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
(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
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
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.