Here is the full transcript of global teacher and author Max Strom’s TEDx Talk Presentation: Breathe to Heal at TEDxCapeMay Conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: Breathe to Heal by Max Strom at TEDxCapeMay
Speaking about breathing is one of the most counterintuitive subjects you could possibly talk about, because normally people don’t think about it as we don’t think about blinking our eyes, digesting our food. These are not things we think you need to work on, they just occur from the autonomic nervous system.
But breathing is different, because there are also ways to breathe intentionally — certain patterns of breathing that change how you feel internally. I wouldn’t travel the world teaching breath-work if it were even just simply to help people relax. The reason I travel to teach people how to breathe is because we now live in a digitally-obsessed, escape-based society as you know. And we want to call it the new normal, and there seems to be a big push to accept it; however, we are unhappy.
If you look at studies on the level of happiness now, especially the medications that we use, we are not a happy society. We should be ecstatic; we have a rectangle in our pocket that has access to all the world’s knowledge, that has any entertainment you’d possibly want.
So why aren’t we ecstatic? The World Health Organization has stated that by 2020, worldwide, depression and anxiety will be the number one disability; that’s only four and a half years from now.
In the United States, 25% of women are now taking antidepressant medication, anti-anxiety medication, or both; men are close behind. And the CDC has declared that sleep dysfunction is now at an epidemic level. Again, this is not an American problem, this is a global problem. From Beijing to Berlin to Tel Aviv to Cape Town, it’s the same problem.
So, there are things we can do about it, and one of the things is to create a daily practice of breath-work which is free, once you learn it, and has no side effects, unlike a lot of the medications we see on television where you see people wearing white, running down the beach with billowing white fabric over their head, laughing, with the dogs chasing them, always a Golden Labrador as somebody talks about side effects including bleeding from the eyes, coma, permanent impotence, and things like that.
This is a worldwide problem; we need to take action in our own life because yes, we need a sustainable world, I agree. But we also need a sustainable life; we need a sustainable home; and we need a sustainable body.
When I deal with executives — I talk to groups of executives, CEOs, marketing people, and even corporations — the entire corporation — it’s quite fascinating because most of them say they can’t sleep, they have panic attacks, they are chronically depressed, they get flus and colds all the time; what can they do?
And when I privately meet with the CEOs, they say the same thing — they don’t want to admit it in front of their workers, but the CEOs complain about exactly the same things. People feel alone more than they’ve ever felt in their life. And this is counterintuitive, because supposedly, we’re all connected now, through the Internet, through social media, we’re all connected. But are we?
Or are we actually less connected at a deep level? There are statistics now that we like having these tremendous kitchens. Everybody wants the granite countertop, the island in the middle, the stainless steel refrigerator, but we actually dine with our friends, we host people, 50%, approximately, less than ten years ago.
So these fantastic kitchens, and we just use the microwave. Intimacy is something we need to develop again, and the only way you can do it is to actually be in people’s presence, and this is one of the powers of TED talks, where we actually get together in person again. It’s different than online, isn’t it?
I mean, videos are great, you can learn from them — I learn from them — but it’s not the same as looking into someone’s eyes and hearing their voice. And we determine whether or not we can trust people by how they look at us, how they stand. If you’re going to hire a babysitter, you want to meet the person, face to face.
So, for those of you who are doing well, I want to ask you a question: Will you survive your success? This is a question that is very far-reaching, because so many of us, if we were very honest with ourselves, we’d realize, I wouldn’t teach my children to live the way I am.
I wouldn’t say, “Go to the best school, get a great job; but live on sleep medication and anti-anxiety drugs. That’s the path I want you to take son, or daughter.” It isn’t. That’s not what we want to do; it’s not what we want to teach our children, but through our actions, that is what we’re teaching them. It’s quite incredible.
Now there have been some studies done recently on breathing. Stanford Research Institute had a great one about two years ago where they took people with post-traumatic stress syndrome, combat veterans, who’d been to Afghanistan and Iraq, and taught them yoga and breathing.
And the facilitator, Emma Seppälä, who is a Stanford scholar, said it was mostly the breathing that affected them. We had them do this program for three months, and their symptoms, post-traumatic stress syndrome symptoms were gone, and they didn’t return, even a year later.
Now, this was groundbreaking because as you know, the sad fact in the United States is we lose 20 veterans a day to suicide. So the way we have been treating them through mainly medication and therapy hasn’t really been working. And so this is a big step. The Defense Department is now advocating breath and yoga for veterans.
The Defense Department — just take that in for a second — is advocating breathing and yoga for veterans; the Defense Department. Navy SEALS use breath-work to help them focus and calm before they go into battle. Navy SEALS are not New Age cuddly people. Navy SEALS only use technologies that work, they will not use anything else.
So, benefits of breathing as you may have heard — and when I say breathing, I don’t mean what we’re doing now, I mean intentional breath-work — are focus, calm, non-reactiveness, which we could all use. Do any of these things sound useful?
So when I meet with people, in groups or individually, I try to help them create a sustainable life, and one of the first things I teach them is breath-work. In mindfulness programs across America we have — I think 25% of corporations have mindfulness programs. They unfortunately often teach meditation first. Meditation is a fantastic technology. I use it, I teach it; no question.
But if you take someone who’s stressed out of their mind and say, “Now sit down and close your eyes and don’t think about anything,” it’s not going to happen. They will sit down, and close their eyes, and think about their project. So meditation is not wrong to teach, but I think it’s more advanced.
If you teach people to breathe first, this calms the nervous system, this triggers fight-or-flight to switch off, and rest-and-digest to switch on. Then, people can sit and meditate without a problem.
