As I See It: Keep Breathing
November 29, 2004 Victor Rozek
The IT community is getting hammered. Jobs are hemorrhaging, foreign labor markets are putting downward pressure on wages, and the future is uncertain. We’ve survived downsizing and outsourcing, but they hang over our heads like malevolent stalactites. We’re working harder, longer, but many of us are nonetheless falling farther behind. Oh, and here comes your boss with yet another thing for you to do before you can go home. Keep breathing.
Given the inauspicious realities pressing down upon us from all sides, it’s just possible that one day soon, if not tomorrow, you may wake up feeling over worked and under paid; burdened with too much stress, and compensated with too little appreciation. And while individually we have minimal command over the larger context in which we work, we have a potent ability to control the quality of our daily experience. Without doubt, the most powerful and underutilized self-care resource available to anyone at anytime, is the breath.
When Caucasians first arrived in Hawaii, dressed in preposterously heavy clothing and full of pernicious missionary zeal, the Hawaiians dubbed them “Haole.” Although the word has evolved to be a derogatory term for Whites, its literal meaning is “people without breath.” Little has changed in the ensuing years. Although we possess lungs whose capacity can be measured in quarts, we typically breathe volumes of air that barely fill a teacup. We are, in short, chronically under-oxygenated.
The effects of habitual oxygen depletion are potentially huge. When there is a decrease in the rate and depth of breathing, there is an increase in the hydrogen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood. This causes the PH of the blood to fall into a state of acidosis which can impede the full and proper functioning of the central nervous system. A few of the physiological manifestations of chronic oxygen deficiency include low energy, anxiety, inability to concentrate, fatigue, depression, and panic attacks. Conversely, when the rate and depth of breathing increases, there is a decrease in the hydrogen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood which causes the PH level to rise to a higher state of alkalosis; a state which supports healthy central nervous system functions. That’s a long-winded explanation for why people feel better after exercising. The short version is that oxygen activates the system. It’s the electricity that runs the mother board. But even people who exercise regularly don’t necessarily think of applying breathing techniques to the workplace.
Most recently, I did an article about the benefits of laughter (another cost free and underutilized resource). It’s no accident that big laughers are also big breathers. People seemingly unable to let themselves go and laugh fully, restrict their life force by restricting their breath. It’s impossible, however, to restrict life force in one area of your life and not have it impact other areas.
There are four possible ways of breathing and, when done correctly, each can have a profound affect on how we experience episodes of stress, anxiety, frustration, and fatigue. The key to healthful breathing is the correct movement of the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a large domed muscle that separates the abdominal cavity from the chest cavity. It is the muscle responsible for inspiration and it pushes down into the abdominal cavity during the inhale, returning to its resting position during the exhale. To breathe properly, the muscles of the abdomen must be relaxed enough to allow the diaphragm its full range of downward motion. When taking a deep, relaxed breath, the belly will naturally expand (something unfashionable in our appearance-crazed society), and the back will arch slightly. During the exhale, the small of the back will relax as the belly returns to its normal position.
Below is a description of the four different breath combinations, and the specific conditions or situations in which they can be helpful.
#1 In the Nose and Out the Nose
This is typically the most soothing, calming, and relaxing breath when it includes a slight pause between the exhale and the inhale. Allow both the inhale and exhale to lengthen to a count of five, and pause after the exhale for a count of two. This breath can be used in any situation where you might experience minor stress or anxiety. An unexpected visit to your manager’s office, perhaps. Or, an interaction with a difficult or unpleasant employee. Or, as a prelude to a dicey performance evaluation.
#2 In the Nose and Out the Mouth
This breath is a wonderful resource for releasing stress, because exhaling through the mouth literally allows you to release more than you are taking in. There is always more air available to us than the amount we inhale; the lungs never fully empty unless we consciously exhale beyond the normal point of exhalation. Inhale a calming and soothing breath through the nose, and imagine your breath dissolving whatever is bothering you and exhale it out the mouth. This is a great breath to practice when you’re feeling overwhelmed by workload or stress, or just running late in the morning. It’s also a nice way to let the day go while driving home.
#3 In the Mouth and Out the Nose
This is the breath of parents who have toddlers or teenagers; the sharp intake of breath when your toddler is stumbling toward the coffee table, and the relief when he stumbles without hurting himself. This breath is a great resource when dealing with an angry user who insists on telling you for the third time how lousy your software is. Use it when obnoxious people do something to annoy you; when you are frustrated because the programming changes you made for the fourth time still didn’t work, or when a higher-up unfairly criticizes you, but defending yourself would only make the situation worse.
This is also an excellent breath to counteract fatigue and exhaustion. If you’re working late and your energy is flagging, inhale fully and assertively through the mouth and let it out through the nose. Repeat the process until you have the experience of literally pumping yourself up. (Aaanold will be pleased.)
#4 In the Mouth and Out the Mouth
Keeping with the Hawaiian theme, this is the “Big Kahuna” breath with a wide range of applications from athletics to yoga. Used as a circular breath, with the pauses between the inhale and exhale removed and the rate of breathing increased, this breath has therapeutic value and is powerful enough to release old trauma and body memories. I personally know a woman who recovered a good deal of lost hearing after a session using this breath. It’s not unusual for people to literally reclaim parts of their bodies they have not been in contact with, sometimes for many years, restoring aliveness where it has been repressed. Used therapeutically, however, guidance from a trained breathwork practitioner is advised.
Combined with a daily practice of the #2 breath, this breath can have a beneficial affect on such conditions as fibromyalgia, lupus, and chronic fatigue. Insomnia and worry can be combated by starting with this breath, relaxing into the #2 breath, then drifting off to sleep with the #1 breath.
In Western cultures, we are just beginning to explore the potency of the breath. But it has been used throughout the ages by countless people from mystics who seek an experience of the divine, to over-stressed hard-working realists who just want to lower their blood pressure.
The late Alfred Tomatis, M.D., whose work spanned a variety of fields including education, linguistics, psychology, and philosophy, observed that in biology the breath is called Life; in psychology it’s called Consciousness, and in theology it’s called God.
Not a bad recommendation for a resource that is always just under your nose.