Breath: Our Doorway to Everything (Episode 16-39)
‘We’re alive only because of something that can never be ours, courses through us’ according to Isabella Morin-Larbey, who has been teaching yoga for almost 40 years (Bloch, 2019). That something, is the air we share and breathe. In our life, we breath on average around 600 million times (Townsend Williams, 2018). In other words, breathing is a part of us, and we do it a lot. Without breathing, we simply cannot exist. Yet it tends to be something taken for granted. We simply breathe. Through personal experience, I’ve discovered the power of our breath in multiple contexts. I’ve also learnt how important the breath is for regulating our physiology and mental state of mind. In 2017, I’ve taken part in a 5-day retreat in Thailand which ended with a full day of breath induced Shamanic Journeying. By influencing my oxygen levels, I was able to experience a journey into the past and was able to release vast amounts of unprocessed hurt through hours of crying and laughter, which were alternating in an inimitable way. Where over-breathing can have us move through trauma or can activate us with great focus, as I have experienced through trainings by Wim Hof, slowing our breathing down can help us relax and center. In both cases, the breath can show us parts of ourselves which otherwise could remain overlooked for years, or even never discovered. In this post, I’ll try to shed some light, or bring some air if you will, to the power of the breath. I hope this writing will inspire you to become more conscious of your own breathing, and through this, discover more of yourself, the people around you, and how we all are connected by this unstoppable force to breathe. A force, by the way, about which science is still in the dark regarding what drives it.
“In transporting the breath, the inhalation must be full. When it is full, it has big capacity. When it has big capacity, it can be extended. When it is extended, it can penetrate downward. When it penetrates downward, it will become calmly settled. When it is calmly settled, it will be strong and firm. When it is strong and firm, it will germinate. When it germinates, it will grow. When it grows, it will retreat upward. When it retreats upward, it will reach the top of the head. The secret power of Providence moves above. The secret power of the Earth moves below.
He who follows this will live. He who acts against this will die.”
500 BCE Zhou Dynasty Stone Inscription, from ‘Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art’ by James Nestor.
The primary function of our breathing is to obtain energy (Bloch, 2019). It also helps us regulate our body and our mind. As Michael Townsend Williams so beautifully articulated during our talk on breathing, breathing provides us with a window into the present (Townsend Williams, 2018). The breath is the connection between the mind and the body (Townsend Williams, 2021). The breath is the communication channel between our head and our body. But I’ll dive into that later down your screen. First, there are four main processes when it comes to breathing, as articulated by Yael Bloch:
External respiration. Also referred to as the pulmonary ventilation, which is the exchange between our lungs and the air outside;
External gas exchange. This takes place at the intersection between the lungs’ alveoli (air sacs) and capillaries (vessels);
Transportation. The transportation of oxygen through the entire bloodstream, and even into the smallest vessels. Oxygen is transported to the approximately 60,000 billion cells throughout our body, to our muscles, organs, and tissues;
Cellular respiration. This is the cornerstone of the entire process: Food and oxygen molecules are both turned into exploitable energy for our cells. This transformation takes place constantly. Though indispensable to the process, oxygen cannot be stored in our cells, which means we need a constant supply of it. Our cells discard carbon dioxide in exchange for oxygen. This is the eliminatory function of breathing. After our cells produce carbon dioxide, the blood immediately carries it to the lungs for us to breathe out (Bloch, 2019).
The ability to transform how we feel
To learn more about breathing, I talked to Michael Townsend Williams who wrote the practical and insightful book ‘Do Breathe: Calm your mind. Find focus. Get stuff done’ which delivers on its title. During our talk, I asked Michael about his discovery of the breath. He shared with me about the loss of his brother and how this event ultimately resulted in a shift away from the corporate world of advertising to a world of yoga and welldoing. In this time of turmoil and family tragedy, Michael attended his first yoga class. At the end of this class, Michael found himself feeling like he had never felt before. This class helped him see that we hold inside of us the ability to transform how we feel (Townsend Williams, 2021). This experience ultimately led him on a path of discovery and exploration in the field of yoga, and ultimately to the breath. Yoga provided the first insights into the connection between the breath and the body. While it was at first not his vocation, but instead healing and therapy, yoga ultimately became a principal part of Michael’s life and work.
