Can Simple Breathing Exercises Enhance Self-Discipline?

Balance 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.



A Willpower Tug-of-War Between Different Parts of Self

I spent the first two months of 2014 developing a solid daily meditation practice, and the next step towards my goal of achieving greater life balance was to add exercise to my daily routine. The first week went well.  I exercised every morning and continued to meditate regularly at night. Then we switched to daylight savings time and it all fell apart.  I was tired and not feeling well, so I gave myself permission to take a day off, then another and another.

I started reading the book, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of it, by Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal, to help me get back on track.

In the first chapter she wrote, “every willpower challenge is a conflict between two parts of oneself.” She recommends identifying, naming and being mindful of these different parts.  Since I am a great believer in the existence of multiple parts of self that unconsciously impact our actions,  this resonated strongly for me. Thinking of it in these terms helped me to gain some needed perspective.

I realized that the self-indulgent child part of me that craves instant gratification was saying “I don’t wanna” and “please don’t make me” about getting up and moving in the morning and winding down at night, and my overindulgent parent part was saying “ok, you don’t have to.” I also noticed that instead of remaining mindful and pausing to give myself a chance to reflect on what I really want, my wise woman part seemed to be on vacation or missing-in-action.

Identifying the parts of self that were working against my long-term goals helped me to realize that I wasn’t doing myself any favors by giving in to my indulgent impulses.  So I started an internal dialogue to give voice to all three of these parts and to start meeting my needs first before satisfying my desires.  This has helped me to start to get back on the road towards greater self-discipline and balance.

For more information about Kelly McGonigal’s approach to willpower, you can view a talk she gave about her book:  Topics addressed include addiction, cravings, procrastination, motivation, mindfulness, sleep, exercise, goal-setting, habits,  guilt, shame, and self-compassion.

Do you have internal conflicts about willpower? Which of your parts are in conflict over this? Does this parts-of-self approach to willpower conflicts sound helpful to you? Please share your thoughts about this topic below.


Receiving the Liebster Award and Paying it Forward

The Liebster Award was created to recognize new blogs in a “pay it forward” manner. The word ‘liebster’ is German for ‘favorite’ or ‘dearest.’

I am grateful to Dorlee M from the Social Work Career Development blog for nominating my blog, My Balancing Act, for this award (

The origins of the award are unclear and the rules have varied over time. In this incarnation of the award, the rules, as I understand them, are as follows:

  • Thank the person who nominated you for the Liebster Award.
  • Answer the 10 questions posed by the person who nominated you.
  • Pay it forward by nominating 10 blogs with less than 3000 subscribers or Facebook fans.
  • Create 10 questions for your nominees to answer if they choose to accept the award.

10 Questions Dorlee posed for nominees to answer: 

  1. What are the best three words that would describe you?

genuine, caring, and determined

  1. What do you hope to achieve with your blog?

I am working on achieving a more balanced life and decided to share my process to help keep me honest, and to help others who are striving for greater balance, by offering tools and strategies gleaned from my personal and professional knowledge and experience.

  1. Which of your blog posts is your favorite, and why?

The post on body scan meditations is one of my favorites, because I did something different by recording a guided meditation and including an excerpt in the post.

The Greatest Love of All is also a favorite, because I used lyrics from a song that is meaningful to me to illustrate my point and shared about my passion for singing and how I turn it into a form of meditation.

  1. What has writing taught you?

Writing this blog is challenging me to be more courageous and transparent about my own struggles, to help me to grow and to help others to know they are not alone when life’s journey is difficult.  It is also challenging me to let go of my perfectionism. If I am tweaking the wording or the layout or looking for the source of a fact I want to include and it is taking too much time, then I am learning to let it go.

  1. What advice do you have for pushing through fear?

I actually wrote about this in my post, Balancing Mindfulness of Emotions with Lovingkindness. I wrote, “It is the fear of fear that causes us to avoid it and try to block it from our minds.  When we face our fears, they become more manageable.”

To illustrate this point, I like to tell clients the story of Vishne and the Hindu gods, which I first heard at a training presented by Linda Sanford.

