Given the current political climate, every day on earth is a test of our patience and zen, the stress of which is only magnified during the holidays when travel and family gatherings are thrown in. But, because there is 2018, there is, of course, a wellness trend to help with all of that. As mindfulness and meditation have been on the rise, thanks to health and wellness figures like Taryn Toomey and apps like Calm, there has been a return to the basics to shed the toxicity of everyday life. One of the people leading that trend is Ashley Neese, the breath work guru who was spotlighted in Gwyneth Paltrow's recent Goop Summit, and who has guided the actress' employees and works with clients to better emotionally navigate their own workplace. “I really appreciate how accessible it is: You don’t need an outfit, you don’t need a prop—you can just do your breathing practice wherever you are," she said. Here, Neese shares some of her wisdom on how to handle the holidays.
How would you describe breath work for the uninitiated?
Conscious breathing, so breathing done with mindfulness. There’s many different kinds but at its most basic level the steps are to get into a comfortable position and then breathe in through the nose and out, starting with an inhale and exhale to the count of four. It’s going to balance your nervous system and get you grounded.
What is the difference between breath work and meditation, and are they used in conjunction?
Yes. Sometimes people describe breath work as an active form of meditation. There’s meditation practices, for example, when you sit in silence and focus on a mantra and repeat it silently over and over in your head. In that style of meditation, you’re using your mind and it’s a cognitive practice. The breath work is what’s bringing you into your body.
Are there physical benefits to breath work?
Yes, there’s not only mental benefits like clearing out your mind and increasing creativity and productivity. You’d be surprised how productive you can be—I know that when I’m scattered I’m way less productive than when I’m super focused. There are breathing practices that will help you calm your mind and then there’s practices that will give you energy. The grounding and calming ones are going to slow down your heart rate, slow down your nervous system and bring you into a relaxed state. Then there’s practices that speed everything up and people do those mostly for athletics.
Are there any caloric benefits?
While the speed at which your body burns oxygen for fat burning does depend on how well you breathe (how well your body metabolizes oxygen), it's a stretch to say that one of the major benefits of breath work is burning calories. The most calories you will burn while breathing will be in connection to the other activity you are doing while breathing, i.e. running, working out, etc.
How can someone practice conscious breathing at, for example, a family dinner or on a train without drawing a lot of looks?
This is something that I teach to my corporate clients all the time because they have to go into a board meeting and they want to know how they can do this without seeming like a weirdo in front of their colleagues. What I have them do is put their feet flat on the floor in a seated position and take a couple of seconds to connect with their feet. That practice alone can lower your energy. Step two is breathing in and out through your nose. You can do this as a slow inhale and slow exhale without drawing a lot of attention to yourself. I usually suggest doing five to ten rounds. That can give you the reset you need to be present. Sometimes that means we can be present for the hard conversations or just excuse ourselves to get up from the table and go wherever we need to so we can take a moment to ourselves. The thing about breathing is that it helps us get further in touch with what’s happening in our bodies and what our emotional experience is and then we have that pause so we can make a different choice—and we have the capacity to make the kinds of choices we want to make.
Negativity is all around us, especially at this cultural moment. How can one harness and keep a positive outlook in this environment?
One of the biggest things I do and teach my clients is to practice gratitude. It sounds cheesy but actually be grateful. There’s so much research out there now on the power of gratitude and it actually changes what’s happening in your brain. It helps open your heart and gets you presence. When we talk about being present and being grateful, you can’t be grateful unless you’re in that present moment. Things are tough right now. The political climate is crazy. California is burning down. There’s just so many things happening on a large scale and then we have this micro scale with things going on with our families, relationships, work. So taking a moment to be grateful and really look at what’s good in our life is really important.
Also, I find that another important thing to do is just slow down. Things are moving so fast. One of the biggest gifts we can give ourselves is to try to slow down — and that’s so much harder around the holidays. I’m not saying that means you need to move at the pace of a tortoise but really check yourself. One of the things I have my clients do is check in with their breathing throughout the day. Notice where your breath is at: Are you huffing and puffing? Are you holding your breath? Are you stress breathing? These are all really good indicators that it’s time to slow down. People text me and they’re like, "Oh, I finally get it now. I’m not breathing when I’m scrolling through Instagram."
The idea of practicing mindful breathing while scrolling through Instagram does seem contradictory.
It really does. I even notice this for myself when I check emails in the morning. The number of emails we all get a day is completely insane. Even with an autoresponder on, I’ll do a little gasp and catch my breath and see what’s happening. I’ve been doing this work for 12 years so I can redirect my breathing and I have that awareness. The amount of energy and information overload that we’re all dealing with on a daily basis is so unprecedented, and social media is a part of that. Like, how much do we really need to take in? I have whole days where I don’t look at anything and I think that’s great. I say to my clients, "Even if you only have one day a week that you’re not on your phone, that’s really regenerative." It brings your energy back into yourself.
Do you think it’s possible to detox from bad energy?
Yeah, I really do. The first thing I work on with people is clearing out whatever energy they need to clear out and then working on their own boundaries. We have to work on why we’re absorbing [bad energy] in the first place. A lot of what you’ll read in health and wellness is about ‘blocking this and that’ but, to me, that’s really intense. If we’re just walking around with shields and blocking things, that’s not really living. It’s not dealing with our own stuff. One practice I like to do to help is a long exhale through the nose and a long exhale through the mouth. You can even add a sound to it that helps get the energy out.
What is the best strategy for coping with argumentative people, especially ones who have different views than you?
That’s a really, really good question. I think it’s all boundaries. There’s two parts: How to handle someone who has different views and how to handle someone who’s argumentative on top of that? Usually when people get really argumentative, they’re not good listeners and they’re coming in with opinions that are already decided. Honestly, what I usually suggest is to just let it go. Unless you really feel like spending your energy in a debate—because you have to look at it like, how much energy do you have? Personally, I don’t have the energy to spend on that. I remove myself from conversations if I need to. When someone is arguing, I also like to think, ‘'Why is this person so attached to this idea?" Sometimes I’ll spin it and just start asking them more questions and I want to see where that anger is coming from. It’s usually coming from fear or deeply personal experiences. But if it’s the kind of argument where it’s a personal attack, I don’t stand for that. I don’t have the bandwidth for that.