“This isn’t going away anytime soon, and God forbid, we have other things coming our way – which we will – we really need to put respiratory health at the top of the list.” – Doctor Belisa Vranich
Mark’s new book about the seven commitments of leadership has just come out. It is called “Staring Down the Wolf: 7 Leadership Commitments That Forge Elite Teams,” and is available now from Amazon and from staringdownthewolf.com. Commander Divine writes about many of the great leaders he met in SpecOps to give examples of the commitments that one has to make to the 7 key principles of Courage, Trust, Respect, Growth, Excellence, Resiliency and Alignment.
Dr. Belisa Vranich (@drbelisa) is a clinical psychologist and a well-known expert on breathing. She recently released a book called Breathing for Warriors: Master Your Breath to Unlock More Strength, Greater Endurance, Sharper Precision, Faster Recovery, and an Unshakable Inner Game. She talks with Commander Divine today about the importance of proper breathing for managing health and stress.
- BIQ – Breathing Intelligence Quotient – Dr. Vranich’s model for understanding breathing
- Using the right muscles to breathe and horizontal versus vertical breathing
- Taking a very brief break several times a day to interrupt the stress, so that we aren’t spending every second feeling and breathing in a stressful way
Listen to this episode for practical tips about how to breathe properly for greater health.
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Hey folks. Welcome back my clients Unbeatable Mind podcast. Thanks so much for being here super excited to dig into today’s topic about breathing with Dr. Belisa Vranich.
Before I go into a little bit more of an introduction for Dr. Belisa, let me tell you about a couple things. First I hope you’re safe and sound – and your family is safe. And our hearts go out for you if you’re struggling with any health issues in this time. We understand that a lot of people are.
And we’re going to talk about today how we can get stronger through the breath. And maybe even heal ourselves. And so that’s number one.
And also I know a lot of people are feeling the acute pain of having the dislocation of their business, stopped in their tracks, or their independent contractor work just evaporating, or their job evaporating… so we’re here to also help you through that. And to talk through how you can maintain control over really the only things you can control – which is what’s happening in your mental and emotional state.
But I’m not minimizing what’s going on right now. It’s a pretty intense period and everyone’s going through it, so we’re all in this together.
Secondly, my book “Staring Down the Wolf” came out in March and it just so happens to be pretty timely. It is talking about how we stare down our fears and the conditioned, reactionary habitual behaviors that got us where we are.
Especially if you are thinking maybe things weren’t working well, or you were looking for a change and this is a big slap in the face, or opportunity. Well this book can help you do some of the emotional work to unlock your more raw, authentic potential. And bring that to your family and your team, so that they too can unlock their potential.
Because leaders are generally the limiting factor in their teams – even though they may be remorse to admit that. Staringdownthewolf.com has some free video training for you. And it’s a great place to learn more about it. Or it’s available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble… all those other places. So check it out, if you’re so inclined. Thank you very much.
And one last thing is if you like the book, please review it on Amazon. It’s just a great way to get more exposure and for other people to you get a sense for the validity of the topics.
Okay. Now, to the work. So Dr. Vranich is a renowned psychologist with a specialization in breath work. We’ve had her on the podcast before, in person. And that was a joy.
Her new book is called “Breathing For Warriors: Master Your Breath To Unlock More Strength, Greater Endurance, Sharper Precision, Faster Recovery, And An Unshakable Inner Game.”
That’s quite a subtitle there doctor. Covering a lot of territory.
Dr. Vranich: It’s a lot of territory, and it was exhausting. I mean, I loved every minute of interviews and research and such, but oh boy, did I bite off a lot a lot.
Mark: Yeah, most people would probably wouldn’t think that you can unlock strength or endurance or precision with breath work. Although they probably would say “yeah, I could see the recovery and the inner game.”
But this is gonna be fun to talk about all the different ways that breath work and unwinding maybe dysfunctional breathing patterns. And really using the full power of the breath can transform us at many levels, right?
Dr. Vranich: Exactly. And I went into the book knowing some things about it, but I think that what I learned very quickly is that there was a lot of information. It was just all over the place. So there were really golden nuggets of information about breathing for strength, for endurance, for precision… but they were scattered all over the place. So my mission quickly became to bring them all together into one place.
Mark: Before we get into kind of the nitty-gritty details, and maybe even do a little micro-practice – which I would love to do – how did you get interested in breath work? And turn that into a specialization? Give us a little bit about background, about who you are and why you ended up going down this rabbit hole of yours.
Dr. Vranich: And a rabbit hole it is. So, I’m a clinical psychologist by trade. And I focus on psycho metrics so I was doing a lot of IQ testing and personality testing. When I first started looking at breathing – and it was breathing in my yoga class even though what I teach now isn’t all yoga at all. I really wanted a way to look at it in a more practical way, in a way that was quantifiable.
And I got obsessed with the biometrics of breathing. So that was my start. And of course being a psychologist…
Mark: And what is that by the way? So for those of us who aren’t scientific or medical… what is the biometric of breathing right?
Dr. Vranich: It’s what’s measurable. So when I was doing IQ testing, I was looking at obviously your intellectual capability and how that’s measurable as far as numbers or different types of topics within IQ. And with breathing it was what numbers are we using to be able to quantify a good breath? Or a good exhale?
What do we use in hospitals? What are the myths around what a good breath is? And how can we really get practical and give it a grade?
Mark: Okay so I recognize like vo2 max – which is the volume – and then also breaths per minute is another one that we’ve talked about. What are the other measurements of breath?
Dr. Vranich: Well, what’s interesting about the vo2 Max and the breaths per minute is that… well at least the vo2 max and spirometry that’s done in hospitals to look at your lung capacity and your lung velocity – is they’re not necessarily a functional test.
You get a number. You’re told that you’re within normal limits. And really who wants to just be within normal limits?
Mark: Right. Cause we want to be super-normal.
