Breathwork Fallacies, How to Tap into Your ANS & a Slow Breathing Exercise
🤸♀️ Stretch 40
Away by Donna Christie
Wahoooo, I’m in Bali for two weeks. 🌴
I’m going freediving again—double wahooooo!
Freediving is such a unique mix of exercise, mental control, and breathwork and I got completely hooked on it when I tried it for the first time 7 months ago.
And speaking of breathwork…
I’ll be talking a lot more about “the breath” in this newsletter. I can’t help it. Something about it just really works for me, and I want to scream it off the rooftops!
If your first thought is, “Great, another dumb health fad going mainstream. Unsubscribe plz!”
Do me one favor.
Wait until you’ve read the rest of this newsletter.
You might be misunderstanding what breathwork is about—just like I was.
And you might not fully appreciate the level of control your breath can give you.
As Andrew Huberman says:
Learning to control your nervous system will change everything. Your whole life gets better—mentally and physically.
- Dr. Chatterjee podcast
🤸♀️ IN THIS WEEK'S STRETCH:
Breathwork Fallacies. 3 reasons why breathwork might not be what you think it is.
2 Tools To “Lubricate” the Seesaw of Your Nervous System. If you’re breathing and reading this copy—you have immediate access to these 2 tools and can use them to reduce feelings of stress and overwhelm.
A Slow Breathing Exercise. Just a few minutes for an immediate feeling of tranquility and clarity.
🙅♀️ BREATHWORK FALLACIES
As humans, we breathe more than we perform any other biological function yet rarely consciously think about it.
That’s where breathwork comes in. It’s about making the unconscious breath conscious, and treating it as a powerful tool (something several cultures have been doing for thousands of years, by the way.)
I see breathwork as an active process of:
Cultivating an awareness of your natural breathing pattern throughout the day
Using a variety of breathing patterns, holds, and durations—to either down-regulate (calm down) or up-regulate (increase energy and focus.)
With that in mind, here are three ideas I had about breathwork when I first heard the term.
1. Breathwork is spiritual.
I mean, it can be.
But first and foremost, it’s physiological.
The workings of breathwork are based on hardwired, biological systems we all have access to.
The breath is considered one of the key tools to tap into and control your autonomic nervous system (more on that later!), depending on whether you emphasize the inhale or the exhale.
And this isn’t pseudoscience.
These are well-established understandings based on physiological and neurological pathways accessible to everyone.
I find this one really important to understand because I think many people, myself included, can be turned off by some of the language used around breathwork: “Divine nature”; “Inner healing”; “Rebirthing”; “Trauma release.”
And that’s a shame because if these people could get past their initial resistance, they might get a lot of benefits from breathwork.
And that brings me to my next misconception…
2. Breathwork is meant to deal with psychological trauma.
Again, also my initial impression when looking at breathwork practitioners’ websites.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m obviously not denying the existence of psychological trauma nor the value of breathwork to help with this. We need more accessible therapeutic approaches to help people manage various kinds of traumas, and breathwork is an incredible tool for that.
I’m just saying that breathwork is about much more than trauma.
Breathwork covers moods, creativity, motivation, sleep, exercise, energy, anxiety, decision-making, self-awareness, and more.
It’s quite literally a superpower for the modern worker who needs tools to be mentally resilient, to focus, and to learn how to balance action and rest.
This distinction reminds me of the birth of Positive Psychology by psychologist Martin Seligman. He started this subset of traditional psychology in the early 2000s because he felt that his colleagues focused too much on mental illnesses and not enough on learning from people who are thriving in life.
3. You have to sit in a quiet room for hours to get any benefits.
Many of us think that in order to practice any kind of mindfulness (breathwork included), you have to dedicate hours to sitting alone in a quiet room. So there’s an immediate reaction of: “I don’t have time for this.”
That’s not the case.
In fact, starting with breathwork only takes 10 minutes per day of focused breathing. And then you can build up from there if you want to.
And just those 10 minutes every day will offer great benefits—physically, mentally, and emotionally, as I described in Stretch 37.
You can do it anytime, anywhere, and easily build it into your daily life. Check out my breathwork playbook to get some ideas on how to get started (Linkedin or Twitter.) I’m also sharing a slow-breathing exercise further down this email.
My view now? Breathwork is the ultimate self-control technique.
That’s what this whole journey of learning about my body is mostly showing me.
We have so many in-built tools at our disposal to feel, think and work better. All it takes is time and energy to learn how to use them.
Okay, so let’s get specific. How do you actually do that?
Tuning into and activating the breath is one of the most important life skills anyone can cultivate.
Breath dampens pain
Breath sharpens focus
Breath expands awareness
Breath calms the nervous system
It’s with you every second of every day and it’s free.
— Steve Schlafman (@schlaf)
Jun 15, 2023
🛠 2 WAYS TO TAP INTO YOUR AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM
What does it mean to have a well-regulated nervous system?
It means you can:
Be in action when you need to be in action
Relax when you need to relax
Focus when you need to focus
Sleep when you need to sleep
It basically means you have a certain level of control over how you feel throughout the day.
