Episode 68: The Revolutionary Art of Breathing with Richard Jamieson
How many times a day do you feel stress taking a hold over you? Have you ever noticed your breathing becoming shallow and rapid when you’re under pressure? Would it be helpful to have some simple breathing techniques designed to get you through these moments?
In this episode, Richard Jamieson joins us to discuss how we can utilise breathing techniques to feel calmer, make better decisions and be more productive. He explains the different steps we can take to change our breathing patterns. When you’re in a high-stress situation, remember this: just breathe.
If you want to know how to use breathing techniques to beat stress in everyday situations, stay tuned to this episode.
Here are three reasons why you should listen to the full episode:
- How can we use breathing techniques every day?
- What steps do we need to take to change our breathing patterns?
- Discover the benefits of changing your breathing pattern.
[05:14] The Accessibility of Breathwork
- Richard says that practising meditation and mindfulness helps cope with stress.
- However, it’s not always accessible to everyone.
- You can practice simple breathing techniques anywhere and anytime.
- Breathwork is described as meditation for people who can’t meditate.
[08:09] What Does Breathing Do to the Body?
- When we take control of our breath, we can decrease the stress and agitation in our system.
- Most of the time, we don’t realise we’re breathing too shallow and rapidly.
- In this hectic modern world, we are often put in a sympathetic state of flight or fight.
- Listen to the full episode to learn more about our neurophysiology when under stress and how to manage it by breathing.
[14:59] Breathing Techniques
- The first step is to bring awareness to the breath.
- You have to know every little detail about your breath.
- It can feel uncomfortable at first, but Richard encourages you to continue observing.
- Wondering what to look for when observing your breathing? Tune in to the episode to learn more.
[17:48] Long-Term View for Breathing
- You can observe your breathing at any time of the day.
- The ideal breath is around five and a half seconds on the inhale and exhale respectively.
- If you want to develop your breathing techniques, devote some minutes of your day to focus on it.
- Changing your breathing techniques isn’t just for short-term.
[19:11] Breathing Rate and Heart Rate Variability
- We often measure our heart rate for our health.
- But we also need to look at heart rate variability, which in turn determines your heart’s responsiveness.
- Low heart rate variability means an accumulation of stress in the system.
- We can increase heart rate variability through slower and coherent breathing.
- Listen to the full episode for an in-depth discussion on heart rate variability.
[22:23] Finding Balance
- Chronic stress can create a pattern of holding our breath or breathing too quickly.
- Practising proper breathing techniques allows us to find the right carbon dioxide and oxygen levels in our bodies.
- Listen to Richard’s explanation of how we can balance our body’s needs.
[29:19] Beating Stress
- When you feel like you’re breathing too fast, Richard recommends using your fingers to count off your inhales and exhales.
- You can use these breathing techniques anywhere, even in a meeting.
- When you want to calm yourself down, exhale longer than your inhale.
- When you want to activate yourself, inhale longer than your exhale.
[34:26] Holotropic Breathwork
- Holotropic breathwork started as an alternative to LSD.
- Sessions are practised only under an experienced practitioner’s supervision and can last up to an hour and a half.
- This kind of breathwork induces an altered state of consciousness in a dark room with evocative music.
- For Richard, this kind of breathwork is a psychological detox.
- Listen to the full episode to learn more about Richard’s experience with holotropic breathwork.
[43:25] Top Breathing Tips
- Remember ART — awareness, regulation and transformation.
- Bring awareness to your breath.
- Regulate yourself through coherent breathing.
- Lastly, start to explore. There are different breathing techniques that you can experiment on.
7 Powerful Quotes from This Episode
[07:12, Richard] ‘One of the ways that breathwork is described is meditation for people who can’t meditate. So it’s another way of non-invasively, non-chemically shifting the state of anxiety or the level of stress that’s in our nervous system with any number of quite simple techniques’.
[11:04, Richard] ‘The fight or flight response was really meant to be there for these extreme situations that we’d meet every now and then. Unfortunately, in our modern world, what’s happened is that that sympathetic nervous system is activating a lot more often than is probably good for us in the long term’.
[15:26, Richard] ‘So you know, with a lot of breathing practices, the first place that will start is just become aware of what your breathing is doing right now. So before we even start to change it, you know, and as you’re sitting here with me, and as people are listening, you can just start to observe in breath’.
[16:52, Richard] ‘[Be] curious about the breath as you would be about a new lover. So what are the minute details you can notice about the breath’?
[23:59, Richard] ‘We’re not just trying to force more oxygen into our system, what we’re trying to do is return to the equilibrium – we’ve got the right level of carbon dioxide, the right level of oxygen’.
[33:10, Richard] ‘The simple thing to remember is to calm yourself down – longer exhale. So when you’re feeling agitated – longer exhale than inhale. And if you want to activate – longer inhale, then exhale’.
[44:15, Richard] ‘The acronym we use is A-R-T — awareness, regulation, transformation’.
