Five Breathing Skills to Pilot Our Bodies

“Conscious breathing teaches us to be the pilots of our bodies, not the passengers.” – James Nestor

Photo by Alexandr Podvalny from Pexels

A Natural Mistake

It’s embarrassing to admit that I didn’t start learning how to breathe until 2020! 

To be fair, every meditation teacher I’ve come across has interpreted the original mindfulness manual’s section on respiration as “use the breath as the focal point of your attention.” It was a natural mistake. The first instruction goes like this. 

Sit down, bend in legs crosswise on your lap, keep your body erect, and arouse mindfulness in the breath.

But the instructions that follow, while deceptively simple, go much deeper.

An Audience of Yogis

It took journalist James Nestor’s excellent book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art to help me recognize what any yoga teacher already knows. The people on the receiving end of that ancient discourse had already practiced a wide range of sophisticated breathing skills.

“Like all Eastern medicines,” writes Mr. Nestor, “Breathing techniques are best suited as a preventative maintenance, as a way to retain the balance in the body so that smaller problems don’t blossom into more serious illnesses. Should we lose the balance from time to time, breathing can often bring it back.”

The book also shares great stories about a wacky brother-and-sisterhood of pulmonauts who experimented with millennia-old breathing skills to tackle modern-day maladies including stress, panic attacks, asthma, depression, immune system deficiencies and more.

Understanding the Effect of the Breath on the Whole Body

When my ancestors turned on their sympathetic nervous system to fight, flee, or freeze, they stoked up on oxygen for quick bursts of energy. 

After the immediate danger had passed, they were ready to exhale or laugh it off in order to engage their parasympathetic nervous system so they could resume resting and digesting.

I’m not often faced with immediate physical danger these days, and there’s no distinct all-clear signal for the kind of pervasive stress that I experience.

Still, these five ancient breathing skills can help. 

Keeping My Nose Clean

I’ve no idea whether it was nature (my father eventually passed away from COPD) or nurture (my mother smoked pretty heavily, both during pregnancy and when I was a child), but I spent my early years as an often sickly, asthmatic mouth breather. 

While it’s great to be able to breathe through my mouth for short bursts of energy, doing it routinely has its downsides, including a spike in stress hormones, frequent bacterial infections, higher blood pressure, decreased heart rate variability, snoring, and sleep apnea. 

Looking back at my mouth breathing days, I can see how I probably wired my brain to associate a number of innocuous situations with stress. I also caught frequent colds. 

It took my dad almost his entire life to develop sleep apnea, but he suffered from every other side effect of mouth breathing.

Today, I’m able to breathe through my nose most of the time with the help of antihistamines, but when I have trouble, I try a skill from the crazy pulmonaut Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko as popularized by disciple Patrick McKeown. It’s safe to try unless you’re pregnant, have high blood pressure, or have another serious medical condition.

Nose Unblocking Skill

Block one nostril and breathe through it. 

Block the other nostril and breathe through it.

Small inhale through nose.

Small exhale through nose.

Pinch nostrils shut.

(Here’s the crazy part.) Sway back and forth holding breath.

Keep holding breath until it gets pretty tough.

Breathe in through nose for a while.

Repeat about 5 times, then thoroughly blow your nose.

Video Tutorial: https://youtu.be/cU4ls5ku4Rg

Piloting Anxiety

“Amygdali, which help govern perceptions of fear, also control aspects of our breathing. People with anxieties likely suffer from connection problems between these areas and can be unwittingly holding their breath. Slow and steady breathing could be more effective than medication,” writes Mr. Nestor.

I face situations that stress me out from time to time, but I can’t think of the last time I faced one as stressful as being a Navy Seal sniper.

Snipers assume a prone possession, not to hide, but to feel their heartbeat against the ground while they employ the box breathing skill.

Box Breathing Skill

Breathe in for a count of four.

Hold breath for a count of four. 

Breathe out for a count of four.

Hold for a count of four. 

Repeat until there’s enough time between heartbeats to pull the trigger without blood coursing through the finger to disrupt your aim, or until, you know, the immediate stress has passed.

