On today’s show we are talking about the very popular topic of breathing with Dr. Belisa Vranich. Belisa is someone I have learned a lot from in the breathing space and I really appreciate how she distills it down for every day use and many of the situations we may face in life and performance. We discuss ways to improve your breathing mechanics and muscles, and this is information that can be used by all.
Listen to the episode here:
- When COVID Struck [00:06:52]
- Fear and Anxiety [00:13:49]
- Coming From the Same Place [00:24:14]
- The Breathing “Trends” [00:30:20]
- How the Lungs Work [00:32:21]
- The Psychology of Breathing [00:35:52]
- The Risk of Being Too “Civilized” [00:42:33]
- Importance of Breathing and Kegels [00:45:55]
- Learning About Breathing [00:53:21]
- The Breathing IQ [01:01:08]
- Breathing and Longevity [01:03:35]
- Locating the Diaphragm [01:08:37]
- Controlled Hyperventilation [01:13:59]
- Breathing Support for Ultra-Performance People [01:19:44]
- Practicing Stress [01:26:44]
- Mechanical Breath vs Anatomical Breath [01:28:30]
- Pool Workouts [01:33:05]
- Breath Counts and Exhales [01:36:32]
Breathing Expert Dr. Belisa Vranich
In this episode, I got to talk with the clinical psychologist, Dr. Belisa Vranich. I’m trying to do shows that still can impact us in our every day whatever we were calling normal lives. I am trying to consider the challenges and some of the things that we’re all managing right now in this unique time of COVID-19. It’s a blend, these are things that you’ll be able to use regardless, but it’s something important to talk about, which is breathing. I’m not talking about yoga breathing. How should we be breathing and how we can use it to improve our health and lower stress?
Believe it or not, we get down and dirty into how you can breathe in certain ways that impact acid reflux and IBS. We get into the vagina and ways to strengthen access for maybe a stronger erection. Those words either scare us or excite us. All of this is connected to our health. Dr. Oz said once, “The penis is the dipstick to your health.” I don’t want to be afraid of any of it.
She explains everything in a completely understandable. There’s enough science there where you go, “Yes, I believe you,” but it’s not so sciencey that it goes way over your head. She works a lot with firefighters, the military, and the police, and these are people who have got to be precise, safe, and efficient. We all need versions of that in our life. She is a wonderful human who we can learn so much from. She’s got some books out if you want to check them out, Breathe, Breathing for Warriors. Her website is TheBreathingClass.com.
I want to remind you, I might say this in all of the intros when we are staying at home, this is about maintaining and doing the best you can. If we can develop maybe some new habits that we’re going to take with us out of this lesson, whether it’s communicating more, being on our phone less, getting outside, and whatever natural environment we have and taking advantage of that more, taking better care of ourselves. It’s that constant reminder that health is the real wealth.
This isn’t about, “I’ve got to kick my own butt and get everything done and clean every single thing and train every day.” Some of it might be about being gentle, kind, and loving to ourselves and to each other because this is stressful. Honestly, being on top of each other if you’re quarantined at home with your family, we can get into that like. That in itself is great and stressful. I want to say that I’m sending you all my love and power during this time. It’s an opportunity to evaluate and go reenter back into our everyday lives hopefully better. I hope you enjoy this show.
When did you say, “I’ll pull the cord and go.”
I was in Indonesia for a month, I got out right before they closed everything, and then went to New York. I didn’t realize how desolate and grumpy it was going to be so I tolerated that for a few days because it was different. Staying at home if you have a nice home and a big yard is different. I have it good because I don’t have a lot of people in my space but it’s even worse if you have a small apartment. I have a small apartment.
You have small apartments, that’s what you do. When you were in Indo, were you thinking that this was going to be a big deal there?
I was there all of February. I don’t listen to the news a lot on purpose because it’s more entertainment than it is real news. They have other things to think about. Because it’s a poor country, they have to think about, “If we lock down, do we have enough police and military to keep people from looting and getting upset because their income comes from tourism?” In a poor country, the considerations are different. It’s not toilet paper, it’s the real stuff.
Trevor Noah comes into his American accent and was like, “Johnny, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m in the bathroom with a sink and a shower. What am I going to do?” It’s like, “Exactly.”
Especially when you read this book. I love Trevor Noah and I had to read his book. Have you read it?
It’s good you’re like, “No wonder he has the sense of humor he has because he has a perspective on what real poverty is.” He’s fantastic.
Even the fact that his parents were together, it was illegal probably.
How’s it been there, do you mind me asking?
We have the best-case scenario. When I started having kids, I put a gym in my house because driving 30 minutes to Gold’s Gym wasn’t practical. I was like, “By the time I drove there and back, my workout would be done.” You don’t have that time. My thing is I’m well aware. We have the best-case scenario. That’s why it’s funny because everyone we work with, the companies are like, “Tell us training tips and this and that.”
I go, “Are you crazy? People are in apartments homeschooling and working from home. Go in the sauna for twenty minutes.” “Is that before or after I’m running after my two-year-old or doing another Zoom meeting? By the way, I don’t have a sauna. I live in an apartment building and we all go down to the basement to do the laundry in the laundry room.” Laird and I are well aware. We’re in a good scenario.
When this started, I was doing the fancy at-home workouts. I was doing all kinds of things and moving furniture. Now, as things have progressed, I’m down to the basics. I do 300 split squats a day because I can do them standing up whenever I’m waiting for anything. I then curl with this and I run when I can. That’s it. I’m not going to do anything fancy because I’ve had it. I don’t want to gain weight. A tiny little gym in my building, they closed the gym in the building.
Were you ever using that gym?
Yeah, I would. You got to remember, I’m writing this book so I have no social life. All I’m doing is what I’m doing now, which is to be in front of the computer, isolate myself, and work out as much as possible. That was my life. This is a continuation of that. I go down and use that gym if I needed fifteen minutes of working out. I have a studio apartment so I don’t want to work out there, I want to change rooms.
[bctt tweet=”The biggest challenge to getting stronger is injury. Your biggest foe is injury.”]
My mom and my brother are down here as well so it’s the three of us. All I do is cook. I believe they only have me long because I love grilling. They have me because I love cooking. I will make a full lunch and then five hours later, I will make a full dinner. I don’t have the 2-year-old and the 4-year-old or an elderly grandparent to take care of. My mom is a rock star. This is the genes I have, I’m grateful. She’s the honey badger. She’s safe walks, does yoga, and she’s not scared of anything so I’m not having to take care of my mom in any way.
You have somebody and maybe she’s already had this lifestyle, she’s walking, and she’s doing all these things already. The balance of being measured, like, “Be smart. Don’t go to highly populated areas.” Maybe you can go to the market but not her for now. If somebody was already pretty sedentary, it wouldn’t be like, “Now is the time to get in the shape of your life when you’re 85.”
I always say that with pregnant people, it’s like, “If you had a pretty rigorous workload, you’ll start to modify accordingly.” Don’t find out, “I’m pregnant,” and now you’re like, “I’m going to get into triathlon shape.” It’s an interesting thing where maybe people who are in different places like your mom came into this pretty robust, how does she maintain that in a safe way?
A part of it is she’s not scared. I know this doctor, he’s awesome, and he always asks people, he works with cancer patients, “Are you scared of death or not?” His treatment is different if the person is fearful and if they’re not fearful. We have to look at, what does fear do to our immune system? What does happiness do to our immune system? Those are two things that are important.
What I’m seeing with a lot of older adults, at least in the community where I’m right now, is that they have each other, they’re all well, and they’re saying, “We are still getting together because we are each other’s happiness.” I get depressed, for sure, if I don’t have contact. This is my contact outside of feeding my mother and my brother and I’m excited about it. I get to see you. I’m bummed because I don’t get to be in your kitchen, which I keep hearing about. Human connection, we’re learning about that, we’re getting to appreciate that.
If you said in my home compared to Laird, one of my kids has more of what we call negative emotion
like Jordan Peterson. It’s worry, fear, or anxious. For me, with the way I grew up, I had to look ahead and find stability. My parents weren’t doing that. I’m always trying to figure out how to keep that worry or fear. It’s a voice. You can put a brace on, you can have distractions, and you can do all these things but the voice is still niggling in the back of your brain going, “Is it going to be okay?”
