A few years ago, my team was all in town. One of my teammates, who is an accomplished yoga practitioner, offered to lead our team (and my family, since we were meeting at our house) in a yoga session.
We all piled into my basement with our makeshift yoga mats and started… yoga-ing. Or whatever you call it. Let’s just say that we were poor at it. Our “yogi” showed us an exercise and said “we will do this one hundred times.” After watching us do it twice, and hearing our groans and bodies creaking, he said “okay, maybe we’ll go for twenty.” I think we ended at seven.
Anyway, one of the things he had us do was breathe through alternating nostrils. We closed one nostril (I believe it was the right) and breathed in through the left nostril, and then we shifted our fingers to close the left nostril and breathe out through the right.
I asked him why we did this. He just told me it helps.
I said “how can this really matter? I mean, the air is going into the same airway no matter which nostril you use.”
He said, “I don’t know. It just helps.”
Fast forward a few years. Last year, I was seeing a sleep therapist. My sleep has not been great for a long time, and after trying all sorts of methods and pills (bad idea) and C-PAP machines (awful), my doctor recommended a sleep therapist. “She gets results,” he said, “but she can be a little woo-woo.” I told him I was all-in for woo-woo at this point.
So I started seeing this sleep therapist, and one thing she taught me was about heart rate variance. Your heart is not only beating all the time, your heart rate varies all the time. And if that variance is calm and predictable, well, you are calm and predictable too. So you sleep better.
She wanted to teach me how to get my heart rate variance under control, so she hooked me up to a little biofeedback machine. It showed that my heart rate variance was all over the place. The chart looked like the seismograph reading they show on disaster movies as the big earthquake was hitting.
Then she told me to breathe into my heart.
“Breathe into your heart. Here, just start. Breathe slowly and deeply.”
I did, and my heart rate variance started to calm down. Now the seismograph just looked like a little Southern California trembler.
“All right, now imagine that the breath you are taking in is going right into your heart.”
“How can this possibly help?” I asked.
She said “I don’t know. It just helps.”
So I did, and I’ll be darned if my heart rate variance graph didn’t turn into smooth, predictable, rolling hills. An almost perfect sine wave. Exactly what I was going for.
And while I was doing it, I got so relaxed I almost drifted off in her office.
And so we come to the theme of my year, 2018. It’s the realization that there’s something about breathing.
I’m learning more and more that I can and will share as this goes along. But the key thing is that there is something about the simple act of breathing that is more than just a biological exchange of gases. There’s something in the neuroscience of breathing, and something in the spirituality of it, that takes it deeper than simple biology.
Over all, there is a lot I want to accomplish this year. I have a lot of goals in every area of my life. I typically strive for two or three. This year I have about sixteen. As I was making the list, I thought “isn’t this too much? Doesn’t this fly in the face of all the ‘don’t push yourself too hard in New Year’s Resolutions’ advice I have heard throughout the years?”
And yes. Yes, it does. But I think it can be done. I think the key is taking the basics and looking at them differently. What are the things I take for granted? What are the assumptions I don’t challenge? What are the untested areas where I can really push myself?
And one of those areas is simply about how I breathe. There are reasons that you follow your breath when you do mindfulness meditation. There are reasons you take a deep breath before you try something hard. There are reasons you have a hard time breathing when you’re scared.
So wouldn’t it be great if I can harness that? If I can accomplish more hard things and be less scared doing it? Wouldn’t it be amazing? Wouldn’t it be… breathtaking?
Welcome to 2018: The Breathtaking Year. Take a deep breath, and let’s jump in.