Richard Jamieson is an entrepreneur and business coach. His endeavours led him to start companies, one in renewable energy and another the mindfulness training for organisations. He has played key roles in product development, marketing, business development and general development.
His coaching business covers blue-chip companies in South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. His work focuses on research, design, and delivery of different programmes for leadership, sales and general soft skills training.
Richard has worked for General Electric, Investec, Coronation, Old Mutual, Sanlam, Santam, Woolworths, British American Tobacco, Discovery, First National Bank, and ABSA.
You can reach out to Richard through his website.
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Dr Rachel Morris: Have you ever caught yourself breathing too quick, too shallow, or even holding your breath when under pressure? And have you ever wished there was a switch you could flip to stop yourself feeling acutely stressed and anxious in the heat of the moment?
In this episode, I’m chatting with executive and leadership coach, Richard Jameison, who uses breathing techniques with his clients to help them out of their stress zones and into their rest and digest parasympathetic zone, where they can make better decisions, feel calmer and be more productive. We chat about the rapidly accumulating scientific evidence for using our breathing in situations such as this. Something which is accessible for us all to help us manage ourselves and feel better. The way we breathe affects us in all sorts of ways. And there are some surprising physiological benefits from breathing slower and paying attention.
So this episode is for you if you’re interested in how breathing techniques can reduce stress, and increase your health and well being. If you’ve ever wondered what breath work was really about and what the fuss was all about. And if you want to learn some quick and easy techniques to focus on and control your breath, to beat stress in everyday situations.
Introduction: Welcome to You Are Not A Frog, life hacks for doctors and busy professionals who want to beat burnout, and work happier. I’m Dr. Rachel Morris. I’m a GP turned coach, speaker, and specialist in teaching resilience. And I’m interested in how we can wake up and be excited about going to work no matter what. I’ve had 20 years experience working in the NHS, both on the frontline and teaching leadership and resilience. I know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed, worried about making mistakes, and one crisis away from not coping.
2021 promises to be a particularly challenging year. Even before the coronavirus crisis, we were facing unprecedented levels of burnout. We have been compared to frogs in a pan of slowly boiling water working harder and longer. And the heat has been turned up so slowly, that we hardly notice the extra long days becoming the norm, and have got used to the low grade feelings of stress and exhaustion. Let’s face it, frogs generally only have two choices, stay in the pan and be boiled alive, or jump out of the pan and leave. But you are not a frog. And that’s when this podcast comes in. You have many more options than you think you do. It is possible to be master of your own destiny, and to craft your work and life so that you can thrive even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Through training as an executive and team coach, I discovered some hugely helpful resilience and productivity tools that transformed the way I approached my work. I’ve been teaching these principles over the last few years as the Shapes Toolkit programme. Because if you’re happier at work, you will simply do a better job.
In this podcast, I’ll be inviting you inside the minds of friends, colleagues, and experts all who have an interesting take on this. So that together, we can take back control, to thrive—not just survive in our work and our lives and love what we do again.
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It’s really great to have with me today on the podcast, Richard Jamieson. Now, Richard is an executive and a life coach and coaches around leadership who works in South Africa. So, I wanted to get him on the podcast today, as he’s got some really useful things to share with us about particular techniques he uses in his work. So welcome, Richard.
Richard Jamieson: Great. Thank you, Rachel. Thanks for having me on the podcast.
Rachel: Now. You’re sat in South Africa and it’s beautifully sunny where you are. I’m sat here. It’s blowing a gale, it’s pouring with rain. It was about one degrees C.
Richard: Sorry about that. Yes It’s, it’s probably about 25-26 degrees C here and it is a beautiful day. Beautiful sun shining outside and swimming pool and the rest of it. So, I apologize for all of that. Please don’t hate me for that.
Rachel: I don’t. I don’t hate you. But Richard, I wanted to get you on the podcast just to share some of your thoughts about something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently since I heard somebody talking on the Rangan Chatterjee podcast, and it was Richard Nestor, the journalist who’s written a book called Breath, which was really interesting to me. Because, obviously, the You Are Not A Frog podcast is all about life hacks, which will help people beat stress and burnout and live and work happier.
And I’ve been hearing for a long time about the power of breathing and the fact that we need to just access our breath and sound and feel grounded by your breath and all this sort of stuff. And I must admit to, in the past, having felt—well, it’s all very well and good, but you know, breathing is what we do. So how can that actually make too much of a difference? But having listened to the podcasts and hearing what James was saying, really looking into the power of breathing, I’ve suddenly thought, ‘Oh, hang on a sec. Maybe there’s something in it’.
Richard: Something to it? Yes.
Rachel: Maybe there is. So can you just tell us a little bit about how you first discovered the whole thing around breathwork? And why we do need to, in fact, pay more attention to it than we previously have?
Richard: Absolutely. I mean, I think some of the context from my side. So having been working in the fields of leadership development, and coaching for about 13 or 14 years now, and trying to find ways to help people cope with stress better, which I know is a big part of what you talk about on the podcast and certainly is one of the things that we would help leaders, too.
