“Breath control is self control. Breath mastery is self mastery.”
I first discovered breath control at the age of 20. At the behest of a friend, I had started attending martial arts classes. I was a wild youth, rambunctious and unrestrained; martial arts was a perfect outlet for my aggression, but more importantly it was a rigorous form of self discipline.
Our teacher encouraged us to do a simple breathing exercise every day. The benefits, he claimed, were profound:
Inhale for 8 seconds, hold for 4, exhale for 8 seconds, hold out for 4. Repeat without wavering for 20 minutes. When this becomes easy, advance to 10-5. And again to 12-6, 14-7, to the goal of 16-8. When you achieve 16-8, breathe in this pattern 20 minutes a day for 30 consecutive days. That’s all there is to it. Sounds easy, no?
Here is what this accomplishes:
Train away panic and anxiety
The bottom of each breath – the phase in which you hold your breath out – will be uncomfortable for most. It will induce feelings of urgency and panic, but in a minor and controlled way. Rather than succumb to these feelings by gulping air and gasping for breath, force yourself to inhale in a smooth and controlled manner. Fill your lungs steadily, hold at the top of the breath, exhale smoothly, and hold out again at the bottom to induce another moment of temporary discomfort.
See what is happening? You are invoking the panic response and overcoming it with calm, cool, conscious control. During each period of discomfort, reassure yourself that you are fine. Resist the urge to gasp. Instead, fill your lungs slowly and steadily. When you find you are not longer experiencing discomfort at the bottom of the breath, or when the level of discomfort is no longer challenging, increase your time.
Practice this technique daily to build up your time. Within several weeks you will find that challenging time increments are now easy, and calm abides where panic and anxiety once dwelled. With constant practice you will build a new habit of breathing. You will rewire your brain to override inner feelings of tension and angst and to produce instead slow, relaxed breaths.
By increasing your time gradually to 16-8 and performing this routine consistently for 30 days, you will create a new habit – a new neural pathway – that will virtually eliminate feelings of anxiety. As your breath becomes more conscious and controlled, your emotional mind will equalize. How anxious could you be if you are breathing deeply for 20 full minutes a day?
The link between the breath and the mind is well documented. When the mind becomes agitated, the breath becomes erratic. People under stress hold their breath, sigh often, or breathe rapidly. When the mind is calm, the breath becomes slow and easy. The connection is obvious to anyone who watches for it.
We can exploit this connection by reversing the operation – consciously use the breath to calm the mind. By forcing your breath into slow and controlled patterns, you allow the mind to experience a deeper level of calm.
The breath is the link between the conscious and subconscious mind. Think about how the breath works: it primarily operates on the subconscious level. Breathing just happens and you don’t have to control it. But at any moment you may interject with your conscious mind. By breathing calmly on a regular basis, you force your subconscious mind to abandon or resolve the issues it is grappling with. It cannot hold anxious thoughts when the body is feeding it calm behavior.
Supercharge your immune system
Tons of literature has been written on the benefits of slow, deep breathing. The way we breathe changes the PH balance of our blood. Certain diseases thrive in sub-optimal blood acidity. By taking deep, balanced breaths, in which the lungs are fully filled and emptied and the inhale and exhale are the same length, you optimize your blood acidity, making it more difficult for many diseases to thrive.
Deep breathing also circulates lymph, increasing your immunity. It lowers blood pressure and improves digestion. If you are sore from working out, deep breathing will help convert excess lactic acid into carbon dioxide. There is almost no end to the physical health benefits of slow, deep breathing.
I have found that by breathing every day, I became much more aware of my body. I stopped drinking soda or eating sugar because I could literally feel the negative effects. I stopped overeating because I could feel the pressure of my stomach on my lungs, and found that I preferred to feel slightly hungry but remain able to breathe deeply to feeling full and restricted.
By breathing slowly every day, you will become much more aware of the mental habits that affect you negatively. I became acutely aware of days when I was angry about something, or nervous, or excited. I was forced to let these feelings go in order to complete the exercise. What I found is that these feelings are totally superfluous to my being. In fact, it wasn’t until I let go of these feelings that I realized what a burden they had been!
This breathing technique has an immensely spiritual component to it: it forces you into the moment and requires that you confront what is happening within you. The more time you spend in this space, the more your personal sense of self will develop.
I can talk about the benefits all day. But talk is only marginally useful. Take up the practice! I look forward to hearing your experiences!
Click here to watch my video, “Introduction to Breath Control” on YouTube.