Dr. Vranich: (laughing) yeah, exactly. And you know with the breath you kind of want to be at optimal. Because it’s something that’s really important.
So most of the tests that we had were looking at dysfunction. And they weren’t functional. So you didn’t leave learning anything or having anything to do to make it better.
And what I came up with was the breathing IQ – the BIQ – which looks at… it gives you a functional measurement for breathing. Because breathing is a movement and you can actually find out if that movement is optimal. If it is a good inhale, a good exhale, if you’re using the right muscles.
So I was really looking at it from the standpoint of let’s get a baseline – just like you do at the gym for your squat or your deadlift – and then make it better.
Okay, so let’s dive right in and kind of break it down. Let’s start with ineffective, or poor, or suboptimal breathing. What are some of the markers for suboptimal breathing in terms of the physiology and maybe the physiological effects, or ways it is done wrong?
Dr. Vranich: Sure. So when you have a breath, first of all you have to look at – are you using the right muscles? So in general, most people are not using the right muscles. They’re using – and you know this – auxiliary muscles. So neck and shoulder muscles.
Or they take thoracic, high-chest breaths…
Mark: Is that what you mean by vertical breathing? When someone’s anything with those high muscles? It’s kind of an up-down feeling?
Dr. Vranich: Exactly. Yeah, you got it right on the head. So your inhale is up and your exhale is down. And it’s not your fault. It’s that this is the way you breathe. I mean, this is the way we’re shown to breathe. I was actually looking at a – don’t ask me why – but I was looking at a Sesame Street video that was showing kids…
Mark: You’ve got a lot of time on your hands.
Dr. Vranich: (laughing) you know, love Sesame Street. But the characters were teaching kids how to breathe, and the breath they were showing was actually not a good one. It was a vertical breath. So the myths and the culture around bad breathing or suboptimal breathing are really ingrained in our culture.
The way you should breathe – and again you know this better than anybody – is that you should be taking a diaphragmatic breath. I call it horizontal, because you should be spreading out horizontally and then on the exhale you should be narrowing.
And that’s actually using the right muscles. The most important muscles you have – which of course are the diaphragm for the inhale. And intercostals, and obliques, and core for the exhale.
So looking at where you’re breathing from is the first step. And then looking to see how much you actually – in inches or in centimeters depending on what you use – how well you inflate. And how well you deflate.
And you wouldn’t believe how many people breathe very up and down, very vertically. And actually have no widening of their body at all. Or very, very little.
And the effect of that is just tremendous. It really ripples throughout your whole body – your physical and your emotional health.
Mark: Okay so let’s focus on that – the vertical breathing you’re not expanding – you’ve deactivated or even sometimes maybe your diaphragm is atrophied even.
Dr. Vranich: Yes.
Mark: And so what? You’re only bringing oxygen into the top of your lungs, and you’re not… what else? What’s happening, and what are the physiological and health effects of that?
Dr. Vranich: Well I love that you say the diaphragm is deactivating, because it really is. It’s really sort of relegated to this secondary, or really not even secondary position. It’s what’s called “inhibited” and often it’s just kind of stuck, because the muscles around it – your core muscles – are so tight that it’s keeping your diaphragm from actually being able to expand and contract your ribs.
So when you’re breathing vertically where you’re only sort of picking up your rib cage with your traps almost. You have to take a lot more breaths to get the air you need. So you end up speeding up your breath. And you mentioned that, of course. It’s the rate of your breathing. It automatically has to be faster. And a faster, shallow breath is going to put you more into a sympathetic state – or fight-or-flight state – when you may not need to be, or even want to be.
Mark: Mm-hmm. Right.
So I’ve read this stat – I’d love to hear if this is accurate – that the average person untrained will breathe somewhere between 16 and 24 breaths per minute. In this kind of shallow, vertical breathing.
Dr. Vranich: Yes. That’s ballpark. I think some people may even go faster than that. You also have a whole bunch of folks, who will just not breathe at all. They either are holding their breath, or they hover. What I call “hovering” – which is just taking tiny little inhales and tiny little exhales. And now – because our environment and especially the air around us does not feel safe – you find a lot of people who are taking these tiny little inhales and exhales.
Mark: Interesting. But it’s also true, isn’t it, that if you get into a deeply creative state that you can have suspension of the breath. Or very, very shallow breathing.
And that’s not unhealthy, it’s just a state of mind that you’re in. And your breath is kind of supporting that. Is that accurate too? And that’s not unhealthy.
Dr. Vranich: Well, the way you described it – which is perfect, and I so appreciate that – is that if it’s a breath suspension. If it’s a breath retention. And I know you have an intense yoga background as well so you have that beautiful vocabulary, which is that if it’s a suspension or retention within other breathing that puts you in a state of mind that’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.
Mark: But those people will generally also have a normal breathing pattern that’s deep and diaphragmatic.
Dr. Vranich: They do. And they use those retentions, those suspensions to create relaxation. But it’s never a breath hold to an extreme that might be dangerous. Or might be even competitive.
It’s part of a breathing practice. And it can feel really great, so that type of suspension is good. If you’re a breath-holder, it pretty much means that in times of tension you hold your breath as if you were underwater, even though you’re above water. And it happened most often in front of the computer, if you’re stressed out, or just throughout the day if you’re feeling a lot of pressure. You will hold your breath and that’s not good for your brain or your body.
Mark: It actually creates internal pressure, right? Which exacerbates the situation.
Dr. Vranich: Sure.
Mark: When you hold your breath, you’re creating kind of a back pressure which pressurizes your heart and increases your blood pressure. And, of course, it’s going to have an effect on your oxygenation in that that fight or flight. So a lot of bad things can happen.
