Why Breathwork? What Effective Leaders Have in Common

Why breathwork? I mean, short of a diagnosable condition, do we really need help breathing? My focus on breathwork coincided with the Covid lockdown in 2020, when the fires were raging in Oregon, with smoke so bad we couldn’t go outside.

So when I heard that a highly-established yoga and breathwork institute, Mt. Madonna, was offering their training program online, something in me shifted. It was 24 hours a month, all squeezed into eight, 3-day weekends. Intense and intimidating, especially with my whole family at home, it felt like a lifeline.

By then I’d been practicing yoga regularly for close to 10 years, I had done breathwork and meditation during classes and retreats throughout. At times, I’d even developed a daily practice. I once did 100 days of meditation as part of a program I purchased, which was amazing. But after it was over, daily turned to every other day, then once a week before falling off my radar altogether.

But the breathing exercises I learned during the training, combined with what I know about lasting habit change made all the difference. I learned the why behind the how, the science to back it up, and how fun and engaging breathwork is when you find the practices you love. It was empowering to be able to use them in the moment to change your emotional state or your focus.

I committed to showing up every day, even if it was only for 5 minutes. I began to gain greater control over my emotions, including feeling hurt or rejected by people I had long been sensitive to. Long story short, I was becoming more resilient. And resilience makes you confident, and therefore happier. There was nothing woo about it, And I knew my clients needed this advice too.

So do you really need help breathing?

Well, instead of help, think of this information as a user’s guide. We all know how to breathe, but few people understand how your breath is either working for you or against you.

We all know how emotions affect the body. Less well-known is how the state of the body affects emotions. Researcher Amy Cuddy popularized this concept with her 2012 TED talk explaining the impact of certain physical postures, on testosterone, which she calls the power hormone and cortisol, the stress hormone. As you know or can guess, the postures, which Cuddy calls “Power Poses,” produced measurable results in each direction.

When we translate this into real life, it turns out the most effective leaders measure high in testosterone and low in cortisol.

Of course, Power Posing isn’t the only way to hack this system. Breathwork is another formidable tool, with even greater impact. As a 2019 article in Scientific American explains, “breathing, in particular, has a special power over the mind.” Anxiety triggers fast, shallow breathing, which increases both cortisol and anxiety. Alternatively, you can reduce cortisol and anxiety with a number of breathing techniques that introduce slow, deep, coherent breathing.

I’ve continued to use these techniques before every talk, meeting, and big event, and I’ve gained the confidence to face my greatest fears thanks to all of the power posing and breathwork! And my clients who are feeling stuck or anxious now have a way to manage these emotions instead of being derailed by them. I now incorporate a 10-day course on breathwork and a 6-week mental fitness training program into every coaching package.

SPOTLIGHT ON COHERENT BREATHING

A close look at one technique, coherent breathing, is a way to slow and deepen your breath to slow and stabilize your heartbeat.

The method was introduced to the scientific community by the HeartMath Institute 30 years ago, based on the knowledge that slow, deep breathing increases the activity of the vagus nerve, which is a part of the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest response). The vagus nerve controls many internal organs, so when the vagus nerve is stimulated, the heart rate slows and steadies; blood pressure decreases; muscles relax.

When the vagus nerve signals these changes to the brain, the fear center downregulates, increasing feelings of safety and calm. Ultimately this method works using both neurobiological and psychological mechanisms to reduce anxiety.

Coherent breathing is as simple as inhaling for five seconds, then exhaling for the same amount of time (for a 10-second respiratory cycle). Biofeedback devices make it possible to observe on a screen how this deep, regular breathing slows and stabilizes the beats.

As HeartMath co-founder and adjunct Stanford professor, Bruce Cryer told me during an interview:

Other work suggests breathing may act directly on the brain itself.

A regular breath-based mindfulness practice helps us to notice when our attention drifts away from the present moment and onto worry or rumination, training our brain to shift focus. This refocusing helps to reduce anxiety and build awareness of the negative thought loops that otherwise pull us in.

Ready to put these office-friendly breathing practices to work for you? Start with one of my favorite tools for change, the 365 Pop Up Breath Check. And if you’re ready to commit to your own daily breathwork routine, I’ve just released my 10-Day Breathe into Breakthrough mini-workshop. Just 10 minutes a day to building your custom routine!

I hope to see you in a future workshop!

Elizabeth

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About Elizabeth

I’m Elizabeth Borelli, and I’m passionate about coaching women through breakthrough change. By combining my years of coaching experience, a BA in psychology, multiple certifications in ICF-accredited life coaching, plant-based nutrition, and YTT 200 yoga teacher training, I’ve developed a unique mind-body approach to personal growth and professional success.