Breathing as a way of accessing your heart

Speaking about breathing is one of the most counter intuitive subjects you could possibly talk about because normally people don’t think about it.

We don’t think about blinking our eyes, digesting our food. Certainly we don’t think about making our heart beat, or the speed at which it is regulated. These are not things we think you need to work on, they just occur from the autonomic nervous system. (our xconscious that dominates over 97% of all decisions made by our body)

But breathing is different because there are ways to breathe intentionally; certain patterns of breathing that change how you feel internally.

We now live in a digitally-obsessed, escape-based society. We want to call it the new normal, and there seems to be a big push to accept it; however, this ‘normal’ is not fulfilling us by any means.

If you look at studies on the level of happiness now, especially based on the level of medications that we use, we are not a happy society. The World Health Organization has stated that by 2020, worldwide, depression and anxiety will be the number one disability. In the United States, 25% of women are now taking antidepressant medication, anti-anxiety medication, or both. Men are close behind. Most of us have a rectangular object in our pocket that has access to all the world’s knowledge, that has any entertainment you’d possibly want, so knowledge and entertainment don’t provide what we are looking for.

The CDC has declared that sleep dysfunction is now at an epidemic level. Again, this is not an American problem, this is a global problem from Beijing to Berlin to Tel Aviv to Cape Town.

Create a daily practice of breath-work is free, once you learn it, and has no side effects (unlike a lot of the medications we see on televisionthat have side effects including bleeding from the eyes, coma, permanent impotence, etc.)

I deal with executives – I talk to groups of executives, marketing people, and even corporations; the entire corporation, and most of them say they can’t sleep, they have panic attacks, they are chronically depressed, they get flu and colds all the time. When I privately meet with the CEOs, they say the same thing; they not want to admit it in front of their workers, but the CEOs complain about exactly the same things.

People feel alone more than they’ve ever felt in their life. This is counterintuitive, because supposedly, we’re all connected now through the Internet, through social media. But are we? Or are we actually less connected at a deep level?

We actually dine with our friends about 50% less than ten years ago. Intimacy is something we need to develop again, and the only way you can do it is to actually be in people’s presence. Social media is not the same as looking into someone’s eyes and hearing their voice. We determine whether or not we can trust people by how they look at us, how they stand. If you’re going to hire a babysitter, you want to meet the person, face to face.

If we are very honest with ourselves, we’d realize, we wouldn’t teach our children to live the way we are.

I wouldn’t say, “Go to the best school, get a great job; but live on sleep medication and anti-anxiety drugs. That’s the path I want you to take son,” or daughter. That’s not what we want to do; it’s not what we want to teach our children, but through our actions, that is what we’re teaching them. It’s quite disturbing modelling.

How can this change? There have been some studies done recently on breathing.

Stanford Research Institute had a great one about two years ago where they took people with post-traumatic stress syndrome, combat veterans, who’d been to Afghanistan and Iraq, and taught them yoga and breathing. The facilitator, Emma Seppälä, who’s a Stanford scholar, said it was mostly the breathing that affected them. We had them do this program for three months, and their symptoms, post-traumatic stress syndrome symptoms were gone, and they didn’t return, even a year later. This was groundbreaking because as you know, the sad fact in the United States is we lose 20 veterans a day to suicide.Medication and therapy hasn’t been effective. The Defense Department is now advocating breath and yoga for veterans.

The benefits of breathing. When I say breathing, I don’t mean what we’re doing now, I mean intentional breath-work provide:

  • focus
  • calming
  • non-reactiveness

Do any of these things sound useful?

I’ve learned something fascinating about human beings through teaching breathing, because I could talk to you now about oxygen and CO2; I could talk to you about chi, or as they say in Japan, “kriya ki,” the life force energy that moves through us and can be regulated through breath but there’s something more interesting that I found. Teaching people how to breathe led me to a discovery that there’s a tremendous relationship between breath – the lungs – and grief.