Dr. Vranich: Yeah, exactly. I mean, if it’s a suspension – like you said – it can actually create calm. But if it’s you driving on the highway and you’re feeling super-frustrated and angry. And you’re white-knuckling it and having a bad day. And you’re holding your breath, because you’re angry. That’s just gonna make your cortisol go up, your blood pressure go up, your heart rate go up, and all kinds of bad things follow.
Mark: What is the role…? We teach nostril breathing, and one of the things I’ve been telling people… and really, I’m an experiential learner, so yes, I’ve learned a lot through my yoga teachers and my martial arts. But everything is validated through experience.
My experience is when you nostril breathe, it slows the breath down and it almost forces you to use your diaphragm, because it draws the air deeper into your lungs. Whereas when you mouth breathe it’s very easy and comfortable to just breathe into the upper chest.
So does mouth breathing play into this shallow breath as well? We’re talking about? Vertical breathing?
Dr. Vranich: Well, I’ve heard that as well. About nasal breathing versus mouth breathing. But what’s nice about being able to do a measurement, is that you can actually find that out.
So you might have a group of people and some of them breathe through their mouths, some of them breathe through their nose. But one of the best things to do is actually take their measurements to see who breathes better depending on what they’re doing.
And if your diaphragm is deactivated and is inhibited, it really doesn’t matter if you’re breathing through your nose or your mouth. It’s not going to do what you want it to do. So I think that one of the first things to do is get that diaphragm moving. Get your expansion and your contraction going with your breathing.
And then of course breathing through your nose as often as possible. Obviously, depending on the situation. And then going from there.
But just switching to your nose is not going to make automatically for a diaphragmatic breath. You know, we know – thankfully, now we know of all the benefits that it has – the nitric oxide, the cleaning of the air, the warming of the air… so on and so forth. Absolutely.
Mark: Right. So let’s talk about the psychology. You mentioned fight or flight and most people recognize the physiological impact of fight or flight. And being in that kind of agitated state.
And deep diaphragmatic or horizontal breathing has kind of an opposite or calming effect that leads to… some of the things that you mention are heightened alertness, a vigilance and a calming or calmness.
So let’s talk about that. Like how do we get into those states? And maintain them?
Dr. Vranich: Sure. So going back to the styles of breathing, if you are just a vertical breather you don’t have a lot of choices about your arousal. And it’s not that we want to be completely in a parasympathetic state or completely a sympathetic state all the time. The fact is that we actually want a range within that.
Mark: Yeah, we want to kind of balance between the two, right?
Dr. Vranich: Yeah, yeah. And I mean, you might want to be more alert some days. Or more calm other days. It may not be 0 and 10, you may actually want to be able to be somewhere within that range.
And the horizontal breath, the diaphragmatic breath, gives you choices as far as your arousal. So when you take a horizontal breath, you’re able to then pace your breath in the pace that you want. You’re able to slow it down, if you want to. You’re able to stimulate your Vagus nerve just by making the breath a lower-body breath. And no matter what you’re thinking, you go into that downregulated, parasympathetic state. And you can put yourself in the state that you want to be.
And again, it doesn’t matter as much what you’re thinking. It’s how you’re breathing and your body reading into that.
Mark: So when we notice that we’ve been vertical breathing or hyperventilating or breathing really fast – just by bringing awareness to the breath and slowing it down and getting that full breath, then we can kind of just instantly rebalance by activating the parasympathetic. Which is going to give us, or lead us to that calm state. That’s what you’re saying.
Dr. Vranich: Yeah, and it’s within seconds. I mean again, that’s nothing that I found out as a researcher, but we’ve had so much research on breathing and how it calms us both through science, through yoga, through even things like breath training and singing. We know that, but it’s getting it and bringing it kind of to the frontlines in practical language, is something that’s been the challenge.
And obviously you were a seminal thinker when it comes to the breath, in that you made popular box breathing. And you know, we all need to thank you for that. Because that brought box breathing into popular language. And you can’t find anybody now that doesn’t at least know the name if not practicing.
Mark: It’s true.
Dr. Vranich: It’s all over the place. So yeah.
Mark: Well that brings up a good point too, is it’s one thing to know about the breath, it’s another thing to do it once in a while – let’s say you’re listening to this podcast and you getting inspired to check it out or practice it a little bit. But then it’s another thing to turn it into a daily practice, which becomes a new pattern. A new habituated pattern.
So let’s talk about that – like how can you know we teach box breathing, but what’s your go-to? Because I’ve had some yoga teachers say you know say “hey, you know what? Actually I’d rather you teach people just to do it – follow the breath in and out without the retentions. As a beginners practice.”
And I get that, and so what is your like go-to for teaching breath as a practice as a daily practice until it habituates a new normal of health and calmness.
Dr. Vranich: You know, this is gonna sound funny, but it’s a hip tilt. That you breathe and actually tilt your hips. Bringing the breath down lower into your body, and connects you to your gut. Like your actual gut. Your intuition – your second chakra, if you’re into that – and your pelvic floor.
Mark: So inhale and tilt your hips forward? Like, you’re almost bending backwards?
Dr. Vranich: So you inhale, and it’s an anterior pelvic tilt so your butt ends up being behind you. If both of us were a little younger, “selfie butt” would make sense to us. So on the inhale, you let your belly go and you pop your butt back.
Mark: I’m doing it now. I feel it.
Dr. Vranich: It’s like a seated cat-cow. Now on the exhale, you put your hips underneath you. Squeeze your middle and narrow – you can even give a Kegel now a pelvic floor contraction – on the exhale. Because it keeps the breath low. And that’s your exhale.
And notice on how your exhale – you really squeeze out all the residual air.
Dr. Vranich: Then you tip forwards again. So my go-to is stop using your shoulders, start letting your hips help you remember to stay low on the breath.
Mark: That’s awesome. I love that so right there you anchor the breath at the base, at the root – instead of at the top of the torso.
