If your automatic reaction to reading a post about breathing is to switch off then I challenge you to stay with me on this and at least give the techniques a try. You’ll be surprised by the benefits. I first came across breath work when listening to a podcast with former Navy Seal commander Mark Divine who now runs SealFit in the States. He described how Seals would be trained in a couple of simple breathing techniques to give them the ability to control their stress response and remain calm and clear of mind in high pressured situations. These sounded appealing outcomes so I started experimenting with the 2 techniques: tactical breathing and box breathing.
Tactical breathing is a method for improving the depth and quality of each breath. In our modern stressy world with our desk monkey posture our natural tendency is to breathe shallowly, from our chest, this is not only inefficient in terms of quantity of air we’re shifting but also leaves us in a semi-stressed state and can contribute to feelings of anxiety and nerves. The tactical breath is the antidote to this and consists of 3 parts. First push your belly out and imagine this sucking air in through your nose. Pause for a second and then reverse this. Repeat it a couple of times so you get the idea. You should be able to hear the air coming in and out. Next breath in to your belly, then take another breath by expanding your diaphragm. Reverse this with a 2 part exhalation: diaphragm then belly. Again repeat a couple of times. The final element is the chest, breath in using your belly, then your diaphragm and then your chest. You may find this hard at first, stick with it, complete the 3 part exhalation by reversing the pattern. Repeat the full sequence a few times. Once you are happy with this you can smooth the 3 parts into one deep breath: chest, diaphragm, stomach, and then reverse.
This technique is teaching you to fill your entire torso with air. By doing this you will not only oxygenate yourself properly and therefore become more aerobically efficient, you will also improve your posture and, crucially, reduce your sense of stress. To get geeky, by breathing deeply through your nose you are stimulating your vagus nerve, which runs between heart and brain, to release the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This then acts to reduce heart rate and blood pressure and produce a cascade of calming hormones, moving you out of fight/flight and into rest/digest.
The next technique, box breathing, builds on the tactical breath and gives you a simple system for ordering your breathing. I use a guided app, simply called ‘Box Breathing’ to do this and, at time of writing, I have logged nearly 900 minutes of practice which gives you an indication of how much I value this practice. Box breathing is simply a square pattern of breathing, you inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds and hold for 4 seconds. Repeat this cycle for typically 10 rounds and you will notice an immediate difference. It is almost meditative in its effects, leaving you calmer and with greater clarity of thought. I use this before every sporting performance, following every gym session, before any presentation I’m giving and last thing at night before bed. Using the app you can also start to increase the holds, I’m currently up to 6 seconds on each side of the square, meaning that I can comfortably hold a pace of just 2 breaths a minute. I’ve noticed big aerobic benefits when training from this work.
I’ve included a video below, featuring Mark Divine, which talks you through these 2 practices and gives you a chance to experience it for yourself.
It strikes me, reflecting back on this practice, that whilst we all chase the big shiny things which we feel will be transformative for us, it is often the simple, easy stuff, which we so often overlook that can actually prove the difference. I encourage you to embed these simple breathing practices into your day and make them the foundation for all the other health and performance work you are doing.
Once you have mastered these you can then google Wim Hof and his breathing work and disappear down the rabbit hole…