It begins with your first breath
Maslow’s hierarchy has its order of needs to thrive and its base is our physiology.
Below this is a more fundamental stack. The true foundations of existing require the basics. We can go for some time without food. We can go even less without water. Lack of sleep for even just a few days can cause major damage. But there is one thing we can’t live without, even for just a few minutes.
It all starts with our breath.
It’s one of the very first things we do when we come into the world and one of the last as we exit.
Our breath sustains life.
Without it, there is nothing. There’s no thriving. There is no life.
For something as foundational, it's something we don’t think about very often, if at all. And why would we? We can do it from the moment we are born and all by ourselves without being taught. But there is much more to our breath and what it can do for us.
First, let's start with a little background on breath and the physiology behind it.
Breathing is regulated by our autonomic nervous system which has two parts; the sympathetic and parasympathetic pathways that regulate many of our vital functions. These systems can be influenced both by our inner and outer environments and our thoughts.
It is a little bit of an oxymoron in that we don't have to think about our breath to breathe. We just do it. But at the same time, our breath is affected by our thoughts.
Our sympathetic nervous system prepares our bodies to be able to react quickly to stress and danger. This is our fight or flight response. Our body reacts with increased heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, dilated pupils and quick shallow breaths from our chest. This evolutionary response is so we can react quickly when facing immediate danger. Our systems react to very real or perceived danger and prime us to respond accordingly.
Now our modern lifestyle doesn't have tigers walking into our village...
...but it does have something worse.
Evolutionary it was necessary to be able to react quickly when facing this new immediate threat, but if we overuse the sympathetic nervous system, it will wear on all of the other parts of our systems toward terrible consequences for our health and wellbeing.
And this is where we are today.
Our always-on, always-connected lifestyle filled with a stressful work/life balance, or lack thereof combined with the constant inputs from media, comparison filled judgment from social networks, and the constant search for your authentic self to live the life you know you were meant to live. Couple all that and throw in a blinking light on the dashboard of your car telling you something is wrong and it's a recipe for chronic stress and all the negative health issues that ensue.
These constant long term stressors tax our system through the prolonged release of stress hormones, elevated blood pressure, and a cardiovascular system that is overtaxed, an immune system that is weakened, and a digestive system that can't function properly. This is why you feel run down, exhausted, unmotivated, and can't shut your brain off when you try to wind down at night. This short term boost to keep us sharp and alive is now turning into a steady stream of stress that takes a real toll on our systems, known as allostatic load.  Does any of that sound familiar?
But there is some good news in all of this.
The other half, our parasympathetic system, has a calming influence as it lowers heart rate, blood pressure, and promotes better digestion. This is the rest and digest side of our nervous system and its there to help our body's regeneration. And it is precisely this part that we can activate through our breath.
Consciously taking control of your breath can alter your state. Slowing down or speeding up your breath can help trigger these systems giving us control over not just our mental state, but the physiological conditions that flow from that. We can gain control over our baseline physiology that lets us work our way up the hierarchy toward doing the work we want to do that brings the sense of accomplishment and moves us toward achieving our full potential.
And it all starts with our breath.
Let's cover some of the basics first.
We want to get away from the quick shallow breaths from our chest. This is what comes from that fight or flight response, but just breathing in this manner can cause us to get into that mode.
So start with long deep breaths from your diaphragm (stomach). Start low in the diaphragm and work your way up into the upper chest and then finally into the upper back as you let air come into all areas of the lungs. This may sound and feel weird to you if it is not something you have done before.
Breath through your nose
Many breathwork methods, like holotropic or Whim Hoff, may have you breathing through your mouth which is fine, but for day to day breathing and for getting started on better breathing practices we are going to focus on breathing through the nose. Breathing through the nose can help with memory consolidation and has many other benefits. For a deeper dive on breathing through the nose, here are more resources.
Beginning with a simple practice
Here is a great exercise from the State app (iOS & Android) from the Art of Breath that is perfect to help you get present. This is a perfect exercise to do when you find your mind wandering or stuck on something else or you are switching tasks and having trouble getting your mind where you want it to be.
Now it's time for a test
Our friends at The Art of Breath have many more resources available and even some clinics if you are interested in exploring this more. Use coupon code: NHCollective for 15% off for Art of Breath Clinics & the Art of Breath Online Course.
They offer a CO2 Tolerance Test to gauge your physiology and see where you might be able to improve. Developed through extensive trials and applications, including in conjunction with Stanford University’s Huberman Lab; this test has been proven to be a powerful indicator of a variety of physiological mechanisms and gives strong indicators of anxiety levels and even breath mechanics to some degree.
Directions for Test:
Find a stopwatch (on most phones)
Take 3-5 deep normal breaths
Relax for 10 seconds
Take 1 more full inhale, and when you start to exhale, start your timer
Exhale as long and slow as you can
Record your time and input below in the Apnea and Cadence Calculators for personalized breathing protocols
What does your test result mean?
>80 seconds –> Elite. Reflects an advanced pulmonary adaptation, excellent motor control, and low arousal.
60-80 seconds –> Advanced. Reflects a healthy pulmonary system, good motor control, and relatively low arousal.
40-60 seconds –> Intermediate. This range generally improves quickly with a focus on CO2 tolerance training.
20-40 seconds –> Average. Moderate to high arousal state. Breathing mechanics need improvement.
<20 seconds –> Poor. Very high arousal and stress sensitivity. Mechanical restriction possible. Poor pulmonary capacity.
Use the Tools Available
We all have stress, and probably too much of it. Let's learn to use the tools available to us to help not only alleviate some of that stress but to take conscious control over our states and ultimately our lives.
If you would like more information on how and when to use these breathing patterns check out the State app (iOS & Android) for very specific, personal breathwork protocols, the PSE PRO Plus Breathe programs or sign up for an Art of Breath clinic. Use coupon code: NHCollective for 15% off.
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