When is that voice intuition and when is it anxiety? The idea of hearing the voice and when is it intuition and when is it something you need to put the kibosh on because it’s getting in your way, that’s a topic I find fascinating. As women, we’re wired to be looking ahead. I call it the bear on the porch whereas women will look out into the horizon and see, “Honey, there’s a bear coming.” Honey, whoever he is, will not care about the bear until it’s on the porch.
Most times, that bear might go left or right and go into someone else’s yard or back to the woods and never end up on the porch. I wish I had more of that.
Psychologists don’t talk enough about adolescence. We always have the cliche of, “What was your childhood like?” Childhood is important but adolescence is important. There’s your personality but the parts that are open to nurture look to see what your parents do. Personality is hard to negotiate but I’ll see whole families who have anxiety disorders.
Some of it can be genetic but some of it is also like, “How do the people around me respond to the bear?” Are they talking about the bear that might be behind the bear that they can’t even see? Are they more practical about, “Here’s what we can do if happens to come over.” We’re the gatekeepers of health. That’s why marketing is always marketing to us because we’re the people preparing for the bear.
The men, until their limbs fall off or it’s hanging there, won’t deal with it. Men are almost the opposite. These are vast generalizations but men tend to wait until things are bad before they address them. I’m a single female so I got to think about that because if the bear or whatever it is gets to me, I’m strong and I’m smart but I still would like to prepare a little bit more because I can’t go, “Honey, can you take care of the bear?”
You’re not dating anyone right now?
Anybody dating anyone right now? There’s a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez called Love in the Time of Cholera. I’m like, “Wouldn’t that be great? I’d love a New York Times piece on Love in the Time of COVID. What are people doing? What are they doing for this? I was supposed to go on a date because now that I finished the book, I’m dating. I and this guy are talking, I’m like, “What do we do?” There are certain things we can do, we can go to Walmart.
Where is he? Is he in Florida?
How did you manage to strike up a conversation, like, “Do you want to go on a date in Florida?” Where’d you get that?
It was a past flirtation that is still around. I’m now supposed to be going out. After writing, I’m supposed to be doing more things and becoming social again. Walmart is a possibility, food shopping. We can’t go to the parks, the beach, or the pool. You’re left with Netflix and chill but that’s a little intimate and you might want to date a little bit before you go there. I’d love to know what other people are doing because it’s a quandary.
I can imagine. It’s funny because you hear it on all sides. You have people from relationships or married or live together and now they’re together all the time. By the way, they’re navigating that.
Somebody said to me, “We’re going to have more births nine months after this.” I said, “I don’t think so. We’re going to have more divorces than births.”
You have both. Also, it’s a natural impulse when things people are dying or things are happening, people ramp up procreation. Plus, you’re in each other’s space more. A lot of couples are probably naturally having more sex because they’re not going in a million different directions.
There are penises in the way.
It’s like, “There you are again.”
“You’re naked and I’m naked.”
It’s like, “We should.”
“We’ve watched The Tiger King already. What do we do?”
I have to say something funny about that. This is the first time I’ve ever talked to you about this. Laird could be perceived, in certain ways, as a barbarian. The joke is never a t-shirt, walking around in surf shorts, wanting to go to bed at 8:00, and not being that social. I’ve been with Laird for over 24 years. What’s fascinating is when you’ll hear him talk about the spokes in the wheel, how you move, how you eat, who you’re with, what you think about, what you read, and what you listen to.
I won’t watch The Real Housewives of Anywhere, the Kardashians, or anything like that but when The Tiger King came on, I was like, “I’ll check it out.” When you’re watching it, you know. It’s not like high-brow programming. You also know that somehow, weirdly, it’s like, “This is making me feel better about myself.” I’m like, “These people are crazy on a real level, sociopaths and maybe others. We’re doing pretty good over here.”
The timing of the release is amazing because, in a way, in quarantine and you’re like, “Do I still like my children? Did my husband like me? I’m doing good. Look at the Tiger King people.” He walked in on me watching it and he listened to it, he didn’t watch it, for 30 seconds. That’s all it takes. He’s like, “Are you watching this?” I was like, “It’s like eating a Twinkie. I’m not eating kale. I know I’m shoving the Twinkie in my mouth.” I have to own my real estate, like, “I don’t need a dad. Yeah, I’m watching it.”
The problem was that my 16-year-old started watching. After then, we are quarantined with some friends down the road and then they come in and they start talking about it and Laird is like, “I’ve had to hear about this on a five-time cycle. How are you guys watching this?” It made me realize the interesting balance between fun indulgence and entertainment. Sometimes when we’re watching things, there’s a guilty pleasure. I believe in having a little bit of fun but when you drill down on it, it’s like, “This is probably not good for me in any way.” Maybe a laugh.
When you start thinking about it, it’s like, “Did she kill her husband? Does he have a harem, the one guy?” The other guy is giving gifts and drugs to make straight guys his boyfriend and husband. You go, “Maybe I shouldn’t watch this.” On top of it, the animals. It was an interesting thing at my age in my life to have some person in my house where I’m like, “Geez.” He isn’t trying not to watch it. He’s like, “Why would you watch that?” I’m like, “Oh my goodness.”
There’s a little judgment there but I get it. Especially now, whatever topic you’re getting into, you’re going to be submersed in it, and it’s probably not the best topic to be submersed in. At least people now understand where their exotic animals come from. When they see a tiger or they see an exotic animal somewhere, where has it come from and what has it had to deal with and how long is it going to be around before Doc kills it because it’s too old to be in this too? I found him the most despicable character.
Also, when we started hearing numbers like war and captivity in the wild, it was like, “Wow.” Let’s switch to you. I want you to, in your words, share your journey, and what you do. I then want to drill down into some of the breathing techniques and tools that we can even give people. I’m sure there are days when you look at yourself and you go, “I broke every rule,” or, “I didn’t do all the great things for myself today.” That’s all of us. Sometimes we have all this information and knowledge but because it’s overwhelming, we don’t get to practice it as much.
That’s such a perfect question because it came from me not handling my stress and having anxiety and stress that I wasn’t admitting to. That’s exactly where it came from.
How long has this lived with you?
I was in a relationship with a guy who was a war veteran and he had PTSD and he had a lot of other problems. I was in graduate school. His wartime PTSD was interesting to me. It was at the time in my life when I was liking having boyfriends with problems that I could help with.
Did you want to heal people?
Birth order is important. I’m an older sister. To me, I was always, first and foremost, an older sister. I meet this guy and I was working at clubs in New York. I don’t know if you spent any time in clubs in New York in the ‘80s.
I did. Do you mean workout clubs or disco clubs?
That shows you how old I am. Disco clubs, a little bit. I went to MSs, The Limelight, and a couple of places like that.
I was bartending at The Limelight.
There you go, it’s The Limelight.
Sundays are the nights I liked because it was rock and roll church. For those of you who don’t know, Limelight was a church in Manhattan that they converted into a club. There was a lot of static around that but they did take the crosses off. You were walking into a church and there was music, drugs, transvestites, awesome clothes, and amazing things.
By the way, it’s not a church that they just threw up. We’re talking about a real stone, old, and beautiful church.
It’s right on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 21st or 22nd. I’m bartending there and I am the nerd bartender. I have earplugs in because I don’t want to mess up my hearing so I read lips to pour, which works 99% of the time. I’m always on time. I never do drugs because I’m handling thousands and thousands of dollars. I’m working because I’m in grad school anyway.
He was my bartender, he was messed up but charismatic, and a stray dog guy. It’s a tough relationship. I start grinding my teeth. I’m not scared of his trauma so that’s what was interesting. Healing for him is that I can hear about war and death and everything that went on there. I can deal with his nightmares and it doesn’t scare me.
Were you living together?
What were you studying in grad school?
You start grinding your teeth.
I don’t know if you’ve ever done this. Teeth grinders understand when you grind your teeth, the psychological is out of anger and sadness. As our relationship got more and more tough, I was grinding my teeth trying not to scream and yell. There’s a metaphor there. Although you go to the dentist and they tell you it’s a dental situation and they give you a mouth guard, it’s a psychological one.