Mindfulness and meditation was a big go to for me, and something I’ve done myself for the last 15 years. But it’s not always accessible to people for a variety of reasons. So it seems for some people, they love it, and they get into it, and they go with it, but others not. And one of the ways that breathwork is described is meditation for people who can’t meditate. So it’s another way of non-invasively, non-chemically shifting the state of anxiety or the level of stress that’s in our nervous system with any number of quite simple techniques. So one doesn’t have to remove oneself from a meeting, or the office, or wherever you are, and go and sit cross-legged, somewhere for half an hour.
The breath is always there, it’s always accessible. And so it’s kind of both always can be an indicator for us, of where we’re at. So how agitated am I really, even if I key into that. And then a way to regulate our state at the same time. So it’s quite quite accessible, compared to something like meditation.
Rachel: Yes, and it seems to really make a difference. What actually happens to us neurophysiologically, when we do take control of our breathing and our breath?
Richard: It’s a— and you’re the doctor. I’m the engineer. But I’m going to do my best on the neurophysiology of this. So, breath is fascinating, because it’s under involuntary control most of the time. But then voluntary control, pretty much, at the slightest inkling that we want to control our breath, we can take it over. So it sits in between the involuntary functions like our heart rate, how we’re digesting things, and our blood pressure and all the rest of that. And then the more voluntary functions like what I’m doing with my hands, and my face and the rest of it.
And so what we can do when we take control of our breath, and start breathing differently, is that we can shift the state of agitation in another system. So the autonomic nervous system—which controls all of those automatic functions that we were talking about—has two branches to it: the parasympathetic and the sympathetic branches. And basically, they’re inversely correlated to one another. So to the degree that I’m sympathetically activated, I will be less parasympathetic activated.
The sympathetic branch of the nervous system, your physical branch of nerves running through the body, is what we would associate with the fight or flight response. So when something happens that triggers in me is a sense of threat. If I put my hand on a hot stove, or if I hear a cry for help, or if I see something that looks potentially dangerous, my sympathetic nervous system starts to activate more than the parasympathetic. And my body prepares for some kind of fight or flight response. So it releases adrenaline and cortisol in my body, and a variety of other things, sends more blood to the large muscle groups and away from the prefrontal cortex. And I’m basically ready to fight something or to run very fast.
When we go the other way, so when we move into the parasympathetic nervous system, that’s what we call the rest and digest, or some people call it the feed and breed system. So that’s when we are in a more relaxed state, there’s no pressing emergency outside of us, and our body can carry on with all of the functions that are so important to keep us healthy. So growing new cells, our immune system is more activated, our food is digesting all of these good things that keep our body in a good homeostasis.
Now, the way that the human body was designed was to be in a balanced state, most of the time between those two. And this wonderful machinery of the sympathetic nervous system and the fight or flight response was really meant to be there for these extreme situations that we’d meet every now and then.
Unfortunately, in our modern world, what’s happened is that that sympathetic nervous system is activating a lot more often that it’s probably good for us in the long term. So emails popping in, work stresses, COVID, knowledge about what’s happening on the other side of the world that may be stressful, the pace of life, just some of the stresses and difficulties of life mean that’s activating a lot. And so if we look at the balance, we are slightly out of balance in that sense. We are more sympathetic dominant than is good for us.
Now, that balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic is linked to the breathing in a very tightly coupled way. And that’s why by observing our breathing, it’s almost like we can get a direct reading on where we are, how sympathetic dominant, how parasympathetic. Sympathetic dominance, you’re going to see rapid, shallow breathing. And in some cases, even cessation of breathing, so stop breathing in an emergency. And in parasympathetic nervous system-dominant, we would see calmer, steadier, slower breathing. Not necessarily deepest, slower and steady of breathing.
So that’s how it can be an indicator for us of where our nervous system is. But it’s not just an indicator. If we take control of our breath, which we can do, we can start to send the message back to our nervous system that actually, there is no emergency. So the nervous system is also watching the breath, and it says, ‘Okay, well, if you’re breathing slowly and steadily, then I’m going to assume that things are actually okay and we’re going to call off the emergency and stop releasing adrenaline, cortisol into the body and all of the other markers of the fight or flight response’. And the stress response in the body will decrease. Does that—Let me stop there. Because that’s quite a lot. But does that make sense?
Rachel: That makes total sense. Total sense. And I think particularly at the moment, in COVID times, we are all living in this high adrenaline state. Think whether it just be anxiety and worrying about the pandemic and our own physical well-being that of all our friends, enough families, or whether it’s just work overload. Because, in the UK, the doctors are trying to vaccinate most of the country. We’re all homeschooling at the moment. It’s just the pressure is immense. And just that feeling of pressure, ‘Am I going to get everything done? Is it all going to be okay’? puts us into that sympathetic state? And I certainly have the last few days. In fact, this is a low-grade sort of sympathetic activation. And I guess that does show up in the breath.
