On the pitcher’s mound, you prepare to hurl a fastball that could change the trajectory of the baseball game. Thousands of fans look on, hoping for a strikeout (or a home run). Millions more are watching on TV. How do you focus in the face of such pressure?

Matt Harvey takes a mindful breath before throwing the ball. 

Matt Harvey takes a mindful breath before throwing the ball. 

Matt Harvey, a rookie pitcher with the NY Mets, takes a mindful breath.  

Harvey is starting for the National League in the July 16 All-Star Game at Citi Field, the Mets home stadium. During every game, before every pitch, he practices pranayama. He describes it to  Kevin Kernan in this New York Post story:

The last thing you want to do is get the ball back and not think about what you are doing and just go. Then you find yourself rushing, you don’t take enough time, your muscles are tense. You breathe, visualize the pitch, then you can let go and execute to the best of your ability….I get the sign and take my breath. When you have that breath you have that time to say, ‘OK, fastball away.’

Such breathing techniques are called pranayama, which is the fourth of eight limbs of yoga. Prana means energy or life force, and ayama means control. Learning to harness your breath mindfully can create focus, calm, and sanity — no matter what your work is.

We will add Matt Harvey to our collection of stories about the power of mindful breathing. In Yoga Wisdom at Work we wrote about Steve, development officer at a major medical university, who uses pranayama to establish deep connections and understanding in his conversations. Steve inhales and exhales deeply before he speaks to anyone and says doing this is “positively disarming.”

A police officer —who also teaches yoga — told us pranayama is a life-saving practice. She means it literally. In one case, her gun jammed during a shoot-out. Panic set in as she watched “my mind running away from me.” She ducked behind a wall for a few seconds of mindful breathing, which gave her time to take control of her mind, fix her weapon and continue the chase.

Developing a pranayama practice is as simple as one, two, three:

  1. Recognize that breathing has four parts: Inhale. The space before exhale. Exhale. The space before inhale.
  2. Attend to all four parts. Inhale for three counts, pause for three counts, exhale for three counts, pause for three counts. (Any count that feels natural to you works. The point is to develop a cadence that can be repeated without interruption.)
  3. Doing this for even a minute or two helps snaps your mind to attention. When your mind wanders, come back to the breathing technique.

By identifying aspects of your work life that are stressful, make you anxious, or take a toll on your sanity, they can become prompts for practicing pranayama. Smiling while silently sayingwords such as “calm” or “peace” or “contentment” is even more powerful — it trains your brain to view the situation differently.

If you try this at work, we’d love to hear what changes for you. If you have a story about breathing at work, please share.