Were you doing it when you were awake and in the situation?
[bctt tweet=”I’m a big believer in the exhale, it’s the underdog that we don’t pay attention to.”]
No, I was asleep. This harkens back to your question about stress. I did not think I had stress. By the way, he ended up going on tour with U2, opening up for them, having a couple of hit singles, and moving to London where he now has a family and two children. He’s fine for anybody who was worrying about my Kuwait war-time vet. It’s interesting.
I always have this idea that I fix them up and then send them back out into the wild. That was a great example of taking them, fixing them up, and throwing them back out into the wild. I had to come to terms with the fact that I had stress that was unresolved and that I was dealing with so I wasn’t dealing with my stress.
That’s exactly the plumber’s sink that’s leaky. I have a psychologist and I’m dealing with my own anxiety and my own stress. I get a bite guard and then I have to figure out how am I going to deal with whatever’s bothering me because it’s bothering me subconsciously because I’m only grinding at night when I’m sleeping. That’s where I came to breathing. When I first heard about it, I was skeptical. I rolled my eyes and said, “I don’t need breathing. I’ll try yoga.”
Do you know what’s interesting for me about breathing? People who do yoga or different types of yoga, they’ve been in touch with this notion of different types of breathing for a long time. I’m saying, in the modern day, yogis or meditation people, it’s been forever. If we look at a deep history of cultures that have been breathing, it’s thousands, and forever.
Wim Hof brought a lot of interesting awareness like this dynamic breathing, even tribalism, and all of this. Even though maybe they didn’t get it scientifically, it brought awareness of breathing to different groups. It’s fascinating, this essential thing that we do and some profound discovery. Even you’re saying, “I was skeptical about this breathing thing.” It’s an interesting thing when it’s pretty fundamental to who we are.
There are trends. For instance, the last time we saw an uptick in the trend of breathing was when mindfulness and yoga got popular. Before that, in the mid-1800s, breathing had a resurgence of interest because of tuberculosis. We were paying attention to breathing then more in a medical way. You can go out through history and there have been these bumps of interest.
Galen was the doctor for the gladiators. When he figured out how your lungs worked from working on gladiators that were bleeding out, there was a bump in interest in breathing as well. We’ve seen historically that people get into breathing or some element of breathing depending on the diseases, depending on sports like the Olympics, and high altitude.
Now we’re going through another bump of interest. It’s not new. I say this all the time, breathing has been around for a long time, and people have been talking about it, studying it, and doing research on it. Thankfully there are people like Wim Hof who have brought it up because now it’s popular where it wouldn’t have been had he not brought it up again.
Whether people are into health and fitness or are into something, sometimes having an intuitive understanding of what’s going on connects you closer to it. Forgive me for trying to oversimplify things, but if there’s a simple way of how the lungs work. I do feel we’re disconnected from ourselves and from what our bodies can do. A lot of it, because it’s inside and we can’t see it, we can feel it. We’re like, “I don’t know what’s going on.” Maybe when Galen talks about how the lungs work, what does that mean?
I’m the queen of simplification because one of the problems that I found when I started studying the breath, ventilation, and respiration is that it was either complicated that I would get lost. I was reading academic articles on respiratory physiology. If you read Mark West or even academic articles, they’re tough. With respect, it was woo-woo that if you weren’t into the woo-woo, you got lost in that as well. There wasn’t a simple explanation for what we do.
I’ll give you an example, the cues that we would use, I would look at them. This comes from being a child psychologist and focusing on how people learn. If you talk about strong lungs, you picture little lungs and you think of them being strong. The fact is that they do nothing. They’re like slabs of cake or sponge and they do nothing on their own. They sit there. When you talk about strong breathing, it’s the muscles that go around the ribcage that are responsible for what your lungs do and somehow we’ve missed that.
American schools, in general, were terrible about anatomy and were terrible about geography. We’re notoriously bad about that. If there’s anything to do with urogenital, we’re not talking about it. The pelvic floor and the diaphragm are BFFs because they are attached by the psoas and they do work in tandem. If you’re going to bring up anything that might be sexual or have to do with sexual organs, we don’t want to know about that either.
You mentioned this, we can’t see and feel the diaphragm. It has no nerve endings. We’re more apt to pay attention to a muscle that we can see or that you can get the sensation of it burning because you’re using it. The diaphragm, we can’t see it, can’t feel it, can’t feel lungs, and don’t know about our insides. Simplifying it and talking about anatomy first, in that idea, is important. I focus on the muscles. Other people have focused on more of the trans stuff, more of the biochemistry. For me, I’m focusing on the mechanics and the psychology of it.
You’re drawn to that. You start to think about this in grad school, relative to yourself. All the best therapists I’ve ever met when I’m talking about physical therapists or these things or even naturopathic medicine, a lot of those people were hurt. They found a modality that led them to be close to pain-free. A lot of times, those best people had their own experiences and it also makes them more empathetic to what then their patients go through.
The fact that maybe your Kuwait wartime boyfriend puts you in that situation and then you’re saying, “I’ve got to look at my own stuff,” I would imagine that it makes you better understand. Did it make more sense to you to think about the system around the things that aren’t doing anything, the muscles? When you say psychology, what do you mean the psychology of breathing?
No one has ever asked me the question, “What do you mean by the psychology of breathing?” Think about it. I think of our body as a machine and this is the way it’s supposed to breathe and somehow we’re not breathing that way. What happened? Our understanding, the myths, the misconceptions, and our human experience have made us take a machine that’s supposed to work a certain way and corrupt that process. Now we have one that is using auxiliary muscles instead of primary muscles. Things are rippling from that dysfunction to affect us. I’ll explain what I mean by the rippling.
You’ve got time. I don’t want you to feel you’ve got to power through it. If you can articulate it, that’s where we get the benefit.
Thank you. You can tell I’m passionate about this in part because it’s the only thing I know. An idiot savant in that way is that I love this stuff. I had vocational ADD for a long time. I always stayed within psychology but I’ve had every single job within psychology you can have. To have this, which now I’m so passionate about and I see a change in healing so quickly, makes me get excited about it.
You wouldn’t think that the way you breathe affects your digestion and your back, those are two things that you think, “I have back pain but what does that have to do with me breathing?” Breathing back and breathing or digestion and constipation and breathing, why are they connected? I want you to think about it as a Frisbee, it’s a skirt steak the size of a Frisbee. Pull it out of the middle of your body, it is this big, and it’s in the middle. If you slid it out, all of a sudden your digestive system wouldn’t have the muscle above it that massages it.
Your esophagus, which goes through the middle of your diaphragm, the sphincter that’s there that gets opened and closed by the diaphragm is not there. Now you have acid reflux, which you hear everybody has. It used to be called heartburn back in the day. When you have bad acid reflux, you have GERD. If you’ve taken the muscle that’s above the digestive system and that helps that sphincter keep things down and you’ve taken that out of the body, it’s not being used, we’re going to have acid reflux. That is your breathing affecting your digestion.
It’s different when you’re pregnant and your kid has a lot of air and there’s all of that, that’s different. You then hear, “Take apple cider vinegar because your body’s not making enough acid. Don’t take an antacid.” There’s that part of it. If I’m experiencing this and I go to the doctor, what’s their explanation typically for, “You have acid reflux.”
If you have irritable bowel, they should say to breathe diaphragmatically but they don’t know where to send you to learn that.
They bring it up maybe.
With IBS, they do. With acid reflux, they don’t. It’s baffling to me why you wouldn’t. Part of it is that they don’t know where to send people then. I’ll give you an example. I went to my gynecologist and we’re talking about the pelvic floor because I talk a lot about the pelvic floor. I said to her because I wanted to know, what were her favorite books about the pelvic floor. What books does she recommend? She said, “I don’t know. Can you recommend any?”
I thought, “You spend your entire day dealing with vaginas, labia, vulvas, and pelvic floors. You don’t have any recommendations for the best books on the pelvic floor?” You would not believe how many doctors don’t know where to refer people or what cues to give them to get their diaphragms to work. In general, they’re used to writing prescriptions. Not all doctors.
