Research Paper By Sarah Shokraie
(Personal Growth Coach, CANADA)
The power of conscious breathing has been understood and utilized, primarily amongst Eastern philosophies and religions, for thousands of years. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a formal composite of the theories and practices of yoga written over 2,000 years ago, listed Pranayama, Sanskrit for energy/breath control, as one of the eight limbs of yoga. The eight limbs of yoga act as steps towards enlightenment and guidelines for a more disciplined and meaningful life. In Buddhism, Anapanasati, which translates to mindful breathing, is practised as a means of cultivating the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. Besides personal liberation, conscious breathing has been proven to lower levels of stress and anxiety, and increase clarity and focus. It creates the necessary space to assess problems when they arise and choose whether to respond or react to them. Harnessing the power of conscious breathing is the simple foundation for living a more mindful, happy and fulfilled life.
What is Conscious Breathing?
Conscious breathing is about bringing intentional awareness to our breath. Breathing is at the same time automatic and not automatic, in that we do not have to think about breathing to survive, but we also have the ability to manipulate it at any time. The reason why conscious breathing is so powerful because it engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for relaxing the body. When we breathe more slowly and fully, we are triggering the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in and slow our heart rate and blood pressure.
Why is it Important?
When under stress, the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for “fight or flight” mode, is engaged and can inhibit the ability to think clearly because the body believes it is in danger. Research done at Rockefeller University revealed that “the brain sends ongoing alarm signals in the form of high levels of the stress hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol. Their presence raises a background level of anxiety that blocks the processing of information.” Thankfully, because we have the ability to control our breath, we have the opportunity to balance the two nervous systems and change the way we respond to different situations. As well, conscious breathing brings us to the present and connects us to our subconscious minds, where underlying beliefs and patterns lie. When we focus on the present, we have greater access to our Higher Self and can better understand what we truly want.
The human brain makes up only 2% of our body weight but uses 20% of our total oxygen intake. The average adult lung capacity is about 4-6 litres, yet the average intake of air in a single breath is about 0.5 litres. If on a daily basis, we are running on less oxygen than we are able to take in, imagine what breathing at maximum capacity can do for our overall health and wellbeing. When babies are born, they automatically breathe fully and deeply using their diaphragm and can be seen in the way their bellies rise and fall in a wave-like motion. As adults, the times when we do breathe through our diaphragm are the moments when we are at our peak of relaxation, such as when we are sleeping. As we grow older and experience life, the way we breathe changes, becoming more short and shallow. We begin to breathe through our chest rather than our diaphragm. In many cases, breathing altogether ceases for short periods when unfavourable or stressful situations occur. Lack of oxygen in the brain for more than one minute can result in the loss of brain cells while prolonged periods can eventually lead to permanent damage. Diaphragmatic breathing encourages full oxygen exchange of each to inhale and exhale and allows the lungs to fully expand. Increased oxygen to the brain increases concentration, energy and alertness.
In addition, there is a direct relationship between our emotions and the prefrontal cortex of our brain. The left prefrontal cortex is involved with establishing positive emotions while the right prefrontal cortex is involved with establishing negative emotions. According to Dr Bill Conklin, in an article for Psychology Today, “Meditation (especially mindfulness meditation) can both strengthen the activity of the left prefrontal cortex and reduce the activity in the right prefrontal cortex.” In another study done by Professor David Richardson, it was found that the activity in the left prefrontal cortex of highly experienced meditators was significantly higher than non-meditators. Therefore, through activities such as mindfulness meditation, which stems from conscious breathing, we have the ability to increase our positive emotions and enhance our lives.
The Power of Breath
Many of us are familiar with the “Ice Man”, also known as Wim Hof, who adopted the Wim Hof Method (WHM). The WHM is based on three pillars, with breathing being one of them, and is used to allow you to “gain control of your mind and body.” According to the official Wim Hof Method website, it is believed that “Heightened oxygen levels hold a treasure trove of benefits……more energy, reduced stress levels, and an augmented immune response that swiftly deals with pathogens.” His three-pillar method of breath work, cold therapy and mindset have led him to break over two dozen world records, including longest ice bath, climbing up some of the highest mountains in the world wearing nothing but shorts, and swimming underneath ice in the Arctic. What the history of meditation has taught us is that through becoming aware of our breath, we are capable of controlling aspects of our physical bodies, such as relieving illnesses or manifesting them, and controlling our minds, such as creating stillness and space where intuitive thoughts can be received. The key to creating more powerful versions of practices like meditation, yoga, regular exercise or even everyday tasks all comes down to the way we breathe.