I haven’t tried using this for sniping or even lying with my heart against the ground, but I tried it while doing a heart-to-heart hug at the end of a cuddle training session once, and both of our hearts slowed down noticeably, at least until I started explaining how snipers used this skill. Then the cuddle trainee tensed up a bit.

Video Visualization/Timer: https://youtu.be/n6RbW2LtdFs

Training to Calm the Body

The phrase “whistling past the graveyard” is a simple way to remember how to calm the body. If reminders of my impending mortality were stress-inducing, whistling, or singing, or laughing, or anything that extended my exhales would help restore order.

To do this without annoying people around me with my tune selection (whistling or singing) or raising concern that I might be crazy (laughing) I can use straw breathing.    

Straw Breathing

Inhale through nose.

Breathe out fully through a straw or pursed lips.

Repeat until calm.

Video Tutorial: https://youtu.be/ZlyWO5TpRLQ

Freedivers are highly motivated to calm their bodies. The more relaxed they are, the longer they can hold their breath.

I learned this breathing skill from Noah Rasheta’s Secular Buddhism podcast, but don’t worry that doing it will make you a Buddhist, secular or otherwise. Mr. Rasheta learned about it from a freediving teacher. (And it hasn’t turned me into a freediver, either.)

Relaxation Breathing

Inhale for two seconds.

Hold for two seconds. 

Exhale for ten seconds.

Hold for two seconds.

Repeat at least four times for a noticeable effect. (I currently do it for five minutes.)

Video Tutorial: https://youtu.be/rNGKj8iiFK4 

Tip: The woman in this video inhales through the mouth. If you’re not freediving, it’s probably better to take in air through the nose.

Piloting Upcoming Stressful Situations

Sometimes a bug, sometimes a feature, I’m often able to anticipate stressful situations by looking at my calendar or to-do list. This gives me a chance to skillfully stress myself out first.

My favorite crazy pulmonaut, Wim Hof, has risen to fame by doing just that: stressing himself out doing extreme sports in extreme cold. His breathing skill of choice: an ancient Tibetan breathing skill called “Inner Fire” or Tummo.

This skill emphasizes full exhales. It actually raises the stress hormone cortisol, which doesn’t seem like a great idea. But neither does stepping into a cold shower. I’ve tried taking a cold shower after performing this breathing skill and found that while it’s still unpleasant, it’s not stressful.

Since I don’t know of any way to opt out of all stressful situations (even attempting to do that would be extremely stressful), skillfully building up my tolerance for stress on my own terms begins to seem less crazy.

I haven’t been motivated enough to build Wim Hof’s stress training into my routine, but I highly recommend trying it at least once just for the experience. 

Video Tutorial: https://youtu.be/tybOi4hjZFQ

I discovered a variation on “inner fire” from an anonymous pulmonaut I found through the instructional video page on James Nestor’s website.

It claims to boost energy and improve focus (which I’ve experienced) and reset the nervous system (which seems likely, but difficult to measure).

The Step-Up

Round one: 

Inhale through nose for two seconds.

Exhale for two seconds.

Repeat five times.

Super ventilation for twenty breaths with full nasal inhales and partial nasal exhales.

Repeat twenty times.

30-second breath-hold.

Round two: inhale/exhale three seconds five times. 

Round three: inhale/exhale four seconds five times. 

Optional rounds: increase inhale/exhale by one second each time.

This likely works by building up an oxygen surplus during rapid breathing and bringing it under control during the breath holds. 

Video Tutorial: https://vimeo.com/406672427

The Low-Tech Approach

Mr. Nestor notes that Silicon Valley is busily deploying a variety of apps and wearables to maximize the utility of these and other breathing techniques. 

I use a metronome backed by a little brown noise to cancel house sounds while meditating. When I’m not meditating, simply counting to myself to monitor breathing patterns can help me regulate stress by giving my mind a little bit extra to do. 

“The stripped-down approach is as good as any,” writes Mr. Nestor. “It requires no batteries, no wi-fi, no headgear or smartphones. It costs nothing, takes little time and effort, and you can do it wherever you are whenever you need.”

