Take a breath right now.
Did your chest go up and down?
Congratulations, you just failed at breathing.
Don’t worry, my guest today on the show will set you straight.
Her name is Belisa Vranich. She’s a clinical psychologist who has made a career re-training people on how to breathe correctly and in her latest book, Breathe, she provides a step-by-step program to help people breathe better.
Today on the show, Belisa explains all the ill health and psychological effects of poor breathing, like increased stress, poor sleep, poor mental function, and even poor digestion, as well as why so many people mess up this seemingly simple and automatic bodily process.
She then walks listeners through how to take a proper breath and even shares some exercises you can do to train yourself to breathe better and improve your all-around health.
This is an extremely practical podcast, and you’re going to feel great after you do the breathing exercises Belisa lays out.
- Health issues that can result from poor breathing
- The ways we screw up our breathing
- Vertical vs horizontal breathing
- A simple exercise to test if you’re breathing correctly
- How poor breathing leads to poor sleep
- The relationship between our breathing and stress
- A primer on our breathing muscles
- The age where kids adopt poor breathing techniques
- Posture and breathing
- The breathing cues we can take from animals
- Why you should be “belly breathing”
- Exercises to improve your breathing
- How you’re exhaling wrong, and how to do it right
- A primer on your pelvic floor, and its importance in breathing
- How breathing affects your digestion
- What is an ideal breathing cadence?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Air hunger
- What Every Man Needs to Know About Sleep
- 22 Ways to Get a Better Night’s Sleep
- Diagram of your breathing muscles
- The Ultimate Guide to Proper Posture
- Wake Up Like an Animal
- Cat-Cow yoga pose
- Be a Regular Guy: Improving Your Daily Constitutional
Connect With Belisa
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
AoM “Stay Manly” Mug. Like our original AoM mug, the Stay Manly mug is made of ceramic and is thick-walled to keep your soups, stews, and beverages hotter, longer. Use the code “AOMPODCAST” at checkout for 10% off.
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Stop what you’re doing right now and take a deep breath. Okay. Did your chest go up and down when you did that? If so, congratulations. You just failed at breathing, but don’t worry. My guest today on the show will set you straight. Her name is Belisa Vranich. She’s a clinical psychologist who has made a career retraining people on how to breathe correctly. In her latest book Breathe, she provides a step-by-step program to help people breathe better.
Today on the show, Belisa explains all the ill health and psychological effects of poor breathing, like increased stress, poor sleep, poor mental function, and even poor digestion, as well as why so many people mess up this seemingly simple and automatic bodily process. She then walks listeners through how to take a proper breath and even shares some exercises you can do to train yourself to breathe better and improve your all-around health.
This is an extremely practical podcast. Trust me. You’re going to feel great after you do the breathing exercise Belisa lays out and you’re going to feel really great after you take your first proper breath probably since you were a baby. After the show is over, check out the show notes at aom.is/breathe where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Belisa Vranich, welcome to the show.
Belisa Vranich: Thank you for having me. I’m psyched to be here.
Brett McKay: You wrote a book called Breathe: The Simple, Revolutionary 14-Day Program to Improve Your Mental and Physical Health. It’s all about breathing, which is this bodily function that we all take for granted. You think you can’t screw it up, but you can. We’ll talk about how you do that. You’re a clinical psychologist and sometime in your career you got into researching the importance of breathing, how to breathe effectively, and how to retrain people to breathe effectively. I’m curious. How does a clinical psychologist start studying this body function that most of us just take for granted?
Belisa Vranich: Well, not only was I dealing with my own stress, so I eventually got to look at my breathing as part of what was affecting my stress, but I was always looking to see as a psychologist how you make that mind-body connection. Most of us go around and we have the labels for all the things that are wrong with us. We have lack of closure. We have learning disabilities. We have daddy issues, whatever it is that’s going on with us, we know the words for it. We really don’t integrate it and fix it as well as we could.
I’ve always said to my patients, believe it or not, my clinical patients, that understanding is overrated. If you take the understanding about what’s going on with your mind and don’t actually change it and integrate it with your body, then all you’re doing is having the same problems, but understanding it intellectually. I found that using the breathing clinically helped you be able to actually gain that closure or heal from that trauma or most importantly for me, is take that anxiety that now you understood so well and actually calm your body and get over it. That’s actually where it came from.
Brett McKay: Wow. You also mentioned before you got on the show, your father actually had some health problems because of poor breathing.