Dr. Vranich: Where it’s already really cluttered. Like, in general we see, we hear, we think it’s so cluttered up there in the top part of our body. If you bring the breath down to the lower part of the body, you can actually think more clearly. And you’re taking better breaths. And calming yourself down.
Mark: I’m doing it now. And I love that. I do cat-cow every single day in rotation with the breath and to just be able to do it standing up, or just have that mental reference is awesome.
Dr. Vranich: Yes, exactly.
Mark: It’s nice to practice. Cool.
And you can do this when you’re driving or just standing in a meeting. A great practice just to carry with you, wherever you go. It’s a “no excuses” practice.
Dr. Vranich: No excuses. And no one can tell if you’re doing it. So if you have your elbows – I guess this is not relevant right now, or at least for the next couple months – but if you have your elbows up on a table and I tell you to lean, it’s better for you to lean forward than it is back on your chair. The back of your chair is not your friend at all.
But if you lean forward and put your elbows on the table in front of you – say you’re at a meeting – and you inhale and exhale and you can still rock your hips. You’re actually multitasking. So you’re at the meeting, doing whatever you need to do, and you’re also oxygenating, you’re also massaging your digestive organs with your diaphragm. You’re making for a better, healthier spine. And you’re strengthening your pelvic floor. And who doesn’t want that?
Mark: Right. And you’re keeping your mind in a more present moment, which is gonna allow you to listen better.
Dr. Vranich: Oh perfect. Absolutely.
Mark: You make a comment that effective breathing can improve your physical stability and help keep you injury free when it comes to like movement every day or in athletic endeavors. How does that work?
Dr. Vranich: Such a good question. So it’s interesting, because I always have people saying “this sounds so simple. Is it true?”
And everything I talk about has research studies behind it. I just happen to break it down and say it in a really simple way. But I’m obsessed with everything being very, very scientific.
So what the research shows is that apical breathing can put you off center. So think about it. Especially if you’re a relatively tall person, if you’re breathing up and down your breath isn’t helping your center of gravity. Your breathing should actually be lower – to where your natural center of gravity is – which is slightly below your belly button.
So there’s research that shows that apical breathers have more knee and ankle injuries. Which I find kind of fascinating.
So you’ll see that if you bring the breath – especially with you being a martial artist – when you bring the breath low you feel more stable. You feel more stable, actually, in two ways. Mentally more balanced. And physically more stable. And you’re not imagining it. Actually having the breath be low in your body keeps you more stable, and hence keeps you from stumbling from injury. With older adults, from falling and breaking their hips. Things like that.
Mark: It’s absolutely true, and anyone who’s studied the martial arts – whether it’s an internal art like tai chi or even qi gong or yoga – or a fast-moving art like jiu-jitsu or karate – that’s one of the first things they teach is to get into your center and to breathe into your belly and to ground.
And then to move from that position. And man it’s an amazing feeling when you can move multi-planar and in four dimensions – rolling and spinning and not worry about getting injured. I do it to this very day, got our mats out here, and I’m constantly rolling and practicing our San Soo Kung-Fu, which is very dynamic. And at fifty six I feel just so good to be able to do that. And I hope to be able to do that for another hundred years, maybe…
Dr. Vranich: Hey Mark, I’m right behind you.
Mark: Are you? Good. Yeah, let’s do it. The breath is the key, though. I think, even for… let’s talk about some things as simple as sleep. And how breathing impacts sleep, and how breathing and sleep together will impact your overall longevity by keeping us systemically healthy.
Dr. Vranich: So you know what – if you don’t mind if I can talk about longevity without sleep for a moment. Because one of the… and we’ve seen this in multiple studies… is that one of the factors having to do with longevity is good breathing. And I know that sounds ridiculously simple, but if you’re a good breather you have more chances of living longer. And that’s what the studies show is that your lung capacity and your lung velocity are factors in longevity. So if you… and the exact thing if you break it down to let’s even get more simple. What does it mean to have good lung capacity and lung velocity? What’s the part I can control and practice?
Its ribcage flexibility. So if you can keep your ribcage from becoming… well, a cage. And keep it more like a flexible thoracic cavity – that is one of the most important factors for your health. Period.
Mark: Mmm. Interesting. I’ve always read that… or had kind of an opinion I guess… but anyways it is my opinion that the spinal health is the part that really impacts longevity. So you’re linking it to the ribcage flexibility. Well, maybe it’s connected to spinal health, somehow.
Dr. Vranich: Absolutely is. Because if you’re breathing horizontally, your spine is getting more blood, more massage, more movement. And other studies have shown if you’re a vertical breather that you’re more likely to have lower back problems. And if you breathe diaphragmatically, you’re more likely to heal lower back problems.
And again, that’s incredibly simple. But breathing with your diaphragm is connected to your back – and very connected to your lower back – and it feeds your spine by the movement. So, the spine and the diaphragm are intimately connected. And the ribcage is just going to make your lungs fill and empty better. And your heart not have to work as strong. So it’s going to help you have better heart health.
Mark: Mm-hmm. Yeah. You see just how systemically everything’s kind of connected to that. Motion and breath, and then when you look at it from a mental and a spiritual perspective, every breath you’re bringing in life force you’re bringing in consciousness even. And the fact… the proof there is just stop breathing and see how quickly consciousness leaves you.
Dr. Vranich: (laughing) exactly.
Mark: And so yeah, I mean your total life… your entire life is going to be transformed or impacted by the quality and the attention you give to that breath. Each breath.
I was thinking about the spine. My sense is that every inhale, the spine is lengthening… in every exhale, the spine is kind of coming back to whatever stable position. Which in a sense is allowing the energy, the electricity, the fluids to really kind of pump through the spinal column, the vertebrae.
And just the act of deep diaphragmatic breathing is keeping the spine nice and young and healthy.
Dr. Vranich: So this is why I love you, mark, is because that description is so on target and so important. And what you’re describing is an anatomical breath of what your body wants to do when it breathes well. And it wants to extend on the inhale – we’re built to extend on the inhale – and when we flex, exhale.
