A Life With Meaning

Learn how a simple daily breathing practice can help you—and your clients— live a more authentic life.

By Max Strom
Jul 1, 2013

Are you happy in your fitness career? If you are, you have no doubt found your calling in helping others reach their full potential. Accompanying them as they persevere through difficult times and break new ground is heartwarming and meaningful to you.

If you are not happy, what is getting in the way? Has work become simply a way of paying the bills? Is your schedule so fragmented and hectic that you are chronically stressed? When life seems meaningless or overwhelming, how do you cope? By looking deeply into the problem and addressing it holistically—or by looking for a quick fix through entertainment, food or medication?


Here, yoga and personal transformation teacher Max Strom explores ways you can help—and hinder—your ability to find true fulfillment in everyday life.

A Culture in Crisis?

America is home to one of the wealthiest and most well-fed nations in the world, and we are certainly the most entertained. With television, video gaming, online shopping, Internet and social media available 24 hours a day, we have access to the diversion or amusement of our choice every second, day or night. But look at these statistics:

  • In 2012, suicide overtook car crashes as the leading cause of injury-related deaths in the U.S. (murders were half this number) (APA 2012).
  • One in every 10 persons over 12 years old in the U.S. is now taking antidepression and/or anti-anxiety drugs (CDC 2011; Lloyd 2011).
  • According to the CDC, “insufficient sleep is a public health epidemic” (CDC 2013).

Statistics are similar in many industrialized nations, especially in the mega cities. It appears the industrialized world is suffering from an emotional crisis. While daily medications for sleep, depression and anxiety are highly appropriate for many people, and a blessing for those who truly need them, when 1 in 10 individuals is taking such a drug as a lifestyle, the culture is in crisis: People are reaching for fast removal of symptoms rather than deeply affective solutions to root causes.

Symptom suppressors delay or eliminate our impetus to explore why we can’t sleep, or why we are depressed or anxious; they let us move on with life (more or less), but they fail to heal the cause of our distress. We should welcome symptoms as our warning lights. By ignoring them, we deny ourselves the chance of real happiness.

Why Aren’t We Happier?

One reason we aren’t a happier nation is undereducation. We all say we want happiness, but we know very little about acquiring it. We receive almost no education on how to obtain happiness, or even how to define it. Rather, we are taught to be successful, and the unspoken message is that success brings happiness. But looking back at the medication statistics—which show that in one of the wealthiest societies in the world we are medicating ourselves for depression, anxiety and sleep disorder—this is clearly not the case.

When I was growing up, my friends and I received no guidance on how to become happy, no mentorship, no basic education. I cannot remember a single discussion on the subject at home, in school or among my friends. It was not mentioned in our school curriculums, and there was no happiness textbook, class, conference or afterschool discussion. Happiness is the most important universal intangible that everyone wants; yet it isn’t on our radars as a topic to study, or even to discuss. It is as if it were to just happen to us spontaneously, like puberty.

When I teach at conferences, I often ask for a show of hands. I say, “Raise your hand if you learned breathing exercises in school to help manage emotions.” Usually no one raises a hand. Generally speaking, the only people in the United States who are taught how to breathe on a wide scale are pregnant women. Modern medicine seems to have acknowledged that breathing techniques help to manage fear and panic, to increase focus and also to decrease physical pain, but apparently only for women giving birth. Think about this. Women giving birth are not the only people dealing with physical pain or emotional stress. What about all the others who are ever in pain or frightened or who need to focus amidst a chaotic situation? They’re not taught how to breathe. Why not expand the use of breath to deal with anxiety or insomnia?

But Aren’t We More
Connected Than Ever?

What about technology? Isn’t it making us happier? As a teacher and speaker leading seminars and conferences, I visit over 45 cities a year across the globe, and I work with a vast cross-section of people, mostly in large, industrial societies. What I have observed is that an increasing number of people are suffering from depression and loneliness.

Human beings are starving for intimacy. And I believe we are turning to technology as a substitute for human intimacy instead of turning to each other. We try to convince ourselves that 300 virtual friends are better than three true friends. We yearn for intimacy, yet as technology soars we find ourselves choosing to communicate through the least intimate form of communication available: text. Most children and teenagers don’t use a smartphone to talk at all; they send text messages, which are one step up from morse code.