Now I’ve learned something fascinating about human beings through teaching breathing, because I could talk to you now about oxygen and CO2; I could talk to you about chi, or as they say in Japan, “kriya ki,” the life force energy that moves through us and can be regulated through breath but there’s something more interesting that I found.
Teaching people how to breathe led me to a discovery: there is a tremendous relationship between breath — the lungs — and grief. So I want to tell you a story. This happened last year.
I gave a talk to about 50 CEOs about happiness, breath, anxiety, et cetera. And after the talk, I left the building, went down to the sidewalk to wait for a taxi. One of the CEOs followed me out, and he said, “Look, I’m 58 years old, and I’ve started having panic attacks for the first time in my life, and when you’re a CEO, having panic attacks doesn’t work. You can’t sit in a board meeting and suddenly feel your neck get stiff, and a splitting headache come on, and you want to run screaming out of the room.”
He says, “I can’t have this. What should I do?”
I said, “Well, when did these panic attacks start?”
He said, “Six months ago.”
So what was my next logical question? Exactly. “What happened six months ago?”
He said, “My brother died.”
“And you were close?” I said.
He said, “Yes, very.”
“And you’re a workaholic, aren’t you?”
He smiled and said yes.
“And after the funeral, you went right back to work, didn’t you?”
He said yes.
I said, “You don’t have an anxiety issue, you don’t have a panic attack issue, you have a grief issue. You haven’t grieved the death of your brother. Now when you suppress grief, which you’ve learned to do — and you and I have learned to do –if you keep suppressing it, and you layer it, as new grief events happen in your life, it comes out in another way, it comes out as anxiety.” I said, “Your anxiety, your panic attacks are because of your grief.”
He said, “What should I do?”
I said, “Come to my workshop tomorrow downtown, I’ll show you some breathing exercises.”
He said, “Breathing exercises!?”
I said, “Just come.”
So he did. He wrote me two months later, and he said, “No panic attacks. They’ve stopped completely. But I have been feeling grief, and I realized you were right, I did need to grieve my brother.”
So by allowing himself to feel the grief, which we’re terrified of, the anxiety was gone. I see this all the time. The people that have the most anxiety, that learn breathing exercises, almost immediately start to weep. You can time it, it usually takes three to five minutes; sometimes, 30 seconds.
And if we ask ourselves, “Why is this? Why do so many of us suppress grief?” It’s because we’re taught to. Mostly, in an unspoken way, we’re taught that expressing grief is socially unacceptable. If you think about it, we’ll express anger much more readily than grief. We’ll shout at the TV screen if our team is losing, we’ll yell at another car and not apologize to the passengers in our car.
But if you start crying when you’re talking to someone, you’ll wipe the tears away quickly and say, “I’m sorry, I don’t know where that came from. I’m sorry.” And especially men, we’re taught, “Never let them see you cry. It’s a sign of weakness and failure.” So that’s what we’ve been taught.
And on top of that, no one ever taught us what to do when our friends are grieving, so we avoid them. So on top of going through the grief event, our friends scatter, they don’t know what to do, they’ve never been taught. They think they’ll make us feel awkward, so they avoid us, and so now we’re isolated as well.
So I think that if we came together, we would build stronger bridges of friendship, we would create more intimacy, and you don’t have to say anything to someone who’s grieving. Don’t try to cheer them up. Just say, “It’s going to hurt really bad for a while. I’m not going anywhere. I’m here. This year it’s your turn. Next year it might be my turn. We’ll all get through this together.”
That’s one of the chief things I think we need to do as a society, and second is learn breathing exercises because it makes a difference right away, not someday.
When I go into a corporation, believe me, if it didn’t work, they’d say — I say, “We’re going to do breathing work. It’s going to make you feel better within ten minutes.” Ten minutes!
So, I have about one minute left, I’d like to try to teach you one very simple breathing exercise.
Please sit up straight. Take your back off the backrest. And if you can, put your hands on your side ribs. Make sure they’re on your side ribs. Not your hips. Ladies, think bra strap. Men, bra strap. About that high. Not the front, the sides. I know you’re packed in close together.
Now when you inhale, inhale any way you like, make your ribs go out to the sides. Fill your chest. (Inhales) So your ribs stretch out to the sides, not out front, out to the sides.
And then exhale, sit taller.
Sit taller. Exhale.
Bigger. Inhale. Sit up and make your ribs grow out to the sides.
Hold your breath. Exhale.
Good. You can relax your arms, but keep imagining that your hands are there, and this is a very simple exercise, it’s an old yoga exercise, and Dr. Andrew Weil is promoting it quite heavily now. It’s fantastic, you can do it before you’re going into a difficult situation or after. So it’s called the 4-7-8 breath. You inhale for four, you hold for seven, you exhale for eight. So we’ll do one round now; we’re going to go at this speed.
So make sure you’re sitting up off your backrest. You’re going to inhale into your ribs, but to prepare, quickly exhale.
Now, through your nose, inhale to the count of four: One, two, deeper, four, hold;
one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, Exhale, eight; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight; Inhale, four; one, two, three, four, more, hold; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, Exhale; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight; Inhale, four; one, two, three, four, expand your ribs, hold; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, Exhale, eight; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, Inhale, four; one, deeper, three, expand, hold; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, Exhale, eight; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight; Relax. Quick breath in (Inhales)and out. Exhales) In (Inhales) and out. (Exhales) Relax.
That’s one of many exercises you can do. Once you learn them, you can do this at your desks. People take cigarette breaks, you can take a breathing break.
Some doors only open from the inside. Breath is a way of accessing that door.