Breathing practice: Where freediving and academic development collide

I recently wrote a lot about the emotions that we experience when really thinking about sustainability and the challenges that we face when we take it seriously (e.g. here), and of course experiencing negative emotions like feeling anxious or hopeless or angry is not only happening to our students, but also to us. I attended a seminar on “the sustainable teacher” yesterday and one suggestion that came out of that in order to help us work towards “inner sustainability”, was to include mindfulness meditation practices in our own and our students’ lives. And this reminded me of an article I recently read on breathing practice (which I find interesting from a completely different perspective, being a hobby freediver) in comparison to mindfulness meditation, where it turns out that breathing practice can be as effective or better than mindfulness meditation. So what if we included breathing practices in our teaching?

In the article, Balban et al. (2023) compare three different breathing exercises and one mindfulness meditation, each done daily for a month by a different group of people, with regards to their effects on mood, anxiety, and “reduced physiological arousal” (i.e. how quickly one is breathing, heart rate, and how the heart rate is changing). The breathing technique that turned out most effective in leading to fast mental and physical relaxation, “cyclic sighing”, is a deep breath followed by a longer exhale. The other two, “box breathing” (inhale, hold, exhale, hold, all of the same duration) and “hyperventilation with retention” (long inhale, quick exhale, hold), were as effective as meditation.

In addition to the known physiological effects of long exhales and slow breathing in general, the feeling of control over one’s own body might lead to feeling more in control in life in general, which would lower anxiety. And since effects of breathing practice are noticeable immediately (possibly also because breathing techniques easier to learn than meditation?), people are more likely to do it again the next day, and the next, and stick to that routine, than if effects were noticeably in a more delayed fashion.

When thinking about possibly including it in our context, either our practice with colleagues, or in teaching, it seems that it might be easier to convince people to try breathing practice than meditation. As positive as I am about meditation in general, I was a little put off when we were suddenly asked to close our eyes in that seminar yesterday, without any previous information that it would happen, and especially how long it would take in the middle of a busy workday. And since the meditation started with controlled breathing anyway — maybe that would have been more than enough, or even more effective? Of course, the measures compared above are only some of many more possible goals of both breathing and meditating, and one could discuss if they are the relevant ones for any given purpose. But for fast stress relief, lowered anxiety, a feeling of a little more control, breathing seems to be a good tool and I can definitely imagine at least trying to incorporate it in workshops I lead when it’s maybe been a long day and there is a lot of anxiety in the room, or just to let people experience the effects so they have the breathing practice as a tool at their disposal for when they need it.

So now take five minutes: Deep inhale, looooong exhale, deep inhale, looooong exhale, … :-)

Balban, M. Y., Neri, E., Kogon, M. M., Weed, L., Nouriani, B., Jo, B., … & Huberman, A. D. (2023). Brief structured respiration practices enhance mood and reduce physiological arousal. Cell Reports Medicine, 100895.

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