Week 3: Increase Alertness
Week 3: Increase Alertness

Week 3: Increase Alertness

📝 Assignments + Group Discussions

✔️ WEEK 3 // NSM Listening

🎙️ Listen to the Week 3 Pod-class Theory Episode
🎙️ Listen to the Week 3 Pod-class Protocol Episode

🫁 WEEK 3 // NSM Protocols

🌬️ Practice Bellows Breathing + exhale retention in the morning
🚶‍♂️ Count how many steps you can walk following an exhale retention this is your baseline Maximum Breathlessness Test (MBT) score.
❄️ Experiment with one or more of the three additional protocols: intermittent fasting, morning sun-exposure or ice-baths.
♥️ Record your baseline HRV (if you have access to a wearable)

👪 WEEK 3 // NSM Self-Reflections + Group Explorations

🫁 What have you noticed about the physical sensations that arise during or after the bellows breathing?
🚶‍♂️ What opportunities are you finding during the day for practising exhale retentions? What do you notice about the feeling of holding your breath? What sensations arise?
❄️ What is your relationship with cold water? What is your relationship to intentionally choosing activities that push you?

IMPORTANT: Finally, when you're done—please complete the Week 3 Typeform Assignment here (due Friday)

🔥 // Increasing Alertness

🎙️ What we'll be discussing today:

Welcome to Week 3 of Nervous System Mastery.

I hope you're starting to feel a little calm and more grounded after a week of working with alternate nostil breathing and toning practices.

Last week, we talked about the Polyvagal theory and went over some protocols for intentionally down-regulating ourselves from a state of high energy down to a calmer state.

This week we're going to talk about the opposite, how we can increase our energy to turn on the sympathetic branch to give us more energy for not only focusing and concentrating but meeting and leaning into the inevitable intensity of life and showing up with a greater sense of aliveness.

  • So with this in mind, we'll start by introducing the metric of 'heart-rate variability' what this number means and why it's such an important thing to be aware of.
  • We'll then dive into the difference between stress and stimulation as well as specifics of how we can increase our capacity—or our 'window of tolerance'—which means that we'll be able to hold greater levels of stimulation and focus, for longer periods of time.
  • Then we'll cover the theory of this weeks primary energising protocol — Bellows Breath combined with an exhale retention.
  • Finally we'll touch on three additional protocols which can help with increasing your levels of focus, concentration and healthy sympathetic regulation.

❤️ Why Heart-Rate Variability Matters

Let's start with a introducing a concept about the way our nervous system functions: that our capacity for a vibrant and full inhale is highly correlated to our capacity to energise ourselves— and that conversely our capacity for a full and relaxed exhale is our capacity to relax and down-regulate.

I'll say this again because I think it's worth repeating. Our capacity for a vibrant and full inhale is essentially our capacity to energise ourselves—conversely our capacity for a full and relaxed exhale is our capacity to relax and down-regulate.

Why is this? Well this is where 'heart-rate-variability' comes in. Our 'Heart Rate Variability' or HRV is measured by looking at the two branches of our nervous system — the sympathetic on the inhale and parasympathetic on the exhale. These are both simultaneously sending signals to your heart. Every time you breath in and out.

So when you breathe in your heart beats a little faster, and when you exhale it beats a little slower.

Source: WHOOP Blog

If someone has low heart rate variability, this is a sign that one branch of the nervous system is dominating (usually the sympathetic) and sending stronger signals to your heart than the other.

The measure of Heart Rate Variability that we see on something like an Oura Ring is literally measuring the variance in time between the beats of your heart.

So, if your heart rate is 60 beats per minute, it’s not actually beating once every second. Within that minute there may be 0.9 seconds between two beats, for example, and 1.15 seconds between two others.

HRV is determined by the time-between heartbeats known as RR intervals. Source:
HRV is determined by the time-between heartbeats known as RR intervals. Source: WHOOP Blog

So why does this matter? Well Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a superb proxy measurement for the resilience of our nervous system. If you have high HRV then this means that your body is able to very efficiently down-regulate after stress.

On the other hand, low HRV implies that one branch is dominating (usually in our case the sympathetic branch) and sending stronger signals to your heart which makes it more challenging to recover from stress.

Now as many of you are listening to this you're probably wondering first what is your average HRV or if you already know it... is this a good number?

The answer is that HRV is influenced by a number of factors, younger people tend to have higher HRV, genetics plays a factor, as does cardiovascular fitness. But also none of this is absolute and the key point is that HRV can be improved dramatically through the coherence breathing practice from Week 1, and through increasing our C02 tolerance which we'll practice this week.

When I first started tracking my HRV my baseline was in the low 40's, and with a daily breathing practice and attention to my nervous system health I doubled my resting average over the course of four months.

