Better is the Secret to Breathing (And Everything Else)

We’re doing it wrong. Again. This time it’s breathing. Turns out, we’re breathing wrong.

I am committed to making the most of the lessons presented by Scott Mann in our TeamStrength Leadership Workshop 2021. I’m reading every book he mentioned, and next on the list was Breathe by Belisa Vranich. In the workshop, Scott shared strategies for micro-recovery, part of his 4R Battle Rhythm, and led the room in a lesson on horizontal breathing. Slow deep inhales and exhales, eyes closed, and you could just feel pulse rates fall and stress lessen throughout the room.

I wanted more of that. Turns out it’s not as simple as just taking a few deep breaths now and then. We can go without food and water for days, but without breath we’re done for in minutes. And we’re not very good at this fundamental process, according to the author. Chapter 3 is actually titled “You’re doing it wrong.”  The book follows with chapters on how and why we’re doing it wrong, and chapters of exercises on how to do it right. So many exercises. Daunted, I set the book aside.

This month I turn 60, and at my age I just don’t think I am going to fundamentally change the way I breathe. I don’t have time to follow the exercises. I’m never going to get it perfect. And it’s gotten me this far. One of the best gifts of having been on the planet through so many laps around the sun is I’ve learned to give myself grace in the face of my imperfection.

People don’t change. It’s a common saying for a reason. One of my favorite management books, First, Break All the Rules, says “People don’t change that much. Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left out. Try to draw out what was left in.” I embrace this strength-based approach – we don’t become successful by fixing our weaknesses, we achieve the most through leveraging our strengths. But the quest for self-improvement is hard-wired into every high achiever I know. And one member qualified the limitations this way – “People don’t change, but they can get better.”

So I still want to get better. And sometimes, perfect is the enemy of better. I hear people give up trying to eat better because the advice changes and you’re never going to get it right. I felt that way a bit after reading How Not to Die by Dr. Michael Greger – the book explains how we need to eat with details and compelling data on why it matters, then shares a ‘daily dozen’ diet to meet all the needs. Practically, it’s nearly impossible to adhere to this day in and day out.

Instead of aiming for perfection in our diet, my husband and I took the main messages – eat more plants, eat whole foods, reduce protein portions – and made our diet better. Not perfect, but improved in ways that had impact on important health metrics and on how we felt each day.

Remembering the impact of getting better in our diet, I revisited Breathe.  A few key concepts stuck with me. We underuse our diaphragm, and by breathing deep extending our abdomen, we keep this important muscle fit, increase lung capacity, calm our nervous system, and massage internal organs. Scott’s ‘horizontal breath’ is all about this. Other key points – Breathing through our nose is better than breathing through our mouths; the exhale is more important than the inhale; and breathing exercises can help with stress, fitness, mood management and sleep. I’ve chosen one I like – 4-4-6-2.  Inhale into my belly for a count of 4, hold for 4, exhale for a count of 6, hold for 2. So I’m breathing better.  I use my diaphragm more, breathe through my nose, exhale, count. My breathing isn’t perfect, but it’s better.

This month I am asking TeamStrength members to share the biggest thing they need to get better at right now. Not surprisingly, these over-achievers all have ready answers. At 60, I’ve learned there are some things I excel at and some things I may never do well. Perfection is unattainable. And with age comes the daunting knowledge that my personal best in some categories is in my past. I’ve run my fastest mile. But relative to where I am right now, better is attainable in so many categories. And that’s a breath of relief.