robert

Robert Lee is an academic fellow and entrepreneur-in-residence at CodeX - The Stanford Center for Legal Informatics. He advises startups on funding, intellectual property, incorporation, marketing and strategy issues, both at CodeX, and at flØwstate. Robert has served as CEO of Fly Online, an e-commerce portal that was acquired by Travelzoo, and VP of Intellevate, an enterprise software and services company that was acquired by CPA Global. He has also worked as a technology lawyer in Silicon Valley, has studied EECS, and is a published researcher in biochemistry and physiology. He earned his JD/MBA (law and business) from UC Berkeley and his BS/BA from Yale University. On weekends, Robert can be found foraging near the Northern California coast, both on the ocean side and on the land side, for abalone, rockfish and mushrooms. He is also an instructor with Performance Freediving and an innovation Advisor at Singularity University.

Apr 042016
 

Introduction to Breathing Skills for Surf Survival and Freediving

On May 11, I will be doing a lecture introduction to breathing skills and freediving. We will build up to a three-minute breath hold.

The curriculum will follow these materials

For those of you who don’t know me, here is my bio and podcast

Three-Part Seminar
1: Breathing Skills for Stress Management & Performance
2: Introduction to Breathhold
3: Introduction to Bay Area Diving (equipment, classes available, abalone diving)

You are welcome to bring drink and snacks, but don’t eat a large meal beforehand, because breath holds are difficult on a full stomach.

Price: $120 ($100 after $20 deposit)
Group of two : $110 each ($200 after $20 deposit)

$20 deposit payable here, which gives you an easy-to-read pdf version of the above document to review before class (optional)

Pay the balance in cash on site. Add $20 to each spot if paying the by Venmo, Check, or Credit Card

One Embarcadero Center, 4th Floor
SF 94111, Clay & Battery, 94111

Take escalator to the business lobby. Turn left at the guard desk, go to the fourth floor, text me at (510) 427-2049 and I will let you in. Class starts at 6:15, but you should aim to arrive before 6 so you don’t have to check in with the guard. You will save significant time an hassle by arriving before 6.

You can also attend by Google hangout!

Join video call

My SkypeID is buriedmirror

My # is five one oh 427 2049
Email is rlee at codex dot stanford dot edu

And finally, follow my Facebook Page for trips and adventures

Apr 042016
 

The 12 Second Meditation: Mindful Breathing for Stress Management & Performance

Available for free across multiple web pages. Start here

Breath Holding: Getting to 3 Minutes

These products do not qualify you to carry out or supervise breath holds in water, but give you an introduction to short breath holds on land. I do not provide breath hold info for free online so as to create a gateway to warn of the risks.

***

Some Freediving Videos

(1) My favorite freediving video

Kirk Krack chilling underwater and perfect bubble rings. Freediving not as extreme competitive sport, but meditative, contemplative way of enjoying the ocean. Filmed by Ren Chapman.

(2) Freefall

The most viewed freediving video of all time.

(3) GoPro’s Whale Fantasia

Mandy, Erin, and Ashleigh also chilling underwater, with humpback whales

(4) Blackout

The video ends abruptly because the cameraman had to rescue the diver! Also filmed by Ren Chapman.

Plus, my video podcast from the 2014 Bulletproof Conference.

Some great photographers who specialize in freediving

(1) Joakim Hjelm

(2) Courtney Platt

(3) Logan Mock-Bunting

Freediving schools certified by Performance Freediving

Garo Hachigian’s California Freedive Academy & Shell Eisenberg’s Hawaii Classes

Ted Harty’s Immersion Freediving

May 072015
 

This is an updated version of a post I did in 2014 for Erin Magee’s Freediveblog.com.

I’m sitting here in our condos with Andrew Hogan on Monday, May 19, 2013, two days after the end of Deja Blue V. We’re the stragglers, tying up some loose ends before heading off for SF and Vancouver.

Deja Blue was a great experience as always. Deja Blue III in 2012 featured Ashley’s world records and Erin’s national records, as well as the national records of our late friend Nic. Logan Mock-Bunting published a fantastic photo essay about the competition on CNN. This year’s competition didn’t feature as many deep dives, but was still a great success.

