Breath: a life’s work

When Nadal, Sharipova or Azarenka make those grunts and wails on the tennis court they are doing something that is evolutionarily correct. Believe it or not!

Two things are happening:

  1. Most people who lift weights and probably most people in physical trades know that you exert the most power on the out breath. So these tennis players are channeling the most energy they can and also preparing for the next inward breath to wind them up for the next shot.
  2. Less known is that the use of the voice (grunting or wailing)  is creating a constriction in the throat that slows the out breath down and lengthens the breath overall. If the player just pushed the air out without sound then it’s gone before the stroke has finished.

Some interesting things happen when this constricted out-breath occurs – this is an activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS is the “rest and digest” counterbalance to the get-up-and-go “sympathetic” nervous system. The PNS (via the vagus nerve and many other mechanisms) is helping you calm down and recover from stress. So with each tennis stroke and out-breath players are (trained or not) healing themselves.

Everybody knows the simple delicious feeling of a bloody good SIGH. This is the PNS activation in a (mostly) unconscious or therapeutic context.

Unsurprisingly, the slowing and extension of the out-breath is already part of several wisdom traditions – one is Ashtanga.

Ujjayi breath

When I started Ashtanga, I didn’t comprehend what was important about “Breath, Bandhas, Drishti” (together known as Tristana). The breath part involves making an ocean-like sound in the throat through only the nose with the lips sealed.

This ancient tradition understood many things about physiology and its science came from observation and practice – as a westerner, it has to taken some time accept these observational wisdoms.

The physiological effects are summarized as:

  1. breathing through the mouth will stress you (more on this later)
  2. breathing through the mouth means you’ve lost the regulatory control of the yoga practice.
  3. Because the nasal passages are smaller than the throat, therefore breath is extended – slowing the whole cycle down (more on THAT later!)
  4. Breathing through the nose moistens the air, heats or cools it towards the body temperature thus reduces that conflict.

When you add modern science to these assumptions you learn:

  1. breathing through the nose create Nitric Oxide***, this is a vasodilator that aids the absorption of the oxygen in the lungs.
  2. The nasal breath creates turbulence which apparently helps penetrates deeper into the lungs.
  3. A longer breath (not a “bigger” breath or “deeper” breath) enhances oxygen and carbon dioxide transfer.
  4. A longer breath encourages a belly breath (diaphragmatic breathing) which increases the saturation at the bottom of the lungs. This is where the alveoli are most dense (probably due to gravity**) 
  5. diaphragmatic massages the vagus nerve and sends relaxation messages to the body.
  6. a slower out-breath increases Carbon Dioxide in the system.

CO2 is not your enemy

The biggest epiphany in Olssens book (see below) is that CO2 is an essential part of oxygen absorption in the system – the evolutionary machinery depends on it to maximise the transfer via the alveoli. The book refers to many studies where CO2 has myriad positive inflammatory impacts.

CO2 dilates the airways, if this is too low, the smooth muscles will contract and it becomes more difficult for air to pass in an out of the lungs. Therefore MORE breathing is not good – we should be aiming for deep and slow/long. People with respiratory problems like asthma tend to take more breaths and too much volume.

Nitric Oxide (NO) is your friend

As mentioned above Nitric Oxide is a vasodilator – which is to say it opens the blood vessels. When you breath in through your mouth, you are not getting any NO. When you breath in nasally, NO is added to the air and is carried to the lungs, facilitating the transport or O2 and CO2.

The benefits of open blood vessels is manifold and yes gents Nitric Oxide is the same compound that is boosted with drugs like Viagra and Cialis.

Don't follow Win Hoff's breath practice

Wim is cool. Everybody loves Wim. Wim’s practice wants you to get a quick result fast and the extreme saturation of oxygen (at least in the short term) gives you experiences which are transformational. But the problem is that many breathworks (even those that claim to avoid hyperventilation practice e.g Stanislov Grof’s Holotropic breathing) are depleting the body of CO2. This is fine for short experiences but  long term work may be altering your O2::CO2 balance and that leads to PH balance problems in your blood system. NOTE 1: I’m all for cold water practice and I’ve discussed the benefits here, here and here. NOTE 2: Wim’s practice borrows heavily from Tibetan Tummo so it has a deep traditional precedent, so you may want to explore Tummo to see what he has stripped away (like many Western practices do).

Mouth Breathing as a disease

The picture above shows some very broad noses, the faces are full and well developed. According to books I’ve recently read: “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art” (James Nestor)  and “Conscious Breathing: Discover The Power of Your Breath” (Anders Olssen), mouth-breathing is a relatively recent western development with faces being long and narrow, teeth crooked and jaw shape deformed.