Oura Ring Data for Jonny Miller
Oura Ring Data for Jonny Miller

And if you find that your baseline HRV is decreasing, use this as an opportunity to get curious. If you're tracking it you can try tagging how much you're exercising, how well you're hydrating (since this impacts our oxygen delivery)

I'm sorry to say it but avoiding alcohol will also increase your HRV—and perhaps most crucially, a consistent bed-time and wake time will be beneficial over time.


☄️ Stress or Stimulation?

Have you ever wondered what stress actually is? Stress is really a story that we tell ourselves. When we experience stress in our preferred amount, we call it 'stimulation' and as you hopefully know by now, it's directly related to how activated the sympathetic branch of your nervous system is.

Although the media tends to demonise it, there is nothing inherently wrong with stress itself. Athletes create deliberate and intense stress to increase their performance. It helps us focus, concentrate and find deep states of flow where many of us feel most fully alive. In fact absence of positive stressors — known as ‘eustress’ — stunts growth.

For example, 250 miles above the earth on the ISS, astronauts will lose bone mass in space because nothing pushes against them. Eu-Stress or "Hormetic Stress" is essential to avoid stagnation and reach our potential.

So the principle here is by intentionally stressing our body—perhaps through intense exercise or jumping in a cold-plunge—so long as we are able to recover sufficiently afterwards, our long-term capacity will increase.

What we call 'flow state' or being in the zone is when we are simultaneously firing our sympathetic branch, at the same time as our ventral vagal branch—which creates that feeling of calm energy that feels so good as a human and is conducive to creative work and play.


So for those of you listening who aspire to lead active and vibrant lives, pushing yourself to the edge of your sympathetic window of tolerance will increase your capacity—so long as you have an equal capacity for relaxation afterwards.

This is the key point and if you're not able to recover sufficiently using some of the self-regulation protocols discussed last week—you will almost certainly end up on the highway to burnout.

🔥 Protocols Theory // Bellows Breath + CO2 Tolerance

Okay, so this week the energising protocol we'll be working with is 'Bellows Breath' combined with exhale breath-holds. You can find a guided version of this in this week's protocol podcast episode.

There are many many versions of this type of more intense breathing, from the classic Wim Hof method which many of you have likely heard of to Joe Dispenza's so-called "DMT breath".

'Bellows Breath' also taught elsewhere as 'Breath of Fire', and it is more grounded and less destabilising than the Wim Hof Method can be.

For those of you interested in studies—I've linked to one study in the show notes which showed that following a 15 minute bellows breathing practice, the participants increased what's known as their "maximum voluntary ventilation" by 16%—which is an important metrics for assessing lung efficiency, oxygen delivery and overall capacity.

Essentially, the technique of bellows breath uses a short, forced and rapid exhale (i.e. the opposite of a slow relaxed exhale)

if you remember some of our theory from last week you might be able to intuit the mechanism at play here.

It sends signals to the brain's baroreceptors to activate the sympathetic branch—which releases a powerful cocktail of adrenaline and other neurotransmittors to increase our alertness.

You can use this protocol whenever you feel the need to activate your nervous system and increase your sense of vibrancy. This is particularly good if you're living in a part of the world that's going into winter or you experience feeling lethargic at times when you'd like to be more energised.

The recommendation is not to do immediately upon waking as it can be a bit of a shock to the system, the ideal time is after some light movement and sun-exposure but before breakfast or when you've begun your day.

If you find it challenging to take a full breath of air into your upper chest, which many do... you can try using a technique from freedivers which involves taking in a medium breath of air and then every so gently twisting your torso to the left and then right to increase mobility and reduce any stickiness that may be present in your intercostal muscles.

If you're feeling brave and curious, you can even take your fingers and feel around under your rib-cage which is where your diaphragm is.

From here, see if you can get all your fingers in here you can massage out any tension or stickiness that might have built up. The more flexible your diaphragm is the more full your inhale is going to be.

One Very Important Caveat❗ ... If you are someone who tends to suffer from anxiety or feel chronically over-stimulated**,** I recommend not using these practices until you have established a healthy baseline... because as with say drinking more coffee you are going to be increasing more adrenaline and could further reinforce dysfunctional breathing patterns. If you feel like this might be you—continue this week with practicing your Cadence Breathing for 10 minutes in the morning and evening to build your nervous system baseline.

🤓 CO2 Tolerance // aka Breath-holds

Alright, now we're going to talk about the second half of this practice which is designed to increase your C02 tolerance.

Firstly let's ask why might we wish to do this? It sounds a little crazy at first.

Well the answer is that we're improving improve our breathing biochemistry by reducing our sensitivity to carbon dioxide.

What you will find is that with less sensitivity to CO2 (which remember dictates your impulse to breathe) then your breathing is naturally slower and lighter.