Part of my own personal approach to freediving is represented in this photo.

40.5 crop

On any given day, after we prepare the diving rig for competition, we have some time do our own warmups. Depending on the day, we may have time to do a couple of deep dives.

The dive recorded on this watch expresses, quite succinctly, my approach, philosophy, and skills with respect to this sport. It says 40.5m (133ft) and 4 minutes, 5 seconds, which was my longest warmup free immersion dive in Cayman this year.

The reason I enjoy teaching freediving and doing safety work is because they are forms of functional freediving. I’ve never been able to dive super deep— I have some equalizing issues that make it difficult for me to easily get beyond 40m. While I’m sure I could dive deeper than my PB of 50m, it would take quite a bit of work for limited reward. These sorts of issues are not uncommon. People have different physical idiosyncracies, and equalizing/ear issues are foremost among them.

However, I do have the capacity to dive 30-40m meters in a very useful way. I can go to those depth and carry out tasks such as tying off a line or supervising a student with ease. I’m especially known for being able to dive to 30m at the drop of a hat, and did so at Deja Blue III up to a dozen times a day. I can also equalize without pinching my nose to that depth, which makes it easier to carry objects such as a camera, or to dive fast to catch a dropped object.

As I passed this photo around at Deja Blue, I was surprised by how impressed people were by it. Even national record holders who have gone 80m+, were uncertain that they could do the same. I think they probably could, but the fact that they thought it was more than trivial was gratifying.

We freedivers know that pretty much most of the general population has the capacity to dive hundreds of feet and to hold their breath for several minutes. So while many people could learn to dive 40 meters for 4 minutes, I guess I can safely say that very few actually have. Someday I may try solve a Rubik’s Cube down there.

Along these lines, my favorite freediving video of all time is the one Ren Chapman filmed two years ago, of Kirk Krack blowing bubble rings, very casually, at 20m. It shows that freediving doesn’t have to be an extreme sport. It can just be graceful and intimate way of exploring the ocean.

And that is what appeals to me about this sport. The experience of learning to operate comfortably in a seemingly alien environment is immensely rewarding. It’s the closest thing to a space walk that I’ll ever experience. I am grateful to be able to share this experience with other people, and to use my skills to make students and dive competitors feel safe and attended to.

Apr 272015
 

(1) $2: The 12 Second Meditation pdf, https://gum.co/iuVY

If you wish to purchase any breath-holding products below, you must first review, agree to and comply with this document: Assumption of Risk 2015. This document is also included in the purchase packages, but if you want to review it before purchase, you can do it at the link.

These products do not qualify you to carry out or supervise breath holds in water, but give you an introduction to short breath holds on land. I do not provide breath hold info for free online so as to create a gateway to warn of the risks.

Purchase of these products is limited to a one-person digital license, to ensure that each user understands, agrees to and complies as such.

(2) $39: The 12 Second Meditation pdf + webinar, https://gum.co/iuVY

(2) $39: The 12 Second Meditation pdf + webinar, https://gum.co/iuVY

(3) $17: Breath Holding: Getting to 3 Minutes pdf includes (1), https://gum.co/xXFP

(4) $96:Breath Holding: Getting to 3 Minutes pdf includes (2),  + https://gum.co/xXFP

***

Some Freediving Videos

(1) My favorite freediving video

Kirk Krack chilling underwater and perfect bubble rings. Freediving not as extreme competitive sport, but meditative, contemplative way of enjoying the ocean. Filmed by Ren Chapman.

(2) Freefall

The most viewed freediving video of all time.

(3) GoPro’s Whale Fantasia

Mandy, Erin, and Ashleigh also chilling underwater, with humpback whales

(4) Blackout

The video ends abruptly because the cameraman had to go any rescue the diver! Also filmed by Ren Chapman.

Plus, my video podcast from the 2014 Bulletproof Conference.

Some great photographers who specialize in freediving

(1) Joakim Hjelm

(2) Courtney Platt

(3) Logan Mock-Bunting

Freediving schools certified by Performance Freediving

Garo Hachigian’s California Freedive Academy & Shell Eisenberg’s Hawaii Classes

Ted Harty’s Immersion Freediving

Apr 242015
 

Thank you so much for taking time to read this document! I hope the content will serve you well. The materials in this document are available in webinar form at www.fl0wstate.com/book. You can also find materials there on Breath Holds for Surf Survival and Freediving: Getting to Three Minutes. Thank you again, and remember to breathe mindfully!

