Pilot Your Breathing: The Unexpected Goal of a Breathing Practice

Nick Heath
September 4, 2020
5 min read

There are many similarities between flying and a breathing practice.

Both start out turbulent.  Your mind will not immediately go quiet.  Just like when the plane is taking off and bouncing around, you might even wonder why you started in the first place.  It’s hard to just sit there and breathe.

But once you reach altitude, autopilot kicks in. You feel more comfortable just breathing.  Like how you forget you’re flying 30,000 feet above the ground and no longer notice the engines' sound, you forget you’re doing a breathing practice at all. This is where the magic happens. Well, it’s not magic, but science.

Your heart rate variability increases. Your parasympathetic (rest & digest) tone increases. Your autonomic nervous system relaxes, and your chemosensitivity diminishes.  You maximize oxygen delivery to your cells, tissues, and muscles, leading to a calm yet energized state. Breathing is so simple that all of these benefits seem almost too good to be true.  

Then the timer goes off.  Now it’s back to reality. Physiologically, you land in a new location. It’s like walking through the jetway when you’ve landed for that big vacation. Although the flight might have been long, you’re excited and have newfound energy.  Finishing a breathing practice feels that way too.

But all of this actually isn’t the point of your practice (although it’s a nice bonus).  It seems counterintuitive, but the point of a breathing practice is to no longer need a breathing practice.  The point is to get your everyday breathing on autopilot. You shouldn’t need your app all day, nor should you spend all of your time following your breath. The training you put in with the app will retrain your chemoreceptors and brain to naturally breathe correctly.

Again, it will start off bumpy. You’ll be noticing your breathing throughout the day. You’ll see that you are mouth breathing or that you are holding your breath.  Gradually, you will notice that you don’t notice it as much anymore. Or when you do check-in, you’ll find that you are breathing as you hoped, nasally and deeply.  And if you check-in and your breathing is not “ideal,” maybe it’s because it shouldn’t be?

Just like we need heart rate variability for health, we need some breath rate variability too. We use the app to train, rest, and reset. Then, we let our physiology do what it is designed to do. We go on autopilot.

Remember, autopilot is a sophisticated program that keeps the plane safe and on track while flying at over 500 mph.  It picks up on changes in the environment and adjusts to make sure the flight makes it to its destination on time. Being on autopilot isn’t being lazy. We have put in the time to program our bodies to do what they’re supposed to do. Then, when things get bumpy (you get bad news or your anxiety ramps up), you take back over, just like a pilot does in turbulent times.

You are the pilot.  You are in control of when you take off, where you go, and where you land. You are in control of when you want to be on autopilot, and when you want to step in and take command.  And you do this all with your body’s most basic function: breathing.

For free guided breathing exercises that you can take anywhere, try out the Breathwrk app here and enjoy a FREE 7-day trial with access to everything we have to offer!

If you enjoyed this, consider signing up for Nick’s free weekly newsletter, The Breathing 4.1.1.  Each Monday, he shares 4 thoughts, 1 quote, and 1 answer (think “Jeopardy”) related to breathing. Sign Up Here.

Nick Heath