Vishne and his fellow Hindu gods lived in a castle in the sky. One day Vishne had to go away on business. After he left there was a knock on the door. When the Hindu gods opened the door, they discovered a monster standing there. They became frightened and the monster gobbled up their fear and got bigger. This made them more frightened and the monster gobbled up that fear as well and grew even bigger. This continued for some time with the monster getting bigger and bigger as the gods became more and more scared, until the monster had taken over almost the entire castle. Then Vishne came home and took one look at the situation and knew exactly what to do. He walked up to the monster, shook his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Vishne. Who are you?” And the monster became smaller and smaller and smaller until he was much smaller than Vishne and not scary at all.

  1. What are some of your favorite quotes?

“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” –Hillel

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

“You must be the change that you wish to see in the world.” —Mahatma Gandhi

“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass…It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” ― Vivian Greene

  1. What do you do for self-care and/or relaxation?

Meditation, exercise, reading, doing puzzles, listening to music and singing, I also love to swim and do tai chi.

  1. How did you find your current position?

I’m in private practice so I created my current position.

  1. What advice do you wish someone had given you before starting your career?

I wish someone had explained how important it is not to overextend yourself, to guard against unintentionally encouraging dependency in your clients, and not to be so sure that you are right that you fail to listen to another point of view.

  1. What are three things on your bucket list?

Becoming a serious student of Qi Gong and Tai Chi, becoming fluent in Spanish and Hebrew, and writing a novel about the parallel lives of a psychotherapist and one of her clients.

Paying it forward- My 10 nominations for the Liebster Award:

Allison Andrews, PsyD – Practical Strategies and Emotional Support for the Parents of Quirky Kids

Judith Barnard, MSW, RSW  – From Distress to Peace: A Mindful Life

Dr. Ann Becker-Schutte, PhD – Help at the Intersection of Physical & Mental Health

Mirel Goldstein, LPC – Goldstein Therapy – Clifton, NJ Counseling Blog

Ricky Greenwald, PsyD – Once Upon A Time… Trauma Institute/Child Trauma Institute Blog

Cathy Hanville, LCSW  – Thoughts of a Psychotherapist

JoAnn Jordan, board certified music therapist  –  Music Sparks – Music to spark a better life

Barbara Lavi, PsyD – The Wake Up and Dream Catalyst

Kathy Morelli, LPC – BirthTouch – Marriage, Motherhood, and Mental Health

Carolyn Stone, Ed.D. – Blog about helping special needs children and adolescents and their families

There are many other blogs that I enjoy reading. I chose these because they are relatively unknown and deserving of greater attention, and new posts are added regularly, at least once a month. Also, to my knowledge, they have not been nominated before. Otherwise, Dorlee’s blog would definitely be on my list!  Even though it was difficult to choose which blogs to nominate, it is my pleasure to pay it forward.

10 questions for my nominees to answer:

  1. What is your vision for your blog? What are you hoping to communicate via blogging?
  2. Which of your blog posts is your favorite? Why?
  3. What are the 5 things you like most about yourself?
  4. What is your proudest achievement?
  5. What is your greatest challenge?
  6. What are you most grateful for?
  7. What do you do for self-care?
  8. Who do you admire and why?
  9. What are your favorite quotes?
  10. What do you hope to be doing in 5 or 10 years?

Nominees, I hope you will all accept this award and then pay it forward, as I have done with you.

Accepting this award led me to do some reflection on my career and my life to enable me to answer some of Dorlee’s questions. It was a worthwhile challenge that enabled me to get some new insight and perspective. So thanks again, Dorlee, for honoring me and my blog with this award.



The Many Benefits of Gratitude

“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” –Epictetus

“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” –Oprah Winfrey

Gratitude is an important practice for optimal well-being.  It helps us to appreciate what we have, instead of focusing on what we don’t have.  Research studies have demonstrated that people who cultivate a sense of gratitude have lower levels of stress and depression, higher levels of empathy, generosity, and helpfulness, and are generally more satisfied with life.

Robert Emmons and his colleagues have been studying the nature of gratitude and its potential impact for human health and well-being for the past decade.  In addition to the above effects, their studies indicate that  people who adopt a daily gratitude practice have more high energy positive moods, a greater sense of feeling connected to others,  better sleep quality and duration, and higher reported levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy compared to control groups that focused on hassles or social comparison (ways in which participants thought they were better off than others). Those who kept weekly gratitude journals  exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, and were more optimistic about the future compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events. The researchers also noticed that participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important academic, interpersonal and health-based goals over a two-month period compared to those who did not make gratitude a focus of their attention.

