Provision #507: Breathe Deep

Laser Provision

For two weeks we’ve written about the importance of sleep; by lowering our metabolism through sleep we strengthen our metabolism while awake. That’s the fitness connection between exercise and recovery, exertion and rest. When sleep fails to rejuvenate the body it’s usually because breathing fails to become slow, deep, and regular. If you have breathing problems at night, then breathing deeply and rhythmically during the day is the next best thing. This Provision gives you a few suggestions on how to make it so.

LifeTrek Provision

As I write this Provision, it is Easter weekend on the East Coast of the United States of America. Even though Williamsburg is at a latitude of 37.270 North, we are enjoying a rare and unexpected Easter snowstorm on the second Sunday in April. For those of you who keep an eye on the birds outside our office window , you may have seen the snow on the tops of the birdfeeders and even snowflakes in the air. The sight was breathtaking.

It’s not that we never see snow in Williamsburg, but we never see snow and dogwood blossoms at the same time. The limbs of our Japanese maple, laden with snow on fresh, new leaves, dipped down to where they were touching ground. Yesterday, after our annual spring clean up and mulch in the gardens, we took pictures with everything fresh, pristine, and blooming. Today we took the same pictures, with red azalea blossoms poking through the white snow. An amazing, overnight transformation!

That is, after all, the message of Easter. Overnight, in the twinkling of an eye, everything can look different. What appeared impossible and lost can suddenly appear possible and found. What is written off and rejected by the world can suddenly be embraced and accepted. What is dead can suddenly be resurrected.

Although the story of Easter is tied to a particular time, place, and person, the metaphor of Easter is a universal human experience. Who has not experienced and witnessed the rejuvenation of life, even against all odds? Whether suddenly or gradually, whether inexplicably or predictably, something there is that refuses to be dampened forever. That may, in fact, be as good a definition of life as any other: living things overcome obstacles.

The more formidable the obstacle, the more breathtaking the spectacle. That’s part of what makes the Easter story so intriguing: death is one tough obstacle to overcome. But it happens over and over again as life finds ways to recover, revive, and reinvent itself. Extrinsic hardship is no match for intrinsic artisanship. Life finds a way.

It’s no coincidence that life’s transformations are breathtaking. Breath is, after all, a distinguishing feature of life. When respiration stops, life stops unless and until it can be revived. Ancient stories always make breath the last ingredient to life. First the bones, then the sinews, then the flesh, then the skin, and finally breath. At its finest, life is both breathtaking and breath making. Out and in, in and out, are vital fitness rhythms.

Respiration is a vital fitness rhythm at all points on the spectrum. One’s maximum aerobic capacity is not the only relevant and not even the most important measure of fitness. The most important measure is fitness for a particular environment. As beautiful and as breathtaking as it was to see snow in April, for example, our tropical hibiscus would not have fared well if we had left it outside over night. Below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) and its fitness drops dramatically.

Everyone and everything have their own parameters. That’s why scientists are so concerned about global warming. Although life will survive • it always does • life as we know it will not survive if the environment changes dramatically. Last week’s report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes it clear that “no one on Earth will escape the impacts of a warming planet”. No one will be fit in such an environment. We will all suffer through the ravages of our planet’s inflammatory disorder.

Scientists warn that the planet is suffering from its own inflammatory disorder, with no chance to cool down and no chance to breathe. Humans are not the only ones going 24/7. We need to break the cycle before it’s too late.

That’s why the LifeTrek Optimal Wellness Prototype puts sleep, rest, relaxation, and recovery at the base of the fitness pyramid. Cool-down is essential to fitness. Overtraining is as bad as undertraining. Fitness requires variability, rather than constancy, in order to progress. Without variability, we either burn out (like the planet) or rust out (like the moon). With variability, respecting and honoring our circadian rhythms, we can enjoy the benefits of optimal wellness for generations to come.

Our primary cool down comes from a good night’s sleep, which slows down our metabolism on all levels for a sustained period of time. That is not, however, the only cool down required for optimal fitness. We also need to take breaks throughout the day, in the form of naps and / or relaxation exercises. Such practices are essential to our overall fitness level. Unless we take breaks, we too will suffer the ravages of global warming. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, we will get ever larger and faster until we crash and break apart at the bottom.

Let’s not do that! Let’s incorporate healthy rhythms into our lives for peak performance in life and work. Sleeping at night for approximately eight hours is one those rhythms; so is lying down to stretch out and close our eyes at least once during the day. Lying down does more to lower blood pressure and restore balance than any other position.

It takes conscious choice and considerable courage to make this happen in the modern world. Like our overheating planet, most people are too busy and engaged to lie down. Students follow schedules that do not incorporate rest periods (let alone cots) into the school day. By the time we graduate from high school, we have already gotten the message: stay busy from before dawn until well after sunset. It’s a 24/7 world, and we’re expected to keep up the pace.

Continually operating on this level, however, is to continually engage the “fight or flight” response. Instead of becoming more productive, we become less so as anxiety, fatigue, and stress take their toll. From this vantage point, lying down, resting, and relaxing periodically throughout the day may do more for productivity and fitness than any other practices. Until we try them, however, we’ll never see for ourselves.

