Energy Up, Energy Down
Here’s some news for the physically active: Boost your workouts with caffeine. In exercise science, it has long been acknowledged that caffeine gives a jolt of energy and improves performance right before an event. Who hasn’t had a cup of coffee or tea as a pick-me-up at times (or daily)? But previously, athletes had to abstain from caffeine – eliminating any pre-existing dependency - and then take it only on the day they want to see the boost. New studies show you can drink your daily caffeine AND then add more, and you still get results.
However, some people are sensitive to caffeine – side effects include jitters, headaches, heart palpitations and stomach upset. So, it’s not for everyone. And the average American spends more than $1,100 per year on their coffee habit, and it’s rising every year.
Conversely, there is a recent surge in the popularity of relaxation, mindfulness and meditation practices – it’s big business now, with drop-in meditation centers popping up all over NYC. These two booming trends suggest an interesting duality: people want an energy increase for performance (work, exercise, focus), and then need to quiet down and de-stress.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a simple, natural remedy that provides both these benefits – no substances needed, additional time or money expended, or negative side effects?
You know where I’m going with this – there’s one you already have! It’s your breath!
Jessica Wolf writes in her essay Improve Your Green Machine: “Oxygen is a basic necessity of life and an inexhaustible resource, filling our lungs and generating energy for our bodies. Breathing is a most adaptable, responsive, and always available way to fuel the body by carrying oxygen into the lungs.”
Observe your breathing right now – chances are there is some interference with the ongoing movement of breath in and out of your body. You might be holding, squeezing or gasping air. You may also have some tension in your belly, ribs, shoulders or neck, which constricts that easy turnover of breath. You may find you are collapsed down through your torso, literally shrinking the space inside you for those respiratory movements. Beginning to observe the breath offers an opportunity to reset those patterns of tension.
Allowing your breath to pass out and return unimpeded is a winning move for your energy and anxiety. Take a moment to make sure your feet are resting on the floor and your head is balanced lightly on top of your spine. See out your eyes and let breath pass out your mouth. Allow the exhalation to reach its natural conclusion – don’t hang on to stale air. Soften your belly and trust breath to return (through your mouth or nose) in place of the breath you just let out, but refrain from sucking it in. There is a responsive quality to respiration – expansive exhalation allows for a springy inhale to follow. If we don’t interfere, that easy coordination can return. But if we don’t, “holding the breath creates a backlog of carbon dioxide, which is a known stressor to the nervous system” Jessica writes.
So, letting the carbon dioxide out reduces stress. And letting fresh oxygen in increases energy. And it’s available anytime, anywhere, and offers an unbeatable return on investment.
By all means, enjoy your cup of coffee or tea, and your mindfulness class! But make a new small daily habit as well – check in here and there with your awareness of your breath, noticing any interfering tensions. Isn’t it nice to know that energy and calm are just a breath away?