To be clear, smartphones and social networking are excellent tools, but unfortunately they are often used for misguided purposes. The rallying cry of the Internet has been that “we have never been so connected,” but little attention has been paid to the fact that in order to be “connected” online we must stare at a flat screen and disconnect from the people sitting next to us or in our own home. A student of mine, a married man with two teenage children, confided in me, “In the evening, the four of us go to four different rooms and get online. We don’t see each other much after dinner.”

Has your smartphone improved the quality of your conversations? What would your clients say if you asked them the same question? Ninety percent of communication between humans is nonverbal. So when we’re having a conversation with text messages, Facebook or email, we are having 10% of a conversation—while ignoring the people around us. No doubt, the Internet has connected us to more people in more places and more time zones, but the connection is not an intimate one. As we thumb-peck away at the small screens of our smartphones, we have the illusion of enormous connection with others, when actually we are isolating ourselves, because text is absent of voice, vision, touch and human presence—and yet we are strangely surprised that our soul is starving for connection and true purpose.

What Is Happiness?

Do you know what happiness means to you?

Many of us live as if happiness is a commodity to be bought or stolen. Some of us struggle to find happiness by acquiring possessions. This may satisfy us for a few years, even a decade or two for some, but eventually we find that this is a dead-end road. Others define happiness as the experience of reaching a goal, such as landing a better job, getting married, having a child or going on an exciting adventure. These could all be classified as peak happiness events. But peak events do not indicate that we will have a happy life when day-to-day existence sets in. Many people who are depressed are married, have children, have a good job and take great vacations.

Most people confuse happiness with pleasure gained from outside sources, what I call “pleasure triggers.” Common pleasure triggers are food, sex, cigarettes, alcohol and various drugs, both legal and illegal. Other external triggers for pleasure are material wealth, power over others, and for some, fame. And increasingly it is common to seek pleasure through distraction dispensed in the palm of our hand.

Yet science is now backing up what many of the great philosophers have been teaching for centuries: Happiness is not predicated on external circumstances or objects. And by looking for it in externals, what we are doing is trying—unsuccessfully—to fill an emptiness inside or to cover and numb a pain within us.

I personally define happiness as the daily experience of a meaningful life, and I know what that means to me. Your definition may be somewhat different from mine, but I believe that if you look deeply enough, you too will find that your happiness is largely a result of having meaning in your life, and it is important to notice that meaning is not always accompanied by pleasure.

Consider someone who works in a hospice. The circumstances in a hospice are by no means pleasurable much of the time, but many caregivers will make a career of hospice work because they find it makes their own lives more meaningful. Why? Because they are living for something larger than themselves, they have gone beneath the surface of things and connected with their fellow humans beyond all social pretenses, and every day they know that they contribute to the well-being of someone who is suffering.

To find meaning in the deepest currents of your life is a distinct kind of inner fulfillment that you will seek only at the point when you realize that pleasure alone is not ultimately fulfilling—and that pleasure is often followed by unhappiness. When you know this, you have entered a new paradigm and you will seek a new kind of life. Of course, to be happy you do not need to reject pleasure, but it’s critical to know the difference between pleasure and happiness so that your choices will support what is real and lasting and reject things that will sap your life force.

Self-Study ≡ Self-Awareness

What allows us to look deeply into our lives is self-awareness. Put simply, self-awareness is our ability to observe our interior world, including our motives, our character and our behavior. It is commonly accepted that human beings are “naturally” self-aware creatures, but the evidence of human history and even the most basic observation of our family members and our own behavior reveal that human beings have only fragmented behavioral and motivational self-awareness.

When it comes to ourselves, we all have a blind side. Our self-awareness is incomplete. It is this incomplete self-awareness that is one of the central causes of unhappiness, because most of us do not know what drives us to behave in the ways we do or make the choices that we make.

Fortunately, each of us has an internal GPS, so to speak; an inner guidance system that will lead us to our destiny if we only listen to its quiet voice. In other words, we have inside us all the apps we need to live a meaningful life; we just have to start using them. How?