Inhale and Exhale, 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Apr 242015
 

Let us now apply mindful breathing to the use cases of Chapter 2.

(1) We will first look at management of chronic, everyday stress. In the abstract, there is nothing wrong with the build up of energy that accompanies a “fight or flight” response. It is evolutionarily adaptive in that it primes us to deal with a challenging event. In its original context, e.g., seeing a mountain lion, this stress can accurately be described as eustress, or good stress. Exercise is another kind of eustress. However if you exercise continuously for 16 hours a day, eustress become distress, or bad stress. The same is true of “fight or flight” stress, and we need to learn to deal with so that it doesn’t become chronic.

For example, many health and wellness practitioners recommend periodic breaks to combat the ills of sedentary jobs, particularly those with prolonged sitting. I like to schedule a very quick activity break every 15 minutes. Over the course of an hour, at 0:15, I will do one minute of mindful breathing (about 5 breaths) perhaps while standing or walking. At 0:30 I will take three minutes to do light physical activity that is ideally mentally challenging and engaging. Walking a slack line or riding a balance board (a board which simulates surfing) are great breaks. A quick yoga sequence or Microsoft Kinect game are also good. At 0:45 I will again do one minute of mindful breathing, and at 0:60 I will take five minutes to do something more active, such as jumping rope or swinging kettle bells. Three one-minute sessions with one minute rest work for me. I can do these activities at the office and they won’t cause me to sweat. You should use very modest weights, particularly for the first minute, because you will not be warmed up. You should of course do only activities that are appropriate for you and that are safe, and receive a medical doctor’s clearance to be safe. Balance activities can of course lead to falling and injury.

8. Balance Board, www.indoboard.com        9. Slackline, Wikipedia, Steffan A Frost

indo-board2

Cambridgeslackerssaf40

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(2) The idea behind managing a stressful event is quite similar to (1), except you will likely be in a more heightened emotional state than with chronic stress of (1). You heart rate will be rapid and your blood pressure high. Your breathing will likely be rapid and shallow, thus indicating a stressed state. But now you can take control. Do a comfortable diaphragm inhalation and exhale 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. You may find you have to work at it to slow down the exhale to a full 8 seconds. And you may find it takes more than a minute to get yourself back into a calm state. That’s OK, take as long as you need. Over time, you’ll find that you can rebalance yourself more quickly.

(3) Dealing with a stress-inducing performance or task is quite similar to (2), except that the stress is entirely self-imposed, by your own expectations. Physiologically, though, the symptoms are identical. It is important to deal with such anxiety because it often impairs our performance. A small amount of anxiety in anticipation of a task is good, but most people become too highly-aroused, likely because we as human being tend to over think things, unlike less cerebral animals. And too high a level of stress impairs performance, as has been studied and articulated in the Yerkes-Dodson law. This phenomenon was discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink:

Dave Grossman, a former army lieutenant colonel and the author of On Killing, argues that the optimal state of “arousal”-the range in which stress improves performance-is when our heart rate is between 115 and 145 beats per minute. Grossman says that when he measured the heart rate of champion marksman Ron Avery, Avery’s pulse was at the top of that range when he was performing in the field. The basketball superstar Larry Bird used to say that at critical moments in the game, the court would go quiet and the players would seem to be moving in slow motion. He clearly played basketball in that same optimal range of arousal in which Ron Avery performed. But very few basketball players see the court as clearly as Larry Bird did, and that’s because very few people play in that optimal range. Most of us, under pressure, get too aroused, and past a certain point, our bodies begin shutting down so many sources of information that we start to become useless.

10. Yerkes Dodson Law, Wikipedia, Yerkes & Dodson

yerkes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In order to prepare for an anticipated performance, go back to the mindful breathing basics. Take an inhale and exhale, 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. Do a minute or more, as needed. If you don’t have much time, even one or two breaths will help. You will likely be unable to discharge all the stress from the impending task, as the task will still be hanging over your head. But that’s OK, since the Yerkes-Dodson curve tells us that a modest amount of anxiety is good for focus and performance.

