the more practice you do the easier it becomes.
Four breathing practice tips for better health
An easy starting place
In order to develop a regular breathing meditation practice it is important to choose a time when you won’t be disturbed. Often the start or end of the day is best. If this is a new practice for you, I suggest sitting for just 5 minutes at the start and end of the day. Try to increase this to 10 or 15 minutes as you get used to it.
Shamatha breathing for inner peace
We all breathe at different rates and rhythms, so it is helpful to become familiar with your own natural breathing rhythm as a starting point. Find a comfortable seated position, noticing the support of the chair under your thighs and buttocks and against your back. Notice the support of the floor under your feet. Start to follow your breath. In and out. Without changing anything, without judgement, just follow your natural breath rhythm for at least 5 minutes. Grow this to 10 or 20 minutes. Sometimes known as Shamatha breathing, this practice can give you a feeling of inner peace.
Square breathing for relaxation
Breathe in through the nose to the count of 4. Hold your breath for 4. Breathe out through the mouth to the count of 4. Hold to the count of 4. Repeat 8 times. This is a good calming breathing technique that can be used at any time of the day when you are feeling under stress.
Mindful breathing while walking
This can be done walking between meetings, when doing your weekly shop, or taking the dog for a walk. It is a simple practice of noticing your in breath and out breath as you take each step. You might try to synchronise your breathing with your steps but this is not necessary. Be mindful of how each step meets the ground.
Jerath, R., Crawford, M.W., Barnes, V.A. et al (2015) Self-Regulation of Breathing as a Primary Treatment for Anxiety. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback
De Couck, M. Caers, R. Musch, L. Fliegauf, J. Giangreco, A. Gidron Y. (2019) How breathing can help you make better decisions: Two studies on the effects of breathing patterns on heart rate variability and decision-making in business cases. International Journal of Psychophysiology, Vol 139.
This article was first published in Northern Ireland Chamber Ambition magazine