I want to go back to something you said, which is when you’re pregnant. When you’re pregnant, breathing diaphragmatically is hard, especially third trimester. We don’t get talked to about this. Women get told, “You will feel short of breath your third trimester,” but they don’t get told what to do. For instance, it’s hard to take a belly breath when you have a fetus or two right underneath your diaphragm. You’re not taught to do anything for that.
The breathing that’s taught for birth isn’t taught anymore. Lamaze doesn’t teach breathing for birth anymore. For me, what’s most important is right after the pregnancy, you have the potential for some postpartum and some depression. Depending on what you’ve had to have done if you’ve had an episiotomy, you’re healing from things, a cesarean, what about breathing to heal? We are getting there. Hopefully, in the next few years, doctors will be more resourceful and more sensitive. Some of them are but, hopefully, it’ll be more mainstream.
This is something that maybe people used to do hundreds of years ago and understood more intimately and then you had midwives or women that were there. One of my daughters was tongue-tied and the only reason I knew about it was an old book from a dentist that used to talk about the jaw, structure, emotional development, the pallet, and all this stuff.
They told the story that the old nurses or midwives would have one long nail and they’d check the baby right when it came out and clip underneath right away if the kid was tongue-tied so nursing was less of an issue. I’m wondering if we lost it. When we got civilized and industrialized, did we lose it? When we started wearing corsets and thinking about appearance versus function and now everyone talks about the chair and the car and all these things. These are such basic things that we should understand, if not intuitively, that would’ve been passed down.
Being civilized has hurt us in a lot of ways. Right now, we’re dealing with more folks being at risk for COVID because some of the issues have to do with diseases of overconsumption. As we become more “civilized”, we have different diseases that we’re now having to grapple with because we have too much of things. We eat too much and we sit too much. As we’ve gotten further away from how we should be breathing, it’s affected our breathing.
I have a section in the new book about how savages breathe better than modern man. A book that was written in 1920 is saying, “If we don’t pay attention to our breath, civilization is going to hurt our breath.” Primitive man used to breathe differently. He or she had bigger nostrils, a bigger diaphragm, and a posture where back breathing was easier.
We’ve gotten to that point where it’s gotten so medicalized that we’ve gotten away from things that were good to us like that nail that you said and breathing where you inhale and expand and exhale and contract. You’re right on it. The more modern the country, the worse the breathing has gotten because we’re sucking it in, and we’re bracing because of stress. Stress is one of the things that take that perfect breath and corrupts it.
If you’re stressed, one of the things you do is brace your middle because you’re waiting, you’re prepared for something. The problem is if you’re prepared for something, from the moment you wake up until the end of the day, you’re not taking a deep breath. You’re hovering because you’re trying to get ready for something that’s happening. It may be for your screen to load or to answer a text that you want to.
I’ve learned this through being in self-care, health, fitness, and sports. Also, the appearance of being ripped, they sell that all the time. I learned it the hard way. Because of playing volleyball, my obliques were overdeveloped, which shuts down other functions. People go, “That looks good.” As I moved into my 30s and learned from educated people, like, “That’s fine and dandy but you got to learn to get that to loosen up so that you can take a full deep breath, a diaphragmatic breath. That’s fine but that’s not function.”
The other thing is that people picture what health is and sometimes that picture is not functional. If you are tight, ripped, and overdeveloped in these ways, it’s like doing thousands of sit-ups, it’s like, “For what?” You’re going to be strong in a six-inch period that’s shortening. Now you can’t access your diaphragm but you’re ripped. There are a lot of things why people do that. Maybe we could unpeel the onion a little bit. You mentioned pregnancy so let’s say someone is deep into their pregnancy. How do they access the breath correctly?
I love talking about this. One thing that’s interesting is that most women are not talked to about their pelvic floor or pelvic floor contractions until they’re pregnant. One of the biggest myths is you don’t want to do Kegels wildly throughout your pregnancy, especially in the third trimester. When I hear like, “I’m in the third trimester. I’m Kegeling all day long.”
It’s surprising to me that we’re not taught this. You can have pelvic floor dysfunction because there are muscles that have not been worked out so they’re weak or because you have muscles that are shortened and not doing their job because they’re too tight. If you’re leaking when you’re doing double-under or when you laugh, it’s not necessarily that you have to do more Kegels.
You have to go see a pelvic floor physical therapist so that she can say, “This muscle needs to get stronger. This one needs to loosen up.” It’s imbalanced. Your pelvic floor is a set of twenty muscles, three layers deep. It’s a complex part of your body. Squeezing the hell out of it is going to make tight muscles tighter and continue to make you more invalid.
Your kid is big and you’re into your eighth month or what have you. A concept of how to breathe with a human being inside.
[bctt tweet=”The most important thing to me is that people get the information and use it. I’ve heard you say this before, we’re here to serve.”]
You have to learn how to breathe diaphragmatically and to do Kegels the first trimester or before you get pregnant. All of us now plan pregnancy. I was reading about how we do hormone treatment faster now because we’re not getting pregnant as quickly as we’d like to.
“I’m going to schedule.”
I remember somebody saying to me, “I scheduled my C-section because I had a fresh direct delivery. I needed to be around for that.”
We have to let it go a little.
I’m looking now at women and their plans on when they need to get pregnant and they’re planning how many children they’d like to have and the pressure of what gender and when I’d like to have them and then the IQs they need to get into the schools they need to get into and all the things that they need to do and then how I look.
I was looking at how many people know about your pregnancy, comment on your pregnancy, comment on your body before, during, and after pregnancy, and what you’re supposed to be reading. The amount of pressure is insane. When our moms got pregnant, there were probably 10 or 15 people that knew. You were told to read probably mom magazines and one book.
You never showed the number of things you show now online, much less post-pregnancy. You don’t have all these cameras on you, your vagina, your husband, and everything else that’s going around, or your significant other in the delivery room. It’s public. There’s so much pressure. I feel lucky that I’m not doing it anytime soon.
I can speak as somebody who has three daughters. You do have expectations. My oldest daughter is my stepdaughter but I’ve been in her life since she was four months old with her mom. When they hand you a child, it’s impossible not to put your hopes, dreams, and expectations. Not to live through them but to want the world for them and to have beautiful relationships. You do want them to be bright. It’s the idea of success and this weird definition, you think that’s going to make it better for them.
They then start growing up. You learn pretty quickly, “This is an individual person.” You don’t own them, number one. They are not you and they will make very different choices than you. They get even older and you might even go through some bumpy stuff with them, teenagers, and such, or they might go experience things that you were hoping they wouldn’t. What you start to think is it’s a lot of BS.
If you look at it, you start to go, “I hope this person’s journey genuinely reflects who they are and that they find something and someone maybe that they’re excited about.” It’s this whole construct of success. They’ll buy a house, after college, and all this BS that we put on them, even where they go to school. It’s like “Do I care what kindergarten?” By the way, some of the smartest people I know didn’t finish high school. I don’t give a crap if you want to Yale.
At a certain point, if you start looking at it and you love your children. You get tempered by it, believe me, you get broken into this perspective. You don’t just arrive at it, you get beaten with a hammer, and you’re like, “I’m not the perspective.” It’s like, “I’m going to love you and I hope that you can care for yourself and love yourself.” All the other stuff becomes a colossal waste of time.
I always tell my kids, “I want you to learn to tell the truth, to love yourself, to be kind to other people, contribute in some way because that’s part of feeling good, and try to find something that you can wake up for each day and be like, “Even when it sucks, I can get up for this. I’m excited.” After that, it’s all gravy. I don’t know where that comes from. If you’re reading this and you haven’t had kids yet or maybe you’re in between, you’ve had a kid and maybe you’re going to have another, get educated about your pelvic floor.
By the way, because I’ve done some of this, it’s harder than you think. Doing some of this work, you think, “Squatting, pressing, and all of that is hard work.” When you start getting into the nuance of working on your pelvic floor or diaphragmic breath, it’s subtle and a lot harder than you think. I would encourage people to bear with it a little bit in the beginning. I was even doing some of the breathing, the holding, and staying in certain positions while holding. A little bit of beads of sweat is coming down.
