My hobbies are rather varied and I am always excited when I discover a technique which crosses boundaries. In this case, my martial arts, workout routine and meditation practice all share a powerful breathing technique which can allow one to deal with fear and panic or recover from physical exertion very effectively, let alone make for a great way to quickly relax and ground myself.
The name for the technique varies. In more martial applications it’s usually referred to as Combative or Tactical Breathing and in more esoteric circles you are likely to hear it referred to as the Four-Fold Breath.
However you chose to refer to it, the technique itself is quite simple and a very powerful tool to have.
The Unique Power of Breathing
When you consider the functioning of the human body, you can break it down into voluntary and involuntary processes. The act of moving for example is voluntary. You choose what to do, how to do it, etc. It is completely in your control.
But if I handed you a very hot cup of coffee something happens. Your body responds out of reflex and your hand darts away, dropping the cup even if you did not want to drop it. This is an involuntary function where your body acts on its own. Likewise your heart constantly beats on its own. You don’t consciously think about it. If you exert yourself or your brain perceives a threat your body automatically tells the heart to work harder so it is ready to meet the demands upon it.
But breathing is a unique process in the human body. Unlike, things like heartbeat or digestion, breathing has both an involuntary control and a voluntary control mechanism, and it can shift between those modes seamlessly. For the most part you probably don’t think about breathing much. It just happens. It speeds up when you run, it slows down when you sleep. But you can hold your breath until the body senses danger (or you pass out!) at which time it takes over.
The reason why this is so important is that its a way influence some of the other involuntary processes.
Let’s consider fear. If you were thrown into a situation where you had to fight to survive, what would happen? Well, your body would flood your blood with a chemical cocktail to prepare for a fight. Your digestive system goes on hold (which is why you feel butterflies in your stomach when nervous), your heart rate will increase to get more oxygen to your muscles, and among other things, you would experience a form of tunnel vision as the mind tries to filter out various distractions to focus on the threat. This is all your body’s way of preparing for battle, and from an evolutionary point of view it gets the job done.
But consider a martial artist, a soldier or a police officer. They are trained to use various techniques to be a much more effective fighter than the average person, and in many cases they will want to use non-combative techniques to diffuse the situation first. A police officer for example doesn’t want to start firing his or her gun out of panic. Likewise an Emergency Medical Technician responding to a medical emergency would want to operate with a clear mind and not get lost in panic.
When fear sets in, just like anyone else, their body begins to respond, but such involuntary responses make it difficult to think clearly. Memory begins to fail us, and logical thinking goes out the window. The body is in fight or flight mode, and that is just not conducive to the rational thought needed by a professional, or anyone who wants to be safe.
This is where breathing comes in. By controlling the breath to be deeper and slower, it begins to trick the rest of the involuntary system to follow suit. Heart rate starts to steady and the mind becomes lest gripped with the fight or flight mentality. The body lessens the pumping of the chemicals causing these reactions, allowing for what is already in the blood system to run its course and clear your system.
For such a powerful technique, it is surprisingly simple!
- Start by slowly expelling all of the air from your chest out of your mouth to a count of four.
- Keep your lungs empty for a count of four.
- Perform an inhalation through the nose for a count of four.
- Hold the air in your lungs for a count of four.
When you hold your breath, do not clamp down and create back pressure like you are diving into water. Instead, just maintain an expansive, open feeling even though you are not inhaling. It should be relaxed, not forced. When ready, release the hold and exhale smoothly through your nose.
Repeat this cycle for at least five minutes to get the full effect. Your count time may vary so just go with it the best you can and let a natural comfortable rhythm develop.
While simple, it is ideal to practice the technique regularly so that in a panic situation you are able to implement it more naturally and have confidence that it works.
It turns out this technique is great during meditation. I also do it when waiting on a line or during my daily commute, especially when I start to get frustrated at delays or crowds.
There are so many ways to make this a daily practice without effort and I encourage you to do so!
Don’t dismiss this technique because it seems so simple This (or a similar version with different count combinations) really is used by professionals who have to deal with their own panic and is key to their training.
Kicking it up a Notch
When using this or other breathing techniques, ideally you want to develop the habit of breathing from your diaphragm, not your chest.
When breathing through your diaphragm, your stomach expands, moving out to make room for the air as you breathe in, and contracts as you breathe out. You can think of your stomach as a balloon filling with air as you breathe in, and emptying effortlessly as you release.
As you practice this you will discover that the breathing is much more “3D” in that it is not just your belly that expands but an entire circle around your body in that area – like a tire. The expansion happens at the sides and in the back too! But it takes a bit of practice to the body to remember how to do this and for the muscles in your diaphragm to develop.
This is yet another reason why daily practice in this technique will benefit you! As a bonus, those who breath from their diaphragm are better at speaking and being heard, not to mention getting more oxygen into their system for overall health! If you practice yoga or do stretching you will find that breathing from your diaphragm as you do so will really help!