Breath & Spire: A Few Key Questions

I’ve been waiting to write this post for a long time.  Heck, you could say I did my Ph.D. on this post.

When we started work on Spire, our goal was to give people feedback about something that influenced life as much as – if not more than – fitness: their state of mind. Yes, like other activity trackers, Spire accurately tracks physical activity and fitness. But unlike other trackers, Spire records an additional metric: breathing patterns. This is because your breathing patterns both reflect and influence your state of mind.

And, as it turns out, it’s this additional metric, breathing, that has really caught people’s attention… and curiosity.

Why consider breathing?

How does breathing relate to state of mind?

What’s the science behind this?

Why consider breathing?

Many of us don’t consider how important our breath is. Yet, when you think about it, you probably have some experiential understanding of the role breath plays in your daily life.

Perhaps you’ve felt short of breath. During a math test, or an asthma attack.

Perhaps you’ve noticed how tranquil your breath can be. While out fishing in the early morning, or sitting by a campfire.

Perhaps you’ve felt your chest constricted or find yourself sighing regularly. While writing email, or sitting in traffic.

These are all real experiences that show the diverse repertoire of the breath. Imagine what it’s doing when you’re not paying attention. Imagine if you could notice your breath in these situations, and how this might change your day, your dinner, or your life.

How does breathing relate to state of mind?

When you feel stressed, your body’s ancient defense mechanisms are activated and becomes prepared for “fight or flight” – to run, to attack, or to do something that requires high physical activity. One thing that happens during this response is that your breathing becomes rapid and shallow.

In short doses, this can be useful. But this is email, not a lion attack! Imagine how many times during your day you feel tense or overwhelmed. Then, consider what it does to your breath.

So, what can you do about this? For one, you can transform your perception of stress from ‘threatening’ to ‘challenging’ – challenging you to perform at your best. Simply re-framing stress can change the way your body deals with it, though we don’t understand exactly how that happens or how to do it consistently.

In addition to changing your perception of stress, you can literally control it. But how can you affect your brain like that? Funny you should ask…

Unlike other physiological functions, the breath is under both autonomic and conscious control. This means the breath is not just ‘happening’ in the background – it’s a lever. A way in. The gas pedal and the brakes for your brain and body.

It’s important to know there is no “correct” way to breathe. Just like there’s no “correct” state of mind. Stress isn’t bad! It’s part of life and, let’s be honest, we often enjoy it! To an extent. Chronic stress is a problem because we often don’t even realize it’s happening. That isn’t just sad, it compromises our immune system because the body is so frequently kept vigilant.

What’s the science behind this?

Why do we have the phrase “take a deep breath” in so many languages?  Why have scientists and poets been writing about the breath for thousands of years? Because the slow, calm, breath does three things:

Vagus_nervesFirst, it changes the carbon dioxide level in the bloodstream. This is important because the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for emotions like fear) is very sensitive to carbon dioxide (detected as pH). When you take that deep breath, your blood becomes less acidic, assuring your amygdala that you are, indeed, not at threat of drowning and that all is well.

Second, it lengthens the exhale, lifting the gas pedal on the brain. During exhale, the gates blocking the vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve, are lifted. This signifies to the brain that the coast is clear to “rest and digest.”

Finally, consciously taking a breath is the simplest action you can take to bring a wandering, anxious mind to the present moment. This is the key to understanding why concentration techniques start with focus on the breath.

We now see how the breath (1) reflects your state of mind and (2) influences it.

Now Is the Time

There is something even more valuable than our time, our attention. One minute of genuine, focused attention can be worth dozens of minutes of being distracted.

Today, more than ever, a healthy, focused, and balanced state of mind is paramount. It dictates how we work, the decisions we make, and even how we communicate. It helps us achieve goals in a world of distraction. Don’t let your life slip by. Get to know your breath, watch it change, then listen to what it brings up for you.

Stay Tuned for Updates

What would your life look like with less rushing, more space, and more balance? How would it change the way you eat, live, or love?

In future posts, I’ll be diving into the details about our breath and state of mind. Just a sampling of the topics I hope to cover, would be: the four components of each breath and what they tell us; why yoga refers to the breath so much; how breath relates to meditation… and to endurance and athletics, and even to communication and sex.

I look forward to discussing with you. Until next time!

Neema

P.S. The studies underlying the regulation of state of mind by respiration – summarized at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vagal_tone and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyvagal_Theory – were spear-headed by Spire’s scientific advisor, Dr. Stephen Porges.