It’s subtle and it’s such an unfamiliar thing to learn, to grab, or to talk to. Your nether regions, it’s like, “How do I talk to those muscles?” Some are short and some are off. To encourage people, be a little bit patient because it’ll be worth it. If you’re talking about something that you could work on, by the way, once you learn how anywhere forever, it’s also a benefit in many other ways. De-stressing, downregulating, oxygenating your system, and disease prevention, it’s all these other things that we don’t connect to our breath. I want to encourage people that if they’re going to look into this, have a little patience. There’s a learning curve.
You reminded me of one of the reasons we don’t do good Kegels and it’s because of your doctor, who often may not have a vagina. I don’t mean to sound men hating but I realized the example they were giving you for how to do a Kegel was leading you into a breath that didn’t make sense. This is why most women don’t do Kegels or start doing them but then it doesn’t feel right. Men should do pelvic floor contractions too. This is not just for women.
If there’s a differentiation, maybe you could touch on that.
For men, you have to think about you don’t have a vagina but you do have eighteen of the other muscles, and you don’t want to have incontinence when you’re older. You do want to have a strong erection. One of the best things you can do for your erection is to do pelvic floor contractions. I worked as a sex and health editor at magazines so men were always asking, “How can I make my penis bigger and stronger?” One of the things was to do pelvic floor contractions.
If you got good at the contractions, I would tell them that you could add a towel. This was always interesting because then I’d be like, “Add a towel and you can.” If you have a penis and you want to work it out, you squeeze your pelvic floor and put a hand towel on it. You can go up and down and strengthen your pelvic floor muscle and your erection with that little weight of the hand towel. You then can go to a little bit bigger towel.
Where do you put the hand towel?
You put it over your penis.
Almost at the base of the penis, you get a little extra load.
You put the load on the tip. I look at everything as muscles.
That must be challenging.
It depends on your level of enthusiasm, your size, the strength of your muscles, and your game plan. I would always say that if you got to the wet bath towel, you are the king of the mountain. You can work out your pelvic floor and you should for reasons. You can take viagra, you can do the topical gels that bring oxygen to the surface, or you can do a hell of a lot of Kegels as a man and that’s good for you. It’s good for women for the same reason as far as the muscles in your vagina.
We have two more muscles than men. I think about Kegels. I think about tightening up.
One of the reasons we got it wrong and such a generation of us got it wrong or don’t do them at all is that doctors talked about vaginas as elevator shafts. You go up five flights of stairs. I don’t know if you remember that because I remember getting told you squeeze as if you’re going up different floors. You’re calling my vagina an elevator shaft, already, I’m not happy about this. Anytime you tell someone to go up, they’re going to inhale.
Your body doesn’t work that way. You should be contracting your pelvic floor on an exhale. Already, you have an ugly metaphor and a cue that makes you do something that’s not right given your pelvic floor. You should be squeezing your pelvic floor. As you’re narrowing your middle, you’re squeezing your pelvic floor. Everything is going in the same direction. You can try this now. I can’t tell if you’re doing it. I got to tell you that when I first started teaching breathing, I would always put the pelvic floor in. When I first started teaching breathing, it was all groups of men.
It’s not just normal men but macho men.
Being at the Department of Justice in San Diego, I would still talk about the pelvic floor. Usually, I could tell if someone was doing it if they looked up and were a little bit confused.You have to combine the pelvic floor contraction with an exhale, that’s all it is. If you are contracting your pelvic floor and you are exhaling, you’re closer to right than you were if you’re inhaling. I want people to be careful because I read a study where at least 40% of women would bear down when they thought they were contracting their pelvic floor.
If you’re sitting on a chair right now, think about your pelvic floor as your bicycle seat. On the inhale, you’re going to relax it, don’t bear down, and you need to relax it in order to do a good contraction. On the exhale, you’re going to tip your hips underneath you, you’re going to squeeze your pelvic floor, and squeeze your abs so it all happens together. You then roll forwards, inhale, relax your glutes, and relax your pelvic floor. You should always be doing the contraction on an exhale but always paying attention to the inhale, which relaxes it and does a reverse Kegel.
I love the idea too about even paying attention to the inhale because it’s that softening, that relaxing, and also being even able to bring the breath further down. I used to tell people that when you’re breathing, even if you have to fake it on the inhale where you push your stomach out, sometimes it’s like, “I don’t even know how to get there.” “Push your stomach out as you’re inhaling.” You then go, “I can get my breath down there.” That’s good. For men, is it pretty similar?
It’s totally similar. Gabby, can I tell you how awesome it is that that was your explanation intuitively that you said that? It’s perfect.
Especially girls, “Flat tummy, hold your tummy, be flat, and have a flat stomach.” I understand like, “You’re in your bikini.” I’m not here to tell people how to be. When you have your clothes on, let it be. On the inhale, create that expansion, let the tummy push out, and then the breath will move up and such. That’s one thing. I did a drill with you with Laird. There’s so much to go into but I want to touchpoint and then we can direct people to your book, websites, and things like that so that they want to dive deep.
It’s also about people going, “That makes a lot of sense to me.” The only way to turn people on is it’s got to occur to them. You make the invitation and then they do whatever they want. You talked about the system around the breath and the lungs and the muscles around are the system that’s making that happen. We did a drill with you. First, you go in and you would measure us. Can you talk about that and your favorite song drill? This is something achievable for people. If they’re stuck at home right now, they can do it to each other.
I’ll put that up on my website so you don’t have to buy the book. You can go to my website and get your Breathing IQ. The idea of The Breathing IQ came about because that’s what I did, I did IQ testing as a psychologist. I realized that with breath, we didn’t have a baseline. Telling someone to take a deep breath was not necessarily going to give you a diaphragmatic breath.
The Breathing IQ comes from, we’re going full circle, a measurement that used to be done when we had more disorders like tuberculosis. We needed to get a functional measurement that wasn’t in a hospital to see whether a person was breathing well. This is something that goes back a long time ago. You measure around the outside of the person. You look at what’s called thoracic excursion. The part of it that’s modernized is that we now also use our shoulders to pick up our thoracic cavity. You feel like you’re taking a deep breath because you’re pulling your ribcage up and that also culturally and psychologically puts you into that power pose, which feels good for a few minutes.
The Breathing IQ looks to make sure that you’re not using your auxiliary muscles and that you’re using primary muscles, and you can get a grade. The easy way to do it is to not use your shoulders at all. Measure around your middle. If your exhale is in the twenties, your inhale should be about two inches more. If your exhale is in the 30s, your inhale should be three inches more, and so on.
You have to take body type into account. If you’re lean and lanky, you don’t want to work on your exhale, you want to work on your inhale as you did, you had those obliques that were strong and maybe tight so you are going to work on your inhale. If you’re a little overweight or if you’re a little bigger, you’re going to want to work on your exhale. You don’t want to necessarily get wider. You want to make sure your exhale is working and you want to get narrow work.
People don’t realize that this is a real thing. I have a family member that passed away and part of his situation was he couldn’t exhale. People think of health as only on the inhale. Also, as we progress and we’ve had these patterns for a longer period of time, being conscious of both is important.
I’m a big believer of the exhale, it’s the underdog that we don’t pay attention to. The research on breathing and longevity shows us that working with an adult and you’re thinking about them breathing well and being healthy, you need to work on their exhale. There’s a two-generation study out of Boston called the Framingham Study and it looked at older adults, it looked at their lung capacity. A big lung capacity is important but also your lung velocity was even more important. What that is is having an exhale that is efficient.
Especially, nowadays when we’re dealing with COVID and respiratory problems, what hurts us is having an exhale that’s inefficient. Think about the cases that are severe in COVID turn out to be pneumonia and the deaths that happen end up being related to pneumonia. You get pneumonia because your cough isn’t effective and your cough is an exhale. Working on your exhale for all of us is going to make us healthier and less at risk. That’s incredibly oversimplified but we need to pay attention to our breath and our breathing and have strong breathing.
If I’m 70 or 80 and I’m sitting around and maybe I’m someone’s parent so whoever is reading this, maybe your parent. At this moment, especially with COVID, you could start to work on that, and improve exponentially. We can go back to the measuring and then how we progress.
Gabby, I’ll put both of those things. I’ll make sure they’re up on my website so that folks can go there. Yes, I’d love it if you get my book but it’s not the most important thing to me. Folks that know me and my publishers hate it but I give away books, I give to anybody who reaches out to me, and says, “My library doesn’t have your book.” I send them a book.
