In episode 7 of JumpbyDesign’s first season. David spoke with Dr. Belisa Vranich to find out why we need to improve our breathing skills, how to breathe properly, and make the connection between good breathing practice and successful leadership.
Here is some of what she told us. The act of breathing is instinctual. And yet, according to Dr. Belisa Vranich, the author of Breathe: The Simple, Revolutionary 14-Day Program to Improve Your Mental and Physical Health, it’s something most of us don’t do correctly — to our detriment.
Dr. Vranich is a clinical psychologist and Director of Breathing Science at the Ash Center for Comprehensive Medicine in New York City. The founder of The Breathing Class, she teaches a wide audience about the benefits of breathing anatomically to reduce stress and improve health. A prolific public speaker, she is a regular guest on cable news and national network television programming.
The Importance of Breath
Without realizing it, Vranich had been preparing for her current vocation years before she launched The Breathing Class. A cross-country runner in high school, she became aware of the importance of breath, an awareness only strengthened by a gap year spent working with deep sea diver Jacques Cousteau.
“Oxygen is cell fuel,” says Vranich. Our brains use a quarter of the oxygen we take in; the rest passes from our lungs to every cell in the body, allowing for growth and repair. When people breathe improperly, they deprive their cells of proper oxygenation. A number of illnesses are caused by having insufficient oxygen in the bloodstream since not breathing correctly does not allow the body to perform the crucial task of healing.
When you breathe correctly, from the diaphragm, using the muscles in your core, you can improve the following: energy, digestion, back pain, focus, intuition, and creativity.
What are people doing wrong?
“We breathe with our auxiliary muscles, with our shoulders and necks,” she points out. “We don’t use our primary breathing muscle.” When people breath with their shoulders, something Vranich calls “vertical breathing,” they are sending stress signals to their brain, because the body interprets vertical breathing as a sign of distress.
Improper breathing not only keeps the body out of alignment; it perpetuates a constant state of high arousal, flooding our bodies with low levels of cortisol. Stress affects a person’s ability to perform at peak levels. It can cause weight gain and chronic illnesses, like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
The Link Between Proper Breathing and Leadership
Obviously, we want our bodies in top shape. That’s why people drag themselves to the gym at 5 am and avoid eating sugar and processed food. Stress reduction is another important factor. When we breathe correctly, we can slow the heart rate and most importantly calm ourselves.
Vranich says there are a couple of reasons why this is so important for people engaged in leadership roles. First, stress “interferes with creativity.” People literally cannot think their best without good oxygenation.
Second, improper breathing distorts the signals we send to other people. When we are perpetually out of breath, so much so that we have trouble completing sentences, we end thoughts sounding desperate — gasping — rather than strong and confident. We are also less able to master the fidgeting and other movements that can affect other people’s perception of us.
How to Breathe Correctly: A Three-Step Process
- Step One: Prepare Yourself
Since people spend most of their waking lives sitting at a desk, you want to learn to breathe properly while in a seated position. Relax your shoulders. They are not involved in proper breathing, so soften them and make them heavy.
- Step Two: Inhale
Bringing your body slightly forward, toward the edge of the chair, inhale. As you do, your belly should expand outward. This is the natural state of breathing, something you can observe in your pets or young children. As you inhale, your belly expands to give your lungs room to fill with air.
- Step Three: Exhale
On the exhale, lean back in the chair and narrow your body — i.e., push your bellybutton toward your spine. This will force the air out of your lungs.
The inhale and exhale should be equal in length, and at first, it helps to look down at your body as you perform the exercise and to breath with your mouth open.
It takes practice to be able to make proper breathing a habit, but once you have managed the skill, you can bring yourself to focus and calm yourself down in as little as two minutes. You’ll never have to walk into an important presentation feeling stressed again.
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