This in turn has strong effects on your heart-rate variability which as we just mentioned is a direct measure of stress resilience, improves your sleep, digestion, emotional regulation and reduces chance of burnout.

If you only practice 'bellows breathing' on it's own, you are off-gassing your CO2... so by practicing this exhale retention you get to bring your body's pH levels back into homeostasis.

I'd like to invite you to challenge yourself to practice these exhale breathholds throughout the day. One fun way of doing this is when walking, hold your breath at the end of an exhale and then count how many paces you can walk before you feel a strong urge to breathe.

When you first try this you might only manage 10 or 15, which is great, but with practice it's possible to get this number up to the 50's or 60's.

And as a personal anecdote from me, it's fascinating how much progress can be made in the area of exhale retentions with consistent practice. In my early days of free-diving, we practice something called static apnea—which is where you just float in a pool and hold your breath for as long as possible. On the first day I managed about 90 seconds before coming up for air. But after a full week of training, I managed to increase this to 6 and a half minutes, which is a HUGE increase.

🧰 Three Additional Protocols for Enhanced Focus

Okay, finally this week I'm going to briefly touch on three additional research-backed protocols that you can experiment with for enhancing your capacity to focus and activate your sympathetic nervous system.

We're going to briefly talk about 'intermittent fasting', working with ultradian rhythms and cold-water immersion.

😋 1 // Time-restricted eating (i.e. fasting windows)

Okay firstly, although I'm conscious of the controversial nature of discussing nutrition protocols, there is an increasing body of literature that supports the long-term health benefits and impact on short term-focus of time-restricted eating.

The gist of the research indicates that fasting — or eating a diet that contains a relatively high fat content – increases our blood keytone levels which both creates 'Autophagy', which is kind of like house cleaning mode for your cells and also increases an adrenaline response, hence why many people use fasting to increase their focus and attention levels.

If this is something that you're interested in experimenting with and you'd like to go deeper, I suggest that you download the ZERO app or look at their excellent blog for studies and data on this.

☀️ 2 // Working with Ultradian Rhythms

The modern world doesn't make it that easy for us to live as we were designed, and a big one is spending more time outside. In particular,

getting outside for early sun-exposure within two hours of waking is crucial. Why? Well we have light-detecting cells in our eyes, and when you view sunlight, the connections between your circadian clock and adrenals trigger a healthy amount of cortisol and activate feelings of wakefulness.

So if you can always start the day with at least 5-10 minutes of sun-exposure and ideally post-pone your cup of coffee until 2-3 hours after waking up.

Dig Deeper: Listen to this informative podcast with Stanford Professor Andrew Huberman who I'll continue to reference, on how to optimise your brain or read up on The Science of Ultradian Rhythms.

🥶 3 // Thermo-regulation + Cold Water Immersion

Alright, this might be confronting for some of you listening, but I'm going to make the case for at the very least experimenting with immersing yourself in cold water on a regular basis.

Why is this? Well there are three huge reasons:

Firstly, as we mentioned earlier, the principle of stress hormesis means that when we deliberately introduce stressors to our body our capacity will increase over time.

You might think that the last thing you want is additional stress... so here are the additional two reasons:

  • Firstly, having a sense of control over our stress level actually reduces it's impact and when we practice going in cold water we can disconnect the physical sensations of stress from our mental response. In this way we are creating a space between the stressful stimulus and our response to it, which as you might imagine has many implications for the rest of life.
  • Secondly, there is a ton of research indicating the numerous health benefits of cold water—one study found that cold exposure, in this case 14 degree water, increased our feel-good chemical of dopamine — which is correlated to our motivation in life — levels by 250%, which is about the same as cocaine and higher than sex. This is remarkable and even more potent is that the effect doesn't drop off right away but generally lasts for several hours afterwards.
  • There are also two studies that I came across (here & here) indicating that regular cold-water immersion has a positive impact on HRV levels.
  • And anecdotally, I used to swim in the ocean around the pier in Brighton... and for the entire rest of the day I would feel high on this dopamine... it really made a huge difference to my sense of mental wellbeing and focus during the day.
  • I tend to enjoy sitting in a dry-sauna first before the ice-bath, and although there are some studies which suggest possible health benefits for sauna-usage, the jury appears to be out for substantial benefits to HRV or other metrics.

And if you're interested in some specifics here, it's worth knowing that your body assesses temperature through your palms, your foot pads and your upper face, and there are some

If you do experiment with this, perhaps even just taking a cold shower, but find it challenging at first... try some of the VOO-HUM sounds in the cold—or even gargling. You should almost instantly notice the effect that it has on releasing nitric oxide and activating your parasympathetic system and enable you to relax even in the intense cold.