While engaging in mindful breathing, it is helpful to close your eyes and visualize your performance. There have been many articles and books written about how to do such visualization, so we will not go into such details here. But let us do a quick visualization of an impending task that is brief and simple, using another basketball example. It is one where you will only have about 30 seconds to prepare for the task, but you can use mindful breathing effectively in this short amount of time.

Imagine you are playing a basketball game, whether it be the state championship or a pick up game with friends. You are on a fast break and you score a layup, but you have also been fouled with no time remaining on the clock. The game is tied. Now close your eyes. You have been exerting yourself, so you might need a couple of quick breaths to catch your breath. Go ahead and do that. As you walk over to the free throw line, you take a mindful breath, inhale and exhale 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. The referee bounces the basketball to you. You catch the ball as you inhale and exhale 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. Now as you inhale you raise up the ball, and right when you exhale (a little harder than a relaxed exhale) you shoot the ball. Since the ball is now out of your hands, we won’t visualize whether it goes in or not. In fact, there is a term in sports performance called outcome expectation, which states that if you focus too much on the outcome, it is likely to hinder performance.

I hope that was visualization was useful for you. Now let’s move to (4), mindful breathing as a gateway to meditation and other practices. Meditation and other mind-body practices can seem a bit obscure when starting out, and they often have steep learning curves. It is this steep learning curve that has been one my main motivation in coming up with the 12 Second Meditation. I wanted to give people an extremely easy way of starting on the meditation pathway, a sort of “meditation for dummies”. And I do think it is a meaningful practice on its own, or in combination with some of these other arts. It is a natural fit with pranayama and kundalini yoga, as well as qigong and other arts that focus on the breath. Serious freedivers will often engage in one or more of these other practices to increase their breath hold and freediving abilities.

This is a good time to discuss nose versus mouth breathing. Both do the basic job, which is getting air into and out of your lungs. Most breathing arts prefer that you use your nose, especially during the inhale. Breathing in through the nose does do a few things— it filters the air via mucus and hair, and it warms the air as it passes through our sinuses. As it warms the air, it may also help cool the brain at the same time, see, for example, the work of Robert Zojonc on breathing.

How important these factors are as a matter of ongoing, autonomic breathing is up for debate. Actively trying to breathe through the nose may lead to you eventually using the nose more when you are not thinking about it. This is something you can work on yourself. We can try a little exercise with this now, and draw your attention to some interesting details.

So, let’s go back to our mindful breathing, using the mouth as before. Inhale and exhale 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. Do that twice more. Now, this time, inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. Do it twice more.

What did you notice? You probably felt that inhaling through the nose is a bit slower, as the passages in the nose and sinuses are smaller. There is nothing wrong with slowing down the inhale like this. We have been emphasizing that an extended exhale is the key to relaxation, but if the inhalation is a bit slower, this is fine, and many breathing arts prefer longer inhales.

There is one more thing that you might have noticed. When switching from exhaling through the mouth to inhaling through the nose, there is a slight pause, and a small movement inside your head. This movement is your soft palate moving from the up position to the down position. During breathing, air must move into or out of the lungs, whether we are using the nose or mouth. When using the mouth, the soft palette is in the up position, that is, open to the mouth, and when using the nose, the soft palette is in the down position, that is, open to the nose. Even though you are not generally aware of it, the soft palate is moving all the time to accommodate breathing and swallowing.

11. Upper Respiratory System (including Soft Palate), Bruce Blausen

Blausen_0872_UpperRespiratorySystem

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can play with the four combinations of inhaling/exhaling and nose/mouth and be attuned to the movement of your palate with each. Freedivers generally both inhale and exhale through the mouth because we have a diving mask over our nose. You can even try to keep your palate in the neutral position, that is, halfway between up and down, although I can’t think of any good use for it except for freediving, where we have to move the air from mouth to sinuses in order to equalize pressure at depth, and circular breathing, for playing wind instruments without having to pause to take a breath. You can use a balloon to check if your palate is in this neutral position. Blow up the balloon and put it in your mouth. If you can let the air out of the balloon, through your sinuses and into your mouth, and out your nose, then the palate must be in the neutral position, that is, open to both your nose and mouth.

