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Can Simple Breathing Exercises Enhance Self-Discipline?

iStock_000002128470XSmallBalance continues to elude me.  My private practice became busier than usual in the weeks before Passover, when my personal life also requires more of my time, so there was no time for writing and this blog was neglected.  Not only that, but it also complicated my attempts to get back on track with my efforts to add exercise to my balancing act.  I had successfully moved past the obstacles I wrote about last month and was back to meditating every day and exercising 4 times per week. That lasted two weeks and then I got so preoccupied with work and family obligations that it fell apart again.  I am back on track with the meditation but the exercise is still a challenge.

I returned to Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Willpower Instinct, for additional inspiration. She mentions that daily breath focus meditation can teach the mind how to handle inner distractions, such as cravings, worries and desires, as well as outer distractions, such as sights, sounds and smells.

I realized that I had gotten away from basics in my meditation practice. I have been focusing more on guided compassion and reflection meditations,  and wasn’t taking time to focus on the breath.  So I am getting back to basics. 

Kelly McGonigal also describes the benefits of slowing down our breathing to 4-6 breaths per minute, 10-15 seconds per breath.  Slower breathing improves heart rate variability (the moment-to-moment and beat-to-beat variations in heart rate) and  activates the pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain involved in self-regulation). This helps shift the brain from stress mode to self-control mode. According to McGonigal, a few minutes of slowed breathing can give the willpower reserve a boost, helping us to feel “calm, in control and capable of handling cravings or challenges.” 

Here are the steps Kelly McGonigal describes in her book:

  1. Time yourself to see how many breaths you normally take  in a minute.
  2. Begin to slow down your breathing, without holding your breath.
  3. Focus on exhaling slowly by pursing your lips and blowing out gently and completely.  Exhaling in this way will also enable you to breathe in more  deeply.
  4. After a few minutes of breathing this way, time yourself  again to see how many breaths you are now taking in a minute.  Heart rate variability starts to increase once you get below 12 breaths per minute and continues to improve steadily as your breathing gets slower.
  5. Daily practice will help you to slow down your breathing even more, which will maximize heart rate variability, pre-frontal cortex activation and the ability to handle self-control challenges. 

My plan is to start my mornings with a form of breath meditation that focuses on lengthening the breath, to help me choose to exercise.  The initial results are promising.  On the first morning I did the breath meditation I not only went to the gym, but I also chose a healthier breakfast than I felt like eating and resisted the urge to procrastinate. The next day I exercised again and had other similar improvements.I will keep you posted and let you know how it works out.  :-)

Please add your comments below and share this post on twitter, facebook, and other social networking sites. 

You also might be interested in reading:

A Willpower Tug-of-War Between Different Parts of Self for more about “The Willpower Instinct.”

 What is an Interoceptive Body Scan Meditation? for more about heart rate variability.

 

 


What is an Interoceptive Body Scan Meditation?

iStock_000002128470XSmallI have completed my first month of daily meditation and it is going very well.  I have been doing a combination of breath awareness, body awareness and lovingkindness meditation. 

The body scan is a form of body awareness meditation that involves shifting attention from one part of the body to another, observing any sensations that you become aware of with an attitude of curiosity about your somatic experience, while systematically covering the entire body.  I have been doing a variation of the body scan taught by Dan Siegel, author of the books Mindsight, The Mindful Brain, and The Mindful Therapist.

Dan Siegel incorporates interoception into his body scan.  Interoception is the skill of sensing our internal bodily states. He refers to it as our sixth sense and a crucial aspect of our self-monitoring function, that also serves as a gateway to our ability to attune to others.  So in addition to focusing on external body parts, his body scan includes tuning into internal organs, etc.  I have created my own version, that also incorporates aspects of HeartMath heart coherence training.

Heart rate variability is believed to be an important indicator of autonomic nervous system (ANS) balance, physiological resiliency and behavioral flexibility, which reflect a person’s capacity to adapt to stressful circumstances.  The two branches of the ANS (the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches) are continually in the process of speeding up and slowing down the heart, like the accelerator and brakes of a car. That is why the interval between two successive heart beats is never identical. This heart rate variability (moment-to-moment and beat-to-beat variations in heart rate) is a sign that the accelerator and brake are working properly.  Too little and too much variability in heart rate are both detrimental.

Heart coherence training is like giving your heart a tune-up.  With practice, you can develop a finely tuned brake that can be counted on, even when circumstances are difficult, because the ANS is more flexible and responsive and easily adjusts to stressors.

The steps of the HeartMath Quick Coherence Technique are as follows:

  1. Heart Focus- Focus your attention on the heart region of your body
  2. Heart Breathing- Imagine breathing through your heart
  3. Heart Feeling- Think of something or someone for which you are grateful

Here is an audio excerpt of my body scan meditation:

 andrea_goldberg_body_scan_meditation_excerpt

I would love your feedback about this post. Anybody who leaves a comment will receive an audio file of the full 10 minute version of my body scan, as a token of my appreciation.