The sympathetic nervous system is in charge of the fight or flight response that everyone has experienced at one time or another, sometimes within themselves and at other times as a witness to another’s. When this fight or flight response fires up, the heart rate and breath speeds up, and stress hormones like cortisol start pumping through the bloodstream, preparing the body to face something it has determined to be threatening. If the threat is,
Fire! I am in danger, time to flee!
This is obviously a helpful response to the actual threat faced, however if the threat is,
I am stuck in traffic and now I am going to be late for work
I can’t believe my boyfriend or girlfriend doesn’t like my new haircut. I’m so upset with him or her,
this is not very helpful to us and can also be quite damaging. If cortisol levels are elevated for too long or too frequently, it disturbs all of the hormonal systems in the body.
On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system controls your rest, relaxation and digestive responses. So, when the parasympathetic nervous system is dominant, breathing slows, the heart rate drops, blood pressure is lowered as the blood vessels relax and the body enters a state of calmness, relaxation, healing and peacefulness.
Robin Friedlander, MD, offers step by step instructions and says that,
Putting your body in a parasympathetic state is easy. Pick a count for your inhale and a count for your exhale that is a little longer. I like starting with 2 counts in, and 4 counts out, with a one count pause at the top of the inhale and a one count pause at the bottom of the exhale.
Step by step instructions:
To begin, sit still and tall somewhere comfortable. Close your eyes and being breathing through your nose.
Then, inhale for a count of two… hold the breath in for a count of one… exhale gently, counting out for four… and finish by holding the breath out for a count of one. Keep your breathing even and smooth.
If the 2-4 count feels too short try increasing the breath lengths to 4 in and 6 out, or 6 in and 8 out, and so on. But if longer breaths create any anxiety there is no need to push yourself. The most important thing is that the exhale is longer than the inhale, not the absolute length of the breath.
Set a timer and breathe this way for at least five minutes! You will see a difference in your mood.
What is a Coach?
Practicing regular, mindful breathing can be calming and energizing and can even help with stress-related health problems ranging from panic attacks to digestive disorders. Andrew Weil, M.D.
ICF, The International Coach Federation defines coaching as such,
Professional Coaching is an ongoing professional relationship that helps people produce extraordinary results in their lives, careers, businesses or organizations. Through the process of coaching, clients deepen their learning, improve in performance, and enhance their quality of life.
In each meeting, the client chooses the focus of conversation, while the coach listens and contributes observations and questions. This integration creates clarity and moves the client into action. Coaching accelerates the client’s progress by providing greater focus and awareness of choice.
And according to ICA, the International Coach Academy,
A coach is an advocate, a sounding board, a cheerleader, an accountability partner, a truth teller and a supporter. Coaching involves dialogue between a coach and a client with the aim of helping the client obtain a fulfilling life. This is achieved by helping the client establish what is important to them and by clarifying their values.
As you can see, coaches wear many different hats with their clients, but their main role is to help the client achieve the best life possible for themselves. That is a big responsibility and commitment on both the coach’s part and the client’s. The coach must create a safe, trusting and open space for their clients and the client must focus and clarify what is important to them for the coach. To do this, the client must have the awareness into themselves to be able to articulate and communicate what is important to them to their coach. And, on the other hand, the coach must build a solid rapport and foundation with the client to open the client up for inward exploration of themselves. The coach must listen attentively and actively, ask powerful questions to engage the client into exploration of themselves, challenge the client into action when appropriate and acknowledge and validate the client for their awareness, growth and action steps taken, thus accompanying the client on their journey of success!
The single most effect relaxation technique I know is conscious regulation of the breath. Dr. Andrew Weil
Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor. Thich Nhat Hanh
Given the knowledge of conscious breathing, coupled with the role of a coach, how can a coach harness the power of the breath and use it in a way to help their clients’ succeed? Well, we know that conscious breathing clears the mind and relaxes both the mind and the body, and because the mind cannot focus on external issues while focusing on conscious breathing, then in essence, it clears the mind of all its clutter.
We also know that one of the primary roles of a coach is to provide their client’s focus and help their clients achieve greater awareness of their own needs, thus creating a clear and open space for their exploration and journey towards success. It would seem that simply employing conscious breathing for a few minutes or a breathing exercise like the one recommended above by Dr. Friedlander at the beginning of the coaching session would be the simplest, most effective way to accelerate the progress of the client even further and in a more efficient, timely manner.
Coaches believe that the client is the expert in his or her own life. So, doesn’t it just make sense for a coach to educate their client’s on the physiological control that conscious breathing possesses over their own brain, moods, stress levels, state of consciousness, health and over all physical and emotional well-being? And better yet, start the session off consciously breathing together and clearing the space for both the client and coaches focus, awareness and attention to create the most dynamic and empowering space possible for growth and progress.
In addition to utilizing the conscious breathing and/or breathing exercise at the beginning of a coaching session, the coach can support the value of the breath work by supporting the client in taking up yoga classes, meditation or just conscious breathing at home. During yoga, yogic breathing techniques are meditative in nature and as Vera Nazarian puts it,
a meditation can be as simple as taking a series of easy breaths, and slowly, gently counting to ten in your mind.
As you can see,
when breath is regulated and pacified, there is a neutralizing effect on the mind. And when you hold your breath, you hold your soul, B. K. S. Iyengar so eloquently states.
What an amazing gift of awareness and self empowerment a coach can offer their clients with conscious breathing.
When you encounter doubt in your life, become conscious of your breath. Take a few moments to inhale very deeply and hold onto that breath. Then notice as you exhale and become aware of this awesome thing we call breathing. A few moments of deep breath awareness returns me to my faith in the invisible force that is always at work to keep life flowing. Wayne Dyer
www.icoachacademy.com, “101-Coaching- What is it?” Learning Level One, Module 101 Retrieved from site 5/1/2012
www.icoachacademy.com, “ICF Code of Ethics” Learning Level One, Retrieved from site 5/1/2012
www.mindbodygreen.com, “A Simple Breathing Exercise to Calm Your Mind & Body” Robin Friedlander MD, Retrieved from site 10/15/2012
www.goodreads.com, quotes retrieved @ http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/breath 10/28/2012
B.K.S. Iyengar (2005). Light On Life, Holtzbrinck Publishers, United States of America.
Andrew Weil, MD (2011). Spontaneous Happy, Hachette Book Group, New York, New York.