This is an opportune time to mention neti pots. Some medical professionals recommend rinsing your sinuses with salt water as an easy and cheap way of addressing respiratory health. This can be particularly helpful if you live in a dry environment or one with large amounts of particulates in the air. A neti pot or sinus rinse bottle is the device you use to do this.

sinus rinse big neitpot

Apr 232015
 

As we briefly touched on above, exhalation is the key to mindful, relaxed breathing. So much so, that if you think about it, we naturally associate exhalation with serenity, security, and release of tension. There are all sorts of such cultural references to exhalation as being emotional release, as in Terry McMillan’s novel Waiting to Exhale.

One simple reason that exhalation equals relaxation is that it requires no muscular effort. You don’t have to actively push air out during exhalation— you can just passively let it out. Also, as we exhale, air pressure against the heart goes down, allowing it to more easily pump blood, and thus achieve a higher stroke volume. Thus the heart can beat fewer times per minute. Exhalation also engages our parasympathetic nervous system, which is the opposite of the fight-or-flight response. This is called the vagal response or relaxation response.

We can increase the benefits of exhalation by extending its length, somewhat counter-intuitively. We tend to think of inhalation as more important because we need air and oxygen. But we have enough air in our lungs to sustain us for several minutes, so an extended exhale phase of 8, 10, 15 or even 30 seconds barely cuts into our oxygen reserves. This concept is the essence of mindful breathing. A nice, relaxed exhale is like a massage or stress release for the lungs, an opportunity to chill out and let the accumulated stresses of the day flow out of the body. I like to start people off with an 8 second exhalation but the exact length doesn’t matter, and you certainly can do much more.

After we take the comfortable inhale with just the diapragm described above, we are ready to do the long, relaxed exhale. And we will want to exhale through the mouth, so that we can control the rate of flow of air with our lips or teeth. This is what allows us to slow the exhalation down substantially. You could use your nose, in that is possible to slowly exhale through the nose, but this requires us to concentrate a bit and eccentrically contract our breathing muscles. As an analogy, imagine that you are at the top of a pull-up position and then slowly let yourself down. This is an eccentric muscle contraction— working the muscles, not to do a pull-up (that would be a concentric muscle contraction), but to control how slowly you go down. An eccentric muscle contraction requires effort. By contrast, if you had a large rubber band under your feet to slowly let you down, you wouldn’t have to do any muscular work during the descent.

Exhaling through our lips or teeth is like having such a rubber band. You want to let the air slowly escape through pursed lips or mostly closed teeth. By doing this, we can easily control the rate of flow so that we get the 8 second exhalation that we want. So let’s try it. Take a normal, comfortable inhale, and exhale 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. Again— inhale and exhale 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. How far should you exhale? It doesn’t much matter, as long as you don’t go beyond the point of a passive exhale, that is, so don’t have to actively push the air out. Try it a few more times.

I bet you are feeling more relaxed already. And there you have it, 8 seconds of exhalation to achieve calm. I call it the 12 second meditation because it takes about 4 seconds for the rest of the breathing cycle, for a total of 12 seconds. If you were to read no further in this document, I think you already have learned something useful. Several breaths can be used for a minute long meditation, and several times more can be used for a five or ten minute meditation.

Some medical practitioners teach patients with emphysema and similar lung diseases to similarly exhale through pursued lips or closed teeth. This is because the airways of such patients are inflexible and tend to collapse easily. This is particularly problematic in the alveoli, which are essentially little balloons of thin tissue where blood circulates and exchanges oxygen and carbon dioxide with the lungs. Exhaling against a restricted flow induces back pressure. that can help the airways remain inflated during exhalation, thus better exchanging gases. While it has not been studied beyond this type of population, this effect might be beneficial for the rest of us as well.

A long exhale can also help induce something called heart rate variability (HRV), which some scientists believe is an important metric of cardiovascular health. I will not go into the details of this metric, nor surmise whether HRV induced by this type of breathing is effective at promoting cardiovascular health in the way that proponents of HRV promote, but you can look up HRV for yourself.