Deeper Dive: Andrew Huberman + Dr. Craig Heller explain how we can use the precise timing and location of cooling on our body to greatly enhance endurance and weight training performance (link)

📝 Summary + Wrap up

Okay, that was another big week of theory.

As a reminder we discussed:

  • How we can increase our energy to turn on the sympathetic branch to give us more energy for focusing and concentrating.
  • We covered the metric of 'heart-rate variability' what this number means and why it's such an important thing to be aware of.
  • We discussed how we can increase our capacity and the importance of having a healthy amount of hormetic stress.
  • We then covered the theory behind this week's energising protocol— Bellows Breath combined with an exhale retention.
  • And finally we mentioned the three protocols of 'intermittent fasting', working with ultradian rhythms and cold-water immersion to increase focus and healthy sympathetic regulation.

As always, I invite you to both takes notes on what resonated with you in this episode, to please share any questions that arose in the Discord Server, and as always to remember that you are a scientist of your own experience and to check-in with your interoception before, during and after exploring any of these protocols.

Alright we'll wrap the episode with that, have a great week and I look forward to answering your questions.

🫁 Pod-class Protocol

Welcome to the protocol episode for week 3 of nervous system mastery.

Okay, in this episode I'll be guiding you through a practice that combines the bellows breathing with the CO2 tolerance building. These can be used separately but for the purposes of this morning practice we will combine them.

As a reminder, it's ideal to practice this in the mornings and as with say drinking coffee, I wouldn't recommend practising anytime in the late afternoon.

I will also mention again that if you identify as someone who easily moves into anxiety or over-stimulation, I would strongly recommend keeping your morning practice as cadence breathing from week 1 or the alternate nostril breathing and toning from week 2. So this protocol is only for when you already feel grounded and would actively like to increase your capacity.

🔥 Guided Bellows Breathing + C02 Tolerance

I'm going to guide you through two rounds of bellows breathing followed by practicing three breath-holds on exhale.

I'll also add an obvious but important safety precaution that you absolutely must never practice this around water as there is a small chance of dizziness or fainting, so it's best to be seated and definitely on dry land.

👀 Guided Interoception

So find yourself in a comfortable seat either in a chair or cross-legged. Making sure your lower back is supported.

As always we'll begin by tuning into any external sounds you might be able to hear in the room or outside.

Now bring your attention to the contact points you have with the floor. What quality of sensation is present here?

Now bring your awareness internally, see what you can notice in your body right now? Slowly scan from your feet, upwards to your calves and thighs. Now into your belly... and your chest. If you notice any holding or tension here just be with that.

Finally bring your awareness up into your chest, and shoulders. Can you notice your heart-beat here? Spend a moment to see if you can feel your own pulse?

Finally, now just observe the breath. How is your body moving as the breath enters and leaves your body? You can bring your right hand to your belly and perhaps feel it gently expand on your inhale, and then fall back down on exhale.

If you pay close attention to your nostrils, you might notice the breath feel slightly warmer on exhale compared to inhale.

See if you notice anything else about your breath here.

🔥 Bellows breathing

Alright, the bellows breathing technique involves inhaling and exhaling rapidly from your belly — through your nose, keeping the mouth closed but relaxed.

Each time you exhale the belly will contract.

Your breaths in and out should be roughly equal in duration and as short as possible. This is generally a pretty noisy breathing exercise.

It sounds a bit like this...

We'll try this for 40 rapid inhales and exhales—roughly at the pace of two per second and then we'll hold the final exhale out... and then take a deep inhale and hold there for a little longer.

Okay let's try it.

Now hold the exhale out.

And take a deep inhale.

Now we pause and let the nervous system settle.

Okay, let's practice this one more time.

Begin for another 40 breaths

And hold after exhale.

And take a deep inhale and hold.

Once again pause and let your nervous system settle.

😶 Exhale Retentions

Alright, as we mentioned in the theory bellows breath has the effect of off-gassing the C02 in our body, so to restore homeostasis we're going to practice breath-holds on exhale.

So on the next exhale you're going to relax your body and see how long you can hold the breath out before a strong need to breathe in. This is a superb time to practice interoception because there are a lot of changes happening in the body, your CO2 levels are increasing and you may even experience an involuntary kick in your diaphragm towards the end.

It helps to remember that your urge to breathe is not a lack of oxygen but an increase in C02, and the higher your C02 tolerance the healthier you will become.

Alright, let's start the first hold in 3,2,1... exhale.

And inhale when you need.

Let's try one more round, in 3,2,1...

And inhale when you need.

Okay this practice is complete. I encourage you to practice in your own time and as a final reminder if you're feeling strong effects of the increased adrenaline and dopamine in your system release—remember you can always practice a couple of rounds of the alternate nostril breathing and VOO-HUM from last week.

If you do this you may well end up feeling very vibrant and alive ;)