If that sounds a stretch, I was recently at the orthodontist (crooked teeth) and they said it was cause by mouth breathing as a child – it seems common knowledge in that profession.

BTW: Animals don’t tend to have crooked teeth. (only dogs breath through their mouth to regulate temperature). 

For decades I’ve always got colds and flus starting in the throat and also whenever I did running the throat would become inflamed. This inflammation overtime has led to gastic reflux and GERD-like conditions – its possible that the inflammation from mouth-breathing may have been a contributor. Living in cities with dust and pollution can only compound the negative inflammatory impacts of mouth breathing.

Once again the western environment seems to have created conditions for a disease. We need to detect in ourselves and our children if mouth-breathing is prevalent and commence practices to return to nasal breathing.

The good news is that in the “use it or lose it” way – the body adapts – the more you nasal breath, the more this opens airways.

Deviated Septums

I waited until I was 40 to have an operation on my left nasal passages that had been there since childhood. This meant that most of my life, especially under exertion would result in mouth breathing. Sleeping was also predominantly mouth based breath.


Ironically (for my situation) having the left nostril blocked, according to yogic traditions such as pranayama, is also blocking the PNS relaxation. Having clear breath through the left nasal passage is supposed to be very calming.

In Yoga/Ayurvedic technical terms (for those who believe in chakras), the the Ida and Pingala nadi’s commence at the nostrils and wrap around the Sushumna nadi and descend down the spine through the chakras.

Western skeptics will recognise 2 things:

  1. This bears a strong resemblance to the Caduceus in western medicine
  2. That we know that the body’s redundancy system has the right hemisphere relating to the left part of the body (including the nostril).

Nasal Breathing practices

If you have nasal blockages:

  • sleep with Breath-right strips or similar
  • mouth taping (bizarre but incredible good for improving sleep quality, eliminating mouth dryness and snoring)
  • work with alternate nostril pranayama exercises.
  • particularly if you left nostril is often blocked try opening and breathing through your left nostril before sleeping (or trying to get back to sleep).

Generally (for everyone):

  • slow your (over-breathing down). You should be breathing when sitting <10 breaths/minute. During meditation this will drop to 3-8 breaths.
  • Explore HRV Apps with breathing exercises on your phone.
  • Explore getting a device that measures HRV
  • Try exercises that extend the out-breath
  • Question any mindfullness practice that only treats the breath as an attentional object.


It always seems that the greatest truths are hidden in plain sight. Society cooks up lots of complex treatments, gadgets and explanations – this is the good and bad of a science based society. But it seems that paying attention to what is right-in-front of us there is plenty to observe and learn:

  • How do animals behave?
  • How do children behave?
  • What practices from ancient cultures can be considered as useful and not just superstition or cargo-cult?

If nothing else the attention to how we are breathing is a terrific barometer for where we are “at” in ourselves – I have found that multi-tasking, email switching in my workday is a huge contributor to holding the breath and taking small sips of air rather than rhythmic full belly breaths. 

Other links on breath:

** note that yoga includes several inversion practices that reverse the effects of gravity – also varicose veins are apparently reduced with inversion – certainly any leg/calf exercise in yoga is also helping without the need for compression socks 🙂

Take Care

Often when we wish someone good-bye – we say “take care”. Like most language habits it’s trotted out unconsciously, just part of the sleep state we spend most of our time in.

But is it worth pondering what “take care” might mean in your day? What would it be like to approach things with care? Not so seriously to crowd-out a care-free demeanor, but…

This morning I finished a yoga session and had allowed it to be more than physical – there was more space induced by the breath, postures and released endorphins. The wind is blowing a gale today – I stepped toward the window to close it.

I’m pretty good at closing windows, done it thousands of times. So my hand grasped the window unconsciously and automatically and started to slide it shut.

Blown by gusts inside the window there were small end branches of a bush (planted outside the window). I could have easily crushed them in closing the window. Luckily* there was enough space in me to see the branches and STOP.

Still, mostly automatic, I reached to carefully moved a branch outside the window. Then everything changed – in the caring touch, I saw the scene for the first time.

I really could see it.

For the first time I watched these branches – they were flashing and sparking with the morning light as the gusts jostled them around. The tints of green, the veins of growth rippling through the leaves and the sturdy and the willowy resilience of the end stems of the branch. And the truth was there of why branches bend in a gusty wind.

It was over in a few seconds, but it was a privilege to have taken enough care with the branches to be gifted that experience in return.

So it seems that “taking care” is a great example of “give and you shall receive”**.

* The yoga had made my own luck.