Apr 232015
 

In this document, we will focus on the exhalation phase of breathing, and learn why an extended exhale is the key to relaxation, focus, and all the other benefits of mindful breathing. But it is first worth taking a quick detour into the mechanics of inhalation.

As a quick aside/experiment, if you happen to have some balloons handy, take one and blow it up with one breath as big as you can. Then, at the end of this chapter, blow up another balloon and see if it is bigger. While a bag of balloons is likely not standardized so that each balloon is exactly the same, this can be a fun thing to try. I almost always find that the second balloon is quite a bit bigger.

(3) Emily and Her Balloons, May 2015

Our lungs sit within the thoracic (chest) cavity. Expansion and contraction of that cavity, using our inspiratory breathing muscles, also makes the lungs expand and contract. There are three major sets of those breathing muscles that can expand that rib cage and cause inspiration. The diaphragm is the most important.

(1) The diaphragm is a dome-shaped structure of muscle and connective that sits at the bottom of our rib cage, below the lungs. When it contracts, it pulls downward, causing us to inhale. When it relaxes, it is passively pulled back up into the rib cage. The diaphragm moves the most air of any muscle group, and it is mechanically the most efficient breathing muscle. When we are calm, it is the diaphragm alone that moves. If you watch someone, especially a baby, sleeping, you can see only the belly going in and out. Diaphragm breathing is thus sometimes called “belly breathing”. Wikipedia has a nice animated .gif in its diaphragmatic breathing entry. Now please go ahead and try a few slow, relaxed belly breaths.

4. Diaphragm (in Green), Wikipedia, John Pierce

Diaphragmatic_breathing

 

 

 

 

 

 

(2) While the diaphragm alone is perfectly adequate for normal, relaxed breathing, we do have other breathing muscles. The diaphragm moves the most air, followed by the intercostal, or rib cage muscles. There are two sets of intercostal muscles, the inspiratory and expiratory intercostal muscles. In other words, one set of muscles expands the rib cage and the other contracts it. The contracting muscles generally don’t need to be used, since we can just relax and let the air out. But if we want to actively push the air out, faster than normal, we can use the expiratory rib cage muscles. Note that the diaphragm can’t push air out like this this, but the abdominal muscles can. The diaphragm and the abdominals form agonist/antagonist sets of muscles the same way that the inspiratory and expiratory rib cage muscles do (we will refer to them as chest muscles). Now go ahead and add chest breathing to your belly breathing. Inhale slowly with the diaphragm, then add the chest. Try it a few times. You’ll notice that the chest muscles inhale far less air.

5. Thorax (Chest) & Intercostal Muscles, Grey’s Anatomy

2142554344

costal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(3) The third set of muscles moves a very small amount of air, and these muscles are rarely used in breathing. There are the trapezius or shoulder blade muscles. If you raise your shoulders and shoulder blades, this act expands the rib cage, just a bit, and thus more air is inhaled. Shoulder breathing is an inefficient and stressful way to breathe. But go ahead and try it. You won’t be able to move much air. Now go ahead and add shoulder breathing in sequence to the other two breathing muscles. Diaphragm, chest, and shoulders. Try it a few times.

  1. Scapulas (Shoulder Blades) & Trapezius, Grey’s Anatomy

3388885682Trapezius_Gray409

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There aren’t many situations you would breathe using the shoulders. There are only two I can think of. One is when you really need a full, maximal inhalation. This could be the last big breath you take for a freedive. It could also be before trying to blow out the candles on a birthday cake in just one breath, but its hard to imagine you would really need that small amount of extra air. The more likely, but still very unlikely, scenario is if you have your diaphragm temporarily cramped or spasmed, in other words, when you have the “wind knocked out of you”. Perhaps once or twice in your life you may have taken a blow to the area right between the thorax and abdomen while running around the playground or playing sports. When you get the wind knocked out of you, you have taken a blow to the solar plexus, which is a bundle of nerves and muscles in that region of the body. Such a blow can cause your diaphragm to cramp up, and thus inhibit your ability to breathe for several seconds. This can be quite concerting and cause a suffocating feeling, particularly because one is typically in a state of exertion at such a time. The solar plexus is associated with the Anahata chakra.