If lying down is not an option, and it’s not for many people at many times, the next best thing is to change body positions and to breathe deep. Both are important for this to work. Changing body positions reduces fatigue by engaging different muscles. Deep, rhythmic breathing simulates the relaxation of sleep, even when sleep is not an option.

Deep, rhythmic breathing is best done by following a pattern that you can follow for an extended period of time. Dr. Andrew Weil, for example, recommends a 4-7-8 pattern where you breathe in through your nose to the count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 7, and breathe out through your mouth to the count of 8. Doing four repetitions of this pattern in about a minute completes one cycle. Doing two cycles represents a set. Dr. Weil recommends that we do two sets a day, one in the morning and one in the evening.

There’s no particular magic about 4-7-8, except that it promotes deep breathing. If you find that another pattern of numbers works well for you, then use that one instead. Dr. Dean Ornish uses body language rather than numbers to develop a rhythm. He suggests that we put one hand on our belly and the other hand on our chest while taking slow, deep breaths. On inhalation, he wants the belly to fill up first. On exhalation, he wants the chest to lower first. By following the rising and falling of our hands, we can develop just as rhythmic a pattern as by counting.

Another practice is alternate nostril breathing. By putting your index and pointing fingers on your forehead, you can use your thumb and third finger to close one nostril while you breathe through the other. Inhale slowly and deeply through one nostril, then switch fingers and breathe out through the other nostril. Breathe in through the same nostril before switching fingers to breathe out through the other. That’s one cycle; repeat four times to make one set.

Many people like to use biofeedback devices in order to promote deep, rhythmic breathing. The simplest and least expensive is to synchronize your breathing with your heart rate by wearing a stethoscope as you breathe deep. The slower you breathe, in through the nose and out through the mouth, the slower your heart will go.

Another biofeedback device is called the Resperate, a portable electronic device that looks like a CD or DVD player. It comes with headphones and a chest strap that monitors respiration. By synchronizing one’s breath with the music, which slows down as time goes on, one quickly harnesses the therapeutic power of paced breathing. Each session lasts for 20 minutes, and they go by quickly!

Healing Rhythms works in a similar fashion, only it uses a personal computer and different monitors to promote deep breathing. The fingertip monitors measure heart rate and skin conductivity as you complete a variety of guided or self-selected breathing exercises. Drs. Andrew Weil, Dean Ornish, and Deepak Chopra as well as other experts in the field of health and wellness have all contributed exercises in their own voice. Although the guided exercises are great, I also like the mode that enables me to see my heart rate, heart rate variability, and skin conductivity in real time.

The fitness benefits of these deep breathing exercises are optimized when they are done lying down; if you do them sitting up, be sure you are sitting in a different place and position than you sit in while you are working. A straight back is always best for breathwork. Ironically, it may be best to do your deep, rhythmic breathing while walking around if you have just spent several hours sitting at your desk. Changing position and breathing rhythmically are both critical to getting a rejuvenating break.

More than 30 years ago, Dr. Herbert Benson wrote his seminal work, “The Relaxation Response,” to encourage rest and recover breathing on a regular basis. Such breathing happens effortlessly and even automatically, Dr. Benson observed, in the presence of four essential elements:

    • A quiet environment.


    • A mental device.


    • A passive attitude


    • A comfortable position.


“Your appropriate practice of these four elements for ten to twenty minutes once or twice daily,” Dr. Benson concluded, “should markedly enhance your well being.” That was true in 1975; it’s even more true today. Our Paleolithic ancestors knew nothing of the 24/7 world in which we now find ourselves. Their genes determine our health, and it’s time to follow their lead if we hope to move forward in fitness and health.

Perhaps that’s part of why so many people are blessed by prayer, meditation, yoga, and other practices. They get people to stop what they are doing, to breathe, and to concentrate on something meaningful. Perhaps that’s also part of why so many people find it hard to quit smoking. They miss the breaks and the long drags. But it’s not an either / or choice. We can breathe deep without the smoke. We can rest and recover our way to fitness and health.

Make sure you take your fair share of deep, rhythmic breaths today. There’s no better way to celebrate the occasion. 

Coaching Inquiries: What patterns do you follow when it comes to deep, rhythmic breathing? Do you start the day with breathwork? Do you take breaks during the day? How do you end the day, as you get ready for sleep? What conscious choices do you want to make about breathwork? Are there ways for you to lie down for a few minutes in the afternoon? How could you introduce more heart and respiration variability into your schedule?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob..

I really enjoyed your article on sleep. Since I work with so many folks with ADD/ADHD, the sleep cycle stuff can be a big part of the coaching and the stats you had about error rate make it real.

I’ve enjoyed the pieces on sleep that you have shared in your LifeTrek Provisions. Is it possible to get references to some of the studies you mentioned? (Ed. Note: I usually include references in the Provisions themselves. Sorry if I missed some. Let me know the studies you are interested in, and I can track down the references.)

Thank you for referring me to David Whyte’s poem, “What To Remember Upon Waking. I’ve been doing the 4-7-8 breathing exercises and reading the poem first thing in the morning and it has made a huge difference to how my day has gone. The usual anxious feelings that I get in my stomach when I wake up are not there and I feel much more confident as I go out into the day. Each time I read the poem, I get something different out of it. Thanks for being there. 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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