Belisa Vranich: Yes. Well, older adults, this happens to most older adults is that they end up having a lot of residual air in their bodies because they don’t exhale well, so they always feel this feeling. It’s called air hunger, like they can’t take a deep breath and it’s just because they haven’t exhaled well. My dad ended up getting what’s called vascular dementia, which is not enough oxygen to the brain. He was a history professor and a writer, so if you can think about getting dementia for someone who lives off his memory and facts and history is really, really tragic and it was an excruciatingly difficult situation to see him deteriorate.
As I was healing from that, I really studied what was going on with vascular dementia and how are we breathing. Are we breathing enough? Do we just give it lip service and not really do it well? Is it just breathe, like we hear in songs or is there something that we could do better? That’s actually the personal part of it.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about, so how do we screw up this thing we don’t even think about doing? What-
Belisa Vranich: We do. We really screw it up.
Brett McKay: Right, so what does a wrong breath look like?
Belisa Vranich: We screw it up by making it anatomically incongruous. We actually screw it up by not using the muscles we were designed with to breathe and we start using other muscles that were never meant to be primary breathing muscles. I tend not to be very woo-woo. I tend to be very practical and science-driven in what I do. If you look at human anatomy, we’re built to breathe in a way that we’re not breathing anymore. You look at the rest of the planet, it’s breathing the right way. The rest of the planet meaning all the other animals on the planet. They’re breathing widening in the middle where the biggest part of their lungs are and then narrowing in the middle where the biggest part of the lungs are.
We have taken the breath, which should be a horizontal breath, meaning expanding and contracting in the middle, and we’ve pushed it to the tops of our bodies. We use our shoulders to inhale, which is completely ridiculous, so we’re taking more of a vertical breath than we are a horizontal breath that makes sense with our body. We’ve completely screwed it up. Because breathing is so important, it’s really the baseline for your health, it screws up everything in our bodies, from our pH and acidity to our back health and stomach health and ability to sleep and relax. It’s really kind of fascinating the way the whole thing crumbles when you take the base away.
Brett McKay: Yeah, we’ll get into some of these downsides more in specifics, more in detail here in a bit, but our listeners, they can do, I guess, a quick exercise for them to take a breath. If their shoulders and chest are rising, that means they’re failing at breathing, right?
Belisa Vranich: What it is is what I want you to do, so Brett, you can do this and listeners, as well, is come off the back of your chair. Don’t lean on the back of your chair. Come so that you’re sitting up nice and straight at the front of your chair and take an inhale. Take an inhale through your mouth, big inhale, and feel your body. It’s probably going to go up on the inhale. Inhale and it’s like this vertical breath. Your shoulders go up and everything stretches upwards. Take a look at that. That is a vertical breath. That’s how probably 9 out of 10 of us breathe, that vertical breath. How you should be breathing is actually shoulders not moving, not stretching upward. You should inhale and expand horizontally. It’s that vertical breath that 9 out of 10 people take that is creating all these problems, that is really a fail when it comes to breathing.
Brett McKay: Okay. We’ll talk more about the correct breathing method. These downsides, one of them, like the exhale part for your father, led to a form of dementia. You talk about pH balance, people not being able to sleep well. How does our breath, our poor breathing, lead to poor sleep?
Belisa Vranich: It’s incredible that it goes from how badly you breathe to not being able to go to sleep at night. The way you breathe is tied to your neurology, so the only way your brain figures out how it should feel or what it should be telling the rest of your body is neurologically. The neurology is the breathing. When you think of the link between your body and your mind, it is the breathing. When you’re breathing vertically, your vagus nerve tells your brain that you should be on high alert. It really doesn’t matter what you’re doing in your life. If you’re continuing to breathe up and down, your neurology is on high alert, which means pretty much that your heart rate is higher. Your blood pressure might be higher. Your cortisol, stress hormone, may be higher, and your immune system is lower just because you’re breathing up and down and not in a horizontal way. What happens is that your body is on high alert all day long and then when you want to flip the switch and go to sleep, it’s saying, “Uh-uh (negative). I’ve been on high alert all day. It’s going to take me a lot longer than you want to be able to go to sleep.”
Brett McKay: That’s interesting. That increased cortisol level, as well, just wreaks havoc on lots of other thing. It doesn’t allow you to recover from exercise as well. It does a lot of things to your brain. That all goes to poor breathing.
