Oxygen, not coffee

Sun Tzu said that “Morning energy is keen, midday energy slumps, evening energy recedes”. In Daily Rituals, Mason Currey outlines the quirk-full and often-mystic routines of famous creatives, scientists and thinkers—a lot of them describe the featured individual’s primary activity as taking place before the morning is over, and sometimes before the sun has even risen. Many productivity goo-roos advocate soft waldenponding in the mornings to minimise distraction and maximise focus and output.

All this ain’t new. Since ancient times we’ve known that the beginning of a day is the epitome of opportunity. Soon after awaking we are at our most alert, our most perceptive, our most creative, our most engaged. Why is that? Simple: circadian rhythm. We dance to the beat of an in-built, twenty-four hour timepiece that determines the functioning and sequencing of a vast number of physiological and psychological functions. It’s why we can sleep for eight hours and not wake up in a puddle of urine; it’s why our mental alertness and body temperature declines in the evening; it’s why we feel the need to sleep longer in the winter than the summer.

Our circadian rhythm is important. It is one of the primary determinants of what our mind and body does at different times during the day and night. But it is does not always have the final say. We can and do override its signals. Artificial lighting and heating; alarm clocks and other tech; medicines and drugs. All distort (or complement) our natural biological rhythms.

I have a personal interest in this. I work shifts. My sleep pattern and biological rhythms are all over the place and I’ve experienced the consequences of taking their distortion too far. Thanks to that, I have a pretty good sense of where the precipice between abyss and solid ground lies—life would be hell if I didn’t. I also have a few aides that I regularly call upon. I utilise black-out curtains, I take ZMA, I have processes for transitioning in and out of night hours, I have morning and evening routines, and I drink coffee. Bitter, dark, gorgeous, intoxicating coffee.

Coffee, and the caffeine it contains, wakes me from a stupor. It sharpens my senses. It starts the swirl of thought. To me, and to many others, it is synonymous with waking up and becoming human once again. There’s no mystique surrounding its function, though. Caffeine is nothing more than a central nervous stimulant. Which is the cause of much of my recent dismay—perhaps it’s not a good thing to rely upon? Perhaps the distortions it makes to my natural biological rhythms are, over the long term, harmful? Perhaps I should lessen how much I consume? Perhaps I should not consume it at all? And in the total absence of coffee and caffeine, what can I lean on to catapult myself into a higher state of wakefulness?

The answer is all around me, in the very air I breathe. Oxygen.


Years ago, I spent a few summers working at festivals, often doing ungodly hours—eight PM till eight AM was a good one. And after such a shift, I’d retire to my tent. A tent in the middle of a field, in the middle of a festival with tens of thousands of people, in the warmest months of the year. I’d go to sleep in the cool of morning and wake up a few hours later dripping in sweat and unable to breathe. In such a scenario, I’d peel off my sleeping bag, open my tent’s inner flap in a vain attempt to circulate some air, and lie back down, usually on my side so I had the maximum amount of skin not in contact with the ground. Then I’d look at my watch and groan—hours until I had to work again. Hours I knew I had to use to get some sleep.

It was hard. Until I learnt a trick.


The nervous system controls what state your body is in. Cleaved down the middle, you’re in either fight-or-flight mode or rest-and-digest mode. The former is associated with increased heart rate and blood pressure, a diversion of resources to the brain and to the muscles and organs required for intense physical activity, a quickening of inhalation and exhalation and a release of chemicals and hormones like adrenalin. The latter is associated with decreased heart rate and blood pressure, the sending of resources to the digestive system and restive organs, a slowed and steadied pattern of respiration, and the release of chemicals and hormones which promote rest, recovery and peace of mind. But here’s the thing: the arrow of causation goes both ways.

The nervous system initiates physiological and psychological functions, but the reverse is true, too. Feynmann’s observation that “you are the easiest person to fool” is more than a comment on epistemology—it’s the key to life without coffee. See, the trick I had learnt during my festival days was to fool myself, to fall asleep effortlessly by manipulating my pattern of breathing.

First, I would lie still and mentally search for and isolate an area of tension (the neck and shoulders are hotspots for me). Second, I’d slow my breathing, taking long, deep breaths in and out. Third, I would focus on deflating those areas as I exhaled, imagining myself dissolving and sinking into the very ground I was lying upon. The next moment it would be morning.

Such a trick has come in handy. I’ve used it to fall asleep in a bus shelter, on trains, on coaches, on planes, lying in odd positions in uncomfortable places, and—to my partner’s chagrin—less than five minutes after getting into bed. But falling asleep seems like the opposite of what I want to achieve, though. I’m seeking an alternative to caffeine that preserves the integrity of my biological rhythms but still offers the same neurological spike. But if I can manipulate my breathing to calm myself, can I not also manipulate my breathing to arouse myself?


Wim Hof is known as “the Iceman” for his ability to withstand and function amidst extremes of temperature. He’s ran a marathon in subzero conditions and in the heat of a desert. He’s been injected with an illness and consciously compelled his immune system to rise up and defend against it. He’s remained immersed in freezing water for hours. How? By an aeons more advanced variant of my fall-asleep-quick trick—he uses the mind to control the body. Like some spiritual monk from a fantasy trilogy, he displays conscious control of normally subconscious processes. Can I do the same when I need a pick-me-up? Theoretically, sure. If I can dampen nervous system activity with the breath I can definitely heighten it. So here’s the plan.

I have a few weeks over the holidays where I don’t have to work. That’s my window. As soon as I enter that window, I’m going cold turkey. No coffee. Instead, I’ll rely on oxygen, on breathing, on little and large lungfuls of air, to stimulate me. And to make it easier, I’ll have a specific breath-set that I fall back upon. This is, technically, a part of the Wim Hof method that I found online—a program that eases a person into Wim Hof’s teachings and incorporates cold exposure and exercise alongside breath manipulation—but it’ll work just as well on its own. First, I’ll get comfortable—I have a meditation mat and I’ll either sit in seiza or in the Burmese position. No lotuses around here. Then I’ll breathe as follows:

1) Thirty to forty quick, sharp and strong inhales and exhales.
2) A long and deep inhalation which is then held for ten to fifteen seconds.
3) A long and slow exhalation, which after completion is held for ten to fifteen seconds.
4) Repeat a total of three or four times.

In quickhand: Power-Inhale-Exhale.

That’ll be my alternative. That’ll be the thing that banishes grogginess and promotes awareness. That’ll be the thing which will allow me to survive a life without coffee.