Failure Immunization Tool and Log

A tool for transforming unintended results into opportunities for learning, insight, and fresh opportunities.

1. I create a document (Google docs or anything handy) to record output from the failure immunization tool. 

2. When I experience an unwanted/unexpected/unanticipated outcome (aka failure) I click here to take a closer look at what happened.

3. Then paste the results into the document.

Goalodicy or Failure Immunity?

Is the willingness to fail faster and more often the surest path to success?

Listen to Audio

My Facebook Page Failure

A marketing challenge built into having a Patreon page like I Hate Happiness is finding ways to let people know about it.

One way I tried was an I Hate Happiness Facebook page.

I posted my signature post, which explains why I hate happiness in three short cartoons, and began inviting friends to “like” my page. I got some nice comments and “likes” from people on their  initial visit, so I continued to post every couple of days.

Then the visits trickled off. Hey, I’ve been there. You get a notification that someone has invited you to like a page, then, occasionally, if you spend enough time coming back on your own, the Facebook algorithm will send you another alert. Otherwise: cue crickets sound effect.

After a few weeks, ten out of ten alerts I received were reminders from Facebook to post more content and to boost my posts by buying ads.

Since my “goal” was to encourage people to “follow” my I Hate Happiness Patreon page to receive free updates (where potential patronage was  only a click away), while Facebook’s goal was to get me to post more and  buy ads to keep people scrolling on Facebook, I recognized my failure  and moved on.

Taking the Antidote

In response to the initial invitation, one friend commented about a book her psychotherapist had recommended: Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

Two chapters from the book, “Goal Crazy: When Trying to Control the Future Doesn’t Work” and “The Museum of Failure: The Case for Embracing Your Errors” reminded me that I haven’t written about failure.

So, while I failed to control the future by having people click from my Facebook page to my Patreon page, I’m embracing my error  by writing this post and trying out a Failure Immunization Tool.

Identity Crisis

For as long as I can remember, my adult relatives and parents’ friends would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. In my earliest years, I’d shrug and say “I don’t know.” They’d laugh and say  “well, you still have plenty of time to figure that out.”

During high school, they’d ask “are you going to college?” then “where are you going to college?”

During college, they’d ask “what’s your major?”

After I graduated, they’d ask “what do you do for a living?”

My takeaway was that if you didn’t have a carved-in-stone goal you weren’t a fully-formed person. And if you did have a  carved-in-stone goal, the only way you could fail was not measuring up.

Goalodicy: The Unintended Consequences of Goal Pursuit

A new word I discovered in The Antidote was coined by business professor D. Christopher Kayes. It’s not in the dictionary yet, but it’s entry might look like this:

goalodicy |gōlˈädəsē|

noun (pl. goalodicies)

1. the obsessive pursuit of goals to the point of self-destruction

2. the effort to maintain belief in the face of contradictory evidence

Example: If you suffer from goalodicy then you will find yourself so obsessed by the future goal that you ignore the practical  realities of your situation.

Origin early 21st century from theodicy, the effort to maintain belief in a benevolent deity, despite the prevalence of evil in the world.

When I was 12, my goalodicy was to be the youngest  novelist on the New York Times Bestseller list. When I was 18, I read an article in Writer’s Digest that said a screenplay rejection slip was  worth ten times what a book rejection slip was worth. Then, when I  started to receive recognition in college for my plays, I focused on writing plays that could be adapted as films, and when I heard how much money small scale musicals like The Fantasticks earned in royalties over time, I joined a musical theater workshop.

I failed to take into account that Peter Benchley was barely scraping by before he sold Jaws, and the film rights that had fueled the paperback success had been picked up on a whim. For every Prelude to a Kiss that moved from Off Broadway to the screen, there were countless shows that didn’t (not to mention countless plays that never made it Off Broadway). And when it came to small-scale musicals that raked in revenue over the years like The Fantasticks there was…well, The Fantasticks.

The Under-Reporting of Failure

To be fair, it was far easier for me to find stories about people who had succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Would we know that Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime, to his  brother, if his work didn’t sell for millions today? Would we know that J.K. Rowling was as poor as a person could be in the UK without being homeless if she hadn’t become one of its wealthiest citizens?