Belisa Vranich: Exactly because that is the link between the two things. We always think that well, it might be a supplement, which there’s amazing supplements out there. It might be more water, being hydrated better. Yes, that’s good, but the one main thing it is is your breathing. It’s how you’re breathing because your neurological system, your vagus nerve, is going to see where you’re breathing from, where in your body you’re … Not how much oxygen is in your body, not necessarily the pace of your breath as much, but it’s more about are you breathing using your diaphragm? Are you breathing using the biggest part of your lungs that are in the middle of your body? That’s how your body calms down. If you’re on high alert all day breathing vertically, there’s no way you’re going to be able to turn yourself off and sleep at night. There’s no way you’re going to be able to get your cortisol down quickly because it’s been jacked all day long.
Brett McKay: That’s probably why you might feel chronically stressed out, too, because you’re just breathing in that upper part of your chest.
Belisa Vranich: Sure, and because your body’s hearing that you need to be stressed out because no matter where you are, it’s thinking you’re in a war zone. Again, the fatigue comes because not only is our acidity thrown off by that, our pH thrown off by our bad breathing, which makes your adrenals work overtime, but also because you’re in high alert all day long, which is exhausting.
Brett McKay: Right. This is interesting. Vertical breathing is a breathing that we do for like fight or flight situations. It’s not necessarily that it’s bad. It’s just bad that you do it all the time. Is that-
Belisa Vranich: Exactly. If you’re out doing something where you need to be taking small breaths and paying attention intently, so think about there’s lots of situations where you have to take small breaths and think about what you’re doing intently, if you’re a surgeon, if you’re a tattoo artist, if you’re a sharpshooter. There’s lots of careers that require you to be able to take small breaths and have intense focus. You can’t breathe that way all the time. You actually have to take breaks and go back into an expansive breath that calms you down and calms your blood pressure and your heart rate or else your body’s going to suffer and it’s going to complain.
Brett McKay: Right. In addition to these physiological bad effects of poor breathing, people forget that our brain, the thing that makes our body work and gives us consciousness and everything, it runs on oxygen. It uses most of the oxygen and if you’re not getting enough, then your probably going to have bad effects to-
Belisa Vranich: Yeah, oxygen is cell fuel. You can be eating all the best things out there, but you need oxygen to be able to break down nutrients. You run on it for sure. Although, I don’t focus as much on oxygen because most people, I’d say most people, if you look at their oxygen, they’re in the high 90s, but you do have folks that have very constricted breathing that it does take an effect on their oxygen. For me, what’s most important is your neurological system and your breathing muscles. In general, you never hear about breathing muscles and you do have breathing muscles. In fact, you have lots of them and they’re really important.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and you mentioned one. The diaphragm is a big one.
Belisa Vranich: Diaphragm is a huge one. Metaphorically and physically it is. Most of us don’t even know exact … We know sort of where it is in the body, but we really don’t know what it looks like. If you look at pictures of it, it just looks like this weird squid with a lot of tentacles. You just can’t figure out exactly where it’s positioned in your body. Or if you look at Heimlich maneuver posters in your takeout, how to do the Heimlich on someone, it’s got like a little red line.
Most of us don’t understand, and you can do this right now, is that if you put your fingers right at the bottom of your ribs in the front of your body, your diaphragm is connected to the very bottom of your ribs, so keep walking your fingers around the outside of your ribs. You can actually walk them all the way around. Once you get to your back, you’re going to hit some back fat or muscles, but your diaphragm really goes all the way around your body and it separates your thoracic cavity from your digestive organs. It really is a cross section of your entire middle of your body, so think about that. I usually use a vegetable strainer when I’m talking to people when I’m teaching. Take a vegetable strainer, turn it upside down and flatten it. That’s how big your diaphragm is. It’s a small pizza or a Frisbee. The thing is huge muscle. It’s right underneath your heart and right above all your digestive organs. It’s really the Starship Enterprise of your whole body.
Brett McKay: Right. Besides the diaphragm, what other muscles do we use when we breathe or should be using when we breathe?
Belisa Vranich: Should be using. Well, your intercostals are one of them. We don’t think about intercostals, but they’re the tiny, little muscles that there’s two layers of them in between all your ribs, so your intercostal muscles. They work a lot. They work with the inhale, but more with the exhale. Your obliques, certainly all your abs and even the mysterious pelvic floor should be engaged when you breathe. It’s a lot of different muscles that go all over the very middle and underneath of your body.
Brett McKay: Okay. Let’s about like how … Okay. Breathing, we come out of the womb knowing how to breathe. You talk about in the book you look at most kids, our toddlers or babies, they breathe like they’re supposed to. It’s a horizontal. They don’t do the vertical thing. How do we go from that to becoming adults that just don’t know how to breathe anymore?
