Here are my musings on how changing our breathing with breathwork can transform our life for the better. With extracts from ‘Perfect Breathing’.
THE COMMON DENOMINATOR OF LIFE
“What is it that enables a mountain climber to reach the highest points on earth, allows a fighter
pilot to stay conscious through the pull of a jet’s turn eight times greater than gravity? What
guides the archer’s arrow to the mark, or enables a ballet dancer to appear to be lighter than air?
What carries a seeker to the innermost realms of spirit, and has been recognized for centuries as
one of the most potent healing agents available to mankind?
For something so simple, automatic, and for most people, unconscious, breathing carries with
it great power. It is the single most dynamic energy conversion in the human body and fuels
every one of your cells. Every neuron, every synapse, every muscle feeds on the flame of your
breath. Breathing is not only critical to sustaining life but done correctly and consciously, it can
be a valuable tool for getting the most out of every human endeavour, from the most demanding
physical challenges to the pursuit of understanding life’s deepest spiritual mysteries.”
It’s kinda important.
Yet, as I’ve said before about breathing, we rarely think about it.
The first step to bringing more awareness to our breath is to realize JUST how astonishingly
powerful it is. Again, remember that we can live for weeks without food. Days without water.
And, mere minutes without breath.
As Belisa Vranich puts it in Breathe: “Your body’s main source of energy is oxygen. Period.”
And: “Oxygen is sustenance in a way that food can never be. Yes, you should eat leafy greens,
organic and local, and take your vitamins . . . but the best way to take care of yourself is to deal
with the most important thing first: your breathing. Everything else is secondary.”
The Healing Power of the Breath authors echo the fact that breath unites all peak performances.
They tell us: “What do Mahatma Gandhi, the martial artist Bruce Lee, Buddhist meditators,
Christian Monks, Hawaiian kahunas, and Russian Special Forces have in common? They all
used breathing to enhance their physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.”
Got it. Breath
It’s time for breath awareness and conscious breathing…
BREATH AWARENESS + CONSCIOUS BREATHING
“To clear up any confusion that might arise, we’d like to take the opportunity to define several of
the terms we’ll be using throughout the following chapters. There are essentially two concepts
that we will be referring to: breath awareness and conscious breathing. Breath awareness
means exactly what it says—being aware of or observing the qualities of your breath, whether
it is shallow or deep, long or short, easy or laboured, smooth or uneven. Conscious breathing
often referred to as controlled breathing, intentional breathing, and mindful breathing refers to
breathing with purpose. Though there may be subtle differences in the meanings of these terms,
they all imply breathing to achieve a result of some kind.”
Breath awareness and conscious breathing.
Helping us optimise both of those so we can optimise our mental, physical, emotional and
spiritual well-being is what the book is all about.
Breath awareness. How’s your breathing right now? Is it shallow or deep? Long or short? Easy or
laboured? Smooth or uneven?
Well… What do you notice?
That’s step 1 to your perfect breath. You can’t optimise what you aren’t aware of.
The thing I notice the most when I remember to do this is how often I HOLD my breath—
whether I’m typing here or even just doing the dishes. Yikes. Hah. Not good. “Needs work!”
How about you?
Then we have conscious breathing. Call it whatever you want: Mindful breathing, controlled
breathing, intentional breathing. The basic idea is simple. When we breathe consciously we
breathe with purpose.
Are you breathing with purpose?
I might have just taken a nice, slow, deep breath with a nice, long, smooth exhale. Highly
recommend it. 🙂
How about a nice deep inhale to 1 … 2 … 3 … 4 … 5 … 6 … hold for 1 … and a nice long deeper
exhale 1 … 2 … 3 … 4 … 5 … 6 … 7 … 8 …
That’s the exact count I do for five breaths every single night right when I hop into bed and right
before I usually easily fall asleep.
If that’s a little long for you, trim it back to 4 inhale and 6 exhale—keeping the inhale light yet
deep into your belly and slightly longer on the exhale.
Kelly McGonigal is a big fan of breathing as a quick way to boost your willpower. Here’s how
she puts it in The Willpower Instinct: “You won’t find many quick fixes in this book, but there
is one way to immediately boost willpower: Slow your breathing down to four to six breaths
per minute. That’s ten to fifteen seconds per breath—slower than you normally breathe, but
not difficult with a little bit of practice and patience. Slowing the breath down activates the
prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, which helps shift the brain and body
from a state of stress to self-control mode. A few minutes of this technique will make you feel
calm, in control, and capable of handling cravings or challenges.”