Do the majority of painters who never sell a work become world famous after their deaths? Do the majority of poor people in the  UK become billionaires? What percentage do?

Depression

When my early novels failed to reach the bestseller list,  and my first plays failed to be picked up as films, and my small-scale musicals failed to arouse interest, maybe because the small-scale The Fantasticks had closed and Disney’s lavish The Lion King was selling out, I began to fear that I was in the Van Gogh class of  genius (who would go unrecognized during my lifetime) instead of the  J.K. Rowling rags to riches kind.

And like Van Gogh, I discovered that I had all the earmarks of clinical depression.

On an episode of Dan Harris’s Ten Percent Happier podcast,  psychology professor Barbara Frederickson said that one view of sadness and depression is that it helps us disengage from goals that we’re not making any progress on. When we have a goal, and we’re really not getting anywhere with it, being sad about it can help us detach from that goal and then maybe in another emotional state we’ll find a  different goal.

But how can I avoid falling into one case of goalodicy after another?

Growing a Growth Mindset

According to Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck, I followed  the predictable path from goalodicy to depression because I had a “fixed mindset.”  I was born with a certain set of innate abilities. To measure these, I  was given an IQ (intelligence quotient) test to determine where I ranked against every other member of my age group. I remember putting plastic squares in square holes but not when I did it. Maybe first grade? Second  grade? The test was used to determine my educational track in the public school system.

I had a couple problems with my fixed mindset. The first was that when I failed it was because I lacked the talent to succeed. The second: the fixed mindset has been completely discredited by the discovery of neuroplasticity, which is how my brain now works, and has  all along.

With my new and improved growth mindset, failing indicates when I’ve reached the current limit of my abilities or my current understanding of how my actions will play out in the world. And if I pay attention, instead of pointing out why I’m a loser, failing points  out where I need to learn or change.

Failure Immunity

To explore a well-being habit for embracing failure, I looked to the “Failure Immunity” chapter of Designing Your Life by Dave Evans and Bill Burnett who say that keeping track of what I try and how I fail “is a great way to succeed sooner (in the big, important  things) by failing more often (at the small, low-exposure learning  experiences).”

When Trying to Control the Future Doesn’t Work

I begin by writing down what I expected/anticipated/wanted to happen…

I wanted people to click from my Facebook I Hate Happiness page and “follow” my Patreon page to receive free updates (where potential patronage was only a click away)

…and what actually happened…

After a few weeks, ten out of ten alerts I received  were reminders from Facebook to post more content and to boost my posts by buying ads.

The Flavors of Failure

Next I investigate the flavor of the failure.

Screw-Ups are simple errors about things that I normally get right, so I don’t really need to learn anything from them.

Weaknesses are failures that happen because of  mistakes that I make over and over. I’ve worked at correcting them  already, and have improved as far as I think I’m going to.

Growth Opportunities are the failures that didn’t  have to happen, or at least don’t have to happen the next time. The  cause of these failures are identifiable, and a fix is available. I want  to direct my attention here, rather than getting distracted by the low  return on spending too much time on the other failure types.

Asking the Right Question

Screw-Ups: The best response here is to acknowledge  I screwed up, apologize as needed, and move on. If my screw-up occurred  because a colleague screwed-up, I should find a tactful,  non-threatening way to share the raw information in a reassuring way.  What’s a skillful way to acknowledge the screw-up?

Weaknesses: Some failures are just part of my makeup, and my best strategy is to find a way to avoid running into the same situation again and again. If someone else’s weakness impacts mine,  my best strategy is to set appropriate boundaries. What boundaries might I set to lessen the chance that this will happen again?

Growth Opportunities: What is there to learn here?  What went wrong (the critical failure factor)? What could be done differently next time (the critical success factor)?

Embracing My Facebook Page Failure

I could acknowledge I screwed-up in selecting an ad supported content provider to promote a patron supported content provider.

I could acknowledge the weakness of choosing a medium with competing interests and focus on avoiding conflicts of interest in the future.