Belisa Vranich: Okay. Usually I say that the changing point is between the ages of 5 and 10. I’ve spent a lot of time looking to see when these things change because babies can’t breathe with their shoulders. They can’t breathe vertically. They have no choice, so I never use them as an example. I say look at a 5-year-old or a 6-year-old. Usually, they’re still breathing well. They’re using they’re diaphragms. They will expand in the middle and contract in the middle like they should. Take that same child four or five years later and they’re breathing vertically and they’re bracing their bellies.
A series of things happens. I want our listeners to think about their own lives and I want you to think about yours as to what could have happened to get you to be a vertical breather. One thing that happens is that you start sitting a lot. Think about you’re 5 years old. You go to school and that’s when sitting starts happening. Before that, you’re rolling around. You’re in the sandbox. You’re having a good time. You start sitting and once you start sitting, you get less air in your body. You get less movement in your body. It almost starts pushing your breathing from the middle to the top of your body.
The posture in which you sit, usually with your shoulders internally rotated and maybe a little bit of forward head posture also affects your breathing. They say posture affects your breathing up to 30% and then starts the gripping of your belly. It could be that you’re bracing because you’re trying to feel prepared. It could be that you’re sucking it in because you feel chubby or it could be fear, where you’re gripping your body out of fear of what’s going on around you.
Those types of things, in addition to waistbands, bra straps, having injuries in the middle of your body, just little ones like falling off a skateboard or a sled or something where you hit the middle of your body and you don’t want to take a big inhale because it hurts. You look at your parents, they’re breathing vertically. You look at commercials, everyone’s breathing vertically. You look at fitness magazines, no one’s ever taking a lower body breath in a fitness magazine, so the narrowing of the waist that you see in your parents, that you see in advertisement, as well as your own gripping your own little belly and then waistbands, compression garments, you end up with a vertical breath.
Brett McKay: Wow. We’ve talked about what a vertical breath looks like. Let’s go into detail what a horizontal breath looks like. You told us to breathe in your lower body. Is it a matter of just filling your belly with air? Is that a good cue to start off with?
Belisa Vranich: It’s a good cue, but I also like to back up because the first time I was told to take a belly breath, I did what most people are going to do, which is say, “Why would I ever want to do that? Why am I actually going to want to poke my belly out and look heavier? Good grief. I’ve been sucking it in for two decades. Why would I ever want to let it out? What happens if I can’t suck it back in again?” The point is that when you take a belly breath, there’s no air actually going into your belly. All you’re doing is letting the middle of your body, your belly, expand because that way, your diaphragm gets engaged, lowers, and makes more space inside your thoracic cavity for air. The belly breath is really in getting your diaphragm engaged because your diaphragm will follow your belly and flatten out and create space inside your thoracic cavity. It’s not that you’re breathing into your stomach. You actually would be make your middle and your abs stronger by breathing this way.
The belly breath is the beginner’s breath, but keep in mind that later on, much later, once this becomes more natural, and it will, you’ll just want to expand your body 360 degrees all the way around. Your back opens up a little bit. Your sides definitely open up. Your middle opens up a tiny bit, but not to the extent of that beginner’s belly breath. Your goal is to have 360 degrees all the way around widen with your shoulders not moving at all.
Brett McKay: Right. You said that in the book. When you look at animals, that whole part of that core, basically, expands when they take a breath.
Belisa Vranich: That’s what makes the whole thing really riveting for me is as animals on this planet, like we are, we’re the only ones that are breathing in this crazy, ass backwards way using our shoulders, the smallest part of our lungs, and wreaking havoc on everything inside of us. All you have to do is go in your backyard and look at your cat, your dog, your goat, whatever animal you have in your backyard or in your house. It can be a fish. It can be a bird. They’re all breathing with the movement being in the middle of their bodies where the biggest part of their lungs are. We’re the only dumbest ones on the planet that are moving our shoulders trying to get oxygen in by shrugging up and down and up and down.
Brett McKay: You talk about in the book a good way to become aware of this lower body breath when you first start out is lying on the floor or your bed and putting books on your belly. If you can see those rise up, it means you’re doing a good job.