Sounds simple but for many of us, this is absolutely not the case. It feels more like we just have to roll with the punches and passively undergo whatever mood or energy level we happen to be in.
And that has a massive impact on our work, our creativity, our relationships, and our self-image—for better or for worse.
Now, here’s the secret to regaining control:
By learning how to tap into a basic system in the body called the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).
You can think of your ANS as a seesaw:
On one end is your ability to get into states of alertness and focus.
On the other end is your ability to get into states of relaxation, deep rest, and sleep.
So much of being functional is the ability to easily move from alert → asleep and from asleep → alert.
The analogy of a seesaw is important here.
It’s not so much about your ability to be on either end of the seesaw. It’s about the tightness of the hinge. For many people, the hinge is rusty or downright broken, and they’re trapped on one end of the seesaw: chronically activated or chronically exhausted.
Luckily, we have tools at our disposal to lubricate the hinge.
Before we go into that, I think it’s important to have a basic understanding of what our autonomic nervous system is.
A Quick Intro to the Autonomic Nervous System
The Brain gets a lot of love and attention in this newsletter, but we shouldn’t forget that it’s just one piece of a larger system:
Our nervous system.
And it’s a pretty incredible system.
It determines what you think about, what you feel, what you believe, what you imagine, and what you accomplish.
Now, the nervous system has 2 distinct parts:
The central nervous system: the brain and spinal cord
The peripheral nervous system: all the neurons outside the brain and spinal cord throughout the head, neck, and body—responsible for carrying messages to and from the central nervous system.
The ANS is part of the peripheral nervous system and controls vital functions, such as heartbeat, body temperature, breathing, and digestion.
This mechanism operates largely without your conscious assistance to keep your body running and has two main channels.
The sympathetic nervous system → responsible for activating the stress response (‘fight-or-flight’).
The parasympathetic nervous system → responsible for creating a state of calm and relaxation (‘rest-and-digest.)
Think of these channels as a group of neurons working together, specialized in activating reactions in your body to achieve a particular state—like increasing or decreasing heart rate and blood flow, activating or deactivating systems like digestion, and more.
There are some exceptions, but generally, when one channel dominates, the other is dormant.
Now, here’s where it gets super interesting:
Most people are unaware that we can consciously influence the autonomic nervous system and toggle between its two main channels.
As I’ve now heard Andrew Huberman repeat over and over on his podcast:
Vision and breathing are, without question, the fastest and most obvious ways to do this.
Here are my two favorite tools to do just that:
💨 Breath: the Physiological Sigh
As mentioned before, using your breath is a key route to changing your state of mind:
To activate the sympathetic nervous system (autonomic arousal ⬆️): emphasize longer and stronger inhales.
To activate the parasympathetic nervous system (autonomic arousal ⬇️): emphasize longer and slower exhales.
Here’s a tool you can immediately try out to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and push back the stress response in real-time:
The physiological sigh.
2 inhales through the nose (one long until you feel you can do no more, and then a second small one)
1 long extended exhale through the mouth
Here’s a 20-seconds demonstration of how to do this:
👀 The Visual System: Panoramic Vision
I’ve written before about the power of our eyes as a way to feel more alert and focused OR more relaxed—just like the breath.
When you're excited or stressed, the aperture of your visual window shrinks. When you're relaxed, the aperture of your vision expands.
We don’t normally notice these shifts happening.
But, just like with your breath, you can take conscious control over your visual system by toggling between these two modes of vision:
To activate the sympathetic nervous system: narrow your vision. Go into “Portrait Mode” and let everything else fall into the background.
To activate the parasympathetic nervous system: widen your visual field. See as much of your environment as you can.
My absolute all-time #1 favorite body-based tool is as simple as… expanding my visual field.
From this ➡️
➡️ To this
All you need to do is:
Without moving your head, expand your visual field.
Soften your eyes.
Focus on what’s in your peripheral vision.
Sit like that for a minute.
Pro tip: focus on your breathing at the same time.
Without fail, I’ll feel a deep sigh come up and notice my breathing slow down. The muscles in my face and body relax.
Two tools to start experimenting with how you can tap into your autonomic nervous system.
What do you think? I’m curious to hear!
🫁 A SLOW BREATHING EXERCISE
Alright, alright—I know you can’t get enough of these exercises now!
Here’s a final one for the road: practicing deep, slow breathing.
Follow these steps, taken from Kung-Fu & Wim Hof certified instructor Kitaro Waga:
Find a comfortable position where you can relax.
Close your eyes and take a moment to notice your natural breath.
Begin to slow your breath down. Inhale deeply through your nose for a count of 4, then exhale slowly through your mouth for a count of 6.
Continue this pattern for a few minutes, focusing your attention on the sensation of the breath entering and leaving your body.
There's no need to force or strain the breath. Let it be gentle and relaxed.
The key here is to make your exhale longer than your inhale. And we now know why:
To stimulate the parasympathetic response and create a feeling of calm and relaxation in your mind and body.
If the count of 4 and 6 feels too long, you can adjust it to suit your comfort, as long as you maintain the pattern of a longer exhale.