I could acknowledge the growth opportunity of spotting the critical failure factor: (competing interests) and try something different next time (seeking out contexts in which interests align).

Try the Failure Immunization Tool

Is the willingness to fail faster and more often the surest path to success?

If it is, this tool should help.

Failure Immunization Tool 

If you fail your way forward to a surer path, please share it in the comments. Let’s succeed together!

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Four Ways Creative Hobbies Can Help You Flourish!

“If we learn to embrace our own messy, creative selves,  we give others permission to do the same. We help create a world that  is more welcoming of the creative spirit, and we make it possible to find a greater connection with others and with ourselves in the process.” –Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire, 10 Habits of Highly Creative People

Why Creativity?

When my Designing Your Life partner Jocelyn told me that she wanted to prototype four evenings of  collage and tea this summer, two things didn’t resonate with me.

Collage and tea.

I’m sort of pragmatic and minimalist, so accumulating  materials for collage makes me a little nervous. I generally drink tea only when I’m ill.

But two other things did.

Trying out a new creative medium would give me the opportunity to test whether Mark Manson’s “5 Boring Ways to Become More Creative” actually worked.

If they worked…I could evaluate how becoming more creative (by attempting collage) affected my sense of well-being.

Suggestive Research

The article “Doing Something Creative Can Boost Your Well-Being” suggests that people who engaged in a creative activity the previous day reported an increased sense of flourishing: “an overall sense of meaning, purpose, engagement, and social connection.”

To test this hypothesis, I could:

1. Attend four evenings of CrafTea Friday.

2. Produce four collages.

3. Track next-day behaviors related to flourishing.

Purpose

If something is creative, it’s because it triggers  some degree of surprise or excitement within us—it reconfigures  existence in ways we could not have previously imagined.”–Mark Manson, “5 Boring Ways to Be More Creative

The day after the first CrafTea Friday, I find myself on a  mission to see the world through the eyes of an elk. Yeah, that sounds a  little weird. Maybe I should back up to the collage activity itself for  context.

I begin with a collection of pre-torn images, magazines, catalogues, etc. and a 5″ x 8″ card on which to paste them.

I select an image of a crowd outside of an art gallery where a banner proclaims “Wildlife Photographer of the Year.”

I select an image of an old-fashioned light bulb and another image of a man camping in the wilderness. Is it his dream to  become a wildlife photographer?

No, he’s too big to fit on the card with the banner.

I reject the man and audition a wildlife image that might appear in the exhibit. What’s with the light bulb, though? Do I lose  that?

What if one of the animals harbors a secret desire to capture its surroundings through photography? What images would that creature photograph?

Meaning

I pursue my mission by finding new meaning in the local free libraries in front of people’s houses. I was never curious about  the books they might contain because I use the Multnomah County Library  for that. But now they’re a potential source of images. The randomness of contents that precluded me from searching them for reading ideas might  be just what I need in coming up with subjects for elk photography!

Engagement

The creative process of having a collage-in-progress increased my awareness of surroundings beyond the free libraries.

While I never minded accompanying E. to the local art supply store (coincidentally named Collage)  because there was always something to look at, having my own work-in-progress drew me to notice some cute animal stickers by the  checkout counter. Circle back to meaning: what if these were the images  that the elk photographer wished to capture?

Subsequent engagement: taking a closer look at the weekly shopper flyer that usually went immediately from mailbox to recycling, raiding another free library for a copy of People magazine. I also took a closer look at past months’ images on the Audubon wall calendar.

Social Connection

An organizing inspiration for CrafTea Fridays was SoulCollage,  “an easy, enjoyable, intuitive collage process for self-discovery and  community.” So my experiment design doesn’t control for doing creative work in isolation.

But a couple members of my Saturday meditation group thought that CrafTea Fridays sounded like fun when I mentioned it the following morning.

At Zoom Game Night, I think I joked about hoping that I was better at collage after a particularly feeble attempt at Pictionary. A few people expressed interest in seeing my results.

Another conversation during Connection Hour about my initial lack of interest in either crafts or tea prompted someone to say that both crafts and tea sounded like fun, so I invited them to come to the next one.