Maximize your productivity by controlling your breathing?

Updated October 11, 2016 to include a discussion at the end of whether the self-help industry is largely women selling their products to other women.

Nirvana only a breath away?

Garbage claims about office Zen by Gerbarg

I say it over and over again: So much bad advice being sold to consumers with a pitch that what is being offered is more sciencey than the rest, but so little time to blog about it.

We need to recognize more quickly the click bait of wannabe self-help gurus and move on.

We need to practice quick dismissal of nonsense that intrudes into our social media news feeds. Simple as that, mindlessly delete it and get back to your life.

The common pitch of wannabe self-help gurus

With only minor variation, you are being repeatedly told:

  • You are not being as productive, likable, successful, and loved as you could, and you probably won’t live as long as you could, either.
  • [Implicit message: you are a loser, even if you don’t think so, and if you don’t think so, you are more of a loser.]
  • Fortunately, I have a novel, simple, effective, and easily implementable solution.
  • [That usually turns out to be not new, not simple, not effective, but intrusive to the point you will want to abandon it anyway.]
  • If you do not succeed at first with my advice, of course I have an app that can make it work better.

Fortunately, this time one of my trusted go-to’s had the time to dismiss some claims quickly. But first, here are the claims:

Escape being a loser with coherent breathing [Or: Breathing, the part of your life that you can control ]

breathing-the-part-you-can-control“For maximum productivity, you want to breathe in a way that will keep you in the parasympathetic zone so you are calm and stress-free, but not too far into it to the point where your mind is mush,” Gerbarg said.


To achieve office zen, Gerbarg suggests a breathing practice called Coherent Breathing, which features equal-length inhalations and exhalations at a very slow pace, without holding your breath. For most adults, the ideal breathing rate is four and a half to six full breaths per minute.


Of course, it can be difficult to get used to such slow breathing. Gerbarg suggests practicing with a breath-pacing app (popular options include Breathing Zone for iOS and Paced Breathing for Android. If starting at five full breaths per minute proves difficult, start with six before bringing the pace down. New hardware devices such as the Spire clip-on breath and fitness tracker also offer real-time feedback on breathing patterns, which could make it easier to reach goals.


The best part is that unlike some breathing exercises, which are evident to anybody in a room, this technique is relatively discreet after a little practice. Try it any time you are looking for a brain boost or to keep your cool-whether you’re in the middle of a meeting or being peppered with questions during a big presentation.

For those over six feet tall, the rate drops to about three and a half to four breaths per minute.

James Heathers: A go-to to the rescue

I’m drawing on the expertise of James Heathers, who played a pivotal role in our thoroughgoing critique of Barbara Fredrickson’s claims that loving-kindness meditation extended life through its effects on cardiac vagal tone. James went on to write an excellent technical guide for anyone attempting to use heart rate variability as a biological outcome. And no, heart rate variability and cardiac vagal tone are not biomarkers, only biological variables that vary greatly with the circumstances under which they are assessed.


Charles Bukowski

Although James and I are in regular contact on social media, I have only met James once, at a meeting I arranged at the infamous Boston dive bar,  Bukowski’s Tavern. James looked much like the picture on his Facebook fan page.


James Heathers

I’m inclined to dismiss rumors he does not always looked this way, especially when he works at his day job in a stylish suit, allegedly as a high-end junk bond day trader.

Anyway, I highly recommend going to his Facebook Fan page and liking it, so you can keep up on all his devastating critiques. Warning: as you can see in the one that follows a brief summary of something I found on the Internet, he is rather indelicate in his approach and does not mince words. That’s why I like him so much.

From James Heather’s Facebook Fan page


It’s weird to see this in print – the crapulent, lazy, swollen assumptions that I see in academic work. For some reason, part of my brain thinks that bad science being communicated at bad angles is solely for people who don’t do physiology.

You can’t sell out my stuff! My crew deal in facts! They aren’t purveyors of empty sensationalist garbage!

Well, some of them are, I guess.

And you know the funny thing?

There’s no discovery here. This book is four years old. Research on breathing like this was well described in the early 90s. And god only knows how old meditative traditions with slow breathing are.

For some reason, the awful newspaper which needs to obtain/syndicate/buy content about random health bollocks just happened to be in the market for some garbage about breathing. The author has written half a dozen books about various curlicues of lies and silliness.

I hate everything about this, and everyone involved should walk quietly out to sea and stay there.

So there. ‘Nuff said.

Updated October 11, 2016: Is the self-help industry largely women selling self-help to other women?

I came across an interesting interview with  Ruth Whippman, author of “America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.” Ruth was asked “Q: Are specific groups of Americans particularly preoccupied with achieving happiness?” Her reply had an interesting observation:

The self-help industry in America is female-dominated; approximately 80 percent of all self-improvement books are bought by women. There is a natural inclination among women to try to improve themselves and their lives, which isn’t a bad thing. But embedded in that is the belief that women need to be improved. Consider the titles of the “Women who __ too much” series: “Women Who Love Too Much,” “Women Who Think Too Much,” “Women Who Do Too Much” and so on. The culture tends to blame women for life’s problems. It is who women apologize too much or don’t “lean in.” The implication is women should try harder. If you’re not getting paid enough, you should be better at negotiating your salary and not worry about the system. The culture’s tendency is to downplay the structural and systemic realities.

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