How the breath can take us through the uncomfortable
‘When you’re uncomfortable, and don’t really know what to do, which is the case for most people when they’re really honest with themselves, we make up stories about what it is we want and should do with our lives’ (Townsend Williams, 2021). We create stories because we don’t want to stay with that uncomfortable feeling. What I know from personal experience, and learn time over time again, is that in order to get passed anything uncomfortable or difficult, we have to allow it to be there. We have to dare to look at it, and become curious about it, without judgement. Our breath can help us do this. Our breathing can take us through. Through the practice of yoga, also Michael discovered the important role of the breath for dealing with this discomfort going on inside of us, both physically and mentally. Through breathing and accepting, the discomfort becomes less [and manageable] (Townsend Williams, 2021).
Our breath can help us stay with the discomfort and not knowing. As Michael beautifully articulated, when we can stay with the not knowing, ‘in the not knowing, your field of vision opens up’ (Townsend Williams, 2021). The more we think we know, the more limited our vision becomes. Contrary, the more we can accept that we don’t know, the more we can know and become aware of to experience. ‘Not knowing is uncomfortable, we feel vulnerable and exposed, we feel fraudulent, stupid’, and as Michael rightfully points out, probably a great many people recognize this at an instant (Townsend Williams, 2021). However, it is in this place of not knowing, where we become open to whatever is (and can be) there, or possible. Anything is possible when we don’t know. Our views can expand and perceive wider horizons. It is our breathing that we require to access this new place.
Many people, especially men according to Michael, are not connected with their feelings, and unfamiliar with understanding what those feelings we experience aim to tell us, and where they are coming from (Townsend Williams, 2021). Instead of feeling the feelings, we are prone to avoid issues by distracting ourselves from experiencing the feelings. The breath allows us to connect with the feelings in our body and can help us engage in communication if you will with those feelings, as so to better understand ourselves. However, often, when we then arrive at these feelings that need to be experienced and are subtly demanding our attention, the actual experience is uncomfortable. When we’re not able to stay with it and bare the discomfort, aided by our breath, we tend to run away from it and escape in distraction and numbing of those feelings. Instead, as Michael suggests, we need to learn to accept whatever shows up and presents itself to be experienced. Acceptance and allowing of the feelings or trauma, to simply be there, is a crucial element for overcoming or moving through issues and blockages.
See the forest from the trees
We all continuously are bombarded almost with signals from our genes, our subconscious, our heart, gut, experiences, socialization, culture and more. Based on this, we have to make decisions based on as Michael calls it “fluffy inputs from numerous sources.” It always is a guess, as he says (Townsend Williams, 2021). And it’s our breath that can help us see the forest from the trees in a way. “The breath [then, as Michael articulated incredibly accurate in my opinion], gives us a window into the now” (Townsend Williams, 2021).
Why noticing our breath is important, now
Our relationship with the breath starts from simply noticing it. We tend to take it for granted, as we tend to take everything for granted, as says Michael (Townsend Williams, 2021). We can start observing where we notice the breath in our body, and how our body responds to our breathing. Notice if it’s fast, or slow. By doing so, the breath provides a way for us to connect with the now, the present moment. The now is the only moment we can actually influence (Townsend Williams, 2021). Doing so begins with our breath. Michael interestingly commented on having become friends with his breath. As he explained, this starts with noticing it. When we learn to notice our breath, we can leave our head and slowly arrive in our bodies. Through this process, we enter into the here and now. By doing so, we can realize that we are not our thoughts, our anxieties, our worries, nor our fears. We can realize, we are simply beings, being.