So yes, yes and yes.
Mark: Yeah and you can actually turn that into a practice as well, right? Just when you’re standing and you’re feeling into the belly, and so you can have that hip kind of go out, while the spine extends. And you lift your crown of your head toward the sky. And then exhale, tuck the hips and allow your spine to kind of rest back on itself in kind of relationship to that Center.
That practice, right there, is kind of a centering practice that can bring great clarity and grounding, you know? And just one or two of those could be powerful throughout your day.
Dr. Vranich: And like you said, one or two. It really takes one or two. That’s it. Yes.
Mark: Now this might just be super-obvious to people, because everything we’re talking about of course is going to affect your sleep. But let’s talk about maybe the chemical imbalances that can come from improper breathing. That could lead to poor sleep at night – there’s a lot more research that’s been done since we last talked about it – or maybe the transmission of that research to the public – about the importance of sleep, and what happens when you sleep, and what happens if you don’t get sleep. And all that kind of stuff. So how do we link breathing to healthy sleep?
Dr. Vranich: Well, the way I link breathing to healthy sleep is that if you are breathing I go at it at a very mechanical kind of practical way. Because what I teach is biomechanical, and psychological. I don’t teach a lot of the biochemical, because it’s not my strength. There’s a lot of people that talk about the biochemical and there are experts I always send questions that have to do with biochemistry their way.
I do believe that if you fix the mechanics, the chemistry fixes itself. But what I look at when someone talks to me about their sleep – and their bad sleep – is that if they’re running around in kind of a Code Red all day – or orange, whatever color you choose. If they’re in a vertical breath, where they’re hyper-alert and they’re breathing in a way that’s putting them in a sympathetic state – and the sympathetic state may not feel bad to them. It may feel like “this is just how you’re supposed to go throughout life. You’re just supposed to be sprinting as fast as you can all day long.”
But if you’re in that state all day long, when you want to turn your body off just like a switch on any, you know… light switch – it’s not going to do it. Because it’s been in wartime mode all day. So it’s not just going to power down, when you tell it to. It’s gonna take a long time to do that.
So the solution in part to sleeping better, is to what I call “ITS,” interrupt the stress during the day. So if you can power down… and I don’t mean like go and do meditation for two hours, I mean if you can just power down your brain for thirty seconds, three or four times a day, you will sleep better at night, because you let your body reset, and you didn’t have it in code red all day long.
So part of the solution to sleeping better is taking those 30 seconds, those 45 seconds a couple times a day. Taking those big, deep, belly breaths – the big breaths that you describe before closing your eyes breathing through your nose and just powering down for a couple seconds.
And then when you get into bed, the sort of recipe that I give people is that obviously turn everything off sooner rather than later – I mean, if you can do it 20 minutes before bed, great. If you can do an hour before bed, it makes a huge difference.
But I tell folks to put in earplugs. I don’t have a particular brand I like – I like the blue ones I don’t know if you guys have the blue ones there, but the blue ones tend to be my favorites – those mushy little spongy ones. Put some kind of weight on your belly, and you may have some fancy yoga like sand pillow. You don’t have one of those, a bag of rice will do. You put that on your belly, you put the ear plugs in and the ear plugs aren’t to block out noise. They’re to make you hear your own breath…
Mark: Pratyahara. Turning within, right? Just sensory deprivation.
Dr. Vranich: Exactly. And you start hearing the sound of your breath and it sort of lulls you to sleep. And then the weight of whatever you have on your belly keeps your awareness low on your body. And I always tell people “do a hundred breaths like that,” and then usually they don’t make it to a hundred.
Mark: It’s like counting sheep…
Dr. Vranich: Exactly.
Mark: That’s awesome. That’s a great practice, definitely. I can see that.
And just the idea of getting off the electronic stimulation, not checking your email, all that kind of stuff it really helps settle your mind down. And then you’re naturally gonna calm your breathing down, right? And then you can go into that practice.
You know, the other thing you said about during the day we teach people to actually plan to do these little spot drills. And the breath is probably the number one spot drill that we’d like people to do. And either set a timer or develop a habit to just pause what you’re doing after every period of deep work or every meeting or before and after every meeting – actually would be great – and just do five rounds of box breathing. Or five deep diaphragmatic breaths.
And eventually then it’ll become a new normal for you. You won’t have to like think “oh, I’ve got to do a spot drill.
Another way that we say to do it is just the old trick of just putting a rubber band on your wrist. And every time you notice it, just do a spot drill. Just stop and breathe.
What are some of the other tricks you have – or tactics I should say – for people to really habituate daily practices that aren’t the forty five minutes of sitting in meditation. Because people don’t think they have time for that, until it becomes so important that they don’t have time for it. So we gotta have bite-sized chunks… gotta give them bite-size chunks, right?
Dr. Vranich: Sure. I think that once they identify what motivates them as far as their physical and mental health – so for instance I’ll have somebody who comes in to see me and maybe their wife made them come. Or their sibling made them come, or their mom made them come. And when they realize – or when I can figure out what ails them that they’d like to change, because sometimes the reason they’re brought in isn’t the reason that’s gonna help them be most motivated. And you know this, obviously – you work with people and their psyches all the time.
But if I have someone come in and they say “well, I’m stressed out. My spouse says I need to work on my stress.” I actually try to find what they want to work on.
So for instance if they end up saying “well, I have this terrible GERD when I do an intake. And that’s actually what bothers me most.”
And I say “okay, well let’s not work on the stress, cause it’s not that important to you for some reason. But the GERD really bothers you.” Well guess what? You breathing like this several times a day is gonna help your GERD and it’s something that’s measurable. So finding something that’s measurable and seeing… we were just talking about sleep… I’ve had people say… and I make it very, very practical and very sort of data-driven. I’ll have someone say, when I do six interrupt the stress spot drills, I sleep better at night. The other day I only did four and I didn’t sleep at night.