Last year I gave a talk to about 50 CEOs about happiness, breath, anxiety, etc. After the talk, I left the building to wait for a taxi. One of the CEOs followed me out, and he said, “Look, I’m 58 years old, and I’ve started having panic attacks for the first time in my life, and when you’re a CEO, having panic attacks doesn’t work. You can’t sit in a board meeting and suddenly feel your neck get stiff, and a splitting headache come on. I want to run screaming out of the room.”

He says, “I can’t have this. What should I do?” I asked, “When did these panic attacks start?” He said, “Six months ago.”

So what was my next logical question? “What happened six months ago?”

He said, “My brother died.”

“You were close,” I said.

He said, “Yes, very.”

“You’re a workaholic, aren’t you?”

He smiled and said yes.

“After the funeral, you went right back to work, didn’t you?”

He said yes.

So I explained “You don’t have an anxiety issue, you don’t have a panic attack issue, you have a grief issue. You haven’t grieved the death of your brother. When you suppress grief, which you’ve learned to do, if you keep suppressing it, and you layer it, then as new grief events happen in your life, it comes out in another way, it comes out as anxiety.”

I concluded, “Your anxiety, your panic attacks are because of your grief.”

He asked, “What should I do?”

I said, “Come to my workshop tomorrow downtown, I’ll show you some breathing exercises.” He said, “Breathing exercises!?” I said, “Just come.” So he did.

He wrote me two months later, and he said, “No panic attacks. They’ve stopped completely. But I have been feeling grief, and I realized you were right, I did need to grieve my brother.”

So by allowing himself to feel the grief, (which we’re terrified of ) the anxiety was gone. I see this all the time. The people that have the most anxiety, that learn breathing exercises, almost immediately start to weep. You can time it, it usually takes three to five minutes; sometimes just 30 seconds.

If we ask ourselves, “Why is this? Why do so many of us suppress grief?” It’s because we’re taught to.

Mostly, in an unspoken way, we’re taught that expressing grief is socially unacceptable.

If you think about it, we’ll express anger much more readily than grief.

We’ll shout at the TV screen if our team is losing, or we’ll yell at another car. But if you start crying when you’re talking to someone, you’ll wipe the tears away quickly and say, “I’m sorry, I don’t know where that came from. I’m sorry.”

Especially men, we’re taught, “Never let them see you cry. It’s a sign of weakness and failure.”

On top of that, no one ever taught us what to do when our friends are grieving, so we avoid them.

On top of going through the grief event, our friends scatter, they don’t know what to do, they’ve never been taught. They think they’ll make us feel awkward, so they avoid us, and so now we’re isolated as well.

I think that if we came together, we would build stronger bridges of friendship, we would create more intimacy, without having to fix person who’s grieving. Don’t try to cheer them up.

Just say, “It’s going to hurt really bad for a while. I’m not going anywhere. I’m here. This year it’s your turn. Next year it might be my turn. We’ll all get through this together.”

That’s one of the chief things I think we need to do as a society.

Secondly,learn breathing exercises because it makes a difference right away, not someday. When I go into a corporation, believe me, if it didn’t work, they’d leave.

I say, “We’re going to do breathing work. It’s going to make you feel better within ten minutes.

I’d like to try to teach you one very simple breathing exercise.

  • Please sit up straight. Take your back off the backrest.
  • if you can, put your hands on your side ribs. Make sure they’re on your side ribs. Not your hips. Ladies, think bra strap. Men, bra strap. 🙂 Not the front, the sides.
  • When you inhale – inhale any way you like, but feel your ribs go out to the sides.
  • Fill your chest. (Inhale) So your ribs stretch out to the sides, not out front, out to the sides.
  • Exhale, sit taller. (Exhale)
  • Again. (Inhale& Exhale)
  • 4-7-8 breath method – repeat for 5 minutes
    • Inhale for a count of four
    • hold for a count of seven
    • exhale for eight
  • Relax

That’s one of many exercises you can do. Once you learn it, you can do this at your desk.

People take cigarette breaks, you can take a breathing break.

Some doors only open from the inside. Breath is a way of accessing that door.

The above is an amended transcript of a TED talk by Max Strom.