“Breathing deeply and regularly is not only the key to remaining calm, but also instantly connects us to a higher vibration. When we’re stressed or fearful, we tend to hold our breath, which cuts us off from our Higher Self and our intuitive vibes.” – Sonia Chouetter
“To say that learning breath control is the most important component to forging mental toughness would not be an overstatement.” – Mark Divine
Quick check in: how’s your breathing? Are you hunched over, shoulders in, taking short, shallow breaths? Or are you open-chested, shoulders back and torso long, taking deep, nourishing breaths?
We breathe from the moment we’re born to the moment we die, with the average person taking from 23,000 to 25,000 breaths per day. (Even slowing both the inhale and exhale to four seconds each still comes to 11,000 breaths per day!) With so many opportunities to practice, tiny tweaks in how we breathe can have huge effects.
Breathing deeply is a powerful tool that can be used in almost any situation. It helps us to perform at a higher level both physically and mentally, and to effectively recover once we’re done. It brings us to the present moment, connects our bodies and our minds, and gives us the willpower and ability to make higher quality decisions. According to modern day philosopher and teacher Brian Johnson, “controlling our breath is *the* most efficient way to control ourselves.”
Whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed, afraid, challenged, uptight, tired, frustrated, etc., the first thing I try to do is ask myself, “How’s your breathing?”
Before we get into some of the ways experts across many disciplines are bringing awareness to the breath – from former Navy SEALS and corporate executives to health psychologists and spiritual teachers – I’d like to offer you a challenge. Starting today, and continuing for the next week, stop and take five deep breaths at least five times a day (5×5). We’ll cover different strategies on how to practice below.
Actually – let’s start right now. Stop reading and take five deep breaths. The text below will be waiting for you when you get back. Seriously. Did you stop and breathe? If you didn’t, do it now. (I stopped writing and let myself take five deep breaths too.)
Breathing as a performance enhancing drug.
There is no better way to get our physiology performing than by taking deep breaths. It delivers a rich supply of oxygen throughout the body, providing us with the energy we need to perform at our best. It’s “a biologically established relaxation technique used to increase the potential to perform well under pressure,” writes performance coach Jason Selk.1
As a former Navy Seal, Mark Divine also knows a thing or two about performing under pressure. “In a crunch situation, I recommend you collapse your concentration to your breathing while maintaining relaxed awareness of the surroundings,” Devine writes.2 “Breathing deeply will greatly reduce the stress, slow your heart rate, and bring your nervous system back into balance. The mind will remain focused as your body comes back into balance. Then you can make better decisions in the midst of the chaos, danger, or the debilitating effect of fear. This is why breath awareness and control is the number one tool for Unbeatable Mind students who challenge themselves and push the envelope. But it is equally effective to enhance your performance in the boardroom. The level of control over your physiology and psychology I am talking about must be practiced and habituated until it becomes a routine skill.”
Breathing as a powerful recovery tool.
Science is continuously demonstrating the importance of recovery on everything from athletic training to cognitive performance. We simply aren’t built to perform at peak levels for long periods of time, without taking short breaks to recharge.
How much recovery do we need? It depends on how well we recover. Productivity experts suggest breaking every thirty minutes of work up with a five-minute break, whether that means five minutes every half hour or a fifteen-minute break at the end of a ninety-minute cycle.
Interestingly, if you’re pressed for time, or simply feeling overwhelmed, you can make a dramatic shift in your physiology in sixty seconds. “You can clear the bloodstream of cortisol [the stress hormone that fuels us in emergencies but is toxic when it circulates for too long] in as little as one minute,” shares Energy Project CEO Tony Schwarz. “Do it by breathing in through your nose to a count of 3 or 4, and out through your mouth a count of 6, in a very focused way. The better you get at doing that – focusing just on the breathing, so that it’s the only thing that you’re actually doing during that one minute you’re doing it – the better at recovering you get. […] You can “recover” with TV, Facebook, etc., for hours, without actually getting much recovery. Or, you can singularly focus on your breath for one minute, and get a lot of recovery.”
Breathing brings us to the present and allows for higher quality decisions
Consciously taking deep breaths immediately brings us to the present moment. It can also be used as a tool to help create distance between what we experience and how we respond.