Richard: I think it’s interesting that you say low-grade there. Sorry, just to mention that. I think we know some of this stuff. It’s such a basic concept, right? If you really do get a big shock, someone will tell you ‘Take a deep breath. Take 10 deep breaths. Calm down’. And I think that part we know, when suddenly your body goes into that. I think it’s in between that we’re now exploring more. So it’s this low-grade, ongoing stress that we’re not as aware of. We might not even notice that our breath is just normalized into a pattern of being too shallow or too rapid. It’s just become completely normal to us in the background. And it’s only when we start tuning in and noticing the breath again—perhaps timing it, and perhaps observing where in the body that breath is going, how deeply it’s going in—that we start to see ‘Hang on, I must be quite stressed because my breathing is in this in this pattern’.
Rachel: Yes. I think certainly—I remember a few weeks ago, I sat on the sofa in a bit of work. And my sister said to me, ‘Rachel, your breathing is really weird’. I was holding my breath. And then and then holding it again. And I think the problem is a lot of us have just got used to that feeling being normal. But it’s not normal, is it?
Richard: Yes. And I think that first step then is awareness. So with a lot of breathing practices, the first place that we’ll start is just become aware of what your breathing is doing. Right now. So before we even start to change it. And as you’re sitting here with me, and as people are listening, you can just start to observe in breath. And usually, one of the first things you notice is that it’s actually difficult not to change the breathing or the breathing almost changes on its own as we start to observe it. So, it’s going automatically in the background, and then I bring it into awareness. And often immediately, that starts slowing down. Okay.
You’ve been noticing a pause between the inhale and exhale, and then starting to notice, not just the breath itself, but where the breath is going. So am I breathing through my nostrils? Am I breathing through my mouth? What are the micro movements that are happening in my chest? Stomach? Is my diaphragm moving? Are my shoulders moving? And from there, one of our teachers has this lovely phrase about getting as curious about the breath as you would be about a new lover.
So one of the minute details you can notice about the breath, what is the temperature of the air coming in? What is the temperature of the air as it goes out? What is the smoothness of the breath? Or is it catching at certain points along the way as you breathe in or breathe out? What is the feeling of expansion and contraction in the chest?
And then always to kind of notice, what does it feel like after just a minute of observing the breath in this way? Do I feel calmer? Do I feel more agitated? Because short term, it might actually—some people who have been in a shallow breathing pattern—might initially feel more stressful to become aware of the breath and for to start to change an initial sense of discomfort because it’s so unfamiliar.
Dr Rachel: So are we looking to make a long-term change to our breathing pattern? Or are we looking to catch ourselves when we’re breathing fast and work with stress in order to bring us back from the sympathetic into parasympathetic? Or a bit of both?
Richard: I think a bit of both. I mean, as I said, right at the start, the lovely thing about the breath is it’s always there, right? It’s always there, we’re breathing all the time. So, at any moment that you catch yourself through the day, that can be an opportunity to notice, or ‘Hang on. okay. I’ve stopped breathing and holding my breath and breathing quite fast, whatever the case might be’. And then to return to a different pattern of breathing.
And James Nestor, and his book talks about it at the end. Out of all of this strange and wonderful experiments that he does, he comes back to this point of the ideal breath is about five and a half seconds on the inhale, five and a half seconds on the exhale, and not too deep, slow, steady breathing, to bring in this kind of coherent breathing techniques. So at any point one can bring that in.
And then at the same time, one can do—depending on the time you have and how you want to play this one can put aside 5, 10, 20 minutes a day to do a practice that brings your breathing back into a more balanced state, which then has knock on effects through the rest of the day.
Rachel: So this is fascinating. There is some really good evidence for this whole slowing down of your breath. Because most of us—we’re in medical textbooks were quoted about 12 breaths a minute is the normal respiratory rate, maybe slightly more. But actually, if you’re talking about five and a half seconds on the in breath, five and a half of the out breath, that’s like 10 or 11 seconds for a breath. So that’s a breathing rate of five or six a minute.
Richard: Yes. Well, I’ve been trying to do some of my own research on this and it gets into areas of physiology that are a bit too complex for me. I want to understand the slowing down. At a high level, I know it has to do with balancing out the autonomic nervous system or regulating the autonomic nervous system. So it’s somehow about getting that sympathetic and parasympathetic balance back.
One of the ways that that’s measured is through something called heart rate variability, which is also—yes, it is quite fascinating on its own. So most of us are familiar with heart rate. So we know our hearts are probably beating at rest, somewhere between 60 and 80 beats per minute. And that’s an average right over a minute. But what’s happening as we inhale and exhale is that our heart rate is increasing as we breathe in, and then decreasing as we breathe out. Increasing, decreasing. So it’s hovering around that average of 60 or 70, or whatever it might be dipping down to 55 and then up to 65 and coming back.