Sarah McLean describes how to make a gratitude list in her book, Soul Centered: Transform Your Life in 8 Weeks with Meditation. She writes about how difficult it can be to think of things to be grateful for when experiencing challenging life circumstances and points out that gratitude is even more essential when we are suffering, because it can transform our perspective about difficult situations.  She suggests that when it is hard to come up with things to put on the list, we can appreciate our ability to perceive the world around us with our senses and how amazing our bodies are at automatically sustaining life through our beating hearts and flowing breath.  We can also be grateful for having enough food to eat, a roof over our heads to keep us dry, and clothing to keep us warm.  In her gratitude meditation, Sarah McLean also encourages us to appreciate our own positive qualities, such as wisdom, creativity, awareness, stability, flexibility, and love.  I would add to the list the qualities of passion, humor, playfulness, determination, perseverance, compassion, and generosity.

It is the 24th day of the Real Happiness Meditation Challenge. Focusing on what I feel grateful for in my daily meditation has helped me to  develop greater life balance, fostering a more positive attitude about negative situations. In the course of my life, gratitude has helped me to transform suffering into meaningful growth and purpose. How has gratitude helped you in your life?

Balancing Mindfulness of Emotions with Lovingkindness

It is the 17th day of the Real Happiness 28-Day Meditation Challenge. For the past two weeks, I have been working on mindfulness of emotions at night.  I have mostly been using a guided meditation by Sharon Salzberg that encourages noticing what emotions arise while initially focusing on the breath, which can be found on the CD in Real Happiness and on the Workman Publishing website:  I have also tried Ron Siegel’s Stepping into Sadness and Stepping into Fear meditations, which can be found in his book, The Mindfulness Solution and on the website for the book:  These two meditations helped me to fully experience difficult emotions.

Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach all talk about a four step process of becoming mindful of emotions that can be remembered with the acronym RAIN – recognition, acceptance, investigation and non-identification.  Achieving balance involves noticing, accepting and exploring our emotions, while being careful not to identify with them. We strive neither to avoid nor to cling to our emotions, but to be mindful of them in the moment and notice how they come and go, like waves in the ocean.

I noticed some lingering sadness about a couple of losses that I experienced over the past couple of years and focusing on it during meditation helped me to fully experience the sadness and move past it.  Then one night I realized I was delaying meditating because of unacknowledged fear.   Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  I think it would be more accurate to say, “The only thing we have to fear is the fear of fear.”  It is the fear of fear that causes us to avoid it and try to block it from our minds.  When we face our fear, it becomes more manageable.

Once I acknowledged the fear, I was able to face it. And once I faced it, I was able to overcome it.  During my meditation I went from noticing anxiety, rising doubt, a little fear, some regret and then hopefulness that I could overcome this obstacle.  And once I started feeling hopeful, the fear faded away.  Avoiding the fear made it seem insurmountable.  Facing the fear made it quite tolerable and fostered a sense of hopefulness that helped me to overcome it.

I have been practicing lovingkindness meditation in the morning, focusing on wishes for myself, specific family members, friends and clients, as well as a general wish for all beings everywhere. I have found that this helps me to have a positive attitude, even in challenging circumstances.

May I be safe, May I be healthy, May I be free from suffering, May I be peaceful, May I be balanced, May I be happy.

May you be safe, May you be healthy, May you be free from suffering, May you be peaceful, May you be balanced, May you be happy.

May all beings be safe, May all beings be healthy, May all beings be free from suffering, May all beings be peaceful, May all beings be balanced, May all beings be happy.

I decided it was time to shift the balance even further, by actively fostering positive emotions during my nighttime meditation. I started listening to Sarah McLean’s soul-centered guided meditations and plan to try more of them, as they have already had a powerful impact in a short time.  Ocean Visualization & Self-Love Affirmations; Gratitude Meditation & Appreciating Your Life;  Transcendence & Loving Yourself; I am Aware – The Intention to Awaken…  These and many more of Sarah McLean’s meditations can be found on the Winter Feast for the Soul website:

I intend to continue working on balancing negative and positive emotions in meditation and in life.  How do you work on achieving this balance?

