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3 breathing exercises before you start writing

Back during the 2020 lockdown, I knew I needed a project, so I trained as a yoga teacher. One of the things I’m taking forward from the course is an interest in breathing and how our breathing impacts our bodies and brains.

Sitting down to write always involves a transition from the outside, reactive world… into the interior world where you need to sit with your thoughts, your knowledge and your writing tools for longer periods of time. This is always a challenge, but if you are working from home, holidaying at home, and writing at home as well as living at home, then the transition is even more important.

Rituals can help you transition from one space to another: perhaps you have a playlist, a special writing coffee cup, a writing candle, or a lucky pen. All of these are great!

One helpful ritual is to ‘travel’ to your desk not in space (which you probably don’t have!) but in time. To take 2 minutes of time to make your transition into your writing. Travel involves knowing where you are when you start, as well as where you want to go, so start by noticing where you are now, and how you feel about the writing task ahead.

I’m going to suggest three different breathing exercises, for three different feelings you might be experiencing. So check in on your feelings (they are valid!) and then pick the most useful exercise for you, today.

Breathing is amazing: your body can breathe perfectly well on it’s own, but the lungs are also the only organ over which we have total, immediate mind control. You can decide to hold your breath, or to breathe fast or slow, and your lungs will just do it! Decide to breathe deeply using your belly (diaphragmatic breathing), or breath shallowly just in your upper chest, and your lungs will respond.

The connection works both ways too–your brain checks in on your breathing to find out how things are going in the body, including to work out if it should be stressed or calm. So breathing calmly when you get a vaccination or do exercise might not make it hurt less (though it might!), but it tells your brain ‘it’s cool, this hurts but it’s a safe pain, we’re in charge and it will be over soon’. Alternatively, breathing fast and shallow tells your brain ‘we are overwhelmed here, maybe it’s time to freak out’. So choosing your breath can help you influence your emotions.

[There is a lot of science on this, but I’m sticking to the basics here for the purposes of blogging, but there are some resources below if you want to start looking into this yourself.]

You can add to the messages you are sending your brain by explicitly thinking a useful positive phrase, like ‘I can take this slow if I need to, but I can definitely make progress today’, or ‘I can’t wait for this job to be over, so time to get it done!’. Your affirmations might also be more ‘light and life’ positive ones, if that’s your thing; but try to avoid purely negative self-talk, you don’t want to send an unhelpful message that makes your brain think ‘I may as well give up now’.

For each exercise below I’ll tell you why you’d use it, why it works, how to do it, and suggest a little affirmation that you can try out. You can adjust any of them to work better for you, these are just ideas and invitations to get you started.

1. A calming breath for when writing stresses you out in a bad way

Why you’d use this exercise: Some people find sitting down at their desk gives them feelings of panic, anxiety or a desire to run away from the scary writing. If you sit down to write and feel your ‘flight’ or ‘freeze’ stress reaction, then that will get in the way of the thing you want to do–stick at the desk and write some words.

Why it works: If you hear someone breathing in their sleep, you might notice they breathe through their nose for a diaphragmatic inhale of about a count of three, they pause for a count of one or two, and then exhale through their nose for a longer count of five or more. Breathing this way tells your brain there are no dangers around it has to stay awake for, it’s even safe enough for a mini-nap! You then turn off the flight or fright and get into a more ‘rest and digest’ state where you can sit at a desk and ‘digest’ your ideas into writing!

How to do it:
Sit at your desk.
Set a timer for 2 minutes, select a funny or soothing sound at the end.
Breathe in through your nose, counting 1, 2, 3.
Hold at the top for 1, 2.
Breathe out through your nose for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or even more.
Adjust so it feels comfortable to you, like you are in a light sleep.
Repeat until the timer goes off.
Return to your habitual, normal breath.

Repeat this as many times as you need to before each ‘scary’ action: sitting at your desk, opening the document, reading the feedback, etc.

Remind yourself: ‘I am in charge of this, even if it’s not pleasant. I can do this, I can get this done!’

2. An energising breath for firing up your writing

Why you’d use this exercise: I love to write angry. When I’m fired up and passionate, I write fast and I enjoy the writing process. A lot of my blogging comes from rage writing! The other part of the ‘flight and freeze’ response is the ‘fight’ instinct. If you find feeling like fighting gets you excited about writing, then a calming breath isn’t going to help, you need something to fire you up.

Why it works: If you listen to someone breathing after challenging exercise or when they are excited, you might notice they use a deep short inhale of about three, a short sharp exhale of one or two, with perhaps a mini-pause before they inhale again. If they use their diaphragm and can breathe through their nose, they won’t go over into being out of breath though. This tells your brain that there’s something to work against, it’s time to get ready to rumble, that it’s exciting, or that there’s some serious exertion going on here. Build up some heat and then let that pour out of your fingers.

How to do it:
Sit at your desk.
Set a timer for 2 minutes, select a funny or action alarm sound at the end.
Breathe in through your nose, counting 1, 2 (3)
Breathe out fast through your nose for 1, 2.
Hold at the bottom for 1.
Adjust so you can sustain the pattern without becoming breathless.
Repeat until the timer goes off.
Return to your habitual, normal breath.

Remind yourself: ‘This needs doing, and I am just the person to get it done. Watch out world!’

3. An equal breath for balanced thinking

Why you’d use this exercise: Maybe this is the day for careful, balanced thought. Maybe it’s a boring day of fixing the commas in your footnotes. Maybe you don’t hate it, you don’t love it, you kind of don’t care, but you do need to focus. You need to be judicious, even-handed, accurate and steady, and you want a breath that helps you with that.

Why it works: This one is really all about the counting. If you lose focus on the counting, your breath will spring back to normal. It’s just complicated enough that you can’t multitask, you just have to focus on this one thing. The equal breathing means your brain should settle into a state that’s not too sleepy and not too fired up, but just Goldilocks right for the task.

How to do it:
Sit at your desk.
Set a timer for 2 minutes, select a neutral sound at the end.
Breathe in through your nose, counting 1, 2, 3.
Hold at the top for 1, 2, 3.
Breathe out through your nose for 1, 2, 3.
Hold at the bottom for 1, 2, 3.
Repeat for one minute, then go up to a count of four.
Repeat until the timer goes off.
Return to your habitual, normal breath.

Remind yourself: ‘I will proceed at a steady pace through this task, ticking things off.’

And there you have it. Three kinds of breathing exercises to get you in the mood for writing. I hope they help you, and that you find ways to tweak them so they work even better for you!

If you are interested in more:

The Oxygen Advantage by Patrick McKeown (for athletes)

Breath by James Nestor

Yoga breathing (pranayama) is used for physical, psychological and spiritual purposes. In this post I’m focussing on the practical, but in yoga it has much wider uses, for example I just did this course by Nikki Myers as part of my training, where she uses pranayama (among other techniques) to help with trauma and addiction.

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