References:
  • Crum, AJ, Salovey, P, Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking stress: the role of mindsets in determining the stress response. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2013 Apr;104(4):716-33.
  • Porges, Stephen W., Doussard-Roosevelt, Jane A., Maiti, Ajit K. (1994). Vagal tone and the physiological regulation of emotion.
  • West, John B. (2008). Respiratory Physiology: The Essentials. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
  • Yasuma F et al. (Feb 2004). “Respiratory sinus arrhythmia: why does the heartbeat synchronize with respiratory rhythm?”. Chest 125 (2): 683–90.
  • Ziemann AE, Allen JE, Dahdaleh NS, Drebot II, Coryell MW, Wunsch AM, Lynch CM, Faraci FM, Howard MA, Welsh MJ, Wemmie JA. (2009). The amygdala is a chemosensor that detects carbon dioxide and acidosis to elicit fear behavior. Cell. 2009 Nov 25; 139(5):1012-21.
Diagram Image Source

Today We Took a Deep Breath and Pushed the Button

4 years, 74 prototypes, 8 apps, and about 1 million breaths analyzed, we are proud to make Spire available to the world. Today we started taking pre-orders for Spire, the first activity tracker to measure breathing and state of mind.

We want to extend our heartfelt thanks to the entire Spire team in San Francisco and Beijing for their hard work, and to our team’s families for their love and support.

As we mentioned just the other day, we started cutting steel on fabricating the Spire hardware – a long journey from when Spire was a germ of an idea in Neema’s brain on a bus ride in Laos.

Beyond the intricacies of hardware design, many years of research have gone into the analysis and understanding of breath data. We had a lot of work to do to capture the signal, make sense of the stream, and make it understandable and actionable for the end user.

We were ready, and we knew it. It was time to take pre-orders. And so, we’re pleased and proud to mark this milestone in Spire development. To our early supporters and testing guinea pigs, thank you for being a part of our story.

You can read more about our launch in the press release. In it, we describe the core of the Spire experience, making a consumer device that:

  • is more useful for people throughout the day, whether they are active or still
  • gives people easy access to know and understand their state of mind, and
  • make a physical product that looks great on the body and on your nightstand

We’d love to hear from you, you can reach us at hello@spire.io or on FacebookTwitterInstagram, or Pinterest.

 

Sincerely,

Neema and Jonathan

Love, Breath, and a New Kind of Technology

I met her at a UC Berkeley social event. I saw her across the room, wearing all white. I told my buddy I saw the woman – and I was going to talk to her.

The next evening we were on a date, and we felt like we were reuniting instead of meeting for the first time. I knew she was the one and I told her I would marry her. I was not the type of person to be so brash. But her presence gave me confidence that true love existed in the world and that I was capable of it myself.

At the time, I was working towards my Ph.D. at Stanford, studying how technology can help people learn better. But I convinced this wonderful woman to go on a trip with me to Laos over winter break. And it was on this trip that I had the distance from the daily grind to … to really focus. It was in this moment that I had the clarity of mind and heart to ask (and answer) this question:

“If I could focus my work on one outcome, what would it be?”

My answer?

“For all people to have easy access to clarity of mind, focus, and balance.”

Clarity of mind has so many benefits. If technology could help us develop it – to help us be, not only do – that would have a major impact on helping people reach their personal goals. So my focus became to use personal technology to improve our state of mind.

Back at Stanford, I made this my Ph.D. topic and, as part of that, studied respiratory psychophysiology (breath-body-mind interaction). I learned that there was an entire field of Western science dedicated to it, including laboratory study of how breathing patterns change and are associated with different cognitive, emotional, and physiological states.

I came across so many papers, studies, and books discussing the intricacies of respiration and stress but they were fundamentally handicapped: they couldn’t take their lab results and translate them into impact in people’s lives. Why not? No sensor! That seemed like a good problem to solve.

So that became my goal: use the simplest, most concrete way to give people awareness and control of their state of mind using two things they already possess: their breath – and their phone.

Two years, an unforgettable wedding, a Ph.D. dissertation, and a Calming Technology Lab later, Jonathan and I started Spire. We first focused on inventing a respiration sensor that didn’t require people to wear straps around their body like was done in the lab. When we finally figured it out, we knew we had something special.

But wait! You have to hear how I met Jonathan! After my masters degree, I invented new products at Microsoft’s Beijing Research office and was experimenting with acting and improvisation in the evenings. A few of us got together and started BeijingImprov.com, with Jonathan as the player/coach. 🙂

I will never forget the first moment, sitting at Atlas Café in San Francisco, when our demo app buzzed to say I’d been tense and holding my breath while working. I realized it was right and relaxed, with it coming the realization that I was frantically writing emails instead of prioritizing my most important task. Or the moment Jonathan and I had a very productive brainstorm and I looked at the app and it said I was deeply focused. Finally, my technology was helping me be who I wanted to be: present, aware, and in control.

If you’ve ever really observed your breath – really given it the attention it deserves – you will be amazed. It is so exquisitely tied to the mind. Breathing is the definition of life!  It is the subject of soulful poetry and cutting-edge science.

Spire is a new kind of product. It’s rooted in bringing balance and presence to life. It can genuinely make you more productive. More creative. Lose weight. Have work/life balance. Be a better parent. A better listener. Anything that clarity of mind, balance, and focus can give you. These are bold claims, but the truth is that Spire doesn’t do these things to you – it helps create the conditions necessary for you to focus on achieving the things you value most in life.

Sincerely,
Neema


static.squarespace   Neema Moraveji is cofounder and Chief Product Officer of Spire. Follow Neema on Twitter @moraveji.