Seeking the Middle Way

It is the ninth day of the Real Happiness 28-Day Meditation Challenge.  I meditated 5-10 minutes every morning and 20 -30 minutes at night on work nights as planned, except for one night when I came home late.  My initial intention was to shut off the TV and computer at 11 PM to meditate and I came close to this goal.  There were a couple of nights that it was more like 11:30 or 12, but overall, I was still winding down and going to sleep earlier than usual.

At night I was doing both the breathing meditation and meditation on emotions from the CD in Sharon Salzberg’s book, Real Happiness.  During the 14 minute breathing meditation, I noticed that I was able to maintain concentration without difficulty.  I encountered problems with two aspects of breathing: the first was that focusing on the breath led to breathing a little heavier than natural, and the second was that I couldn’t just focus on one aspect of the breath, like the air flowing through the nostrils or the rising and falling of the abdomen. My struggle was to decide when to just be mindful of my breathing exactly as it was without trying to change it and when to try to change my breathing to try to make it lighter and to try to improve my single-minded focus.

In reading Real Happiness at Work, I discovered some wisdom to help guide me in this.  In chapter 1, there is a balanced breathing meditation that focuses on cultivating both tranquility and energy by striving for a balanced state of mind that is both calm and alert. Finding this balance involves finding the middle way between being too relaxed and falling asleep and too intensely focused and breathing heavily, as I was doing.  Sharon suggests using the image of holding delicate, fragile glass in our hands; if we hold it too loosely it will fall out of our hands and break and if we hold it too tightly it will shatter in our hands.

I decided that it made sense for me to set my intention before I start the breathing meditation each night to focus either on balanced breathing or mindful acceptance of my breathing as is.  For the next week of the meditation challenge, I am going to focus on balancing my breathing and then decide where to go from there.  Mindfulness will still be an aspect of this practice because I will still need to mindfully accept the quality of each breath once I make my best effort at balance.

The instruction to focus on one aspect of the breath created a different challenge for me.  I thought I was having trouble with it when I not only focused on the air flowing through my nostrils, but also noticed my abdomen rising and falling. Sharon’s analogy of looking for a friend in the crowd was helpful to me in understanding how to approach this.  My new understanding is that I do not have to block out all other aspects of the breath.  It is ok to notice the crowd even though I am looking for my friend. I can still notice other aspects of the breath in the background, even while concentrating on the aspect of the breath that I choose to focus on.

In what ways do you need to work on balance in your meditation practice or your life?  What can the lesson I learned teach you about seeking the middle way?

A New Blog for the New Year

The New Year is a time of reflection and rededication to striving to overcome  bad habits.  In reflecting on my own personal growth journey and the areas that continue to challenge me, I decided it was time to work on it in a more disciplined and structured way.  My old way of approaching things has helped me only so far.  Now I have decided that I need to shift the balance.  Up until now, I emphasized acceptance over change, when it came to personal habits.  I accepted my own difficulty maintaining structure and the need to keep starting over and over again.

This new blog is part of the new plan.

Setting my intentions and committing to them publicly is a way of holding myself accountable and receiving support for my efforts.  I also plan to be more systematic in my approach.  Instead of trying to change several things at once, I am learning from my experience.  What I noticed is that when I focused on being more disciplined about one thing, it became harder to be more disciplined about another thing. Recently, I was going to the gym twice a week and exercising at home other mornings.  When I tried to be more structured in my meditation practice, my exercise routine suffered.  So I intend to focus on one goal at a time and to stick with that goal until it is a more automatic part of my routine before trying to change something else.

There is some research to back up this approach.  In a review by Mark Muraven and Roy Baumeister in the 2000 edition of the Psychological Bulletin (Vol. 126, No. 2) entitled, “Self-Regulation and Depletion of Limited Resources: Does Self-Control Resemble a Muscle?”, the authors concluded that the inhibition component of executive functioning relies on a limited, consumable resource, that needs replenishment.  Resisting temptation to indulge in extra sleep or go on the computer instead of meditating in the morning, for example, would make it harder to exert self-control to follow through on exercising.

So once meditating is more of an automatic habit, then it won’t be using up my self-control reserve and I can apply it to become more consistent about exercise.  So far, I have meditated every morning for the past week.  I am off to a good start!

Now the question remains, how long do I need to work on meditation before I can move on to focus on exercise? More on that in next week’s post.

What intentions are you setting for the new year?  What strategies are you using to try to achieve your goals?