Following is the full transcript of psychologist and breathing expert Dr. Belisa Vranich’s TEDx Talk: How to Breathe at TEDxManhattanBeach conference. This event occurred on November 5, 2016.
Dr. Belisa Vranich – Breathing expert
Take a deep breath. Yes, right now.
Come up from the back of your seat. Sit up straight and take a big inhale, fill all the way up, and then exhale. Deep breath in and exhale all the way out.
Now, do you feel like you get a little bit taller on the inhale? Yeah? How you get taller and stretch upwards and on the exhale sort of settle down? Because I’m seeing it.
Well, if you do, you’re what I call “a vertical breather.” And unfortunately, it’s an anatomically incongruous way to breathe, meaning that you’re breathing out of sync with your body. However, nine out of 10 people breathe this way.
So, here’s what happens when you breathe vertically. First thing that happens is that you overuse your neck and shoulder muscles. You see, your neck and shoulder muscles were never meant to be breathing muscles. So, even though it’s a small movement, you’re doing it thousands of times a day, millions of times a year, year after year. So, if you have neck and shoulder pain – just a little, right – you can blame the car, you can blame the computer, but first and foremost blame your breathing.
Second thing is that you’re only using the top part of your lungs. Where’s the biggest, most oxygen-rich part of your lungs? Right down here. [Belly] Take your hands. Put them there. There we go. Right down here. The biggest, densest part of your lungs. Do you use these when you breathe vertically? No. So, you actually have to take several smaller breaths, that is breathe faster to get the air that you need.
Now, here’s what’s most fascinating for me as a psychologist: the vagus nerve is a nerve that goes to the back of your head and goes throughout your whole body. “Vagus” means “wanderer” in Latin. And it does; it wanders throughout your whole body, picking up signals to tell your brain how to feel.
Now, when you’re breathing vertically, the vagus nerve automatically puts you into a stressed out fight-or-flight mode. And it doesn’t matter what’s going on in your surroundings – they could be perfectly mundane routine – you’re going to be in a fight-or-flight. So, this connection to stress is what got me interested in the breath.
I woke up one fall several years ago with a dull, throbbing pain in my jaw. And I found myself at the dentist’s office, hearing those five words you never want to hear, “Do you have dental insurance?” I didn’t. And being a compulsive type A, I wasn’t just grinding my teeth; I was pulverizing them.
So, thousands of dollars later, I came to the conclusion that I was not controlling my stress; it was controlling me. It was time for a change. I started by signing up for a yoga class, where we would do breathing exercises at the beginning of class. I heard words like kapalabhati, ujjayi. We would breathe through one nostril, then the other; we would do breath holds. I was intrigued. I dove in headfirst. I took every class I could find, read every book, studied every academic article. I found myself in classes with gong baths and chakra balancing.
I read articles about cellular respiration and rates of oxygen exchange. I studied breathing in birthing, freediving, singing, and martial arts. What was most alarming to me was when I looked around, almost everyone I knew wasn’t breathing correctly. And I knew – the medical research said – that breath affects your sleep, your back, your digestion, your memory, anxiety; all these different things. It affects parts of our body that you’d never even consider, like esophagus and your pelvic floor. It wreaks havoc throughout your whole body. It affects your immune system, your adrenal glands, acidity.
So, I formalized what I was learning into a method and started teaching. Now, who do you think were the first people that called me? Was it members of the wellness community? Was it New-Age folks? Uh-uh. SWAT, Homeland Security, DEA, Border Patrol, Military and Law Enforcement. We know the importance of the breath. Ancient yogis say we come into this world with a certain number of breaths, and we can take them quickly and live a short lifespan, or we can take them deeply and slowly and live a long lifespan.
4,000 years later, fast forward, the Framingham study found that breathing is predictive of longevity in a quantitative way, longevity and health. So, I know what you’re thinking. “I’m breathing wrong? How could this be?” Well, relax, it’s not all your fault. Sometime between the ages of five and ten, your breathing changes from a lower-body breath to an upper-body breath. And it happens because of several things.
Number one is that you go to school and you start sitting a lot. And sitting affects your posture, which affects your breath. You go to the doctor; the stethoscope goes here. They say, “Take a deep breath,” and you think, “Hm, my lungs must be up here.” Someone pokes you in the belly and calls you fatty, and hence starts years, even decades of gut sucking.
So even now, as an adult, you’re sucking it in because you’re thinking it makes you look thinner, because it’s an emotional response to fear, because it’s a bracing stance that helps you feel prepared to run or to strike. Because you believe the myth that tensing your abs makes your core stronger. But the breath has no choice but to rise to the top of your body, become vertical, and stay there.
So, what should you do? Look no further than your toddler, your dog, your cat, even your fish. They breathe expanding and contracting in the middle, using the diaphragm. Now, much of the confusion around breathing occurs because we don’t really understand the diaphragm. It’s a muscle deep inside; it’s depicted as this little red line that crosses the body, when actually it’s much more like the Starship Enterprise, this enormous muscle in the very middle of your body, separating your thoracic cavity from your digestive organs. And the only reason it was put there was to help you breathe, if you let it. So, let’s get intimate with the diaphragm.
Right now, really. Take your fingers. Put them right here, at your sternum. Okay? Walk them around the bottom of your ribs. Go! Keep walking. There we go. Now, your ribs are attached to your sternum like handles on a pail. On the inhale, they’re meant to move out horizontally, and on the exhale, they narrow with your body. What a beautiful machine the body is. But maybe it’s time that we revisit this cornerstone of our health, especially now when the narrow screens of the computer or handhelds result in us sipping in tiny amounts of air; little inhales and little exhales or sometimes none at all. All right, let’s fix this.