Setup for Success
People often ask how to go about creating a new breathing practice. The best advice I have seen offered and which I experienced myself is to - go slow and go easy.
Like any new activity that we wish to take on (physical or mental) we often start with great intent but once underway we may realize that it is more difficult or tedious than we originally thought. This of course can cause us to second guess the wisdom of our intent and perhaps even cause us to abandon our resolve!
Tips for how get off to a great start:
- Pick a meaningful aspect of breathing that you want to improve (establish clear motivation).
- Set a modest daily goal that you are confident you can achieve (establish time/place for practice).
- Pick appropriate Practice Routine, Preview/Select Soundset and Begin!
1. Establish Clear Motivation:
Perhaps you already know what aspects of breathing most interest you. It might be breathing practice to help increase athletic endurance (this was my initial motivation when I read The Oxygen Advantage by Partick Mckeown).
Or perhaps you may want to learn how to reduce stress or improve a condition like asthma. If so then it's pretty easy to stay focused on your goal. If on the other hand you are not really sure what to focus on it might be a good idea to take stock of your current breathing habits and see if there is room for improvement.
Questions for Self Evaluation:
- Are your nasal passages often blocked?
- Do you sometimes or often breath through your mouth while going about normal activities?
- Do you snore or find yourself waking up in the night gasping for air?
- Do you often find yourself short or breath or lightheaded when doing even light exercise?
- Is your breathing generally short, heavy and or noisy?
- How many breaths per minute do you take on average? (if you are not sure there is a test you can take in the App).
- How long can you comfortably hold your breath after a normal exhale? (if you are not sure use the timer in the App).
Once you've done this self assessment it will likely be obvious what you might like to focus on. For instance you answered yes to any for the first five questions you are likely over breathing and possibly mouth breathing using a fairly shallow chest breathing technique. If this is the case practicing proper nasal breathing using the diaphragm will pay big dividends and get you on the path to better health, improved sleep quality and improved fitness and stamina.
Some people have trouble breathing thru the nose because their nasal passages are chronically blocked. In that case use the Nasal Unblocking Routine 2-3 times a day to help begin to clear up your nasal passages. Don't get frustrated if the first few times they clog right back up again, be diligent and practice several times a day and you will likely begin to see a gradual improvement. None of us just goes out and runs a marathon without building up to it so be patient and diligent and take notes (the app let's you make journal entries) to help gauge the progress that occurs over time.
Take a CP Test
Another great way to baseline yourself is to use the built-in features to test your breath hold time, often referred to as a Control Pause (CP) which gauges your sensitivity to CO2. This test is best done when you first awake in the morning when you are well rested and before you have gotten sucked into the daily grind. Doing it in the same way (either seated or prone) on a daily basis can give you great feedback on your progress over time. Do a normal inhale and a gentle exhale and then start the timer. It's a good idea to leave the timer blurred so that you are not focused on "beating the clock" but just focus on when you feel the first real urge to breathe. This might be an involuntary twitch in the throat or chest. Stop the timer and inhale thru the nose. Try not to hold it so long that you can't resume normal breathing almost immediately. A score of less than 20 seconds shows there is clear room for improvement (a CP of closer to 40 sections is ideal).
Breaths Per Minute Test
Another useful test provided by the app is to determine your typical breaths per minute BPM. This test is found in the UserLog section of the App under the BPM tab. To take the test simply click as you begin to inhale to start and then click again each time you begin to exhale or inhale. Try to breathe at your normal pace. After a minute the app will show you what your average breathing rate was. Most people are breathing between 8-16 BPM which is actually more than what is optimal. This is because breathing is often fairly shallow. Research has shown that optimal breathing is somewhere between 5-6 BPM so practicing slower breathing can have tremendous health benefits as well as reducing chronic stress that many experience.
2. Daily Goals/Reminders
Once you have a clear motivation it is relatively easy to set a daily minute goal for practice. Most professional breath coaches recommend doing 2-3 short sessions each day (rather than 1 long one). This helps break things up into manageable chunks and avoids fatigue or boredom (neither of which are good to help keep you motivated), The App uses a default of 15 minutes per day that is super easy to do if you break it down to 3 x 5min of if you are like me I like to do slightly longer morning and evening sessions and then squeeze in a shorter session in the middle of the day. The App even recommends times for these sessions so in the case of a 25 min daily goal you could break it up as 10 minutes in the morning and evening and 5 minutes at midday. Easy right?
Now that you have a daily minute goal you can also set up automatic reminders at specific times to help you stay on track throughout the day. Go to the user settings screen, click edit settings and click on authorize reminders. While you are there you can also authorize the Health App to track your practice minutes as Mindful Minutes (way easier and more powerful than traditional mind emptying meditation practice) and there is a measurable health improvement you can experience. Once you save these settings then click on Edit Reminder Settings to pick your own time for each reminder and you are all set!
3. Pick Appropriate Routines
This is probably the most difficult item to give you good advice on since it really depends on what you decide is your most important area of focus, however there are a ton of useful routines that are organized by Category and the titles and descriptions are generally helpful in selecting something appropriate. One thing to look at is the routines minute duration to see if it will fit within your allotted time budget (some are a bit longer by design). You can even preview the pattern and the default soundset before you begin a practice and if you like another soundset then just select it and save it for future use. Click to play and follow along with the visual, audio and haptic feedback. It's super easy unlike some mindfulness practices but you should try to stay focused on the practice tips that appear at the bottom of the screen during each step of the routine. BTW you can also turn off the audio, haptic feedback in the Settings view should you wish.
Stay Organized / Track Progress
Now that you are on your way there are a couple of other things to point out. You can "favorite" routines by just clicking on the star (filled means favorite) and there is even a user setting that tells the app to filter by favorites (or you can toggle it on/off manually). You can also reorder the routines in the list by clicking on the Edit List button and of course you can delete routines that have no appeal to you. Finally you can create your very own custom routine, including setting up the breathing pattern and time interval, specifying the Category and selecting a soundset. If you go with the PRO version there are not only more pre-made routines but you can edit and create your own multi-step routines to meet your own specific needs.
Finally one of the most effective ways to stay focused on your goals is the ability to see progress over time. The App does that by keeping a log of your practice sessions that you can review in the UserLog section of the App. There are three tabs for three different logs you can use to monitor progress. The first is called Session and this is where you will see a bar chart of your daily minutes of practice. The bar turns blue when you reach 80% of your daily minute goal so you can see at a glance how your are doing. If you click on one of the bars you will see a list of all the practice routines you did on that day. At a glance you can see which routines, how long and even when it was completed. If you added any notes you will also see that listed. BTW you can turn on journalling in the user settings and it will prompt you to jot down some thoughts at the end of a practice session. You can review and or add to these notes anytime by clicking on the routine in this daily list. Also if you have the PRO version and if you use an Apple Watch to do the practice session you will also see HR data from start to end of a session!
Reap Rewards / Have FUN!
Breathing practice is both rewarding and fun. If you establish a daily practice you will be amazed at the benefits that accrue. Some of these benefits can be experienced almost immediately. Try using one of the Relaxing Routines when you feel a bit stressed, you will experience a rapid and profound change in a matter of minutes. If breathing wasn't so good for you we would almost say it is addicting! But that is precisely the point, it is self reinforcing because the results are so tangible. Although it may take some time to fully achieve your ultimate goals, incremental results are usually fairly easy to see and that helps keep your motivation high.
Enjoy, have fun, and get healthy all at the same time!