7. Chakras (yoga energy centers), Wikipedia, William Vroman

7_Chakras

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you listen to such a person trying to breathe, you will typically hear a struggling, wheezing type of breath. This is because the person us breathing only with the chest and shoulder muscles, which tends to create a wheezing noise as one is trying to take a deep breath with muscles that can only take small breaths. If this ever happens to you, try to relax, realize that the diaphragm spasm will soon pass, and take comfort knowing that you can breath with your other muscles, just less efficiently.

Apr 102015
 

As stated above, breathing gives us information about a person’s emotional and cognitive state— “you seem stressed”. It also gives us control over these states— “slow down and take a deep breath”. Why? How does it do both?

The simple answer is that breathing is the one physiological function that is both autonomic and voluntary. An autonomic function is one that operates without conscious thought. We don’t have to think about it for it to happen. And just as importantly, we can’t affect it by thinking about it, at least not directly. One example of an autonomic function is digestion, which is autonomic except for chewing and swallowing. We don’t have to think to secrete acids in our stomach or to move food along our digestive system, and we can’t make these things happen by thinking about them. Our heart beating is another. We don’t have to think to make our heart beat, and we can’t make it beat faster, or stop beating, just by thinking about it. Our heart beat is also a great example of an autonomic physiological function that gives us feedback, that is, information, about our emotional and cognitive states, and a pretty instant one at that. A slow heart rate is indicative of relaxation, calm, serenity, or some combination. A fast heart rate is indicative of stress, anxiety, worry, physical exertion, or some combination. It is true that we can indirectly affect heart rate by some actions, that is, by thinking of or imagining a stressful situation, or by engaging in physical exertion. But we cannot directly affect the heart just by thinking “slow down” or “speed up”. Some exceptional individuals, after many years of intensive work with biofeedback techniques or study in the art of pranayama or qigong, can affect the heart in a somewhat voluntary manner. But the vast majority of us cannot. Voluntary actions, by contrast, are purely a product of the conscious mind. Walking or lifting an object doesn’t happen without consciously thinking about and executing the act.

Heart rate is a particularly interesting autonomic function to look at, because it tends to track very closely with breathing rate (also called respiratory rate). That is, pretty much every inner state associated with fast heart rate is associated with fast breathing rate, and the same with slow heart rate and slow breathing rate. Fast heart rate (HR) and fast breathing rate (BR) are associated with physical exertion/exercise, of course. They are also associated with the sympathetic nervous system, the so-called “fight or flight” response. In other words, fast HR and BR are associated with physical exertion, but they are also associated with preparation for physical exertion, that is, being placed on alert. So when we are startled by a loud noise or some other signal that calls for a possible rapid response, our nervous system amps up, adrenaline is released, and we are ready for “flight or fight”. When we have decided that the threat or other call to action has passed, our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, we relax, and our HR and BR slow.

Breathing, as discussed above, is both autonomic and voluntary, and it is the only physiological function that is both. For one, we don’t have to think about it for it to happen, it happens automatically all the time. But we can also stop breathing any time we want. We can do this for a good 30 seconds, or with some practice, a few minutes, before the autonomic system interceded and starts trying to force us to breath. We can also easily speed our breathing, even though we may not be nervous, anxious, or exercising, in other words, even if we don’t really need to.

Thus breathing lies at the fascinating intersection of autonomic and voluntary control. This is profound enough to be worth reflecting on for a moment. In dolphins, by contrast, breathing is purely voluntary— to them, breathing is like walking. And in most land mammals, it is the opposite— breathing is purely autonomic. Since they have no voluntary control over their breathing, they will quickly drown if placed underwater.

Like our HR, out BR rate tells us a lot about our state of mind. But unlike our HR, because we can so easily control our BR, we can readily and rapidly affect that state of mind in just a few seconds, by taking over our breathing and doing it in a mindfulway. Not only can we affect the rate of breathing, we can play with other factors — duration and depth of the inhale and exhale, for instance, to affect our inner states. So take a deep breath, as we are about to learn about taking a deep breath, literally.

2. Human & Dolphin, Wikipedia, US Navy

Enduring Freedom