Throughout the Anapanasati Sutta, a Buddhist discourse and basic text on mindfulness breathing, The Buddha detail instruction on how to use breath work to cultivate mindfulness and initiate meditation. Long after The Buddha achieved enlightenment, He continued dedicating Himself towards sharing the power of the mindful breath. It begs the question, “How can something so simple, so natural and imperative, be so transcendent?”
However, it can be easily overlooked how the subtle act of noticing our breath can transform our daily lives. Deep breathing creates an anchor to which we can hold onto when the rest of our lives becomes chaotic. While not everyone is interested in the road to enlightenment, conscious breathing has the proven ability to make a significant impact from moment to moment, circumstance to circumstance. As Robert Bogoda, author of A Simple Guide to Life, stated, “Apart from its ultimate benefits, mindfulness of breathing has an immediate value that can be seen in one’s daily life. It promotes detachment and objectivity. It allows one the mental distance needed to arrive at wise decisions in the countless difficulties of daily life. Regular practice of this meditation brings increased concentration and self-control, improved mindfulness, and is also conducive to healthy and relaxed living.”
How Breathing Relates to Coaching
As coaches, the environment we create for the session begins before the session even starts. It begins with having a calm, alert and confident presence where the client can feel supported. Leaving our own issues behind before beginning a coaching session is crucial because they can unintentionally affect the client. Taking a quiet moment before the session will lead to more effective and powerful coaching sessions.
Our job as coaches is to hold space for clients to feel comfortable, safe and open in so that they can share with us what is on their minds and any issues they are dealing with. In many cases when clients seek coaches, they feel an array of emotions that can disrupt their decision-making and critical thinking. Connecting our clients to their breath allows them to slow down and reflect on their situation from a more stable and present standpoint.
At times, as clients share their focus for the session, they may relive the emotions involved in that situation, which can greatly impact how they will choose to deal with it. The emotions can block the client from wanting to seek moving forward, from wanting to develop action plans or from assessing how the situation is truly affecting them. A single deep breath holds substantial value for the client because it provides the necessary distance for viewing what they bring to a coaching session as a whole. This gives the client a wider range of options and encourages them to challenge “tunnel vision” perspectives.
It is as if the murky shadowy place that we call the mind–where so much happens that we do not understand–is suddenly bright and clear, like a large empty room. According to Tang Hoi, it is attention to the breath that brings that transformation about. —Larry Rosenberg
The importance of mindfulness in coaching is creating an environment where the coach and the client can be fully present in, without distractions, judgements or outside thoughts. Mindfulness as a coach is necessary to allow the client to be given undivided attention and full attentiveness during the session and provides for a welcoming and safe coaching presence. Mindfulness can be cultivated through multiple breathing exercises, or simply by bringing our attention to our breath and observing it.
Creating awareness with clients is critical for them to understand what patterns show up in their lives; what moves them, drives them forward; what makes them tick. Without self-awareness, the things that might be getting in the way of success can be overlooked and habits can be repeated. Understanding ourselves is important to grow and develop as a person, and when we understand ourselves, we can better understand the world around us. Exercising self-awareness can be done through journaling, taking notice of the emotions that come up in different situations, meditating, and noticing how we are breathing, whether from our chest or diaphragm.
How to Use Conscious Breathing in Coaching
As mentioned earlier, for coaches, taking a moment to be present and to temporarily set aside any thoughts that could affect a coaching session is a simple yet invaluable method for preparing to be fully present for the client. The mental preparation is also helpful for coaches who are going into a session feeling nervous or anxious. Deep and focused breathing can quickly bring about a calmer state and increase coaching confidence. During a session, taking a lengthened breath before asking the client a question can give the coach time to process what the client has said and prepare a question. The extended time also gives the client a moment to continue their thought process if needed.
For clients, suggesting or inviting them to try exercises, such as meditation, when applicable, can aid in shifting perspectives, uncovering underlying beliefs, deepening self-discovery and can be incredibly empowering. I have personally used conscious breathing and meditation exercises in coaching sessions where I had noticed the client a) was unclear of what they wanted b) spoke rapidly and anxiously c) was merely scratching the surface of their situation.
The road to a more mindful and peaceful life comes down to the simple act of noticing the way we breathe. From there, understanding how to work the breath to our advantage can bring an immense range of benefits to the mind, body and soul. Fortunately, the act of practising conscious breathing does not have to be complicated or done in a yoga or meditation class but can be done anywhere at any time by anyone. The benefits of breathing consciously may start out small, but holistically, when one area of your life is affected, all the other areas of your life are as well. One simple act can bring about great change.