Study yourself. Self-study illuminates who we are and where work needs to be focused. Through self-study we become acquainted with our habits—both our strengths and weaknesses—until we can plainly see, understand and alter them.

Practice daily meditation and forgiveness. Meditation and forgiveness are, in my view, essential daily practices. Meditation trains the mind to be still and focused so that the mental noise stops drowning out the voice of our inner GPS. Forgiveness liberates us of a past that haunts us.

Practice breath work every day. “Ocean breathing” (described in a sidebar) and breath-initiated movement practice further purge our body of negative emotions that cause us to be depressed, anxious or angry. Examples of a breath-initiated movement practice are breath-centric yoga and/or qigong. Our mind, body and emotions are not separate. Slow movement that is initiated by conscious breathing harmonizes our entire system—mind, emotions and body—and cultivates health and vitality.

A Meaningful Life

To live truly and fully, we must be willing to let go of things that no longer serve us, and embrace new actions that empower us in the deepest possible ways. We must consider no longer distracting ourselves as a way of life and, instead, focus on the most exciting and empowering prospect of all: a meaningful life and a deeper level of happiness that will also have a healing impact on society and the planet.

One of the most beautiful life principles is that when we develop a meaningful life, we add more meaning to the lives of others.

When we heal ourselves, we help to heal our families and everyone we reach out to. The more we do this work, the more our inner light shines into the world and we transform from masked strangers into lighthouses—beacons of light to help others find their way.

Passages from this article were adapted from Max Strom’s two books, A Life Worth Breathing (Skyhorse 2010) and There Is No APP for Happiness (Skyhorse 2013).

Why Should We Do A Daily Breathing Practice?

´╗┐In contemporary urban life, there is so much stress, so much competitiveness—and so much “frozen” energy around people’s hearts. It is in the chest that we keep our grief and our old memories, and to open the chest would mean dealing with a new personality and a new life—a massive transformation. This is what we simultaneously strive for and fear. It is as though we were stepping on the accelerator and the brake pedal at the same time.

When we do deep-breathing exercises, we access our buried emotions and they rise to the surface. Our first reaction, again, may be fear of losing control and releasing a never-ending river of tears. But if we persevere, we may discover that the experience not only doesn’t destroy us but actually liberates us from the prison of our past. We begin to feel we are releasing a great weight off our chest.

Ocean Breathing: Beginning A breath-initiated movement practice

´╗┐Ocean breathing is a fundamental tool for taking off one’s armor and opening the heart center for emotional healing.

To “breathe here now” helps us to be here now. Many of us fear breathing deeply because we know deep down that our breath is somehow connected to our emotions. If we are stressed out and besieged with unexpressed grief, rage or fear, then deep breathing terrifies us. So, we keep our breaths small and shallow and erratic, no matter how many times our yoga teacher tells us to breathe deeply. Many of us fear that if we took a deep breath, our lives would fall apart. But the inverse is true. When we take a deep breath, we fall deeper into life.

When and How Often Should We Practice?

To insert breathing practice into your everyday life, I recommend that first, if you practice yoga or qigong in a class setting, you make your practice breath-centric. Don’t go anywhere without your breath. Every movement should be initiated by a conscious inhalation or exhalation.

Second, I recommend that you practice ocean breathing for 10 minutes at least once per day. This can be done at any time of day as long as it is an hour or more after eating. A full stomach will hinder you from taking deep breaths. If you can, practice upon rising in the morning and again in the evening, even just before going to bed. Breathing fresh air is obviously advisable if possible, so step outside or practice near an open window. If access to fresh air is not possible, do your practice anyway. I practice on international flights where the air quality is dismal at best, and feel much better for doing so. You may notice that your pets seem to enjoy your breathing practice, and your young children will, too.

In the yoga world, ocean breathing is commonly called Ujjayi breathing (pronounced oo-JAH-yee), and is the most common breath used in hatha yoga practice. I call it ocean breathing because it sounds like the ocean’s tide, and because it is more easily remembered and less likely to intimidate beginners.

