his week, the Liminal Collective team was at the Milken Institute global conference, Beverly Hills. Others have written better than we could about the volume of quality speakers and insights being shared at the conference. For our small contribution, we worked with a group of volunteers from the delegates on the most natural thing in the world: breathing.
If you ask anyone, including our volunteers at Milken, how long they think they can hold their breath, they’ll tell you 30-60 seconds. And then, in the pool, they do it. But once you tell them that the world record for holding one’s breath is more than 22 minutes, and explain the science, people can almost immediately double that time. Just understanding what is possible and being mindful of what is happening in their body makes the difference. For the rest of the session, we continue to coach understanding and mindfulness, as well as vulnerability and trust between participants. Usually, we see them improve their initial 45 second breath hold to up to four minutes. Some even achieve six minutes.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) - a part of the nervous system that influences the function of our internal organs - operates in two modes: 1) sympathetic (fight or flight) or 2) parasympathetic (rest and digest). In an exercise like the breath hold, where the participants generally have some level of fear or discomfort, we teach the participant how to move into a parasympathetic state in order to lower heart and other bodily functions, and enable a longer breath hold.
Why...aka the benefit
There are four benefits here for participants.
- First and fundamentally, everyone learns that we are all capable of 6x or more than we thought was possible - 30 seconds to 3 minutes in just an afternoon.
- Second, all participants learn that you can develop a new skill by following a process. It’s simple, but applicable to all aspects of life. Everyone is led to a realization that they underestimate their own potential.
- Third, participants learn a deeper sense of humanity and the human bond. We buddy each participant up with a partner ensuring everyone experiences the role of being a coach and of holding their breath. Coaches are responsible for the physical and psychological safety of their partner in a stressful environment. Those holding their breath are vulnerable and have to accept that. This bond is a key human experience.
- Last, everyone learns how to manage stress, cooling down a “hot” ANS to seek out a parasympathetic state. Life isn’t just stressful in the pool!
We first used this framework to help save the lives of big wave surfers. They can easily find themselves held under water by wave turbulence for three minutes or more, with little time to recover breath. Learning to breathe again helps them tackle some of the biggest waves in the world. Today, we use the same framework with athletes across all realms of activity, from cognitive and corporate to military and traditional bat and ball.
What you can do
There’s no need to jump in a pool. The key to this is to challenge yourself, and a team or partner, to take on a task and push beyond what you thought you were capable of. Be conscious of the boundary you’re pushing; be self-aware; practice; improve. And in doing so, don’t forget to acknowledge the cultural moments - vulnerability, courage, team-work. Share your experiences - we’d love to hear them.