When we own our breath, nothing can steal our peace.
Without our breath we die, and with it we thrive. We only need to hold our breath for more than 30 seconds to see how important it is to us. It is present in everything we do; yet rarely do we actively focus our breath. We simple expect our breathing to function at a level of perfection, all day, everyday.
Our breath reacts and changes, depending on our emotional, mental and physical states – if we are scared it increases in frequency, if we are relaxed it decreases in frequency. Furthermore, on the flip side the mind and body will have a physical, mental and emotional reaction to the change in our breath. This is why many performers use the breath to manage their states.
Fear is excitement without the breath – Fritz Perls
The breath is often referred to as our ‘centre’. It keeps us grounded, acts as our anchor for our well-being, and can be used to overcome the most challenging situations. Through breath we can overcome pain, change fear into excitement and even stop an amygdala hijack (fearful body paralysis). Free divers, like World Record Holder Erez Beatus, are masters at using their breath to help concentrate blood flow towards vital organs in their body whilst experience extreme stress at great depths. When holding his breath for over 8 minutes Beatus explains:
“I find the space between two breaths to be a powerful one- it enables me to tap into my fullest potential and be in a state of real flow.” – Erez Beatus (world renowned freediving expert and instructor)
To begin harnessing our breath we first need to become aware of it. When we change the rhythm, speed and depth of our breath, we will quickly notice distinct differences. By simply increasing the length of our in-breath and out-breath to 10 seconds each, in only a matter of minutes we can reduce our heart rate from a stressed 120 beats per minute to a resting rate of 60 beats – unbearable nerves and knots in our stomachs to feeling at ease within our body.
Our change in heartbeat has an immediate effect on our nervous system, which dramatically affects the way we feel, think and act. The Heart Math Institute, an organisation dedicated to understanding the role of the heart, have heavily linked our heart rate control with performance: “More intriguing are the dramatic positive changes that occur when techniques are applied that increase coherence in rhythmic patterns of heart rate variability. These include shifts in perception and the ability to reduce stress and deal more effectively with difficult situations. We observed that the heart was acting as though it had a mind of its own and was profoundly influencing the way we perceive and respond to the world. In essence, it appeared that the heart was affecting intelligence and awareness.”
Graphic by Heart Math Institute
These significant changes can be magnified through training to achieve incredible feats. For example, in October 2012, Stig Severinsen broke the world record and held his breath, not for 3 minutes, nor 10, but 22 minutes!
Navy seals use a technique known as box breathing, where they breath-in/hold/breath-out/hold for equal amounts of time, in order to manage their states during training and combat. Jerath et al (2006) showed that Yogic Pranayama breathing has been shown to positively affect immune function, hypertension, asthma, autonomic nervous system imbalances, and psychological or stress-related disorders. In short, there is a range of proven breathing exercises we can utilise in our daily lives, to help us accomplish a variety of benefits – like maintaining an optimal performance state.
“Once I’m geared up I’ll double-check, triple-check everything, make sure I’m cool…and then when it’s time to go…generally I’ll be freaking out – you’ve got to turn that negative fear into a positive fear – that’s when I’ll take three deep breaths, and throw myself into the unknown.” Chris Douggs McDougall (World Record Holder – Base Jumper)
Many performers often tell me how dedicating time to focusing and exploring their breath is time consuming. Fitting in an extra 20 minutes to their already jam-packed schedules often never happens. Instead, what works very well is focusing on the breath for 1 minute every hour in the day. There is always time to take 60 seconds here or there. This discipline is a great way to build a regular connection to our breath and ultimately I-Flow.
“I think connecting with the breath is probably the biggest thing for me. Connecting with my breath at the deepest level, like right down into the hip, into the hips and push my breath. Being aware of my breath and doing a number of breaths very, very consciously brings me further into my body, and that’s where I need to be. Quite often my scattered and very short attention span takes me out of my body, so coming back into my body.” Tom Carroll (World Champion Surfer)
By bringing our breath into our conscious awareness we create a powerful bridge between our conscious and subconscious, and the connection between our mind and body – giving us the opportunity to find flow. Whether we want to decrease anxiety, manage our energy output or heal our body, we can exploit the breath on both a physical and mental level to make the necessary changes. For example, if we are about to perform in front of a crowd, and our anxiety suddenly spikes, and our mind becomes full of negative thoughts, we can quickly focus on breathing-in positivity and breathing-out negativity. If we sustain this exercise for long enough, we will find that we are left with only positive thoughts and feelings – helping us to perform, as we want. With practice we can dramatically reduce the time required to achieve the same results, making it an ideal performance cue. We can use this process to breathe-out doubt, a recent mistake, or some frustration we are holding on to. We can even practise breathing-in flow. If we taught younger generations how to breathe during their performances, exams and learning, imagine the leap forward each generation would take from this one simple lesson.