And what we are looking at when we look at heart rate variability, and this is what has been called one of the best non-invasive measures of stress is how high or low is that amount of variability? And almost counter intuitively, we want a decent amount of variability in our heart rate. Because what that means is that our heart is responsive. Our body is still responsive to what’s happening in the external environment. When our heart rate variability is very low, it means your heart is not responsive, so there’s almost that rigidity that’s crept into your system, because of accumulated stress over time.
So heart rate variability, we know goes up when we start doing this coherent breathing, when we start blowing our breathing down to the rate that you spoke about. And I think it’s also important to say that, as you start to notice your breathing and want to slow it down, is that it’s best to do that in quite a gradual way. So as you said, if we’re at 11 or 12 breaths a minute, we’re in about two or three seconds on inhale, and the same on the exhale. So when you start to count, and then slowly start to increase. So increase from two to three seconds, from three to four seconds. Spend a bit of time there, from four to five seconds till I get comfortable to move into breathing at five or six seconds, on the inhale and exhale.
Rachel: I think box breathing is quite a good way of doing this, isn’t it? So you know, maybe counting three on inhale, hold it for three, exhale on three, hold it for three and you sort of breathing round a box. So definitely slowing down breathing. And in James’s book, he talks about all these athletes that were—the Olympic athletes won gold medals. The reason they had the edge over their peers was because they were trained to slow their breathing down. And it’s fascinating.
He talks about the fact that actually higher levels of carbon dioxide are actually really good for us, which was really surprising to me. So I thought carbon dioxide, bad. But actually—the hemoglobin dissociates from our—sorry. The oxygen dissociates hemoglobin better if the carbon dioxide is a bit high, but we’re very poorly tolerant to that, aren’t we?
Richard: Yes, if the level is right. I mean, his book is fascinating. And for people who haven’t read it, yet he does all these crazy experiments. He actually does them on himself. So he’s describing firsthand how they feel. And, if you remember that jog that he goes for, where he’s being told that he can—I think only breathe through his nose, and only very slowly and it feels absolutely awful until about half an hour in when it suddenly starts feeling good.
So some of these things do seem quite counterintuitive and don’t feel good initially. The carbon dioxide one is an interesting one. I think what it goes to is that this is not just a case of more is better. We’re not just trying to force more oxygen into our system. What we’re trying to do is return to the equilibrium would be—equilibrium or homeostasis. We’ve got the right level of carbon dioxide, the right level of oxygen. And our body sort of, does know how to do that. So this is not a case of forcing too much. But as we were saying a few moments ago, we’ve unfortunately become locked into some chronic stress patterns, which have taken us away from that balance. So we’re gonna kind of tipping the scale the other way.
And just one further thought on the carbon dioxide. So a fascinating thing to do. So I surf in South Africa when lockdown allows me to, and so I went for a course on breath holding. But breath holding under duress, like as you get knocked off a wave. As you have been doing vigorous activity, now you have to hold your breath.
And the difficulty in breath holding has got very little to do with oxygen deprivation and everything to do with CO2 levels in the blood. So our system, our whole system is so keyed into that CO2 level. And as soon as it starts ticking up in the blood, all these signals go to the brain saying, ‘Breathe now. Breathe now’. And actually that level is taking up far faster than oxygen deprivation. So we’ve got quite a lot of time still before any sort of oxygen deprivation kicks in, or blackout or damage to the brain. But our CO2 level is ticking up, and that’s sending the signal strongly that we should breathe. So part of what the breath holding training is cannot tolerate that CO2 level uptick and all of the signals that come along with it just for a little bit longer.
Rachel: Is that’s how free divers do it, isn’t it? And these guys can hold their breath for minutes, can’t they?
Richard: Yes. It’s fascinating, the training that you can do and how you can stretch the amount of time that you don’t have to breathe for. And some of the—I don’t even remember in the book as well, some of the fascinating studies of the different Yogi’s that have come from the east and have had these amazing abilities to slow their own heart rate down, speed it up again at will. And, go without breath for an extraordinary amount of time, or slowing their breathing right down. So yes, it’s possible to do all kinds of fascinating things.
Rachel: Yes. And I remember reading as well, what really interested me was they looked at people having panic attacks. And obviously, in panic attacks, you’re breathing fast, you’re over breathing, you’re flushing out your CO2, which causes all sorts of symptoms, and almost then creates a vicious circle of over breathing and etc, etc.
But they monitored people and they found that you can detect if someone’s going to have a panic attack about an hour earlier. Because they start to over breath. Their carbon dioxide starts to dip in their blood—their carbon dioxide levels. So that was really fascinating. So carbon dioxide is not our enemy, and actually slowing and regulating our breath will break that vicious cycle.
And I guess, I always say with exercise. You’ve got this thing where if you, you have this feedback loop between your muscles and your brain. If your muscles are all tense, they say to your brain, ‘I’m really stressed’! And your brain goes ‘Yes, you’re stressed, look at your tension’. You can do some exercise because your muscles are relaxed. So, they go to the brain. ‘Oh, I’m all relaxed’, and the brain’s like ‘Yes, no, I’m relaxed, too’. You’ve got this feedback loop. I guess that’s the same with breathing, isn’t it?
