To breathe or not to breathe


A resilience-building strategy from Kamal Sarma*. Find out how to control your breathing and use it to calm your mind, body and emotions.

"Breath is life, life is breath.” Kamal Sarma

Most of you are so busy working in your practice or on your business that you’re unlikely to be paying much, if any attention to your breathing. Breathing is an automatic function of our body - we don’t think about it because we don’t have to. But maybe you should. According to Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, “There is a very direct relationship between breath rate, mood state, and autonomic nervous system state…We’ve long known that breath changes in response to emotion: When people get panicky and anxious, their breath becomes shallow and rapid,” he says.

So the way you breathe is finely tuned to your moods and can be a good indicator of your mental state. That’s good to know. But conversely, and perhaps more importantly, it’s been found that our mood can also be influenced by our breathing.

Here’s Khalsa again, “…We now know from a number of really good studies that actively changing the breath rate can actually change autonomic function and mood state.” This is significant because breathing is one of the only automatic functions in our body that we can make a conscious decision to override - we can’t stop and start our heart but we can choose to hold and release our breath.

So by using controlled and conscious breathing to trigger your body’s parasympathetic nervous system, you can calm your mind, body and emotions. The Health Science Journal found the potential benefits of regular breathwork to include:

  • decreased fatigue
  • reduced anxiety
  • reduced symptoms of asthma in children and adolescents
  • better stress management
  • reduced hypertension
  • reduced aggressive behaviour in adolescent males
  • improved migraine symptoms

In fact, controlled breathing can be so effective it’s been called the Super Stress-Buster. But like lots of things, the theory is one thing. Putting it into practice is another. Here are a few tips:

Strategy: Regulate your breathing, regulate your mood

A simple way to transform your mood is to change the way you breathe when you walk. This is based on breathing techniques used by yogis, called pranayama, and by tai chi masters to shift their energy.

Take a 5-10 minute walk:

  • If you are feeling angry or agitated and you’d like to feel more centred and calm, as you walk:

    a. breathe in for 2 steps;
    b. hold your breath for 1 step; then
    c. breathe out for 3 steps.

Progressively increase the length of your breaths, in and out, and you should start to calm down and feel more centred.

  • Alternatively, if you’re feeling depleted and tired and would like to feel more positive and energetic, just reverse the sequence:

    a. breathe in for 3 steps;
    b. hold your breath for 1 step; then
    c. breathe out for 2 steps. 

By changing the ratio of your inbreaths and outbreaths (longer outbreaths when you’re stressed, longer inbreaths when you’re tired), you should be able to shift your mood and reduce your stress levels.

Find out more

For more strategies, insights and information from Kamal Sarma on building resilience, read his ‘Five to thrive’, brought to you by BT.

* About Kamal Sarma. Living in a monastery, Kamal Sarma trained as a monk for 6 years before gaining postgraduate qualifications and excelling in senior corporate positions in organisations such as McKinsey & Company. He is the founder and CEO of Rezilium, a strategic leadership firm that delivers customised resilience programs to a range of organisations including Google, Facebook and PWC. He is currently Chairman of the R U OK Conversations think tank, which takes research and turns it into practical tools. Kamal is also the co-founder of a not-for-profit venture, Captivate the Future, which aims to build confidence, resilience and self-esteem in high school students through public speaking, and is the author of 3 books. 

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Important information

The content for this article is prepared by Kamal Sarma, CEO Rezilium. Information is current as at 20 March 2020. The views expressed in this article are those of Kamal Sarma alone unless otherwise quoted, and do not reflect the views or policy of any company in the Westpac Group. This article is for adviser use only. Any case study or example contained in this article is for illustrative purposes only, and is not to be construed as an indication or prediction of future performance or results. While the information contained in this article may contain or be based on information obtained from sources believed to be reliable, it may not have been independently verified. Where information contained in this article contains material provided directly by third parties it is given in good faith and has been derived from sources believed to be accurate at its issue date. While such material is published with necessary permission, no company in the Westpac Group accepts any responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of, or endorses any such material. Except where contrary to law, we intend by this notice to exclude liability for this material. This article may also contain links to websites operated by third parties (‘Third Parties’) who are not related to the Westpac Group (‘Third Party Web Sites’). These links are provided for convenience only and do not represent any endorsement or approval by the Westpac Group of those Third Parties or the information, products or services displayed or offered on the Third Party Web Sites