The most important thing to me is that people get the information and use it. I’ve heard you say this before, we’re here to serve. Both those things will be on my website, how to take your Breathing IQ and then what to do right now in your home by yourself, not by yourself, naked, clothed, or however you want to be doing it.
The amount of people that breathe vertically using auxiliary muscles that are older adults is much higher than in middle-aged folks and younger folks. You will see your parents will inhale and exhale with their shoulders and that’s terrifically inefficient. It’s a tiny breath and it’s a terrible exhale. Whereas your exhale should be a narrowing of the body, they’re going down. If you do this right now, you look to see, “When I just exhale and let go, how much extra air is still in there that’s affecting the size of my next inhale?”
[bctt tweet=”I want people to think about breathing muscles like any other muscle on their body, your glutes, your hamstrings, and your quads.”]
Try this right now where you exhale and squeeze your whole body. Think about your ribs narrowing and your belly button getting closer to your spine and, in a circumferential way, squeezing out all that air. Look to see how much air you had in there. From that, let go downward exhale. It’s a lot. As you start getting older, that flexibility in your thoracic cavity, and they’ve shown this, is that the flexibility gets worse. The best thing you can do for your health is to make sure your ribs move, make sure they spread on the inhale and contract on the exhale you measure.
That’s your baseline. When I got the opportunity to take your class, which is a gift because it was nice to be taught new but also actionable things, you can put your hands lightly on your ribs. For those of you reading, to be honest, I lay on the floor. I don’t mess around with my breath when I’m learning something new and trying to multitask or sit around. There’s something to be said for laying on the floor and giving it a few minutes.
Also, sometimes you can get high. A lot of people haven’t taken a real deep breath. If you’re pumping, because you’re going to talk about the breathing muscles, you get stony. Maybe if you are older and you’re like, “I’m not getting on the floor,” then get on a couch and lean back but give yourself some room. It’s not this up and down and vertical breath but looking for this round breath. You also taught me about putting my hands. It’s the lower third of your ribs maybe, measuring there.
We’ve changed the landmark to be one that’s here, which is at the bottom of the ribs. That’s where your diaphragm is attached, the bottom of the ribs. If you go from your nipple straight down to the ridge where you feel your ribcage, that’s where your diaphragm is attached. The Breathing IQ is a measure of abdominal thoracic flexibility. It looks at your abs and your ribcage. You want to be able to move both. This idea that it’s only your ribs moving means it’s only the coastal part of your diaphragm. You want the crural, which is the middle, and you want the coastal. You want the belly and sides.
Pick those two big spots to focus on because it makes it easier. I always say to people too that when you take a breath, sometimes we think of only the front of your body. When we can connect to thinking about the breath pushing back to the spine and the ribs, that gives you some room to touch and say, “I can open that up.” Even if you’re laying on the floor, you can push that breath to the back because then it gets people thinking about that circle.
It is because we can breathe in all different directions, which is what the vertical breath took away from us. If you can only breathe up and down, you don’t have choices of the way to breathe. When I work with firefighters, this is a big topic because you have gear all over you and you spend a lot of time crawling as a firefighter. People don’t know this but you spend a lot of time closer to the ground and crawling through spaces not being able to see. You need to be able to breathe in different directions because you have gear on you and you have small spaces you need to negotiate.
You have to have that circumferential breath because it helps you be able to choose how you can breathe. Otherwise, you’re going to feel panicky. It also gives you choices as far as your arousal. We don’t just go, “I’m upregulated and downregulated.” There’s a whole choice, there’s a whole spectrum, “I want to be alert but calm. I want to be in the 6 or 7 seven range. I want to be in the 3 or 4 range.” That diaphragmatic breath gives you choices for arousal.
Let me go back to something you said, which is getting on the floor and that’s excellent advice because the place to start learning is on your back. There are a lot of reasons and one is that you don’t have the shame of your belly and two is that your diaphragm, which is also a muscle of stability and balance, you don’t need it because you’re lying down. Lying down is the best place to learn it.
There’s a secondary topic here. When you go get adjusted and someone works on you, if they only work on you lying down, you lose it when you sit up. Think about that. If somebody gets you to breathe on your back and they do things, maybe they do some manipulation, and then they tell you, “Stand up and come back and see me next week.”
One of the reasons you don’t keep your breath is that now your perspective has changed and now breathing up is a vertical breath. That’s why when I teach, I start on the floor, then we go to all fours, then we go to seated, and then we go to standing up. Standing up is the last step because it’s the hardest. Standing up, your diaphragm, which is your main muscle of balance, is your main muscle of respiration as well. It’s doing two things.
That’s perfect, starting on the floor. Start on the floor and put something on your belly. You’re least likely to use your shoulders when you’re on the floor. The idea of pressing this up as your belly may feel like two things, “I’m moving, I’m pressing my belly, and I’m breathing at the same time.” You’re right on target. It might feel like two movements that are disconnected but that’s the way you learn.
I’ve had people say, “Why do you have to do a belly breath? Why do you have to do this? Can’t you just jump ahead and do the diaphragm?” No. We have to learn. We’re pretty stubborn, us human beings. We have to know why we’re doing this, what is the goal, what’s the prize, how fast can we do it, and how relevant is it. We need all those things to be able to make a change.
Take your baseline and then you lay down. We did a drill with you that worked on strengthening the actual breathing muscles, which I found easy. In the beginning, you’re like, “I can feel that.” We did it for one song. You said to us, “If you were doing this at home, pick a song that you love. It’s three minutes or three and a half minutes. You then move into the exercise, about 90 seconds.” It’s work. It’s a little bit of like, “This is a little bit of work.”
We talk a lot about nose breathing for health benefits, keeping yourself calm, and all of these things. This is a little bit different when you’re training your breathing muscles. We’ve measured, we’re on the floor, and you put your song on. What is that pattern and what are the thoughts that you want to tell people?
I’ll explain a little bit more. Controlled hyperventilation is old as dirt so I did not make it up. The father of controlled hyperventilation and trans meditation is Stan Grof out of Seattle. There are all kinds of wonderful people that have been doing this for hundreds of years. I don’t do it for the trans part of things necessarily or the feeling high and giddy, which although it’s a fantastic side effect, I do it as strengthening breathing muscles.
I want people to think about breathing muscles like any other muscle on their body, your glutes, your hamstrings, and your quads. I have breathing muscles as well. In fact, I have over ten pounds of breathing muscle in my body. I need to work them out and need to work them out separately from my sport. This is always interesting to me every single time because I can take someone who has incredible conditioning and endurance but then we do a breathing exercise and they might find the end of it difficult. Now, they have something to work on that’s hard that they didn’t know they had which could impact their endurance.
Breathing on the floor is a two-part breath where you inhale and you expand your belly. When you expand your belly, that’s the middle of your diaphragm moving. If your belly is not moving, the middle of your diaphragm is not descending and flattening. That’s why I want an abdominal thoracic measurement. The sides that are opening up, if you can get them to open up, are important as well. You might get that when you do the second breath. You have the belly first and then the lower part of your chest. You can posture doing that. If you move your hips and your body moves, that’s therapeutic as well.
There’s a book I love called Shaking Medicine. You are moving your body and being able to unbrace your middle which can create that cathartic moment that everyone loves where they laugh and cry and whatever. Unbracing your body and having a rhythm is as good as dancing. The bottom breath, upper breath, and then on the exhale, you flatten out and squeeze not only your belly but your ribs. I want your rib cage to be flexible. I usually don’t have people do this until they’ve gotten to an A-breathing IQ. Otherwise, they’ll go to the upper chest again.
That bottom breath, you put yourself as if you’re running. Laird said that this is the breath you do, it’s almost like the running breath without the running component to it, and he was spot on. We’re going to train the breathing muscles but now we don’t have to stop because our arms and legs are tired. That way you can overload the breathing muscles and they can get stronger.
Do you prefer in with the mouth or nose and out with the other?
You know nasal breathing is terrifically important for many reasons. During this breath, I say through the mouth because you are trying to get a lot of air in and a lot of air out. Once you’re done and you have your second song, which is more of a relaxing song, switch to your nose. I do have people go back and forth. The sound of your breath is important. I had somebody email me and she said, “You don’t mention nasal breathing.”
