Over the years, I’ve noticed four reasons why some new students — excited at first with the prospect of doing something holistic, free and easy to reduce symptoms, boost stamina and comfort in their body — stall out on breathing training.
Here’s a description of some typical obstacles that can arise and how to work with them skillfully so you can set yourself up for success to keep going!
1, OVERDOING THE OVERLOAD PRINCIPLE
The methodology behind most training is to find the edge of our comfort zone and practice going beyond it. This is rarely pleasant and with breathing, it means purposely breathing less air than we’re used to and we think we need, in order to increase our breathing stamina and fitness little by little over time.
We accept this type of discomfort more easily in other realms, like lifting progressively heavier weights to get stronger, or experiencing food cravings when we’re trying to lose weight. But this breathing discipline feels existential, like a life or death matter!
The idea behind the overload principle is that because the level of stress is constantly increasing, the body will adapt to keep up. And it does!
PRACTICE SUGGESTION: Recognize the physical and mental stress inherent in the practice and don’t overdo it. We know that when people lift weights that are too heavy too fast in strength-training, they can get injured. Restrict yourself too much on a diet, and you can’t see doing it long-term.
In breathing training, going overboard leads to aversion (and perhaps stressful feelings rather than relaxation when we’re trying to switch gears from a fight-or-flight to rest-and-relax nervous-system mode).
We advise practicing inhaling 1% less air than we’re used to at the start, and extending it at a slow pace of as little as a couple extra seconds at a time. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it?
And keep in mind that you can go back to your regular breathing at any moment, then try again tomorrow!
2. ALL-OR-NOTHING MINDSET
A common misperception for some students is they think they must breathe with their noses all the time from the get-go to do it right. Ultimately sure, that’s the goal. But if someone is mostly mouth breathing now, just mouth breathing 1% less air can be challenging enough!
When we reduce our breathing volume too quickly, it’s possibly to shift the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in our bloodstream and our blood pH in the right direction too fast, and lightheadedness can result. There’s a Goldilocks principle here… Find the level of attention to breathing that’s just right, not too little or too much, for best results!
PRACTICE SUGGESTION: Think of the options for how people who are addicted to coffee get off the caffeinated stuff. They can go cold turkey and experience severe withdrawal headaches. Or, they can undertake the daily slow withdrawal by mixing regular coffee with more and more decaf over time until they’re drinking all decaf.
Type As can also focus too much on having one perfect breath after another, and exhaust themselves in the attempt since we breathe an average of 20,000 a day, generally on autopilot. In breathing training, just like meditation and other practices, we’re introducing an alternative way of being that over time the brain will recognize and adopt as its regular new pattern. It’s good to pay attention to the quality of our breathing but not drive ourselves crazy.
3. TRAUMA HISTORY
Many people with trauma histories are breathing the way they are — holding their breath, breathing in an irregular pattern, or panting uncomfortably — as their best, dysregulated response to what happened before. Slowing our breathing makes us relax and be more present, and that can lead to feeling emotions we’d rather avoid. This can be uncomfortable without recognition or support.
PRACTICE SUGGESTION: There are a couple ways to work with this for those who want to power through because their breathing issues are so uncomfortable in their own right.
First, don’t do breathing activities alone in this case. Seek support. Practice breathing exercises with someone else together, or at least do it with someone else in the room and feel their presence and care.
Another option is to engage the cognitive brain during breathing exercises so it doesn’t wander into dangerous territory. Perhaps count seconds of inhalation and exhalation with a metronome in the background, or use breathing-resistance devices that require attention and track concrete, physical goals.
Also, experiment with concentrating on changes in the pulse, which commonly correlates with our breathing. Respiration rate typically decreases alongside the heart rate. So tracking activities that lower our pulse may be less triggering.
4. BREATHING, INVISIBLE AND INTANGIBLE, IS NOT PRIORITIZED
Breathing is invisible and intangible so comitting to strengthening activities in advance and staying accountable is necessary, or opportunities to practice will evaporate as we don’t take it seriously, procrastinate or forget.
PRACTICE SUGGESTION: Engage the Specificity Principle of training. Create focus and make clear goals for practicing breathing skills as often as is practical for you. Put those sessions on the calendar! Create goals to make breathing and breathing activities more concrete, use pulse as a training benchmark, join a group or hire a private coach. Plan your work and work your plan!
If you can think of other obstacles, let us know so we can help come up with success strategies!