In 1924, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine set out to climb Mount Everest. They disappeared near the summit and, ever since, explorers from around the globe have been trying to figure out what happened to them. A few years back, I had the pleasure of meeting Andy Politz. Politz was a member of the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition. He was present when Mallory’s body was found in May of 1999. In total, Politz participated on seven Everest Expeditions.
He detailed the effort it took to accomplish even the smallest task when people reached a certain altitude on Everest because of the lack of oxygen. When you climb high enough, you have to take four breaths for every action you want to preform. He painted the picture of waking up in his tent around 3 a.m. because it was going to take a long time to prepare for climbing by dawn.
Four breaths, sit up. Four breaths, light the lantern. Four breaths, put a shoe on. Four breaths, put the other shoe on. Four breaths, take one step. Four breaths, take another step.
The pace, dedication, patience and symbolism within that image is powerful.
In the first couple of weeks after my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, the image of four breaths on Everest came alive to me. I talked with her about the four breaths during her first chemotherapy treatment. None of us knew what the journey ahead was going to be like; in an instant, life had switched to a different pace. We had no choice but to embrace the slower inhale and exhale.
An avid yoga practitioner explained this to me: Our bodies were built to eat with our mouths and breathe through our noses, but somewhere along the way, humankind messed it up. When you inhale and exhale through your mouth, you can only use about 25 to 30 percent of your lung capacity. When you breathe through your nose, you can use it all.
Yogis practice “ujjayi breathing.” Keeping their mouths closed, they inhale slowly for a few counts and then exhale slowly for a few counts. It sounds weird, like Darth Vadar. It’s hard. But its benefits are many. It improves concentration, increases endurance and can relieve both stress and pain. These benefits, however, are only possible if someone slows their breathing enough to achieve them.
Slow your pace. Catch your breath.
It could be the answer to conquering whatever your Everest is. Today, take four breaths and another step.
Jason Barger is the globally celebrated author of Step Back from the Baggage Claim, ReMember, and the newly released book Thermostat Cultures, as well as a coveted keynote speaker and leadership consultant. More importantly, he’s striving to be an above average father, husband, and friend.
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