If you’re breathing fast, your brains are going ‘Yes, you’re stressed’. But actually, if you rather than stop the stress, if you just change the breathing, slow the breathing down, and bring it ‘Oh, no, you’re probably not quite so stressed’. So you can affect the loop at both levels at the brain level or at the breathing level?
Richard: Yes, the vicious cycle can be turned into a virtuous cycle. And I guess you know, that does bring one back round to some form of mindfulness. Because some part of you has to recognize and intervene at some point. If you’re too caught up in your day to kind of go, ‘Oh, hang on, I need to slow down. Slow down my breathing’. And so either one exercise is mindfulness around that, or you just use some props to help you with that. So reminder on your phone, randomly or every couple of hours, check in with your breathing. Where’s your breathing at? The wearables are getting fascinating. Now, my Apple Watch will tell me every now and then that I need to breathe.
Rachel: So does it tell you your heart rate variability as well?
Richard: Interesting questions. So they’re a little bit—apparently it can measure it. But there aren’t too many apps that are taking advantage of it yet. So sometimes it is working in the background, apparently of that Breeze app that’s on an Apple Watch. But that research I did was three months ago, and I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody released something since then.
Rachel: I’m sure they will be because they know Rangan Chatterjee does talk about heart rate variability in one of his—I think it’s a stress solution, which is really interesting. He sort of done measurements on himself and seeing that as well. So it’s just fascinating how—we’re so used to thinking stress is a very mental thing. But actually, it’s such a physical thing.
So if someone was noticing, say you’re sat in a meeting, you’re feeling you can feel your stress levels rising. You can feel that maybe you’re breathing fast. What would you recommend that they do right there and then in that meeting? Or even in front of a patient or in a difficult conversation, that’s making it more stressful.
Richard: Well, it is. Again, such a nice thing because you don’t have to do anything dramatic, strike a yoga pose or close your eyes and go into the lotus position. So, sometimes what I’ll use is the fingers on one hand, just to count off that inhale and extend it. So if you’re just going to—if you’re noticing, for count of four even,
Rachel: Let’s just say this is definitely an exercise for those of you watching on video.
Richard: I’ll give you this. So what you’re doing is just the fingers are quite helpful, they might be on your lap, they might be sitting on the table, and it’s just a count. So 1 2 3 4 exhale, 2 3 4 inhale.
Rachel: I like that, because you could literally be sitting there with a patient or a client in front of you just doing that, to help you get back into sort of homeostasis into parasympathetic.
Richard: Yes, bring that up to four, then bring it up to five. And then interestingly, you’ll find your own sweet spot. And this is an interesting one, apparently, the taller you are. So if you’re over six foot, a count of six or even seven can be useful, and even some people even up to 10. But better to stay in that range of five to six, that’s where most people sit. Then you’ll get the finger count going up to five, or six,. And then five or six on the exhale.
And with this one, as opposed to box breathing, where you have a hold either side. With the coherent breathing, there’s no hold. So you go straight from the inhale into the exhale into the inhale. And there’s a huge variety of these techniques. So there’s nothing against the box technique. Again, that can be a four in, four hold, four out, for hold, and continuing to do that.
And some of the neurophysiological stuff behind that is that the major part of the parasympathetic nerve is called the vagus nerve. Now, I didn’t get very far with Latin, but apparently that means the ‘wandering nerve’. So the wanders down through your body, and it actually goes through a lot of the major organs in the body. And it’s both sending signals back to the brain and taking signals from the brain or from the central nervous system.
And part of what it does is it wanders down as it goes through the lungs. And so when we are breathing in and out, the alveoli, the small sacs in the lungs are expanding and contracting. And that expansion and contraction is sending signals directly from that vagus nerve back to the brain to tell you, ‘Yes, you’re okay, you’re not too stressed’. ‘No, you’re quite stressed’. So the length of the inhale, the length of the hold, the length of the exhale, are all sending slightly different signals back and causing slightly different activations of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.
So that’s a lot of complicated stuff. The simple thing to remember is to calm yourself down, longer exhale. So when you’re feeling agitated, longer, exhale then inhale. And if you want to activate, longer inhale than exhale.
Rachel: So yes, if you want to get yourself energized, ready to go. Big inhale less of an exhale. That’s interesting. There’s a lot of interest in the vagus nerve isn’t there? And I know there’s lots of companies working out how to stimulate the vagus nerve to cure things. But actually, like you said, and I had another great podcast, and I can’t remember the name of the chap on the podcast, it will come back to me in a second. He’s a really famous American neuroscience guru, bloke. It will come back to me in a minute. But he was saying, actually, all these drug companies, looking for vagus nerve, ways of stimulating the vagus nerve, and accessing it. And actually, like the ancient Yogis can do it through breathing.
