breathing greg warburton mental and emotional fitness wellness

By Greg Warburton

Part 2

“To know and not do, Is not to know” ~ Goethe

Let’s jump right into application…where readers can directly experience the value of learning to breathe correctly right now. I know there are many, many ways to breathe, and people can breathe for different purposes. I am describing one breath practice I teach and have fine-tuned by adding a progressive muscle relaxation component. I am connected to 10 National Championships in the past 15 years of my work and the athletes I have worked with are using this breath practice as one key component of their mental and emotional fitness system.

Many years ago now, a friend and colleague, Dr. Jack Rowe discovered in his doctoral research on using breath for improved sport performance that the typical instruction(s) about how to breathe were either incomplete or wrong. Let me begin by describing my three-step breath practice for dependably producing a relaxation effect and for boosting mental clarity and decisiveness.

Step 1:
Instead of the typical “coaching on breath” which is, take a deep breath, replace this with a proper instruction: begin with a slow abdominal breath (commonly called belly breathing) inhaling through your nose. I have watched videos of world champion breath holder (22 minutes) and master teacher, Stig Severinsen, playfully pointing to his nose and state: “Your nose is for breathing, your mouth is for eating!” He highlights the same point in his book, breatheology: the art of conscious breathing.

Consider no more mouth breathing…

Just last week I was working with a top 15-year-old athlete, Savannah (name changed) who was struggling with increased anxiety after having been promoted to the varsity team. I asked, “How have you already been trying to manage this anxiety you are experiencing?” She responded, “Breathing, but I would end up more anxious.”

I proceeded to teach her the 3-step breathing process I am writing about in this blog-post. Brave young Savannah completed the three steps and stated she was more calm; though, almost at the same moment she began crying. I asked, “Please help me understand what your tears mean?” She said, “I am just now so frustrated and upset because I have been mouth breathing and ending up more anxious.”

In his book, Breath: The New Science Of A Lost Art, (Breath won the award for Best General Nonfiction Book of 2020 by the American Society of Journalists and Authors), James Nestor, points out in the chapter entitled Mouthbreathing, that there are many significant negative impacts to mouth breathing. Mouth breathing, it turns out, changes the physical body and transforms airways, all for the worse.

Step 2:
Breath holding after the inhale… think, say and do… hold, hold, hold

Nestor, in his chapter entitled, Hold it, noted that researcher Alicia Mueret states, "Take a deep breath is not a helpful instruction…hold your breath is much better." This is connected to intending to produce a relaxation effect.

To complete step 2, as you begin the breath holding, simultaneously shrug your shoulders, exaggerating the shrug as if you could touch your ears with your shoulders. All while holding your breath…hold, hold, hold, then fully exhale and let your shoulders drop. This adds a progressive muscle relaxation component. I have observed, for years, athletes half-way shoulder shrugging and wish they knew to exaggerate and hold the shoulder shrug as I state above to more effectively relax and reset for the next play.

NOTE: I am reviving this almost forgotten, yet long-known relaxation practice. Progressive Relaxation (PR) was created and named by internist, psychologist, and physiologist Edmund Jacobson back in the 1920s. He noticed that if one breathes while tightening and relaxing individual muscle groups of the body, calmness will be achieved.

Step 3:
It is vital to know that the relaxation comes from the exhalation. Step 3 involves fully exhaling; exhaling longer through your nose or mouth then your inhale. Research shows a longer exhale activates the calming part of your nervous system. One tip for an effective longer exhale is: while exhaling and nearing the end of your exhale, imagine touching your spine with your belly button to move out just a bit more air.

Nestor, in his chapter entitled Exhale, discusses breathing expert, pulmonaut Carl Stough’s work going back to the 1940s. Stough discovered….The key to breathing, lung expansion and the long life…was in the transformative power of a full exhalation.

In summary, connected to the point and purpose of these blog posts on breathing, Nestor notes also that Stough was known for saying: Even more foolishly, I had assumed that a universal awareness of the importance of breathing existed. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. To this day, I am observing that athletes still are rarely taught how to breathe correctly for performance and for health.

For the upcoming Part 3 to conclude my blog series on breathing:

I will create a short video demonstrating my breath technique to dependably relax your body and calm your mind in sport and in life. I will also focus on the value of slowing your breathing down; reducing the number of breaths taken per minute. In his NYT Bestselling book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, James Nestor comments on the restorative power of slow breathing, adding that resonant breathing offers the same benefits as meditation for people who didn’t want to meditate.


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