And I say “well, okay, so now you know you need to do six. That you can’t get away with doing just four. So that’s information for you.”
And they need to be self-motivated because otherwise they won’t do it. Changing health habits is really hard.
Mark: It’s hard. It’s funny, we’re finally doing something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time that’s to put together an Unbeatable Mind journal. And that will have daily morning and evening rituals, and then also spot drills. So it’ll have reminders and then you can kind of check off the spot drills and have little kind of insights that pop into your head or something like that.
So journaling is a great way to habituate these types of practices. Both as a reminder, and as a way to reflect upon how you did.
Dr. Vranich: So I made journaling… when I used to do therapy, I make journaling a requirement. Because it’s that powerful. I completely agree with you, is that we tend to finish our day and think about what we didn’t get done, and beat ourselves up. And the journal lets you celebrate your successes. So it changes your mood, it changes the way you feel and you’re not as self-deprecating.
Mark: Right. Love that.
Breathing and the Gut
Mark: Does breathing affect our biome and our digestion at all?
Dr. Vranich: So the way breathing helps your digestion, again, is a very mechanical one to start out with. I’d like to start in that way.
And I want you to just think about what your diaphragm looks like. Because in general we don’t really know what the diaphragm looks like, and thankfully we’re talking more about it now than ever before.
But you have to think about your diaphragm. Think about a Frisbee. So that’s the size of your diaphragm and hey, Mark, can you guess how many pounds of breathing muscle you have in your body?
Mark: Oh my gosh. Well, are we recruiting all the different muscles involved in breathing?
Dr. Vranich: Yeah, so all your breathing muscles…
Mark: Probably most of your weight is gonna be… except for your legs. When done well, right? So maybe… I don’t know… I’m just winging it… maybe, like 60 pounds?
Dr. Vranich: Not that many. It should be 60 pounds.
So just your breathing muscles are 10 pounds of muscle. So if you think about a steak that’s ten pounds of steak – that’s a huge amount of muscle. And that’s your breathing muscles.
And people don’t really think about breathing muscles. When they think breathing they think of those two little lung clip art that we see all the time. We don’t think about the fact that those little pieces of lungs don’t move at all.
Mark: Yeah, they don’t actually breathe.
Dr. Vranich: They don’t do anything.
Mark: They just process the oxygen, right?
Dr. Vranich: That’s it. They just sort of sit there and look pretty. And process the oxygen. And what’s really doing the work, is all the muscles that surround the lungs and the diaphragm.
So you have ten pounds of muscle. And if you don’t work it out, it’s not going to do you the good that it could do you. So the diaphragm… right underneath it, is your gut. So your gut, it’s meant to be massaged by your diaphragm. So with every breath your diaphragm flattens out, it pushes your ribcage open and it gives your intestines kind of a little massage. With every breath.
So think about it, if you’re a vertical breather, you’re not getting that little massage. And it’s not sort of a superfluous thing it’s actually really meaningful. I mean, God put your diaphragm in there to be able to help your spine, your lungs and your gut.
So if you don’t have that moving around, the first thing that’s going to happen is that you might have… remember when we used to call it heartburn? And now it’s acid reflux and now more people are talking about GERD. And the worst one after GERD is rumination.
And it’s not that all of a sudden our stomachs aren’t working anymore in the history of mankind. It’s that we’re chewing too fast, we’re not chewing enough, and the peristalsis that massage that’s supposed to be happening from above by the diaphragm isn’t happening.
And part of it is that we’re bracing or we’re breathing vertically or both. So gut health starts at the very practical which is, is your gut getting the massage from above? From the diaphragm. And below, from the pelvic floor.
Because your pelvic floor works in tandem with your diaphragm. And if you think about what’s in between the two is urogenital and your guts.
Mark: Mm-hmm. You know, it’s interesting, I love how earlier in our talk you linked the pelvic floor to healthy breathing. And I think that’s really important point to bring out again. Especially as we get older. If you haven’t learned to exercise that pelvic floor and to constantly be kind of lifting it and drawing it up then that could be… or will be a very considerable source of energy release, drain, depletion.
And also, you know… I mean, very unfortunate when we get older, if people actually start to lose control down there, right?
And so, you can strengthen all that. And practice that. So every single breath on that exhale you can be contracting and lifting that perineum and that bottom… you know, the pelvic floor. And that will have just amazing long-term benefits.
Dr. Vranich: Your spot on.
Mark: Yeah. I don’t know if you have any further comment. I just wanted to bring that out.
Dr. Vranich: I love that you did. And what’s kind of alarming right now is that we keep thinking of urinary incontinence as something that’s an “older adult thing.” And because of all the bracing that we do, and because of sort of over-developed abdominal armor – and abs that are strong, but too tight sometimes. And pelvic floors that are too tight – we have a lot of folks who will laugh and leak. Or cough and leak.
And it has to do with your core being unbalanced. So the rise of CrossFit and high interval training… and all these really good things that I love as well. You have to be careful and check your pelvic floor that you’re not bracing and actually pushing down to the part of your body that has the least resistance.
Mark: Mm-hmm. Fascinating.
What do you think – and we got to probably start wrapping up here. We can talk about this stuff forever and ever of course.
But when it comes to athleticism a lot of athletes and warriors listen to this podcast. What are some of the most important ways that breath improves… like the subtitle of your book says “strength and endurance.” And let’s start with those, right? Well you say “precision” as well but I think that really we addressed that with balance and centering. But how about strength and endurance?
Dr. Vranich: So endurance – all the research and there’s some amazing research that came out. One of the first couple studies I read was out of the UK – Alison McConnell – a researcher there and Mitch Lomax – just… there’s a lot of research. And it’s now finally coming to the forefront. Because it takes a while to get here.