What’s influencing our now
Breathing can help us cope or make us aware of where we are at with our current state of being. Our breath can open us up to a full and vast experience of the present moment. This present moment can be approached from two dimensions according to Michael. Firstly, our now is influenced through the layers of our being. This starts in a deep place, being the universe. Without it, we simply wouldn’t be here. The elements making up our bodies were created in starts a billion years ago. We wouldn’t exist without that, argues Michael. As he states, ‘there is a billion years of history in you, not then, but now’ (Townsend Williams, 2021). We then carry all of the evolution of mankind within us, now, and we have all of the genetic effects of our relatives and forefathers and mothers, now. We carry [parts of] the mindset of our parents and their parents, we have our experiences as a child, now, together with all our past experiences, now. And then there is our physical body, its systems and functioning, also in the here and now. From this perspective, the now is incredibly layered, deep, and multifaceted. As Michael then continues, people’s baggage is important. This is also our baggage, our cultural baggage, generational baggage, and our shared experiences. When we acknowledge this depth and incredibly history within us, and between us, it provides some perspective from our everyday disturbances and upsets.
When we become more aware of this, we can start to experience more explicitly the push of the past and the pull from the future, and consciously choose according to Michael (Townsend Williams, 2021). Where we put our attention and awareness then, is determining where we go and manifest. ‘If we’re not present and understanding of our breath and the depth of our being that we can access [and tap into] through our breath, then we can take these very short-term blips in our consciousness and start [re]acting on all this [unimportant] stuff in a robotic way that isn’t using our embodied intelligence’ (Townsend Williams, 2021). This is a kind of battle Michael argues, which we wage inside of us between parts of us that want instant gratification [and the parts of us that wants to connect with the greater whole that comprises our being]. Thus, our breath enables us to connect with billions of years of development and potential. The more presence we can cultivate and the more awareness we can muster, through our breath, the more we will be able to tap into the vastness and multi-layered facets of the present moment, the now. Through our breath, we can tap into this knowledge and universal intelligence and knowing, ever present within our own body and mind.
The autonomous nervous system
Breathing can be seen as the power switch to our autonomic nervous system. This comprises of two systems, serving opposite functions in our body. ‘The first is called the parasympathetic nervous system which stimulates relaxation and restoration. For instance, we become sleepy and relaxed during a massage. This is due to the functioning of the parasympathetic nervous system. This system also sends signals to your brain to release feel-good hormones such as serotonin and oxytocin into your bloodstream. ‘Parasympathetic stimulation opens the floodgates in our eyes and makes tears flow at weddings. It prompts salivation before meals, loosens the bowels to eliminate waste, and stimulates the genitals before sex. For these reasons, it’s sometimes called the “feed and breed” system’ (Nestor, 2021). Our lungs are covered with nerves to both sides of the autonomous nervous system. From these, many of the nerves connecting to the parasympathetic system are located in the lower areas of our lungs. Hence, the reason why long and slow breathing is so relaxing.
The second part of the autonomic nervous system is the sympathetic nervous system. This has an opposing role as the parasympathetic system. This system gets our organs ready for action. The majority of the nerves to this system are found at the top of the lungs. When we take short, shallow and hasty breaths, this switches on the sympathetic nervous system. The more messages this system gets, the bigger the emergency. When activated, when for instance you’re being cut off in traffic, the body redirects blood flow from less-vital organs like the stomach and bladder and sends it to the muscles and brain. This results in an increased heart rate and a rush of adrenaline through our body, and a sharpened mind. Our bodies are designed to stay in states of heightened sympathetic alert for only short periods of time. There are however, also health benefits to activating the sympathetic nervous system. Techniques such as Wim Hof Breathing enable this. Scientific studies have shown that this type of breathing ‘makes your blood more alkaline (less acidic) and causes hypoxia, which is “a form of stress at the cellular level.” This is a positive stressor in this case and can help the body deal with other negative stressors better in the long-term in everyday life’ (Cartwright, 2020).
Wim Hof breathing and Shamanic breath work
During our talk on breathing, I also asked Michael about the breathing techniques of Wim Hof with whom I’ve practiced breathing (and cold exposure) in the past, and for instance Shamanic breath work applied as a means for dealing with trauma. As Michael explained, all this has a place and time. However, the breathing pointers (as will be suggested below) really form the starting point for better breathing in our daily lives. ‘In my experience, [these type of over-breathing] are not conducive to higher states of meditative consciousness’ (Townsend Williams, 2021). Sitting up straight with our legs crossed provides another experience than lying down for a Shamanic journey induced by specific (over-)breathing practices. Having done these myself, I know of the immense power of this type of breathing and where it can take us, both physically, mentally, and spiritually. I do agree however with Michael that such practice has its place and time. In this regard, Michael mentioned that “it’s the tendency for most people to do more of what exaggerates their imbalances, rather than what recalibrate themselves” (Townsend Williams, 2021). The latter being the slower, and perhaps more boring and less exciting practice of conscious and lengthier breathing.