Richard: Yes. Breathing and then half comes into because cold water as well, apparently, on the back of your neck and your upper back. So turning the shower to freezing cold in the morning, and then back to hot as a way to also stimulate that nerve.
Rachel: Yes. Deepak Chopra. That’s another good episode on the Rangan Chatterjee podcast, Feel Better, Live More. So I’d recommend that.
So it talks about quite a lot of stuff about the breath, about how we can use it to break that cycle of stress or even recognize when we are stressed. How else do you use sort of breath work in your coaching? So I know you’ve got a little bit further with this, and it’s on some sort of holotropic breathwork site?
Rachel: Tell us about that.
Richard: Yes. That was a fascinating part of this journey for me. So, there is a psychiatrist by the name of Stanislav Grof, originally out of Czechoslovakia and then studied in the US, and has lived in the US for many years now. He’s 89 now. He’s still around, he’s 89. So he was part of some of the early studies into LSD. And before LSD was made illegal, it was being used in psychiatry and psychology departments to explore whether it could be useful in treating depression and other psychological or mental illnesses.
So they were doing these legitimate scientific experiments to see the impact of psychedelics, and then they became banned. And what Stanislav Grof became interested in was, could he find other ways of inducing altered states of consciousness, similar to those experienced when using LSD or other psychedelics? Could he induce those by other means? So legal, non chemical means. And sort of, by studying different indigenous practices, he developed this technique, which he then called holotropic breathwork, and is also called transformational breathwork. And goes under a couple of other names.
Essentially, this is something that’s practiced more under supervision. You’ll find actually pretty much anywhere around the world. You’ll find practitioners have holotropic breathwork, or transformational breathwork or shamanic breathwork. And you are going in for up to an hour, an hour and a half, either one on one or in a group. And you’re practicing what is a form of over breathing almost. So you are starting to mess with the levels of CO2 in your blood, oxygen in your blood, and some of the other chemicals that are going to your brain. And in that way, you are inducing altered state of consciousness.
So it can look a little bit like hyperventilating. So you’re breathing very forcefully in a particular way in the session. You also combined it with feeling quite safe being in a dark room and playing music that’s quite evocative. So, the music will actually build with the session, almost like a DJ would DJ a dance party, the music is going to build with the breathwork session, people come in, you’ll start to breathe in this way.
And you’ll start to actually move into an altered state of consciousness, which feels—people will have different levels of experience, but feels—very similar to a psychedelic experience. So you might see different visual effects, you might feel like you’re having visions, or you are experiencing very strong emotional catharsis. So you might be crying the one moment and laughing the next moment. So imagine this is going to sound really appealing to some people and completely, not to others.
I think what I’ve found is that we can only achieve so much working on levels of behavior and conscious thought. So I can shift my habits, by being quite intentional. I can shift some of my beliefs just by reframing things, or getting new information or talking things through. But by far the largest driver of many of our behaviors and our level of happiness in the world, if you’re coming from a subconscious level. And so this is a practice along with many others, that is a way of almost accessing, releasing some of what might be stored up emotion that might be trapped. And stripping away some of the layers of confusion to see where healing might be possible, might be needed, or shift in direction might be needed in life.
So certainly, that’s been my experience. It’s a healing process, a cathartic process, and then quite a can be a source of quite deep insights. I hope that all made sense. It’s a difficult thing to describe without experiencing it.
Rachel: Yes, it sounds way out there, presumably not to be done without supervision.
Richard: Yes, and there are different ways so often, and there’ll be one trained facilitator. So there’s this breathwork globally that is becoming quite organized. So there’s now a global body which recognizes certain instructors, which then do certain courses and only people with a certain level of accreditation should be facilitating these sessions.
The original holotropic breathwork sessions were actually always done with each person having a minder next to them during the process. And that is similar to other processes. When one starts going below the level of conscious thought, you might unearth traumas that even you weren’t of, which you might start to re-experience and then you really do need a safe, capable, well trained pair of hands who are there to help you through that. Now, that may be a very good thing you may have needed to release that trauma. But if you don’t have the right support around you as that’s happening, it could re-traumatize and make things worse again.
So for anybody listening, the thing to do is to Google any of those terms I mentioned earlier, and find somebody near you who’s actually running these sessions.
Rachel: And so did you find it has helped you in your life? Doing that sort of thing?
Richard: Yes, absolutely. And I still do it on a regular basis. So it’s a sort of a psychological detox. Every few weeks, or every month or so. Life is busy. I know you also have a small child, I have a small child. There’s work. There’s life getting on with things. And even at the best of times, we don’t have the luxury of processing what’s happening to us, fully, in the moment. All the time, we often have to rush on to the next thing. So things like this, I think are a very useful way to release some stored up emotions or suppressed feelings and kind of clear the cache a little bit, so to speak.
Rachel: So, it’s a bit like pressing the reset button on your psyche. Well, it sounds very interesting. I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to try that actually.
Richard: Yes. I have suggested to some of my clients that I find it such a fascinating space at the moment.