Speaking of heart rate variability and 4 to 6 breaths per minute, The Healing Power of the
Breath authors agree. They call that “coherent breathing” and say: “Coherent Breathing is
a simple way to increase heart-rate variability and balance the stress-response systems.
When scientists tested people at all possible breathing rates, they found that there is an ideal
breath rate for each person, somewhere between three and a half and six breaths per minute
for adults using equal time for breathing in and breathing out, a sweet spot where HRV is
maximized and the electrical rhythms of the heart, lungs, and brain become synchronized.
Modern researchers have called this the resonant rate, but this phenomenon has been known
for centuries by religious adepts in many cultures. For example, when Zen Buddhist monks
enter deep meditation, called zazen, they breathe at six breaths per minute. The Italian
cardiologist Luciano Bernardi discovered that traditional chanting of the Latin Hail Mary
occurs at six breaths per minute.
Coherent Breathing is breathing at a rate of five breaths per minute, around the middle of the
resonant breathing range. … Breathing at a rate that is close to one’s ideal resonant rate can
induce a tenfold improvement in HRV. For people who are over six feet tall, the ideal resonant
rate is three to three and a half breaths per minute.”
As a side note, on the topic of becoming aware of our breathing, don’t get discouraged if you find that
your breathing is a little sub-optimal. Growth mindset it and know you can improve while
thinking of this gem from Vernon Howard’s The Power of Your Supermind: “Encourage
yourself by remembering that any detection of negativity within you is a positive act, not a
negative one. Awareness of your weakness and confusion makes you strong because conscious
awareness is the bright light that destroys the darkness of negativity. Honest self-observation
dissolves pains and pressures that formerly did their dreadful work in the darkness of
unawareness. This is so important that I urge you to memorize and reflect upon the following
summary: Detection of inner negativity is not a negative act, but a courageously positive act
that makes you a new person.”
WANT TO DETOX? BREATHE
“The waste that is collected by the blood and delivered to the lungs is expelled with the next
inhale, but few people realize that 70 per cent of the waste that our bodies generate is removed by
the breath. Only 30 per cent is removed via sweat and elimination. So taking slow deep breaths
not only increases the energy your body is receiving but is also crucial to cleansing your body of
the waste and toxins that your metabolism generates.”
Well, that’s a fascinating stat.
Your breath removes 70% of the waste that our bodies generate?! Wow.
Deep breathing detox time, baby! 🙂
Load up on the energy we receive AND boost up the number of toxins we cleanse = a winning
How about another deep breath?
Pick your favourite count and give me 5!
(Well that was nice. You do it? Get on it! AMAZING 1-minute reboot!)
YOUR NEW BREATH
“Replace the habit of taking short shallow breaths into the top of the lungs with the practice of
taking a full deep breath. Nearly all of the benefits begin with this one simple change.
People often ask why they need to change the way they are breathing. It’s true that the body
monitors oxygen levels and keeps them within the safe operating limits, and the amazing
computer in our brain knows how to regulate our breathing in almost every situation. So why
change a winning game plan? The reason is that our breathing changes over time, and as we
previously mentioned, we generally only use about a third of our lung capacity. Watch the way a
baby breathes—it looks like there is a balloon in their stomach that inflates and deflates as they
inhale and exhale, while their chest barely moves at all. Contrast this with the way most adults
breathe: Their stomachs don’t move at all and they tend to take small sips of air into the tops
of their lungs, shoulders rising with each breath. Like our posture, which can become stooped
and crooked if we don’t consciously make an effort to sit and stand straight, our breathing can
become shallow and cramped unless we make a conscious effort to counteract the forces that
would restrict it.”
The definition of Foundation Breathing
There are essentially three steps to perfect breathing: 1. Learn how to breathe properly. 2. Notice
whether you’re breathing properly. 3. Get yourself to do so if you’re not.
1 + 2 + 3 and… Enter: Perfect breathing.
So, here’s your new breath: Breathe in through your nose. Lightly but deeply. All the way down
there into your belly. Repeat. 🙂
Note: Not a BIG breath per se, but a DEEP breath.
Patrick McKeown makes the point that when some people try to breathe deeply they take a “big”
breath by raising their shoulders and expanding their chest. But what we *really* want to do is
breathe DEEPLY—straight down into our belly, working out our diaphragm and barely moving
Here’s how he describes the importance of going deep as it relates to stress in The Oxygen
Advantage: “Abdominal breathing is more efficient simply because of the shape of the lungs.
