Real Leaders

How Breathing Fully Releases Your Leadership

I coached the director a national women’s magazine recently for her speech at the journal’s tenth anniversary ceremony. The keys to her success the following night were two. On one side she understood that she should be the leader to make her 400 guests feel safe and engaged by her voice. The second clue was just as important: breathe in more often to release your spontaneous leadership.

Often people talk in very long sentences, dragging on the very bottom of their lungs to get to the end of what they want to tell us. Their voices seem unnecessarily deep, flat and effortful. Other times executives make a horse whistle noise when quickly inspiring a much-needed breath of air at obtuse corners of the conversation. But if we don’t breathe appropriately, we can’t replenish energy and color into our voices, our eyes lose their candor, and we feel old and tired. Sound familiar?

Inspiration is the first half of our breath wave. The more air we take in, the more energy circulates throughout our organic tissues. As that energy lights up our body in waves, sensations come alive again. Believe it or not, this is exactly why we fail to breathe appropriately.

Newborn children and animals give us good examples of what a full breath wave should look like: everything should move in and out. Everything means everything. Abdominal walls move forward and back, shoulders move up and down, back and neck also tilt slightly back to let more air in…and the taboo parts too: pelvic floor muscles also stretch out and back in. Limbs can show an advance and retreat wave as well some times. This is how an organism without worry or fear breathes.

We adults, however, don’t want to experience all there is to feel in our muscles, tissues and layers of skin. It’s not a conscious decision, of course. We stopped breathing fully at such an early age that we can’t remember it, and don’t really know why. It was probably a very gradual process of slowly, ever so subtly, reducing the width and depth of our breathing patterns until we got to our current meager inspirations.

We block our own generous breathing patterns instinctively, you see, in order not to feel an emotion we don’t know how to handle, or we do it to make ourselves invisible. Just like any other animal who finds itself in danger of exposure to a nearby predator, we inhibit breath to keep as silent, odorless and hidden as possible. Think of all the times you were surprised by an unexpected presence and instinctively stopped breathing for a second. It’s a very old, very wise evolutionary reflex in our mammal organism that kept a lot of our ancestors alive.

The big difference between our primitive ancestors and ourselves is that they were much better at processing their own blocked emotions after danger passed. We, on the contrary, have no intention of looking back into our past to search for events which could have been misinterpreted by our undeveloped brain as deathly. We really want to keep intact stories about happy childhoods or brave resolutions which require no more dwelling upon. And so any and every unresolved emotion from the many, many imperfect situations in our upbringing remains hidden in our muscles, tissues and organs, hoping our next inspiration will pass it by one more time.

Meditation, mindfulness and emotional management techniques all take us back to our breathing patterns. We are asked to alter our natural breathing movements to explore other alternative pathways. Many of us get lost, however, in our effort to master the technique itself. What’s really interesting about breathing more in than usual, or emptying our lungs, or holding in our breath is what happens in our body sensations. What wakes up, what stirs and spreads, what pulls at our attention in a new way?

In my coaching session we basically went through the speech marking pauses for my client to breathe in, and we made sure that we left no long sentences to drag her voice on and on and on. Even before the speech, I suggested she breathe in big waves of air every time she remembered to do so in her everyday routines. This small change in habits strongly increases the body’s usual levels of sensation in a few days. Beyond a successful speech — which it was, very successful, by all accounts–, the goal we set together was to increase her natural energy levels by simply getting more air in more often.

Yesterday I met another client who also burned his bodily fuel deposits empty when talking. So much so that his voice wavered like a car choking for gas at certain moments. It was quite remarkable because this executive meditates regularly: 45 minutes every day is a very disciplined meditation practice for any CEO!

The trick, though, is how our body fools us to keep breathing with the same pattern all the time, or how it finds ingenious turns and adaptations to any new technique in order to avoid the very sensations it really doesn’t want to have to face. Let’s not forget: the moment in which our innocent animal body decides to inhibit breath is a time of risk…or even of expected death.

The emotions held in during these occasions are of enormous intensity, more so as we go back in time. An incident at five years of age, for example, contains emotions at a much more intense level than a trauma at fifteen or twenty-five. Yet at five years of age our brain already has five years of neuron pathways and connections of safety, trust and harmony to rely on. If we get a mortal fright at five months of age, the intensity of the emotions we will refrain from feeling is on an all new level of horror. It can be something as innocent as losing sight of our Mom: to our still undeveloped nervous systems this can feel like an inevitably mortal tragedy.

Or it can be a total fit of anger from when we were only two years old, which we had no permission to express. The man I worked with yesterday kept saying “I’m a very nervous guy, this is why I meditate”. And this is why he still won’t breathe a real mouthful of air despite diligently meditating every morning…that old unresolved tantrum of rage might suddenly take over his entire life! As soon as he starts pausing for air more frequently while talking, anger in its many shades will certainly begin to seep up into consciousness and demand freedom. In which case boxing and other exercises involving physical impacts in a safe environment will be a great relief mechanism. His meditation practice will move to a new level of depth and serenity without doubt.

Yes. Breathing differently opens Pandora’s box in every sophisticated executive and business owner. It allows old feelings to come up into our busy minds and demand resolution. If you meditate, please don’t get lost in another stupid competition to maximize the number of minutes you empty your mind. That is NOT the goal.

The goal is to release every unresolved shred of negative emotion that is keeping you from breathing fully, happily, wisely. Increasing your perception of sensations in your own muscles and tissues will improve your interpretation of event around you significantly. Meditation should be more about observing what happens inside your body, and helping it find resolution, than about reaching silence. When your body finds peace, trust me, your mind will too!

The more and better you breathe, the more and better you will lead. Ohmmmmmm.

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