Breathe Normally

In recent decades, more and more empirical studies have established the benefits of breathing. It may be hard to believe that something we do anyway can become a powerful tool for improving well-being, but that’s exactly the conclusion of many studies. For instance, a 2021 study in India involved teaching healthcare providers “SKY” (Sudarshan Kriya Yoga) breathing meditation. The participants — all healthcare providers directly involved in caring for COVID patients — were given pre-and post assessments of “mental states of depression, anxiety, stress, quality of sleep, resilience, and satisfaction with life.” The results were impressive: The majority of the participants indicated statistically significant improvement in the areas assessed — and the improvement trend persisted for those who continued to practice the techniques.

So, why is breathing related to excellence? If you’re experiencing stress and its effects, you’re very likely unable to invest and engage in excellencifying. So, why not try breathing to free some of your mental and emotional energy for excellence? Besides that, living a life of well-being is also an excellence to be pursued.

It’s simple to get started, and it doesn’t have to involve anything sophisticated or even time-consuming. Try square breathing. This simple breathing technique is called “square” because of the pattern:

  • inhale 4 for seconds (try inhaling through your nose)
  • hold for 4 seconds (without closing your throat)
  • exhale for 4 seconds (try exhaling through your mouth)
  • hold for 4 seconds (without closing your throat)
  • Repeat this pattern at least three times (and work up!)

There’s nothing particularly significant about 4 seconds; you can start with 3, or 5 or 6. The point is to make a “square” with the same length on all sides. It’s also important not to close your throat while holding the breath. Use your belly and diaphragm for holding to maximize relaxation.

Square breathing has gotten a lot of empirical research attention in recent years. Essentially, square breathing restores a normal breathing rhythm when your body is in a “fight-or-flight” state. On the savannah, this state was about survival — as in, running from predators (or other human beings!). But modern-day “predators” take very different forms — like anxiety about a big exam, or filing your taxes, or meeting the parents of the person you’ve been dating. Or dealing with a once-in-a-hundred-years pandemic. When we are stressed and anxious, the body goes into a state of overdrive: We’re flooded with hormones that increase heart rate and respiration, and even boosting blood sugar levels (so we have the energy to run or fight). Unlike the savannah, however, most often there’s nothing to run from: How do you run from the experiences of modern life, like people cutting you off on the highway or grabbing the last bunch of bananas on the fruit aisle?

But let me point out that the physical state of stress is not inherently bad for you. In fact, you need a certain amount of stress to motivate you toward excellence. If you experienced no stress at all about mastering that guitar riff you’ve been working on, what would motivate you to practice? There’s even a word for “good stress”: eustress (from Greek, meaning . . . “good stress”). While moments of stress can be good for you, keeping the body in a chronic state of stress is linked with all sorts of negative physical effects, like heart attacks, strokes, and high blood pressure — not to mention poor sleep, reduced concentration and energy, anxiety, depression, and poor emotional regulation.

Empirical studies have shown that square breathing helps many people restore normal breathing rhythms and relax, thus reducing stress. Some studies have even found that breathing techniques have a measurable effect on stress biomarkers, like saliva levels of cortisone, a stress hormone.

If you’re experiencing stress, and I told you to try something difficult or exotic, you might think it worthwhile. So why not try something easy, free, and relatively quick? Keep square breathing in your excellencification toolkit.

Everyday Excellence challenge: Try square breathing daily for two weeks, and let me know how you’re doing.

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