Since they are narrow at the top and wider at the bottom, the amount of blood flow in the
lower lobes of the lungs is greater than in the upper lobes. The fast upper-chest breathing of
people who chronically hyperventilate does not take advantage of the lower parts of the lungs,
limiting the amount of oxygen that can be transferred to the blood and resulting in a greater
loss of CO2. Not only this, but upper-chest breathing activates the fight-or-flight response,
which raises stress levels and produces even heavier breathing.
Observe your own breathing when you are stressed, or watch the breathing of anxious
relatives, friends, or colleagues—you will see that this type of breathing is generally located
in the upper chest and goes at a rate faster than normal. When we are stressed we tend to
over breathe and resort to breathing through the mouth. Stressed breathing is faster than
normal, audible, produces visible movements, and often involves sighs. Many people habitually
breathe in this manner every minute of every hour of every day, holding them in a perpetual
state of fight-or-flight with adrenalin levels high. The work of even the best stress counsellors,
psychologists, or psychotherapists will be limited unless they first help their patients address
their dysfunctional breathing. When oxygen delivery to the brain is reduced, no amount of
talking and reasoning is going to correct this deficiency. Stressed and anxious patients can
only make the progress they really need when their bad breathing habits are addressed.”
One more nice, deep breath. In … and out … 🙂
P.S. Remember: “Always strive to inhale through your nose as it is specifically designed to filter,
condition, and moisten your breath before it reaches your lungs.”
HOW TO FLIP THE EMOTIONAL SWITCH
“Another interesting aspect of our brains is the interplay between our emotions and thoughts
or tasks that require our attention or concentration. Researchers at Duke University discovered
that the path that ‘attentional’ thoughts (i.e., threading a needle) take through the brain is
different than the path that emotional responses take, although both streams have a common
destination: the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for moderating conflicting
thoughts and emotions and determining the correct behaviour or course of action. Interestingly
the Duke researchers determined that there is an inverse relationship between the attentional
and the emotional path. When the emotional path is active and emphasized, the attentional path
is deemphasized and dampened, and vice versa. This may possibly explain why people under the
spell of surging emotions behave irrationally and oftentimes in ways that are clearly not in their
best interest or aligned with their beliefs, ethics, or goals—hence the phrase crime of passion.”
There is a considerable relationship between breath and emotion.
I talk about this inverse relationship between your attentional and emotional systems and describe it as a “seesaw” and advise the fact that you
can get out of negative emotional loops by simply labelling the emotion.
(Note: Not a deep archeo-psychological dig about WHY you’re experiencing the emotion. Just
simply labelling the emotion with a word or two. 🙂
Another way to achieve the same result?
Take a deep breath. (Or 10.)
That deep breath is your little “attentional” switch you can flip to cool the limbic system and get
your prefrontal cortex back online.
Keep that in mind the next time you find yourself getting a little overly emotional.
Inhale. Exhale. Ahhhh…
OUR FIRST AND LAST BREATH AND EVERY ONE IN BETWEEN
“None of us knows where and how our journey ends, but there is only one thing we can do
to prepare ourselves—live. By whatever philosophy, credo, or religion, we must each live our
life completely, fully, without fear or regret. To do that we must seek awareness, and that can
begin with the awareness of your breath, the foundation of your totality as a human being. By
developing the simple profound practice of mindful breathing, you have a lifeline that ties you
to every dimension of your life—to your body, to your emotions, to the thoughts racing through
your head, to whatever connection you have to the world around you and to the enormity of the
universe. Its power lies in the fact that it ties you ineffably to this moment, the only one that you
The reality is it’s a fact that the first thing we do when we’re born is take a deep breath and
the last thing we do before we die is take our last breath.
Between those two breaths? It’s time to live.
I’m reminded of the great book Die Empty by Todd Henry. In addition
to his brilliant “Today’s the Day!” exercise, he tells us we need to live with a sense of grounded
urgency and reminds us: “You have a finite amount of focus, time, and energy to offer the
world, and it can never be reclaimed once it’s spent. There’s no use in wasting your time
lamenting the past because you cannot change or control it. Rather, I urge you to focus on
Ultimately, your life will be measured by what you gave, not what you received. Don’t hold out
on the rest of us—we need you to contribute. Spend your life building a body of work you will
be proud of. Engage today with urgency and diligence. Plant seeds every day that will yield a
harvest later. Tomorrow is only an unfulfilled wish, so live and work as if today is all you have.
If you do, you will be able to lay your head down each night satisfied with your work, and in
the end, you will die empty of regret, but full of satisfaction for a life well-lived.”
Here’s to giving life everything we’ve got, one perfect breath at a time!
Feeling enlightened? Download my ebook for free, for a limited time only at: 80 Ways To Find Your Purpose