Belisa Vranich: That’s exactly it. Because I’m a gym rat, I come from a gym background and I want to know about muscles, so when you start treating something that’s always been a little bit vague and mysterious like breathing and you start talking about muscles, it makes a lot more sense to people and to me, as well. When I inhale, I want to be able to be using my diaphragm. If you inhale and push those books away from your body just like any sort of rep you would do at the gym, on the exhale, you let them fall and you start thinking oh, this is engaging my diaphragm. I’m using my intercostals, my obliques, so it becomes a muscular workout, not this vague just breathe kind of thing that you do. It’s more about I’m actually working out my muscles. I’m doing something that feels more like PT or like a gym workout.
Brett McKay: How do you move on from doing the belly breath? What’s the next step in your training regimen to get you to the point where you’re using your back or your obliques, as well, letting those expand and fill out?
Belisa Vranich: Great. Well, one thing you just said that’s really important is the first breath you should take should be on the ground because when you lie down, it’s really hard to take a vertical breath. You’re almost forced to take a horizontal breath. Your breathing at night actually should be a little better than your breathing during the day, even though since we’re not sleeping way enough, as much as we should, it’s not really helping us for during the day. You should start with your back on the ground where you inhale. You fill your belly, if you like that analogy. You push the books away. On the exhale, you’re letting it fall and you’re almost squeezing your middle and squeezing out all the air.
Once that starts making sense, you can come up and I have people often do cat-cow from yoga. Cat-cow, if you’re not familiar with it, is that cow is you’re on all fours. You’re letting your belly drop. You’re looking up towards the sky. It looks a lot like the cow creamer that a lot of people have for your milk or your almond milk or your soy milk, whatever it is. Exhale is cat. It’s sort of your scary Halloween cat. Again, these are not my words. This actually comes from yoga, where you arch your back. You look down towards your bellybutton. You squeeze your middle and you exhale. You alternate between those two, where you inhale. You drop your belly. You expand your body. You look up. You take an inhale. You roll your back. Back goes up towards the ceiling. You look like a scary Halloween cat. Look at your bellybutton and exhale.
That’s almost exactly the same movement you should have when you’re lying on your back. You take that and then do it in a chair, so all these things are exactly the same as far as the movements. They’re just in different positions to see which one sticks with you. When you sit up and go to a chair, you’re thinking hmm, this is like cat-cow, but seated. It’s sort of like being on my back giving a big belly breath. Then exhaling, you sort of lean back and squeeze bellybutton towards your spine. What you want to do is think about breathing horizontally. You tip forwards. You let your belly go. You inhale. You expand your body. Then you roll back. You roll your hips underneath you, squeeze bellybutton towards your spine.
Now you’ve got it so that you know how to breathe when you’re lying down. You’re retraining your body to breathe the way it used to. Now when you’re seated and the hardest one to do, so I don’t tell people try this one first because it’s the hardest one, is standing up. When you stand up, you do the same movement as you do when you’re sitting, which is that you bump your butt back as if you’re doing valsalva when you’re lifting or if you’re a girl and you’re taking a selfie, you’ll see everybody bumps their butt back, selfie butt. You inhale, tip your butt backwards, fill your belly up, and then on the exhale, take your hips and put them underneath you and squeeze.
Now granted, in the beginning, this is a very big movement and you look a little crazy doing it. I recommend when you’re by yourself to do this big movement of moving forwards and expanding, exhaling, and squeezing, but then when you’re in public, you just do a small movement. Your shoulders don’t move. You inhale. Let your belly go or if you’re really thin, you have to actually push your belly out. Exhale, you narrow your body. That’s how you do it standing up. Once you have that lower body breath and it starts to make sense and it starts to feel more natural, that’s when you can start doing the harder exercises and start getting your breathing muscles to be strong.
Brett McKay: I love that. Yeah, I’m doing the butt back thing. It’s I guess the same movement I would do when I’m setting my back for a deadlift. That’s kind of what I-
Belisa Vranich: Exactly. It’s valsalva. I usually say valsalva butt or selfie butt and everybody in the audience understands one or the other.
Brett McKay: Gets it. All right. We talked about inhaling. The thing that I have trouble with because I don’t think about it all that much and you mentioned your father’s experience of not exhaling enough as he gets older. That’s a problem that all older people have. Exhaling, usually I just think it’s just letting the air out, but the way you describe it, it’s more of actually using your muscles to force that air out of your lungs.