Directions for Ocean Breathing
  • Stand in a comfortable spot with room to take your arms out to the sides.
  • Look down at your feet and separate them by about 3 feet. Make sure your feet aim straight ahead.
  • Now, as you bend your knees about 6 inches, lengthen your spine toward the ceiling. Relax the shoulder blades downward.
  • Keeping your spine enlivened and your knees slightly bent, bring your hands to the heart center, and press them together gently as if in prayer.
  • From here, inhale through your mouth as you move your arms straight out to the sides at shoulder height—arms open, elbows slightly bent.
  • Pause.
  • As you exhale, bring your arms back to the heart.
  • Inhaling, open the arms again.
  • Bring your hands back to prayer position, exhaling audibly through your mouth, as if you were fogging a mirror with your warm breath.

Repeat the same movements with your arms as you breathe this way, making the “fogging the mirror” sound on both the inhalation and the exhalation. Keep your mouth open continuously; do not purse your lips together. Remember to broaden the chest and breathe into the sides of your ribs. Continue for 5 minutes. (You can use a timer to keep track.) You may experience an emotional feeling or even some tears after practicing this breath. If that happens, simply receive it as a healing experience, as this is caused by the release of suppressed grief that you may have been holding onto for years. Afterwards, you’ll feel refreshed and peaceful.

Safety. If you become dizzy, stop the exercise and bend over, lowering your head below your heart; the flush of blood to the head prevents fainting. Then lie down until you feel ready to stand again.

Note: I teach ocean breathing with the inhalation and exhalation both through the open mouth, with lips apart, relaxed and never pursed. It is significantly more efficient to teach it this way. People become very confused trying to understand how to make the ocean sound with the mouth closed, whereas everyone has already produced the sound by fogging a mirror or their sunglasses to clean them. Also, with the mouth open, the sound level is substantially louder, so students can hear the subtleties of their breathing much better. This, of course, improves their technique. Then, once students can do ocean breathing very adeptly (which usually takes doing the exercise at least 10 times), then I teach them to breathe making the same sound in the same way, but doing so with lips closed and teeth slightly apart. The method of producing the ocean-like sound is identical; the only change is the closing of the lips.

Ocean Breathing While Sitting

First you need to be able to sit with your spine straight. Sit on a straight-backed chair, preferably without leaning against the backrest, or sit cross-legged on folded blankets or a firm cushion on the floor. If while sitting cross-legged your knees look higher than your hips, place more blankets or some kind of bolster beneath your buttocks to raise your hips higher than the knees. This will allow you to sit more comfortably on the floor, achieving a straighter spine and making your breathing more efficient. It is important that you be able to sit on the floor without feeling as though you could tip over backwards.


References

APA (American Psycholoigical Association). 2012. Suicide becomes the leading cause of injury-related death. www.apa.org/monitor/2012/12/suicide.aspx; retrieved Apr. 30, 2013.
CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). 2011. Antidepressant use in persons aged 12 and over: United States, 2005-2008. www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db76.htm; retrieved Apr. 30, 2013.
CDC. 2013. Insufficient sleep is a public health epidemic. www.cdc.gov/features/dssleep/; retrieved Apr. 30, 2013.
Lloyd, J. 2011. CDC: Antidepressant use skyrockets 400% in past 20 years. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/health/story/health/story/2011-10-19/CDC-Antidepressant-use-skyrockets-400-in-past-20-years/50826442/1; retrieved Apr. 30, 2013.

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Max Strom

Author of A Life Worth Breathing, Max Strom teaches his method of personal transformation worldwide and is known for inspiring and impacting the lives of his students. His methods address the internal, emotional, and spiritual aspects of our life, as well as physical healing and vitality. He has taught tens of thousands of students, and trained several hundred teachers. Among his 2011 and 2012 speaking appearances were two TEDx events, and a keynote speech on ethics in business at the Lu Lu Lemon's 2011 management conference. You can see more of Max Strom's work on his DVDs, Learn to Breathe, to heal yourself and your relationships, and, Max Strom Yoga ÔÇô Strength, Grace, and Healing.

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