** I’m not invoking Christianity with this quote, just the naturalistic experience seems to match the words.

Note: I owe:

a) both “take care” and “make your own luck” to Henryk, who I have posted about previously.

b) STOP to my teacher Ron. This is the first part of the “Stop, Breath, Stillness, Balance” practice.

Then the man (or woman) ain’t bright

One of my teachers was a man called Henryk who had worked in building, carpentry and eventually used to run gangs of council workers in the 70’s and 80’s. In those days it was an open secret that some council jobs were a haven of bludging, side projects, day disappearances – the kind of low level corruption from a more socialist time.

Henryk wasn’t that kind of guy – he was straight as a die – son of German mother and Polish father, clear-eyed, lean, a blend of discipline, temperance and stillness – with a bit of opera thrown in.

I worked with Henryk on a large building project and his work was fast, no bullshit and precise – one morning I was struggling with sawing some timber, splintering the edge as I went. Henryk reached in and drew the saw from my hand and handed me another. Whilst doing so, his lips parted into a wry smile, saying:

“If the tool ain’t right, then the man ain’t bright.”

His quip cut through better than any saw. 

The lesson for me was to pay attention to what I was doing. To be “bright” and be awake to the possibilities of a better way. In each situation: dropping habits or pre-conceptions can mean that there may be a better way to do the work….

“is this the right shade of pencil in a drawing?”, “could a better brush be selected?”. The questions not arising in words but just the feel of “fitted-ness” to the needs of the moment.

Humans are problem solving “machines”** and creators, to be cognitively present and find the right “fit” for a particular job infuses meaning into your day and life.

The opposite of this is “square peg in a round hole”.  If you’ve ever felt like that, it’s an awkward dissonance – a feeling of being “un-fitted” to the situation. This too is super-helpful and constructive because something in us wants to seek the fit and flow – the discomfort is a signal*** for needed change.

Another interesting part of the quip is the double meaning of “bright” – language is so often pregnant with depth – to be “bright” is to be light-filled – that’s another clue to the recipe (or perhaps outcome) of being “in this moment”.

** please forgive the use of such a term. There is no intention to reduce humans to machines, but some part operates below the surface with an intelligence that uses senses and feedback that could be considered a very fine mechanistic process.

Consider simply “picking up a cup”, the fitted-ness of the cup and how my hand wraps around the handle, whilst (mostly) unconscious is a beautiful flow of sense and response. To bring that into my awareness is a rich experience which should be covered in a seperate post!

*** tears, stress, anger are mostly considered inappropriate in social situations, so we don’t value (and often ostracise) these signals.

An antidote for earworms


Most of us would be embarrassed if others could hear the contents of our internal soundtrack. Our self-talk that usually focuses on self-criticism, comparison and commentary on what we see in the avalanche of images coming at us via Instagram.

Internet cat videos, TV and even reading a good book give us a holiday from ourselves and huge growth of “mindfulness” practices, youtube meditation sessions, podcasts are proof that “the west” is seeking refuge from our default mode.


One refuge we love is listening to a favourite sound in our head. Even if that song has lots of redemptive elements (“Don’t worry, be happy” – Joe Dolce, “Happy” –  Pharrel Williams) it can get annoying when it’s clamped onto your brain like a crab claw and just…won’t….let….go.

THIS my friends is the well-known “earworm” (or “stuck song syndrome” – SSS or Involuntary Musical Imagery -IMI). People literally exclaim to their friends “I can’t get it out of my head” which also triggers people to hear Kylie Minogue singing a perfect earworm “Can’t get you out of my head” and so the infection spreads when they sing a piece of the song, the friends fill in the pieces and then it gets stuck in their head.’

I’ve asked people if they have earworms and usually say “no”. But if I check in with them a few days or a week later, they’ve suddenly become aware that songs are a backing track to their day.

Repetition exacerbates the problem – in the past “high rotation” on radio meant that songs got stuck in people’s brains. More recently playing Beat Saber on Oculus is based around very catchy music and now those songs are in my brain as soon as I wake up. As soon as I finish a task that I’ve been focussing on and head to the toilet or the kitchen – the Beat Saber song is riding along inside my brain.

So what is the antidote?

I discovered by accident that “choiceless listening” is the most natural go-to solution. This is a form of mindfulness and part of “Choiceless Awareness” (I was surprised to learn that the term was made common by J. K. Krishnamurti).

Choiceless listening is simply allowing your attention to “let in” the sounds around you – this is not a problem while you are making the bed, brushing your teeth, walking to work. I was surprised that whilst I might often be practicing “mindfulness” while doing these tasks, my focus might be more visual or tactile.

Our society is so visually overstimulated that sound is relegated to a minor part of our daily experience – we take hearing for granted – we latch onto words that people say and extract the symbolic meaning, agendas from them – we treat listening as very transactional.