That shows that if you work-out your breathing muscles, your endurance gets better. And most of the time when people think about endurance or conditioning, they think about cardio. So if you can work out your cardio, and work out your breathing muscles separately, you’re just a force to be reckoned with.
But most people don’t know they need to work out their breathing muscles separately. And that’s where their endurance training comes in. And when you think about the fact that our breathing tends to plateau at age 29, if you want to continue to compete and continue to do sports at whatever level – you have to do breathing exercises to keep those muscles strong and to keep your endurance for being really good.
And that’s important for all athletes, but I think… I’ve been spending a lot of time with tactile athletes – with fire firefighters – you start getting wise. As a Probie you have a lot of enthusiasm and you have a lot of strength. But you start getting wise in your 30s and 40s, and you want to stay not injured and keep your endurance up, so that you can continue to serve and to operate at a certain level.
So I know that’s sort of a four part answer, but that’s endurance…
Mark: That’s good. And what about strength? So, we used to teach some sort of breathing techniques I guess, for strength training. And it was as simple as when to inhale and when to forcefully exhale – depending upon let’s say the lift you’re doing – whether it’s a deadlift, or a power clean, or a snatch or something like that… or a kettlebell swing. And it had a big impact.
Is that what you’re talking about? Or is there something else?
Dr. Vranich: No. So, actually that’s why I separated endurance and strength. So endurance I’m talking about sports like rowing, biking, swimming and running. Or climbing stairs if you’re a firefighter.
With strength, you’re actually doing a very, very different breath. So whereas before you were talking about an anatomical breath, the breath you take to stabilize and to hone in on that power of pressure that you’ve created is a mechanical breath. And there’s a very distinct difference between a breath you take to stretch and open up. And the breath you take to protect your spine, and to give you power during that lift.
Mark: Mm-hmm, right. That makes sense. And you get into some detail about that in your book?
Dr. Vranich: I get into so much detail, mark… I gotta tell you it was rough… and I’m sure you’ve experienced this, because your book just came out. And unfortunately it’s sitting in my apartment in New York waiting for me. So I’m having terrible guilt that it’s there and not here where I am right now. But I’m really, really looking forward to it.
Mark: (laughing) it’s not every day you have a pandemic interrupt your daily life.
Dr. Vranich: It’s not. And your book coming out in March. But I think it’s really – again, I just need to plug your book for a second – is that this is the time to look at what our weaknesses are, and we have the time. And we’re getting smacked around with them right now… let’s figure them out.
Because human beings don’t move, unless they’re really uncomfortable. That’s just psychologically the way we are. Things have to get really bad for us to actually think about changing them so this is a good time to you know read “Staring Down the Wolf,” and take a deep dark look inside yourself. Maybe it’s not that dark.
And look at your health. Whatever is going on with your health that may put you more at risk for mild COVID going to moderate, or – God forbid – moderate to severe.
Because we do have choices when it comes to our health. And maybe it’s time to quit smoking or put our health closer up to the top of the list of what’s important.
Mark: I agree. Yeah, 100%. And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this podcast. It’s like, “okay. It’s an all-stop situation. It is an opportunity.”
In fact, we put together for our business what we called a “COPE” – crisis, opportunity, plan of execution. Because it’s an opportunity and so we looked at the different areas where we had opportunity to improve. And one of the big ones is even though we’re super healthy, and we have all these practices – it’s like you said – where could we up our game individually?
Because our primary asset is ourselves as leaders and as parents. And first we can up our game. And if our lung health is at risk – as it is with COVID – then start with breathing, right?
In fact, I start everyone with breathing. It’s the universal kind of switch to optimal performance. So start there and take this opportunity to really, finally hone in on and habituate a daily breathing practice. What better time? If not now when? Is my question.
Dr. Vranich: But have a breathing practice, and have one that’s just is a part of the day as taking vitamins. Because you know what your breathing practice is actually going to keep you healthier better than your vitamins. And I’m sure there’s lots of people that sell vitamins that are mad at me right now, but….
Mark: (laughing) they need to just breathe
Dr. Vranich: (laughing) it’s cheaper. But having a breathing practice – if you think about it – this is a respiratory lung disease crisis, right? And folks who have stronger breathing, if they get COVID are going to recover faster. They’ll get a milder form of it.
They’ll recover faster, and they’ll be able to manage the stress around it better. So this isn’t going away anytime soon and, god forbid, we have other things coming our way – which we will – we really need to put respiratory health, and breathing, and breathing muscles in our health plan. At the top of the list.
Mark: I have a sense that if you were let’s say infected or you knew you’re infected or you had a mild case that by practicing let’s say on your belly practicing forceful exhales can begin to move the virus out of your lungs. And I saw a video actually where someone claimed that. I’ve been thinking that for a long time, when this first started, I was wondering…
And then I saw a video. Was from – who’s the author of the Harry Potter series?
Dr. Vranich: Yes, I saw that as well. Yeah.
Mark: Did you see that? Yeah. Her name should be right in front of my head.
Dr. Vranich: We’ll remember it in about 15 minutes. Don’t worry.
Mark: (laughing) of course. Well, her husband was a doctor and of course was had bought into breathing practices and got her to do this – kind of what I was talking about – like basically face down forceful exhales. And then kind of like a hacking maneuver, to get whatever phlegm out of the lungs.
And she, like, recovered really quickly. What are your thoughts on that? Am I making this up? Like I really think there’s something there, because it is a respiratory… and you can be affected by the dose. And so if you think you’re affected or the first kind of sense of that you have that maybe they say the loss of smell, and tingling sensation in your lungs… that’s the time to really take like shallower or like slower inhales.
And then forceful exhales. Probably through the mouth. And do that like 20 times, three times a day I don’t know.