I teach the beginning of like, “Are you getting this?” You need as many sensory signals as you can because you don’t feel and see it. What else can I get that makes me listen to myself? When you breathe through your mouth, you have the sensation of breathing and you hear yourself breathe so it helps you understand more. As soon as you can and as soon as it becomes natural, definitely switch to your nose.
I would encourage people also to do this with other people. Like anything, a level of accountability and like, “We’re doing this together.” In another way, it connects you with people. It’s like, “We’re doing something good for each other. We’ll be like cooking together and training together.” It’s me being able to come to you and say, “I’ve got this thing going on and you being able to listen to me.” When people do things that are good for themselves and push each other to do that, there’s a bonding element to it, it’s tribal.
You’re going to make noise, by the way. You will be making noise. I want to encourage people to let that go. Put your music on loud enough, go in your own world, but do this together because also it’s like, “Let’s do our three minutes,” or, “Let’s do our two songs. Let’s go.” Especially right now, you’re stuck at home.
You have some other elements of your practice that are pretty sexy and you work with police and you work with military and firefighters. You have these ultra-high-performance people that are dealing with life-and-death stress. Maybe you could share a little bit about how you get them to be in these environments and use breath to be able to be more precise, more calm, and also supporting them in something that is dangerous and stressful.
I grew up in a town that had a lot of firefighters and a lot of policemen. I don’t know why but everybody was either a cop or a firefighter.
Where is that?
Rockland County in New York. It’s not that far outside of the city but it felt outside of the city. Everyone was a police. My dad spent time in a refugee camp and came to the States and went into the army, a kind Alpha Dad.
Those usually go together.
People don’t think that but they do. He’s protective but also empowering for me. That guy feels familiar to me., it’s not a problem. What’s interesting about firefighters is that they get compared to athletes. Sometimes you’ll say, “They’re a tactical athlete and they get compared to pro athletes.” Whenever you go into a game, the other team is on an equal footing with you, more or less. They’ve trained, they’re human beings, they have fears, and it’s another person.
When you’re a firefighter, you’re going into the fire, which not only your whole brain but especially your primal brain is saying, “Don’t do this.” It’s also pitch black. You don’t go into a fire and see things. Most of the time, you don’t see anything. You’re going into a room and you don’t know about the ceiling, it’s 500 or 600 degrees, and you can’t see anything. It’s not like a sport at all. It’s so much more complicated than a sport.
When you talk about breathing with firefighters, what’s interesting is they train in what’s called air management. They’re thinking about, “I have a tank on my back as I go into this hellish place and it’s going to last a certain amount of time. How can I get it to last as long as possible? How can I get it to last long enough for me to be able to get out safely or be able to get that child out with me safely in the short time that I have?”
It’s important for people to understand something. If I went with a dive master down in a dive, with my tank, I would suck my air in what would take them an hour would probably take me about twenty minutes because I’m looking around and I’m anxious. When you say they need this to last, it isn’t some guesswork. How do slow their breath down enough that they’re not sucking that air in but they’re in this environment? It’s to remind people what they’re thinking about.
It’s interesting because I was reading about wreck diving and it’s the only thing that I’ve read that feels slightly similar to firefighting because you are in a wreck where you can’t see because it’s inside of it, things are sharp, and you have to stay calm because you’ll use up all your air and also you can get stuck. It’s the only sport I’ve found that is slightly similar to firefighting. The way I come at it is that you are going to suck up more air out of your tank if your breathing muscles are weak. A strong muscle uses less oxygen. If your breathing muscles are trained, they’re going to need less oxygen, which is fascinating.
Is that cross the board? Other muscles as well?
Exactly. With them, I teach almost the same things I teach everyone else but we focus more on the tank. We focus on arousal. There’s an analogy of a curve and we’re trying to stay in the sweet spot of the curve where you’re not to the right of the curve and panicking because then you don’t problem solve as well.
When you’re fighting a fire, it’s all about problem-solving, it’s all about being able to hear the instructions that you’re getting from someone who’s somewhere else, and being able to see the whole situation. There’s been some interesting research that shows that once you go to the right of the curve as far as your arousal, your memory changes, and the way you hear changes. It’s about staying in a place where you can problem-solve optimally.
If I’m going into the building and now I need to come back out the same way, even my capacity to recall that pattern.
Everything that has to do with the fire. Mostly when you go back to the kitchen because the kitchen is a very important place in the firehouse and you remember things, “Did this happen? Did that happen? Were you standing there? Were you standing here?” What we’re finding is that you can still be efficient but your memory does get affected later on when you check with other people to see, “Were you there? What happened?” Your recall of it is affected.
With the military and with police officers, I’ll focus more on precision. The new book that I did is divided into endurance, strength, and precision. Precision sports are like no other sport. You don’t need endurance and you don’t need strength unless it’s a biathlon. Some intense athletes. By the way, I read Colin O’Brady’s book about crossing Antarctica. If you haven’t read it, it’s amazing. Talk about endurance.
Precision sports are completely different. When I talk about precision sports, it can be pool archery or shooting, it’s anything where you have to be precise about your target. That depends on your being able to extend your exhale and feel where your natural respiratory pause is. it is when your heart rate is the lowest. There’s a moment when the beat is slow and that’s where you’re the most still. It’s being able to recognize that for sports where you have to be precise. It can be taking a picture or shooting a gun but being able to extend your exhale and feel that place when you’re most still is what’s critical.
I would imagine that the people who are doing these occupations do a lot of this naturally. There are certain things that they do intuitively. I would imagine that it’s enabled them to do this in the first place. Let’s say you have a military person who is in action and maybe they’re a sniper or something so stuff is happening that’s creating stress and they are responsible to protect their guys. That’s different than even a biathlon, shooting pool, or throwing darts. Things aren’t exploding and you’re not responsible for the lives of other people. How do you teach them? What is taught when this is going on to keep them on the inside of this curve that maybe they didn’t walk in with? What skillset? How do you do that?
You practice stress. With tactical athletes, this is always the challenge. How do you simulate a stressful situation, which is never going to be in real life? You’re never going to be able to duplicate those factors in that scenario in a way that’s realistic without putting them in harm. You have to practice stress and learn how to control your heart rate. You practice things that are as similar to that as possible.
The guy who’s a strength and conditioning coach for The Breathing Class, Jimmy Lopez, he’s a firefighter and he practices for stressful situations firefighting in his gym, and that’s how he trains people. You react to stress that you practice. When the stress comes around, depending on what the stress is, you are going to do what you did when you were practicing stress in another scenario. You’re going to default to whatever you practiced. It sounds funny but you practice stress as much as you can and in as many different situations as you can.
A lot of people go to the gym. There are conflicts. In the loading part of the move, people are exhaling. I have thought that you should probably inhale before the loading so that the organs, the spine, and everything are supported by the breath. Maybe you could share what you think to give people an idea of when they’re exercising. You did say the power or strength part of an athlete but everyday people. Sometimes I’m concerned that they’re going down on a squat and they’re exhaling. I always felt like that was the opposite. Maybe you could talk about a breathing pattern.
The first division that has to be made is when a breath is an anatomical breath and when it’s a mechanical breath. An anatomical breath means that when you’re stretching forward and if you have no load, like yoga or dancing, this movement forward is going to be an inhale. When you’re collapsing into yourself, this movement is going to be an exhale. That’s an anatomical breath. What does your spine do? What does movement make your body want to do?
Let me ask you a question about that. Are you creating more space in your joints when you’ve inhaled? In a way, that’s the endpoint movement of your muscles versus exhale and collapse even in an anatomical.
You have to think about which way your spine is going. You are getting space in your spine but if you are opening up and inhaling, you’re getting space in your spine on this side of your spine, the front of your spine. The back is moving together. It depends on the movement of the spine. Let‘s say you’re going to the side, this part of your body is squeezing together so it has less space but this one is opening up. It depends on the movement that you’re making.
For all things spine, because I’m not a spine expert, I go to Stuart McGill or Kelly Starrett. With questions that are super technical like that, I’ll go back to that. I do know that with diaphragmatic breathing, a good Y-diaphragmatic breath helps with the decompression of the spine. You’re going to have a healthier spine if you’re a diaphragmatic breather. You’re also going to have less lower back pain and upper cervical if you’re a diaphragmatic breather.
