The subject of stress has made its way into mainstream culture in a big way. Yet for the most part it still goes unrecognized and unaddressed in our everyday life, the debilitating effects taking a toll on body, mind, and spirit. We suffer a host of physical, emotional, and psychological symptoms caused by stress, but when it comes to doing something about it, we merely treat those symptoms instead of addressing the cause. In fact, a certain amount of stress is good for us, even necessary. We need it to grow and to build resilience. The key is the way we think about it and react to it. Used properly, channeled wisely, stress can strengthen and inform us. The Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye, who coined the term “stress,” said that if he had had a better mastery of the English language, he would have used the term “strain” instead, because that’s what he really meant. The confusion around this led to all the talk about the difference between “good” stress and “bad” stress. For the purpose of this discussion, let’s assume that stress is “bad.” Let’s assume that it has become something we need to fix or manage or reduce or overcome. In that case, let us approach it holistically—as a spirit, mind, and body issue. Approach it with mind intelligence, body intelligence, and heart intelligence. Fortunately, the breath is central to all three of these.
There are ways of breathing that reduce stress and ways that exacerbate and even create it. We will explore some of those breathing patterns now. A general rule of thumb for anti stress breathing is “low and slow.” That means slow diaphragmatic breathing, preferably at a rate of six to eight breaths per minute, or even slower if it is not in any way a challenge. Another breathing pattern that is used to relieve stress is to make your exhales longer than your inhales. Deliberately extend or lengthen your exhale as you focus on letting go and relaxing. Quieting your mind, managing your self-talk, and deliberately engaging in positive internal dialogue, using positive affirmations, can help the process immensely. One of the best teachers I know when it comes to stress management, prevention, and recovery is not a service member, not an extreme athlete, not a high-level CEO. She is a bright, wise, and gentle physician, an integrated medical practitioner in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her name is Ela Manga, and she is dedicated to bringing mindfulness back into medicine. Dr. Manga specializes in “energy management” and is writing a book on the subject called My Energy Codes. Through this methodology, she supports both individuals and teams in healing the effects of stress and burnout. She teaches her patients, clients, and students the difference between genuine or natural energy, which restores us, and “adrenalized energy,” which depletes our life force and creates stress. In her book, Dr. Manga writes: We are facing a global personal and collective energy crisis. Being busy and exhausted is becoming a shared narrative of modern living. Feeling like wide-eyed zombies is a common collective state. Statistics are revealing that burnout is an alarming and common phenomenon of our times. We can’t afford to wait until our health and performance gets
compromised before we wake up to the conversation about energy. . . . The nature of modern life demands that we develop new skills to grow and thrive. Energy management is one of those skills. Dr. Manga teaches energy management through what she calls the “Five Laws of Energy.” She and I have created a unique set of breathing exercises and meditations based on each of these laws.
1. Waves: Energy occurs in waves. The whole of nature pulsates with the rhythmic ebb and flow between a high-energy activated state and a quiet state of relaxation. We see it in the waves of the ocean, the lunar cycle, the seasons, our heartbeat, and of course, our breathing. The very functioning of our cells depends on the oscillation of this energy. This oscillation requires us to create balance in our system. To do that we need to balance our breathing: equalize the inhale, which activates the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, and the exhale, which activates the parasympathetic branch. Breathing Practice: Breathe in and out in a one-one pattern. Depending on your skill and comfort level, or the state of energy you find yourself in, that could be inhaling for one second and exhaling for one second; or inhaling for two and exhaling for two; or in four and out four; in eight, out eight, etc. There is a slight pause between the in-breaths and out-breaths, and between the out-breaths and in-breaths—a very conscious and deliberate moment of transition.
2. Still Point: Movement, growth, and expansion are dependent on these waves and cycles, but also on anchoring us to a center point of balance that is still and calm. It is the eye of the storm. This is the real source of natural energy and creativity that is often felt in the mountains and near the ocean. When we tap into this source of energy and inspiration, we are peaceful, joyful, compassionate, calm, trusting, and connected with our gut feelings and authentic power. Breathing Practice: That still point is found in the pause midway through the inhale or midway through the exhale. If zero is completely empty, and ten is completely full, then the point you want is five. If you have not done enough breathing training to easily recognize this neutral place, then you can simply pull in a big inhale, then relax and let the exhale go with a sigh of relief. Where the air stops coming out of its own accord should be near that neutral midway point. Hover there. Rest there. Relax there. Meditate there. 3. Three Portals: Natural or authentic energy expresses itself in our system through the physical body, the mind, and the heart. It is essential to understand and support all three energy portals and develop body intelligence, mind intelligence, and heart intelligence. Breathing Practice: First, imagine breathing into, with, and from the center of your brain (the pineal gland). Focus there as you inhale and exhale (perhaps for one to three breaths). Then breathe into, with, and from your lower belly, the place called the dan tien in China or the hara in Japan. It is the center of gravity in your body, a couple of inches below your navel, midway front to back (again, for one to three breaths). Last, focus on the center of your heart. Breathe into, with, and from this place (again, for one to three breaths). Repeat this cycle, bringing your awareness to these three points of body, mind, and heart intelligence.
4. Unique: Every living form is a unique expression of creative energy. No single leaf or tree is exactly the same. No one person is the same, so we each have different methods to support and express our energy. Breathing Practice: Here’s where you can get very creative. It’s up to you to invent interesting patterns, play with rhythm, speed, volume, focus, sound, and so on. It’s a breathing version of contact improvisation dance. The idea is to play, to be creative. A simple example could be breathing to the rhythm of the simple “one, two, cha-cha-cha”; or breathing to the rhythm of a waltz: “one, two, three, one, two, three”; or inhaling a series of small bits of air, then exhaling in a long ahhh. There are no rules. You are setting your creative energies loose on the breath. Another game might be to make every breath different from the last, varying each breath so no two are the same. Let comfort and pleasure be your guide.
5. Moving and Changing: In physics, the law of energy states that energy can be neither created nor destroyed, but just changed from one form to another. Energy is never constant. It is always moving and changing forms. For example, we can transform mental energy into physical energy or physical energy into emotional energy. Breathing Practice: If you are feeling stressed or anxious, try transforming that emotional or mental energy to physical kinetic energy by lengthening your exhalation. This activates the vagus nerve, which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. This is a quick and simple way to “change your state.”
ABC of Breathing
Helping people to get comfortable with feelings is another way that Dr. Manga uses breathwork. Making space for feelings (“feeling it rather than feeding it”) is a powerful way to create new neural pathways.
Awareness: Become aware of what you are experiencing physically, emotionally, mentally, without doing anything about it.
Breathing: Make space for what you are becoming aware of by breathing into it, and allowing it to move.
Conscious Choice: Once you have done A and B, you will be more equipped to consciously respond to a situation and make a choice about it rather than reacting to it in a habitual or counterproductive way.