10 years ago, when I was doing the same work, a lot of these things were just way too left field. For those of you in the corporate world, or business leadership world, but the guys that I work with now, running businesses, aged 35 to 45 or older, they’re generally just fascinated by whatever they can explore that’s going to give them a different perspective on themselves on life on their business. Obviously, within reason and safety. Or has been taken into account and checking out the person that you’re going to lead you through this process and finding out others who’ve done the same thing. But generally, the openness makes it really fun to work in the space.
Rachel: Of course, again, it’s that thing that there’s nothing new under the sun is that? Because, a lot of these, if you look at lots of ancient religious texts, I was reading the other night, they’ve got some of these sort of breath holding, or they’re stopping their self breathing, or over breathing practices that that got people into these these altered states, almost like a religious ritual as well, don’t they?
Richard: Yes, absolutely. Shamanic breathwork is one of the—it’s perhaps not necessarily just a different name for the same thing, but it’s pretty close. So that the shamans out of South American kind of wisdom traditions have definitely got a lot of these practices that they’ve been doing for hundreds of years.
Rachel: For me, it just illustrates how something that we’ve taken for granted, very simple physiological act, actually can have so many different applications and can be so transformational. And without putting any drugs into your body, without altering too much stuff. But even this thing that you can do in a meeting, counting to four or five on your fingers can make a huge difference.
So we’re gonna have to finish because we’re running out of time, Richard. But if you could give busy professionals who are in high-stress jobs, working on the frontline through the COVID pandemic, if you could give them three sort of top tips about how to use their breathing to sort of de-stress and keep calm, what would they be?
Richard: Yes, I think sometimes the acronym we use is ART. So Awareness, Regulation, Transformation. And just starting with Awareness is tip number one. As we did that little practice at the start today, and one can do it again, wherever you’re sitting now. Just become aware of your breath. And that’s not bad language may seem esoteric. It’s literally just pay attention to and notice what is happening with your breath.
If you want you can narrate it or commentate inside your own head. ‘Okay, now I’m breathing in. Now, I’m pausing. Now I’m breathing out’. So become curious, become interested. ‘Am I breathing in through my nose? Am I breathing in through my mouth? What’s happening in my body? What sensations can I be aware of’? So there’s nothing strange about that. It’s just directing your attention to that place. And almost that, as I said earlier, it’s hard not for your breathing, not to start to change straight away there and start to slow down, become steadier. So that would be the first thing.
The second is this practice of coherent breathing. So slowing them consciously, starting to count off on your fingers, slowly to a count of around five, or six. So inhaling to a count of five or six, and then straight away exhaling to a count of five or six. I mean, as you say, that’s so beautiful you don’t need an app for this, you don’t need chemicals, you don’t need a special place to do it.
I would probably stop there. Become aware, and then use a technique like that to regulate and if there is a third tip it would be to start to explore from this. So there are many of these different patterns that you can follow, box breathing techniques, a 4-7-8 technique. There’s a bunch of them and you can experiment and try different things.
And then, as you said, there are some really great books coming out at the moment. So there’s the James Nestor book, which is kind of a scientific travelogue. He dives into some of the new science and explores what it’s revealing. There is a book called Breathe by Ela Manga, who’s actually a South African integral doctor, which also explores probably in a more slightly more practical way, how she’s worked with her clients. And they are from busy executives to a lot of people working in the real world how they can use some of this work.
Dan Brule, and I’ve jumped over into resources now, but these are some of the better ones in my mind. So Dan Brule also has a book I think also called Breath or Breathe. Forget exactly which one it is but also a great resource. And he’s an American. And if you can get an opportunity to work with him, he travels around the world during normal times. Offering breathwork seminars and workshops and he’s a fascinating man to learn from. So yes, those are some of my tips.
Rachel: Brilliant. Thank you so much. Richard, if people wanted to contact you or follow you, how can they do that?
Richard: So for my own personal sanity, as mostly stay off social media. But I do have a website. So it’s richardjamieson.co.za which is the domain here in South Africa. So it’s dot C-O dot Z-A. Richard Jamieson, and that’s Jamieson with an I-E between the jam and the son. And, yes, I live in the Western Cape in South Africa, but my clients are particularly between South Africa and the UK because of timezone and language and some of them in the US as well. So I don’t restrict my work to just South Africa. I work a lot online with people.
Rachel: Great, brilliant. Well, if people want to contact you yet, go to the website, have a look at that. But thank you so much for being on the podcast today. It’s been absolutely fascinating. And yes, really helpful. I’m definitely gonna try out some of those techniques. So thank you.
Richard: Awesome. Thank you, Rachel. Thank you for having me.
Rachel: Bye, bye.
Richard: Okay, take care.
Rachel: Thanks for listening. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, then please share it with your friends and colleagues. Please subscribe to my You Are Not A Frog email list and subscribe to the podcast. And if you have enjoyed it, then please leave me a rating wherever you listen to your podcasts. So keep working everyone, you’re doing a great job. You got this.