Mechanical is what happens the minute you step into a gym. This was the question I was getting. For the first part of things, I was teaching an anatomical breath. What is natural and what is anatomically congruent for your body, for how your hips should be going, and your body should be moving for a good breath? When you go into the gym, it changes. The rules are different in the gym because your main concern is, in the gym, number one, not to get injured.
The biggest challenge you getting stronger is injury. Your biggest foe is injury. What are you going to do not to get injured? How are you going to hear your intuition about, “Yes, this is too far. Something feels weird,” or, “I’m trying to push myself because I’m trying to get stronger.” We mix those up all the time. “What am I doing to recover between sets from day to day so that I’m not too tired, my intuition about how I’m lifting, and I have the strength not to get injured.” In the gym, it’s all about protecting your spine. It’s all about bracing, “What brace do I need and for how long given the movement that I’m making?”
The brace exhale is always going to be where you need and where you’re pushing away. The general rule of exhale on effort is true. It’s a little bit more complicated than that but whether the movement is towards you, away from you, down, or up, wherever you’re exerting, you should be exhaling or bracing then to exhale.
That’s clear. The thing is I could talk about this all day. Laird has two questions, the best breathing patterns that you like for supporting your immune system and if it’s different in reducing stress.
The first thing you have to do before you have a pattern is to make sure that your mechanics are good. I Laird had an A-breathing IQ. I measured him.
He should. He dedicated his whole life to this. Nobody appreciates it as much as guys who go in the water and they know the difference, no air or air, except probably firefighters where you’re in smoky air and you have limited air.
One of my favorite parts of the XPT experience was being in the pool. I’m in New York and I’m around pools every once in a while, but I am obsessed with pool workouts since then. I loved the pool workout for what it did as far as understanding the breath and monitoring the breath. I remember on the sidelines as I was loving it but struggling, you were watching someone and you were saying, “They’re waiting to come up above the water to exhale rather than exhaling in the water and that’s why they’re having trouble.” It gave me such respect of the breath in water that I’d never understood before that I like. That pool workout was amazing. I loved it.
It’s an objective teacher.
As Laird said, for detoxifying, I’ve never heard it said that way, but you have water pressure on your body. As we’re talking about inflammatory, toxic, and not being able to flush out toxins as easily, water is the easiest thing to help you detoxify because the weight of the water helps you get lymph out.
If someone is reading this and you do have access to a bathtub, the best way to do that is to at least get the water up to the neck, then you have that greater pressure around your system. That could be something helpful.
I love baths but the pool. With My jug, it was my feeble attempt at getting some weights into the pool that I used to have access to. This does not work in the pool, by the way. I found out that because of air and because it’s plastic, it doesn’t work. I tried because I’m such a fan now. 4-4-6-2 is my favorite pattern. There’s no particular reason. All breath patterns are set up for you to pay attention to the breath and for you to extend your exhale. That’s why we have numbers.
The one that supposedly is the healthiest is having your heart rate at 60 and having your breath be 5 seconds in and 5 seconds out. That’s supposedly the one that gives you the best heart rate variability. That’s Richard Brown out of Columbia and Heart Rate Variability Science. I love 4-4-6-2, inhale from 4, hold for 4, exhale for 6, and hold for 2. That’s the one I love the best and there’s no actual reason other than it’s the one I love.
You’ve spent enough time in this that you get to have something that you like.
4-4-6-2 and Twinkies, I’m in.
Tiger King and Twinkies. I want to encourage people to play around with it. You say 4-4-6-2. If you say, “I’m dealing with my pelvic floor,” at least start playing around with some of these versions of box breathing. I do find yours interesting where you have that longer exhale. The other thing about the long exhale is it does make pulling the breath in deep and round so much easier.
The reason we focus on the exhale with breath counts is that when we talk about the vagus nerve and sympathetic and parasympathetic, the practical behind it is that the vagus nerve is stimulated by diaphragmatic breathing and extended exhale. If you can get a hum or a sound around your throat on the exhale, those are the three things you can do with your breathing that help stimulates your vagus nerve which then puts you more in a parasympathetic state.
Breathing for Warriors is available. I always try to use local bookstores but they’re closed so you can get it on Amazon. The one before that was called Breathe and the one before that was called Breathe as well. I don’t know if I’m going to write anything anytime soon that has more than 40 characters in it. I’m not planning on writing anything anytime soon. I don’t know if ever but I probably will write a little bit more. The latest one is Breathing for Warriors. It’s at Target as well, funny enough.
We’re still allowed to go to Target. Are you going to do anything differently? We’re not through it all the way but is there something you’re going to do or that you’ve been reminded about that you’re going to do differently as a person?
That’s a tough question. I have enjoyed walking, I know that’s incredibly dull. I’m running when I can. I’m not a runner so it’s hard for me. Every time I start running, I’m late for something so it doesn’t help me relax. I love walking around and I love not being the only person walking around and that there are other people walking. It’s something that’s given me such comfort. I hope people keep walking.
It’s an underrated thing. Are you taking in the wounded boys and fixing them?
I’m not. If you’re wounded, I will refer you to someone who’s wounded. You need to be fit, fun, kind, and sexy.
Sexy is good. Belisa, I appreciate you and I appreciate your dedication to something that serves many people and your ability to communicate that and teach others. I appreciate it. I would like to have you back on so we can talk about other elements of breathing and the pursuit of having an idea and saying, “I’m going to drill down,” and what we give up to focus that much on something. I’d like to get into that.
Anytime. I listened to this podcast before you invited me on and I love it. I can say that, honestly, I was a little nervous because the other podcasts you’ve done have been so incredibly interesting. The one with Rachel Balkovec was so good. She’s amazing. I thought, “I hope I can be half as interesting as Rachel was.” I love this podcast. I love that you’re giving us a forum to talk about these things that are important. I appreciate you as well.
All I want to do is I want to communicate with the people that have valuable tools for other people to use and maybe have a little bit of fun with them in the meantime. It is interesting. Sometimes I listen to other podcasts. I was listening to Joe Rogan and Eric Weinstein. I’m like, “I should stop doing podcasts.” Tim Ferris with Jack Kornfield was a beautiful podcast. He interviewed Esther Perel.
That’s an interesting thing where you can look to your left and right and there are always going to be people who are brilliant. I’m always reminded of each of us saying, “In what way can I contribute?” For me, I love all this heady science stuff but I know that that’s not the interviews and things I want to do because I see those people doing that and go, “They do that perfectly. Let them do it.” Let me see if we can have a conversation where we can break it down and encourage people to try new things.
You got it. You nailed it. Thank you.
I’ll talk to you soon. Aloha. Thank you.
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About Dr. Belisa Vranich
A clinical psychologist and a leading expert in mental health and fitness, Dr. Belisa Vranich is the author of Breathe: The Simple, Revolutionary 14-Day Program to Improve your Mental and Physical Health (St. Martin’s Press/Hay House) and Breathing for Warriors (St. Martin’s Essentials). She is the founder of www.thebreathingclass.com.
Dr. Belisa is a regular guest on national television; e.g., CNN, Fox News, the Today Show, Good Morning America, and Inside Edition, and has been interviewed by Anderson Cooper, Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira, Bill O’Reilly, and Nancy Grace. Dr. Oz has recognized her as one of the top US doctors in her field. She has appeared as a guest on Cesar Millan’s show, Cesar 911, and has been a guest on podcasts with hosts Robb Wolfe, Ben Greenfield, Joey Diaz, and Dr. Mercola. In addition, Dr. Belisa has been interviewed as an expert in numerous publications, including Crain’s magazine, GQ, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Time Magazine, and Cosmopolitan.
Dr. Belisa has extensive experience working with first responders: firefighters, military and law enforcement for topics related to endurance, stress reduction, precision, pain reduction, and PTSD. A firm believer in the importance of giving back, she volunteers and supports numerous organizations related to veterans and animal rescue organizations in New York City and Los Angeles. Dr. Belisa is an outspoken advocate of organ donation and dedicated her first book to Liamslife.org