Principles of good breathing: Continuity principle
As taught through Russian Systema practice, breathing should be uninterrupted and constantly (Vasiliev, 2006). This is referred to as the continuity principle. Typically, our breath becomes easily interrupted. For instance, when we’re concentrating, when we’re angry, or when we’re afraid. Any stress factor will make us hold our breath. Our heart and our brain are responsible for fear. When we hold our breath in response to fear, our brain will use most of the available oxygen, leaving the rest of our body restricted. As a result, our body becomes tense. Furthermore, the less we breathe, the more our fear grows into a panic, resulting in a negative spiral. This panic results in more physical tension and restriction. In response to this, take quick short inhalations, filling yourself up with oxygen resulting in a returned relaxation of the body during stressful circumstances under tension (Vasiliev, 2006). Michael Townsend Williams argues for more prolonged exhalations (Townsend Williams, 2021). By doing so, we free our lungs from any excess old and stale air and replace it with oxygen-rich fresh air. As mentioned above, many of the nerves connecting to the parasympathetic system are in the lower areas of our lungs. Breathing deeper then activates this resulting in a calming of our system (Nestor, 2021). When we are in a heightened state of anxiety, and we’re breathing fast and shallow, and our heartrate goes up, we can literally come down by simply slowing our breathing down, inhaling and exhaling through our nose, and by breathing deep into our belly (Townsend Williams, 2021). We can’t keep being stressed and anxious while at the same time breathing like this. It’s physically impossible and the breath always leads if we want it to.
Principles of good breathing: Sufficiency principle
Only take as much air as you need. Do not over breathe. This is the principle of sufficiency. I notice this when swimming. When swimming freestyle, if I take too deep a breath when swimming, my rhythm becomes disturbed and stress increases in my body and my swimming becomes less free, more tense, and hence less efficient. If you need more air, never hold back and take as much as is needed. Take as much air as you need, without tension coming up due to excess air. Too much air results in tension in the body (Vasiliev, 2006). It then starts to work against you, as I illustrated with my swimming example.
Principles of good breathing: Nose or mouth breathing
Inhaling thought the nose helps regulate the body temperature and provides calmness and relaxation. When under physical strain or in tense situations, exhaling through the mouth, helps release tension that is built up in the body (Vasiliev, 2006). In those cases, inhale through the nose, and exhale through the mouth. When inhaling, consciously make the air go into the soft parts of the body. When doing so, you’ll notice your body will remain relaxed and flexible. It will be beneficial to practice this ‘relaxed’ form of breathing in different settings. Static, in one place laying down. And in one place, while moving, doing push-ups or squats for instance, and dynamic breathing, while running around. The goal is to always keep an even breath going, while keeping your body relaxed and only taking as much air as necessary (Vasiliev, 2006).
How to breathe better
When we’re not present to our breath, it’s very possible we’re generally breathing suboptimal: a shallow and short breath, into the chest. The problem with breathing shallow is that we don’t exhale fully. This results in old air remaining in our lungs, and obviously lower oxygen availability in our lungs. Only when we exhale out fully, can we get full potential from all the air inhaled. Babies on the other hand know how to breathe perfectly. Luckily, we’ve all been babies, yes, you too. So, you at one point in your life, also knew how to breathe perfectly. It could be, that you’ve lost that skill somewhat. During our talk, Michael shared some practices that will help us find our way back to this natural breath we had as babies. I’ll list these below:
Breathe from your belly. The first thing to do is connect with the breathing from your belly. This abdominal breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, results in more oxygen and energy being available to your body, with less effort. Also, as Michael explains, when breathing from your belly, energetically you are in control of your emotional center.
