Breathing. We do it everyday, 24/7. According to some estimates, we breathe on average between 17 and 30,000 times a day. That’s a lot, and 99% of the time we don’t even realise we are doing it. Of course, the human body has delegated this function to the brain, in particular the brain stem, to be precise. This autonomic subconscious role performed by the brain ensures that the heart can regulate the level of CO2 and oxygen in the body, adjusting it if necessary in times of exercise… and also stress.
What then if you could take conscious control over your breathing? What if you could actually make a difference to how you felt on a day-to-day basis. What if you could actually enhance your working performance simply by changing the way you breathe? Welcome to yogic breathing…
Roll back to Thursday week ago at the bank. An ordinary day, except I decided to sign myself up to a ‘leading with influence’ course. In a room filled with other high-powered directors of the bank, it was the last place I expected to apply my yogic principles on a course striving to improve my performance at work.
No course on performance would be complete without a discussion on the physiological aspects and particularly anxiety. What causes it, and why. That dreaded word that seems to be mentioned in every second article about the plagues of the 21st century in the West. However, anxiety itself may not be permanently debilitating. It can come and go and can affect ordinary people instantaneously without that person having any control or warning that it may strike. Perhaps we could just call this nervousness, but it’s worthwhile examining what’s going on in the brain when this occurs.
We’ve all heard of the ‘fight or flight’ response. That reaction that the body has when it senses fear. Heart beat is raised, eyes become dilated and non-essential bodily functions shut down. This is the essence of feeling stressed – adrenaline and cortisol are pumping throughout the body as it reacts (or over-reacts) to the situation at hand. The part in the brain that is responsible for this is called the amygdala. This small, almond-shaped structure is located deep within the base of the brain. When this part of the brain is activated, we go into “primitive mode”. From a work performance perspective, we can simply ‘freeze’. The brain is overwhelmed with stress hormones, reducing or preventing it from functioning optimally.
The cortex, however, is the central part of the brain that is responsible for reason and thought. It is a higher centre part of the brain that operates on a slower pathway than that of the amygdala, but has the ability to process incoming sensory data and act on it appropriately. Situations that are deemed safe will result in the emergency trip wires in the brain being reset, or if necessary the continuation of the body’s anxiety response if the present danger still exists.
So, what has this got to do with breathing, you may ask? Well, the secret, I may say, is in the regulation of it. Regulating your breathing is a means by which the cortex can take control of the body again and reset the amygdala in case it decides to set the sirens going in the body. By reversing the activation of the flight-flight response, the heart rate will slow, muscles will soften and relax and an overall sense of calmness will prevail throughout the body. In the professional context, you can start to ‘think straight’ again.
Yogis have known this for many years as part of their practice of ‘pranayama‘ or ‘breath control’. You could of course simply “breathe deeply”, as is often remarked in times of stress (and as was on this course, for that matter), but that is only half the trick. The practice of simply doubling the length of the exhale in relation to the inhale will have profound effects upon your ability to stay calm… and ultimately improve your performance at work.
By doing this breathing technique, the relaxation response is induced in the body (otherwise known as the ‘parasympathetic nervous system‘) and the optimal conditions for work performance are created. Quite simply, it flushes out all the stress chemicals in the brain, enabling you to think clearly and calmly again. The cortex springs into action and restores bodily order (a more detailed description of this particular breathing practice is found in this link in a particular yoga publication).
Of course, such practice could be undertaken in preparation of important meetings or presentations. By doing so, you are taking one step forward in order to control the primitive brain from taking over and wreaking havoc with the brain’s chemical messengers. As one of my favourite yoga teachers in London, Mark Hill, often remarks in his classes on kriya yoga, “where the mind goes, the energy flows”. Control your mind through your breathing, and feel the difference…
So there you have it folks. A tool that you have at your instant disposal, and what a powerful tool it is as well. Performance in the work place is often measured on a very subtle level, but the ability to be calm, engage and communicate calmly under pressure is highly valued. The ability to negotiate and be persuasive is even more highly prized, and by being persuasive, you are demonstrating leadership.
You never know, perhaps one day yogic breathing will be taught in MBAs and leadership courses. After all, it’s a lot more practical than a whole lot of theory and meaningless management speak. If we labelled it something like “conscious breathing” or the “2:1” method, perhaps it will become part of the mainstream. For up until now though, it has remained a secret of the yoga tradition, revealed here by the yogibanker for the benefit of all.