So being super-simple and letting sound come into my presence is a beautiful experience – and I discovered (obvious in hindsight) that my earworm just stopped dead – temporarily.

Try it! I’d be interested to hear if it works for you – or not!

Isn’t this harmless?

Is there something wrong about songs tootling along? When you start Googling “are earworms…..”, the first suggestion while you type is “are earworms a sign of mental illness”.

This is pretty heavy stuff: the British Journal of General Practice reporting that “up to 98% of the Western population has experienced earworms” and can be “more pronounced or debilitating in patience with OCD”.

I don’t line up my socks, straighten cutlery or obsess over the jaunty angle of a painting but I carry some traits that help earworms hitchhike into my day. At the very minimum, they are consuming mental bandwidth and energy that could be conserved or spent profitably.

Do earworms stifle Creativity?

Abso-bloody-lutely. Simply put this mental bandwidth* is a precious resource. The more we are present – in the moment is our most creative and responsive state. Earworms steal from this and setup a loop that cramps out “presence”.

Two Oscar Wilde quotes make the case well:

“A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave.”

You might think that an earworm is “misbehaving” but it’s really just behaving entirely predictably. I love that Wilde states that “taught” is a very important part of creating. It takes discipline, presence and space. 

“The imagination imitates. It is the critical spirit that creates.”

An earworm aims for perfect imitation – we don’t need another copy of that song!

Other antidotes

Some other antidotes can be found here and borrow from the BJGP** article above. But I don’t think they have the same self-awareness as what I suggest earlier.

      1. Chew some gum. Chewing gum could be a good way to get rid of earworms.
      2. Listen to the song. Listening to the song stuck in your head may bring closure and may help extract it.
      3. Listen to another song, chat or listen to talk radio.
      4. Do a puzzle.
      5. Let it go — but don’t try.

* Its quite possibly earworms are an artifact of the Default mode network and that’s another very big story in the discovery of how our western brain functions (or doesn’t).

** The BJGP article references a study that comes close to my proposed antidote. Personally I think that CBT is demanding a less natural and more ritualized way of dealing with earworms, in a sense they are pathologizing it: 

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is evidence-based and effective for OCD. Patients learn to replace dysfunctional thoughts like ‘These uncontrollable songs indicate I’m going crazy!’ with new, more accepting thoughts.


“Non-judgemental focus and acceptance form the basis for gradually shifting attention to other voluntary thoughts or emotions…..Yet, distraction is the most common self-help method for SSS and is often effective.”


This is not new. As with everything in life, the cycles keep moving – the good times pass, but so too do the challenging ones. Over the years, this little diagram keeps popping up, in slightly different forms each time, but with basically the same help.

In some forms it divides into 4 elements – fire, water, earth and air. In others, it is action, emotions, structure and wisdom. Each of the four elements should be in balance… in a perfect life…  in a perfect world!

Over the past while I’d been feeling a bit lost, unproductive, my mind awash with ideas but not quite able to get a start on anything, resulting in a feeling of time passing by without realising anything.

I happened upon the four elements again, sandwiched in a miscellaneous folder, and relooked at it. Rarely lacking in fire/action, or water/emotions, what lit up my realisation was earth/structure – my nemesis! Yes, planning. For reasons I still don’t understand, I feel that planning robs me of my freedom. My brain knows this is rubbish, even my experiences know this is rubbish. Yet tucked away snuggly and safely somewhere in my being, it resides.

So with the warmth of fresh realisation, I started to write the important things down (important for now, anyway).  Just five loose categories, ones which cover my everyday needs as well as my creative and physical needs. Almost immediately I started to pull away from the stuckness I had felt, feeling an accomplishment of sorts. Big goals, bite-sized actions and steps. My first bite-sized step!

Relook at the 4 elements diagram. Where are you strong? Where are you out of balance? Start with one small step. Good luck.

10 ways smart people stay calm

I’ve just come back from a couple of days in the country – a complete change of pace, demand, activity … even got a few hours of forest bathing – bliss.  I think for me, this ticked off #1 and #4 in this article I’m sharing about staying calm and staying on top of the stress.

You can preempt much of your stress with these vital practices.

The ability to manage your emotions and remain calm under pressure has a direct link to your performance. TalentSmart has conducted research with more than a million people, and we’ve found that 90 percent of top performers are skilled at managing their emotions in times of stress in order to remain calm and in control.

As long as the stress isn’t prolonged, it’s harmless.

Here’s the first 4
1. They Appreciate What They Have
2. They Avoid Asking “What If?”
3. They Stay Positive
4. They Disconnect

For all ten ways with explanations as well as the complete article and a great  Performance vs Stress diagram head to