“Breathing in and out is very important, and it is enjoyable,” writes Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.3 “Our breathing is the link between our body and our mind. Sometimes our mind is thinking of one thing and our body is doing another, and mind and body are not unified. By concentrating on our breathing, ‘In’ and ‘Out,’ we bring body and mind back together and become whole again. Conscious breathing is an important bridge. […] Just breathing and smiling can make us very happy, because when we breathe consciously we recover ourselves completely and encounter life in the present moment.”
In the space created, the act of breathing also gives us an immediate willpower boost, helping us make higher quality decisions.
“There is one way to immediately boost willpower,” writes Kelly McGonigal, Ph. D,4 (McGonigal also taught us how to think differently about stress.) “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.”
Breathing to gain greater control over ourselves
Breathing is an automatic behavior we all do without thinking, which makes learning how to control our breath a way to start taking control of all our behaviors. It will ultimately allow us to take control of our lives.
“Becoming aware of our breathing and taking control of it when we need to is one of the most powerful ways to take control of ourselves, especially when we’re afraid,” writes all around rock-star, navy SEAL, politician and author Eric Grietans.5 “Of course, people who will not make the effort to control how they breathe have little hope of taking control of larger things. If you won’t exercise enough discipline to slightly alter just once in a while the thing that you do thousands of times a day, then you will not have the discipline to change the course of your life. But if you do learn to control your breathing, you will have gained experience in how to control what you can control. If you do learn to bring awareness to how you breathe, you are likely to bring awareness to how you live.”
Upgrade Your Breath Toolkit
Each of the experts quoted above has their own favorite breath practices. Pick one from the list below to focus on for the next week as you complete the 5×5 breath challenge.
For every pattern, it’s important to have good posture. Proper posture creates more space for the lungs and allows you to breathe more deeply.
Sit or stand with your spine tall, as if someone is pulling on a rope attached to the crown of your head. “Chest up, chin down,” writes Eric Goodman.6 “Don’t shrug or hike up your shoulders; instead, raise your sternum, letting the breath of the inhalation lift your ribcage upward. […] Focus on keeping your chest big. Again, picture your lungs: They are balloons within your ribcage, and you want to fill them up. Your chest’s inhalation circumference is the measure of this, so fill your lungs high and wide and watch the chest get bigger and bigger. Hold that circumference on the exhale, keeping your chest big as you recruit those muscles below the ribcage to maintain support.”
- 4-6. Inhale to a count of 4, exhale to a count of 6. From Kelly McGonigal and Tony Schwartz.
- 5-5-5-5 box breathing. Inhale to a count of 5, hold it for 5, exhale to count of 5, hold it for 5, repeat. From Mark Divine.
- 6-2-7 centering breath. “I have tried to simplify diaphragm breathing by qualifying a good centering breath as one that lasts fifteen seconds. The formula is 6-2-7: breathe in for six seconds, hold for two, and breathe out for seven seconds. Individuals under the age of twelve should try to have the centering breath last eleven seconds (4-2-5). I have found that if players take a deep breath that lasts fifteen seconds, they will, in fact, get air into the diaphragm, and the heart rate will slow.” From Jason Selk
When And Where Are You Going To Practice?
Research shows that we’re more likely to follow through on something if we identifying when and where we’re going to do it. So, when and where are you going to practice breathing?
Identify the situations that you’re going to use as a reminder to pause and bringing intention to your breath. For our challenge, try picking something that you typically do five times a day. Some examples might be:
- When you go from indoors to outdoors, or vice versa.
- When you go to the restroom.
- On waking hours that are multiples of 3 (9am, 12pm, 3pm, 6pm, 9pm).
- After hanging up the phone.
Focus everything you have on making those breaths the best you’ve ever experienced. After that, smile, and do what you want.
One more time. Before you move your attention onto the next email, or article, or to-do, let’s breathe some more. Stop, use one of the patterns above, and take five deep breaths.
- in 10-Minute Toughness: The Mental Training Program for Winning Before the Game Begins. http://amzn.to/2awl4cH [↩]
- in Unbeatable Mind: Forge Resiliency and Mental Toughness to Succeed at an Elite Level [↩]
- in Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. http://amzn.to/2axC5Y5 [↩]
- in The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It http://amzn.to/2akZniE [↩]
- in Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life http://amzn.to/2akZJWt [↩]
- in True to Form: How to Use Foundation Training for Sustained Pain Relief and Everyday Fitness http://amzn.to/2aQsZUp [↩]