Creative Agility Practice: 1. Optimal Breathing
Breathing is the foundation for a healthy nervous system. Optimal breathing is fundamental to creative work. In contrast, suboptimal breathing stresses the nervous system and inhibits creative work. It is self-evident that optimal breathing is prerequisite to mental health and wellbeing. It is also essential to creative work.
I was fortunate to play trumpet in my youth. It taught me the diaphragmatic breathing. The back pressure when playing trumpet is moderate and poor breathing technique leads to problems such as dizziness and headaches, not to mention poor tone. Chest breathing while playing an instrument can lead to passing out. Optimal breathing is a basic for musicians playing wind instruments as well as for singers. Less obvious, however, is the importance of diaphragmatic breathing in the context of everyday life.
What is Optimal Breathing?
The principles of optimal breathing are simple and well established. Suboptimal breathing is intimately connected to tension, stress, and anxiety. Constricted breathing patterns disrupt wellbeing and creative potential. A restricted pattern of breathing like hyperventilation is symptomatic of anxiety. Unfortunately, suboptimal breathing can become subconscious and habitual, which intensifies emotional states. There is a direct connection between the quality of your breathing and the ways in which you think, feel, and react to the situations in your experiential milieu.
Ideally, the aim of a breathwork practice is to correct and stabilizes optimal breathing throughout the confluence of everyday life. This should begin in public school and proceed through all levels of education. If one purpose of schooling is to produce a healthy society, then teaching people the power of optimal breathing is a priority. If corporation wants to reduce employee stress while improving productivity, then training programs in optimal breathing are fundamental. Moreover, if want you to cultivate deep creativity and improve the quality of your creative work, then optimal breathing must be a core discipline in your creative practice.
For me, an ideal cycle of breathing consists of a smooth, rhythmical, and silent six second inhalation followed by a six second exhalation and concluded with a relaxed pause. The duration of the inhalation is always less than the duration of the exhalation and pause combined. Nose breathing is essential. Mouth breathing is always suboptimal. The transitions from inhalation to exhalation to pause and back to inhalation are smooth, relaxed, and imperceptible. The volume of air inhaled in a normal breath cycle breath is moderate to low; that is, we need to avoid the tendency to over-breathe. Optimal breathing originates in the diaphragm while the while the chest and shoulders remain passive relaxed. It is effortless, inaudible, and invisible. This is my vision of a “default” mode of breathing, which I use as a baseline to determine how well I’m breathing in various circumstances.
Suboptimal breathing agitates body and mind. Left unchecked, suboptimal breathing can become habitual and have a profoundly negative effect on your wellbeing.
I find it easy to focus on breathwork in formal training sessions because I am isolating myself from the events of the day. I find it far more challenging to integrate breath awareness and optimal breathing inside the confluence of everyday life, but this is precisely where it is most important. Breathing must be practiced both in isolation and in context.
It is perfectly natural for your breathing to change in response to various situations. Typically, you become aware of this change after it is already underway. In this sense, you will often find yourself in the situation of repairing and bringing a sense of equanimity to your breathing. Ironically, a core discipline of an optimal breathing practice is to develop a keen awareness of suboptimal breathing and have techniques to redirect it back to a normal flow.
Commons signs of suboptimal breathing include mouth breathing, shallow breathing, making audible sounds such as sighs, noisy inhalations, or exhalations, over breathing (taking in larger amounts of air than you are breathing out), chest breathing (usually accompanied by rising and falling shoulders), hyperventilation (over-oxygenation), a constricted diaphragm, jaw tension and clenching, hyper-sensitivity, brain fog, and emotional disturbances such as anxiety.
There are many types of breathwork exercises. After experimenting with several, my breathwork practice focuses on three simple yet powerful breathing exercises:
- Maximum Breathing: I take ten breaths in which I maximize my inhalation and exhalation to their fullest extent. I achieve this by actively expanding and contracting the diaphragm as much as possible (my diaphragm will shake) and then ensure that the exhalation and pause are significantly longer than the inhalation to avoid hyperventilation. The goal is to produce the deepest and slowest breath. This is a powerful exercise that strengthens body and mind.
- Rhythmical Breathing: I experiment with different breathing rhythms, while always ensuring that the exhalation phase is greater than the inhalation phase. The rhythm is a variation of inhalation + pause + exhalation + pause. Box breathing, for example, uses a sequence of evenly spaced events. This technique reduces inhalation to one quarter of the breathing cycle. For example, six-second box breathing means an inhalation of six seconds, followed by a six-second pause, a six-second exhalation, and another six-second pause. In this case, one cycle of box breathing totals 24 seconds and produces less than three breaths per minute. Another common technique is breathing is 4 (inhale)-7 (pause)-8 (exhale) cycles. A fun way to practice rhythmical breathing is while walking and creating breathing rhythms based on the sound of your footsteps.
- Minimal Breathing: My goal here is to sustain one breath per minute using the minimum amount of air possible. You can increase the challenge using alternate nostril breathing. Minimal breathing challenges the feeling of “air hunger.” A characteristic trait of suboptimal breathing is the need to take in a large amount of air. One way to test air hunger is by practicing a control pause between the inhalation and exhalation; that is, you practice increasing the duration of the control pause a long as you can after exhalation and then resume a normal inhalation without strain.
Developing a Breathwork Practice
There is a great deal of information available about optimal breathing. Too much. In the notes below, I have added some of my preferred resources. For me, the basic principles are simple, and the required exercises are few. Ideally, you will develop your own breathwork practice that adds value to your creative practice.
Breathwork is an ideal contemplative practice and the benefits of cultivating optimal breathing are extensive. For example, when I begin creative work, I always settle into an optimal breathing rhythm to facilitate the work at hand. It’s easy to practice breathing in isolation. It is far more challenging to develop optimal breathing practices while under stress. The key is to be able to use and apply the breathing techniques practiced in isolation to everyday life.
- This article distills what I have learned about breathing and breathwork over several years. I am not an expert in breathing, but I am my own expert in breathwork. Through trial and error, I know what works for me, and what doesn’t. I recommend that you find your own way as well.
- The information available on breathing is both extensive and overwhelming. I recommend the following sites as a starting point: a) SKY Breathing [A good video to watch is Breath-Based Relaxation]; b) Buteyko Breathing Technique; c) Decompression Breathing and Foundation Training. In the end, explore different ideas, experiment with them, and decide for yourself what is helpful.
- The most common expressions of suboptimal breathing are:
- Mouth breathing
- Chest breathing
- Arhythmic and erratic breathing
- Audible or loud breathing
- Holding the breath then releasing large amounts of air
- Feeling breath hunger and taking in large amounts of air
- Frequent sighing, yawning, or sniffing
- If you would like to know more about suboptimal breathing and its impact on your body and mind, see Dysfunctional Breathing: What Do We Know?
- To explore ideas for your won breathwork practice, I recommend starting with What is Breathwork?