“COVID just put what is not working in BOLD font!” Wisdom from a teenager in my life truly sums up what has happened to our world over the last fifteen months. A lot of us already knew that there is something off, something fundamentally broken, in the way we work, in the way we relate, in the way that we consume resources, and what we deem a priority. Now, this has been validated over and over again.
Let us for a moment look at the way we work…especially those of us who identify with Type A personalities.
Common traits of Type As include:
- a tendency to multitask
- be competitive
- dislike wasting time
- feel impatient or irritated when delayed
- and highly focused on your goals
Setting annually doubling sales targets, raising the bar, scaling up, 10X efforts…this is the vocabulary of the driven, the motivated, the successful aspiring professionals and business owners. Spurred by FOMO, every day is an opportunity to know more, do more, get more, and be more. With technology becoming more ubiquitous, high-quality, and affordable, we have more access to what the world is doing and so we stay on all the time. Who cannot recall that sibling or relative or friend who is on the device through dinner, special events like weddings, and for sure at family gatherings?
Many of us ARE that person, aren’t we? And our world benefits immensely from this 24×7 accessibility in terms of innovation, productivity and service. So, we are surely not voting to shut it down any time soon for sure. It feels reactive and narrow to suggest that we all go back to the 9 to 5 work hours and then switch off the grid…wonderful for those who might want to do so of course. Instead, we need to understand what happens to us, body, mind, and soul, in this always-on mode and ways to adapt to this new reality.
How our body manages stress
Historically, humans faced life-threatening, but short-term, stress like seasonal food shortage or the proximity of a wild animal. And there were the non-life-threatening stresses that could last longer but were rare like famine, floods, or war.
Today, pressure at work or keeping a work-life balance frequently exposes us to non-life-threatening stress for long periods of time. And herein lies the problem! When under stress, our body goes into a fight or flight response.
In non-medical terms, when we experience stress because of an external trigger, the body sends a message to the brain (the hypothalamus).
Examples of triggers are
- failing targets
- being or feeling judged
- feeling like we let down someone
- seeing our mailbox filling up with emails faster than we can manage
- and feeling inadequate for the task at hand
The brain then activates glands that release hormones –adrenaline and cortisol are most familiar to us– into the bloodstream to combat the stress. This is why we feel our muscles tense up, our breathing becomes shallow and fast and our heart beats faster! We are ready…to fight or flee. Adrenaline is released for fight and flight, short-term stress while cortisol is released in response to a more longer-term stressor. Normally, the cause of stress will lessen and our brain gets an update and the production of hormones stop.
What happens when we are in stress over long periods of time
What happens when we are under stress over long periods of time? Yes, you got it…the body is continuously producing cortisol and almost 30 others hormones.
These hormones also regulate and impact the functioning of different organs and systems in our body. So, the over-production of these hormones impairs body function in ways that will be very familiar to most of us: disrupted sleep cycles, brain fog, indecisiveness, difficulty in learning, and digestion issues. Some not-so-known impacts are inflammation, water retention or edema, toothaches, gum sores, skin eruptions, and compromised vision. Whoa! That just seems like everything doesn’t it? Well, the truth is that there is no work-life and personal life…there is life! Similarly, there is no separation within our bodies. Dis-ease in one part will eventually travel to all parts of our body. And this applies to the way our mind functions too.
Aha…long exhalation, right? And therein lies the universal antidote to our updated lifestyle.
We have one tool that is available to all of us, 24×7, and bridges “old” man to “new” man. It is our breath.
Breath is the bridge between our body-mind and our life force (or prana). When we are stressed, the life force cannot flow evenly to all parts of our body-mind and this causes disease. Breath allows us to directly regulate this flow and hence reverse the impact of stress. Pranayama, literally translated as the regulation of life force, is a science within the discipline of Yoga, that offers manifold techniques to regulate our breath. Each Pranayama technique has its unique benefits. One benefit, however, is common. And that is the regulation of the flow of life force!
How to destress through breath work
There is one technique that stands out in its simplicity, accessibility regardless of fitness levels, and efficacy. It is called Sama Vritti Pranayama (equal fluctuations of the breath) in Yoga and the West now knows it as Box Breathing.
There are 4 steps per cycle and the cycle can be repeated 8 times in the beginning.
- Inhale through the nose for 4 counts
- Hold the breath in for 4 counts
- Exhale through the nose for 4 counts
- Hold the breath out for 4 counts
(Watch the video for a demonstration and some preparation tips)
Box Breathing has been extensively used in the East for centuries to maintain wellbeing.
In the East, there is always an emphasis on personal experience over testimonies or research. However, there has been extensive use and documented research on its benefits by multiple scholars, Universities, the Armed Forces of many countries, and sportspeople across nations and disciplines. It will be easy to quote that research to establish credibility. Yet, my experience as a yoga & meditation practitioner and teacher over 19 years has validated that personal experience is more valuable for the individual than published research or expert speak.
So, I end this blog with an invitation to you, my reader! Experiment with this practice for 21 continuous days and notice the multiple benefits for yourself.
All feedback and questions are welcome
- Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati
- Prana and Pranayama by Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati
- The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Swami Satchidananda
About Learning Essence
Learning Essence is a boutique consultancy that offers transformation coaching services via individual sessions, team coaching, and workshop-style events. The foundation of the work is on the principle of Transformation.
The client explores and learns how to design a life (and business) that is powered by what is within – core value, vision, zones of genius – in a 180 degree shift from the usual reacting to external pressures, benchmarks, expectations, and judgments.
Over 17 years, LE has served clients – large corporations, SMEs, entrepreneurship, and non-profits – across the full spectrum of geography, and industry. Kashmira Mody is the Founder and Principal Coach at Learning Essence.