I think we can agree that as we get older, it gets a bit harder to attempt totally new things. While it makes sense, I still believe it’s worth a shot to give our brains and bodies challenges outside of our comfort zone if done so safely. Had I not had a strong connection to my breath, I wouldn’t have felt as safe or in control while skiing or plunging into a 35-degree ice bath this week.
Breath is both so simple and so dynamic at the same time. Our bodies are designed to not just survive, but to thrive, and our breathing mechanics have massive capabilities to help us do so. The tools for getting more out of daily life experiences are right under our noses, so to speak.
When we breathe efficiently (that is, through our noses), we breathe more effectively. When we breathe more effectively, we can access all the muscles of our core, and stimulate our bodies’ natural stress relaxation response.
I put this to the test regularly in my own life – in and out of the gym – and I believe wholeheartedly this is the place where training must begin. I’ve seen the benefits of learning to trust my breath both inside and outside of my workouts, and never more so than in moments when the stakes felt high.
Back to this whole trying-new-things bit.
If you’ve popped into my blog, you may know I’ve attempted skiing before. This year, I signed up for 5 group lessons and scheduled them as close together as I could so I could practice the skills I was learning in close succession. So far, still no change in how I feel when I first put the skis on (awkward and wobbly – part of the whole “trying new things as an adult is hard” situation). But on my fourth lesson, I found myself peering over the edge of a relatively challenging pitch (still blue, but again, might as well have been a double black in my overactive mind).
First, I knew how to engage my core mindfully while connecting it to breath. I’ve had more experience using breath-as-core techniques in the gym and on my yoga mat that allowed me to access that when there were so many more factors at play outside of the gym. I could create purposeful tension within my system on my exhales – connecting to my core and therefore moving my whole body with more control – as I rounded each turn.
Second, I understood more deeply the balance of the inhale and the exhale. I allowed my inhales to work for me, too. I believe in the power of breath to help us elicit a stress relaxation response and I worked on that each turn I made down the mountain.
At the top of the run, it looked like a long way down. My mind wanted to run with that story and start to freak out. Then my deeper body-wide intelligence kicked in and reminded me that I just needed to take it one turn, and one breath, at a time.
Often, they are not the things I choose to deal with on a daily basis. But sometimes, I sign myself up for things that put my brain-body connection to the test on purpose. Like joining up with a group who does contrast therapy in Bend, Oregon this past weekend. Twenty minutes in a 190-degree sauna, three minutes in an ice bath, get out and shiver to dry off for five-ish minutes, then rinse and repeat.
My brain told me the same thing right before I stepped into that 35-degree tub with massive cubes of ice floating inside as it did before I turned my skis down the mountain.
“You can’t do this.”
In that moment I thanked my brain for its quick assessment and reaction skills. Stress is something we need in order to keep us safe. Our brains and bodies elicit stress responses to tell us to get the hell out of a situation when it feels we aren’t safe. Thank you, brain. Thank you, body. But in our day and age, our bodies are firing those stress signals more than perhaps we need to (think: bad traffic and emails marked ‘highly important’).
And so I focused on my breath, on my diaphragm expanding in 360-degrees into my back, sides, and allowing breath to flow all the way down on my inhales, all the way out on my exhales – while sitting inside the cold tub.
And according to studies (like this one), “cold water immersion therapy stimulates the Vagus nerve, which in turn lowers the subject’s heart rate and improves heart rate variability. These reduce stress and induce relaxation.”
So in that moment, for those three minutes, there was a big opportunity to practice observing my body’s response, watch what my breath wanted to do and what I had the power to do, and to CHOOSE how I wanted to embody my experience.
And when I take a step back, I realize a bigger thread that connects all of this. Perspective. Perspective to see these moments in our lives, the ones we choose and the ones we don’t choose, as opportunities to learn and grow. For me, that comes right back around to breath. Slowing down the breath enough to pause at the top of the inhale and the bottom of the exhale. To witness the simplicity and richness within the space between each one.
Within my membership, I structure the release of new classes to the library that have to do with a theme each month. The first couple months are really focused on breath. The idea that breath and intention have to come first, and movement follows, is fundamental to the way I coach, teach, and practice. See what we’re up to in the membership and join the waitlist here so you’ll be first to know when enrollment opens again at the end of January 2023.
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