I know it’s too soon for there to be any research and everyone is rushing to the drugs and whatnot, but…
Dr. Vranich: So I’ll give you some of the exercises that that can help. Now, you’re having a breathing practice. So strengthening your breathing muscles is great for prevention. So, if you get COVID and you have a strong respiratory system, it’s going to make the disease and the recovery much more easy.
Now, if you’ve already got it, you need to make sure that your breathing muscles are strong. So let’s assume that you haven’t had a breathing practice before and you’ve gotten COVID. You have to keep yourself expanding and contracting. You have to keep your ribcage moving.
Because when you’re sick – because you’re fatigued and because the virus goes into your lungs – it starts hurting your lungs and it starts feeling like a lot of pressure – you have to force yourself to continue to take deep, wide inhales and exhale and narrow.
So you’re spot on when you talk about the exhale. And the way to exhale – you don’t have to be face down – you actually can sit and much like kapalabhati in yoga, what I want you to do is exhale and narrow your body. So exhale and use your abs to – not just brace – but hollow out. So that way when you do have to cough your cough will be what’s called an “effective cough.” So that’s what you want to try to do…
Mark: Bringing whatever wants to come up, up and out…
Dr. Vranich: Exactly. Now remember, in the beginning of COVID, the cough tends to be dry. So you’re coughing, it’s uncomfortable, it hurts your throat – so it’s not then that you do these things. The cough that respiratory therapists talk about is when it’s turned into pneumonia. And you’re trying to get fluid out of your lungs, and you’re trying to make sure the virus doesn’t go deep into your lungs. Or at least that you’re ventilating well.
So the number one thing I would do in regards to COVID is just make sure your exhale is super narrow. Your inhale is wide and then exhale – you don’t have to cough. I know in that video they talked about coughing – you just really have to make sure that you’re exhaling well.
And something like balloons is a great thing to blow into. One of my favorite gadgets is Bas Rutten’s O2 trainer as well, but you can just sit around and do kapalabhati where you blow, exhale and make sure your body is narrowing and that those exhale muscles are getting strong.
And you’ll feel it the next day. You will feel your abs, your obliques and even your back.
Mark: Yeah. It’s a workout. JK Rowling, by the way, was her name…
Dr. Vranich: Ah, there we go.
Mark: Yes. So obvious. That’s awesome. Anything else that people could be aware of or thoughtful of when it comes to the COVID-19 issue?
Dr. Vranich: Hey you know what you brought up parents before and I think this is a really great time to look at your kids breathing, because they sure have been hearing about you know lungs and lung health and you know pneumonia and things like that on the news.
Maybe try to keep your kids being able to breathe with that I call an abdomino-thoracic belly breath. So they have that and they keep that until about age five and a half. So this is a really good time to lay down on the floor on your backs with them. Put a stuffed animal or your family pet on your belly.
Inhale – push it away to make a big belly. And then exhale – let it fall and squeeze. And get them to keep or remember that belly breath.
So it’s a really good time to do that. I have a little book on my website called “The Belly Breath,” and all the proceeds for that go to COVID relief efforts.
But it’s a fun little book and something you can do with your kids that will not only relax you, but relax them. And I think a lot of us want that right now.
Mark: Yeah, for sure. That’s awesome.
And your website is it thebreathingclass.com?
Dr. Vranich: Exactly.
Mark: Okay. And you have some online training. And you can find more about the book there. And yeah.
Well, thanks so much for your time today. I mean, it’s just really valuable information. And I applaud your work, and I think it’s really making a great contribution. And breath is so important as we know.
And the book again for those who might have forgotten “Breathing for Warriors.” And everybody is a warrior – everyone needs to be a warrior right now. So I highly encourage you to check it out.
And check out Belisa’s website: thebreathingclass.com. And go buy the book for kids, and support COVID relief. It’s awesome. I applaud you for doing that.
Dr. Vranich: Thank you for having me. It’s been an honor and a pleasure to be here. And thank you so much for having this forum, to be able to have you know intelligent, fun discussions like I hope this one was.
Mark: Oh, it was a blast. This podcast have been really growing on me, because I get to have great conversations with other really great people.
And I don’t have to be you know on, right? I get to be the learner. Which is really fun.
So anyways keep doing what you’re doing. And folks that’s it for today. So again check out Dr. Belisa Vranich’s website: thebreathingclass.com. Some great resources there. You can support COVID relief with the breathing book that you can do with your kids. And check out her “Breathing for Warriors,” new book that she just recently released.
And start breathing. Start breathing deeply, and turn it into a practice. And watch your life transform.
And thanks for listening. And we’ll see you next time. Stay focused.
Join the discussion 4 Comments
Recently taught myself anatomy and physiology and taking them I also took some psychology and neuroscience some things I’ve read from some leaders in the field Dr. Amen, I’ve studied the 7 different forms of ADHD, I have the hyper focused kind at first it was video games I could go for hours and play non stop. here’s how I cured my ADHD. When I breathe I am focus. I am now. Also I’ve been learning to control my oxygen levels with an O2 tester after 2 miles running and doing and then straight to 20 pull up’s. I don’t need the rest periods that are given. Just several focused breaths. I’ve been also using the Wim Hoff method. Cold Showers aren’t good enough anymore. And I’m excited to throw myself in freezing water.
This info is great, money is tight for me which is why I can’t afford the program. But having this info free is awesome.
This was a wonderful session. Breathing is much more important to my and everyone’s health and this was an excellent way to learn more of how to use the breath to improve health and quality of life. Thank you.
This is a very interesting conversation. Every morning I make my meditation with differently breathing technologies. It brings silence to my brain and helps against stress about the day.
I red many books from the monk Thich Nhat Hanh. He describes the importance of breathing as well. I see a lot of parallels to the way of thinking from Mark Divine and Dr. Belisa Vranich.
Thank you for this interesting conversation.
Best regards from germany.
Very useful Podcast, I heard it 3 times. The technique on moving the spine during breathing in and out is very useful