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October 6, 2021

The Science Behind why we need to “Slow Down”—& Breathe.

 

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Take it easy, babe. ~ @julika.illustration

I could sense their irritation as I said, “Slow down and breathe.”

As a personal trainer, people assumed I was there to push them hard, to the point of mere exhaustion, nausea, and pain. So whenever I’d remind them to slow down, pace it, and focus on breathing, I was met with suspicion more often than not.

Until they tried it.

It became evident that slowing down the movement made it more challenging but in a wholesome way. It also quietened limiting thoughts. Thoughts like, “I can’t do this.” With practice, clients gained more than a tough workout. They would often comment how they felt more in control, positive, and connected to themselves. 

They also realized that being breathless doesn’t always equate to a quality workout.

I struggled to slow down and breathe in my own life, which explains why I am passionate about talking about stillness. So, I understood how it felt to have someone say, slow down. Although I had seen significant changes from various stillness practices myself, I was also able to suggest them to clients and see whether they helped them too.

I say slow down because many of us are going too fast.

We’ve needed to learn how to slow down, not do more.

Many of the women I worked with were in full-time professions helping others. I also trained mums and entrepreneurs. Their lives were busy with minimal downtime or self-care. They were “on” much of the time.

Throwing in a hardcore workout to lose weight was another addition to an already intense, stressful lifestyle.

In my early 20s, I used to train so intensely. While my outer body changed, my inner being remained the same—anxious, insecure, worried, and always looking outside of myself for happiness and approval. It was exhausting. I would exercise seven days a week, eat like a rabbit, and refuse to rest. I was on a mission, and I didn’t believe in recovery days or slower movement. I honestly thought that harder was better. I became chronically ill

After recovering, I again started training intensely. Yep, the first lesson wasn’t enough. 

I loaded up the squat bar and wanted to prove how heavy I could squat to myself (and others). Unfortunately, this resulted in crunching the lower vertebrae in my spine and dealing with chronic pain for years. 

It wasn’t worth it. 

When I couldn’t train anymore, I slowly applied myself to exercise, ate more food, and took care of my health in other ways. Finally, I realized how much emphasis I had put on exercise while neglecting important areas like emotional health and stillness. 

When we live under the pump for long periods, it’s incredible how this becomes our new status quo. We think this is how life is meant to be—full throttle. But we experience an array of issues—for me, anxiety, illness, burnout, stress, injuries—and then we end up hindering ourselves. 

The women I worked with, much like myself, all had (have) a desire to do well, be of service, and lead meaningful lives. But along the way, we found ourselves lost, unwell, and disconnected. 

And that was the thing we learned the most about breathing deeply and going a little slower. We train our minds to embrace steadiness and see the value in the journey. 

We learn to understand that productivity does not equal mindless speed. 

And the science reveals why it’s important too: 

The autonomic nervous system regulates our normal bodily functions like heart rate, digestion, and blood pressure. 

It consists of two systems: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. In a sense, these two systems are opposite in their functioning yet work well together when balanced. 

Our sympathetic nervous system responds to stress (fight-or-flight response) and prepares our body for threats (or perceived threats). When we are stressed, working overtime, or lack downtime, our body can stay in this state for long periods, leading to anxiety, panic attacks, and health problems. (Burton, L., Westen, D., & Kowalski, R., 2015) For me, it also led to self-doubt, being unclear in my path, and perfectionist tendencies. 

Our parasympathetic nervous system is more a “business as usual” regulator. When stress passes, given we allow ourselves time to breathe and recover, our body switches back into this system. It helps balance our blood sugar levels, digestion, and energy. It’s important for a calm mind too. (Burton, L., Westen, D., & Kowalski, R., 2015)

These systems send signals to our brain—are we ready for combat, or are we taking the steady route?

It makes sense that tapping into our parasympathetic nervous system would make us work better, harder, and longer. It helps to respond quickly because our body interprets a threat. And a threat can be channeled to our brain via our thoughts and worry.

Maybe that’s the reason why stress can be addictive and helpful in getting things done.

But when it comes to longevity, wise productivity, and well-being, operating from this mode and mentality can end up biting us down the road. Instead, we’re using adrenaline to achieve our goals—that spike of energy that pumps blood to our muscles and speeds our heart, and tells our brain to hurry up. 

We’re, in a sense, cheating ourselves.

Even today, as I sat on my lunchbreak, it took time for me to move from being intensely focused at work to enjoying my lunch, the sunshine, the moment. We may be excited or eager to get things done, and our mind will try to rush us and tempt us to keep going, to keep pumping adrenaline—to stay addicted to the fast lane. 

Slowing down is not about stopping. I work diligently daily; I have a vision and am excited about my present and future. I haven’t lost focus or determination toward exercise and goals by taking a step back. It’s allowed me to be clear about what I do and don’t want. 

The path becomes about more than the “external things.” We become driven from within rather than using our bodies in unhealthy ways to stay motivated and dedicated. 

We forfeit quality, depth, and contrast when we refuse to allow breath—stillness—into what we do daily. It isn’t easy to see clearly when we are forging ahead. It may explain why emotions get the better of us and why we feel chronically unwell and unsure of ourselves or our paths. 

When clients breathed deeply, they found those thoughts of quitting and giving up fell away as they continued to tune into their breath. Although, thoughts and temptations will always be present, the more we practice breathing through them, the less demanding or fearmongering they become. 

When we focus on breathing and moving mindfully, we also become aware of what we can and cannot do. It is okay to acknowledge what we cannot do when exercising or for anything in life. This gives us an indication and goal post of where we can go if we commit diligently to the process. But if we try to rush ahead and force the process, it can end up stunting our growth in the long run—much like a back injury. 

We may gain results on the outside. We may hear the claps, the congrats, the chants of others—but after some time, we can’t help but feel something is innately missing. Our body will tell us repeatedly, “I need rest,” but when we are fixated on moving forward, we deny our inner guidance—we deny the breath that gives us life, joy, and wellness. 

A trained mind takes time, effort, practice, and it seems “slower.” It can be more challenging than the fast lane but healthier because we learn when to go forward and when to pull back.

We learn to train our minds to be diligent, focus on quality, and to persevere without tapping into adrenaline all the time. 

When we focus on our breath, we allow our bodies to resume back their natural state—peaceful, mundane, still.

We’ll find we can do things beyond what we ever thought we could. We discover an oasis of inner strength, confidence, and diligence to the journey rather than living life in a state of rushing and stress.

~

References:

Gould, D. & Weignberg, R. (2015), Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology.

 

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