Breathe in and out through your nose. Do this as much as possible. Our nose is designed to clear out impurities, and warm or cool the air to make it match the temperature in your lungs. Also, when exhaling through the nose the flow of air is more easily controlled than by breathing through the mouth. Research has also shown that nasal breathing has benefits for the ways in which the brain functions.
The speed of breathing. This according to Michael, is one of the crucial things of breathing right. On average, people breathe around 15 breaths per minute. As Michael explains, already bringing our breath back to 10 breaths per minute has enormous benefits, as this will force us to breathe more fully and deep. This rhythm of breathing should allow you to work, cook, and basically do regular things living. If one is uncentered however, Michael advises slower breathing as therapeutic means, at 6 breaths per minute. This is the most optimal breathing rate for having a positive impact on our autonomous nervous system. Michael offers some guidance through a video on his website to help with this process here.
Lengthen exhalation. In case you are overstimulated, or want to come down and calm down, or are experiencing some form of anxiety, extending the length of exhalation is beneficial. Long deep exhalations help slow your heartrate down and helps relax your muscles and nervous system.
You can do this any time you need to and have a propound effect of both your physical and mental states (Townsend Williams, 2021). Even doing a mere two or three breaths with your eyes closed, and in and out through the nose, deep belly breathing will do miracles for you. As Michael articulates rightfully, too many important decisions are made without access to all this knowledge present within us which we can access by simply slowing down and breathing. Breathing is the only conscious system we really have control over. When we consciously breathe we’re able to experience a full reset of our systems and tap into the depth of now and connect to the truth of our human existence (Townsend Williams, 2021).
Breath on, and on, and on…
We don’t really know what provides us with the impulse to breathe, yet every time, until the last, we breathe, once again. Our breath is a mystery, while at the same time it is our doorway to everything. I hope this writing on breathing was useful and helpful to you, and I hope it may have inspired you to become more conscious of your breath and its potential. Now, take a deep belly breath, and slowly exhale out, all the way…
This recording is a nugget! I must start by saying I really enjoyed and appreciated the talk I’ve had with Michael Townsend Williams. We flew of the charts right as the call started, although I hadn’t yet pressed record. When I finally did, I believe Michael touched upon some very important topics in relation to life, and the role our breath has as an enabler for this, in more than one literal ways. My main focus for our talk was to learn more about the breath, and the benefits of breathing more consciously. I’ve learnt about that, and much more.
Michael is an advocate and trainer of ‘Welldoing’, whom I found through his book ‘Do Breathe: Calm Your Mind, Find Focus and Get Stuff Done’. ‘Welldoing’ means as much as leading a busy and a productive life, but not at the expense of health and wellbeing. The key to doing so is through our breath. Michael is a doer who likes to be, and I have to say, that combination really resonates with me, as I love doing too, but I don’t want to lose myself in it. I also want to be. I’m sure you can relate.
This talk was way too short, but full of beautiful insights, learnings, and humor. And that while recorded on a day which commemorates the loss of Michael’s brother, an event which I think formed the catalyst for a vast part of the change and development in Michael’s life and the learnings and insights he has shared throughout our conversation. Please enjoy this beautiful talk!
Website of Michael Townsend Williams: https://www.dobreathe.com
Balasubramanian, Sundar, 2019, Mind Your Breathing: The Yogi’s Handbook with 37 Pranayama Exercises.https://amzn.to/3BEeLye
Bloch, Yael, 2019, Breathe Slower, Deeper, Better: Make Deep Breathing a Habit with Simple Yoga Exercises. https://amzn.to/3mBLOPu
Hof, Wim, 2020, The Wim Hof Method: Activate Your Full Human Potential. https://amzn.to/31avwob
Nestor, James, 2021, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. https://amzn.to/3nRo74Q
Vasiliev, Vladimir, 2006, Systema Breathing: The Secrets of the Russian Breath Masters. https://amzn.to/303dJ28
Williams, Michael Townsend, 2018, Do Breathe: Calm your mind. Find focus. Get stuff done. https://amzn.to/3BEMdom