Belisa Vranich: I’ve got two things going on here with the exhale is that one, the idea of exhale and let go has screwed us because exhale, let go means you just open your mouth or just let air go out of your body very passively. It’s not really an exhale. The fact is, you should be inhaling and relaxing your body and exhaling and giving it a squeeze. It’s the opposite of what we’ve been taught. Just let me go into that a second in that usually, you’re told exhale, let go and that’s when you’ll let your body relax. Sometimes, people even let their bellies go on the exhale, which makes no sense at all anatomically. What I want you to do is inhale, relax and expand and then exhale, actually squeeze. That let go is an intellectual let go, not a physical let go. It’s let go of tension, let go of irritability. It’s not let go of the middle of your body because if you just let go of the middle of the body, you’re not exhaling well.
You can try this right now is that take an inhale any way you want to and now on the exhale, just let go. Now actually, at the end of that exhale, stop and now squeeze your belly and get all the rest of the air out. You’re going to notice oh, my gosh, I had so much extra air left. Did you do that?
Brett McKay: I did it. No, but you’re right, though. Whenever I’ve noticed myself when I exhale is I’ll just relax my stomach. That’s what I naturally want to do, but that’s not-
Belisa Vranich: If you’re a vertical breather, the exhale is collapsing. When you’re a horizontal breather, the exhale is narrowing and wringing out. It’s a completely different concept. You can think about that right now because anybody who’s listening and you, Brett, is that you used to be a vertical breather and after this podcast, you are going to be well on your way to being a horizontal breather. Before, when you were a vertical breather, you would inhale up and you would exhale down and collapse. Right?
Brett McKay: Right.
Belisa Vranich: Now, I want you to inhale and expand and exhale, try to squeeze the air out of your body and make your middle narrower and actually use your abs a little bit, which, by the way, this is the reason why you end up having a much stronger core when you’re a horizontal breather.
Brett McKay: Because you’re getting ab workout while you’re exhaling.
Belisa Vranich: Mm-hmm (affirmative), but ab workouts the way you never have before because I have people who come in to see me and they’re shredded. They have nine packs, and just beautiful, beautiful abs and they’re completely just shredded and have gorgeous middles, but they can’t inhale because they have a muscular corset and they can’t exhale because they can only go to bracing. They can’t actually go to squeezing out. You end up having a really strong core where it matters deep down inside. For instance, if you plank, and I plank all the time, is that you’ll find your plank gets much longer and it’s much easier if you’re a horizontal breather.
Brett McKay: You also mentioned one of the muscles we bring in when we exhale is, as you said earlier, the mysterious pelvic floor muscles. What’s going on there?
Belisa Vranich: Exactly, what’s going on there? Well, let me ask you this. How many muscles in your pelvic floor?
Brett McKay: I have no clue.
Belisa Vranich: Uh-huh. Most people don’t or they say one and they make a little squeezing motion with their hand. The fact is that there’s about 20 muscles in your pelvic floor. There’s your proper, your small pelvic floor, which has a few muscles. Then there’s all the muscles that attach and support your pelvic floor, so all together, you have about 20 muscles. That is a lot of muscles in your pelvic floor. Your pelvic floor is not as big as your diaphragm, but it’s almost as big as your diaphragm. If you’re thinking that your diaphragm is the size of a Frisbee, your pelvic floor is a little bit smaller. It’s actually connected to your diaphragm by your psoas muscles. It’s interesting. You’d never think that your pelvic floor has anything to do with your breathing. It’s so far away from your lungs. Why would you ever have to think about your pelvic floor when you’re breathing? The fact is that when you’re breathing well, you’re using your entire body and so many muscles to inhale and exhale.
Just think about this. When you inhale, I want you to relax your glutes and relax your pelvic floor. Okay. On the exhale, I actually want you to squeeze your lower abs and contract your pelvic floor. Let’s back up for a second. When I say contract or expand or relax your pelvic floor, I’m actually talking about your bicycle seat. It’s the part of your body that hits the bicycle seat. The beginner’s pelvic floor contraction, it’s not the perfect pelvic floor contraction, but the beginner pelvic floor contraction is you can squeeze as if you’re trying not to pass gas or you can squeeze as if you’re trying to stop urine midstream.
Brett McKay: Right. The urine one, the key works for me.
Belisa Vranich: Yeah. That’s a couple muscles, but as you get better at doing this, you’ll realize oh, my gosh, I have muscles in front of that. I have muscles to either side. I have muscles in back. You really have again, visualize that smaller Frisbee. There’s a lot of muscles that have to do with your pelvic floor. It’s interesting with pelvic floor muscles is that we’re seeing so much pelvic floor dysfunction right now and we’re not getting good instruction on how to take care of our pelvic floor. If you’re someone right now who’s saying, “Oh, pelvic floor, mine’s fine,” or, “I haven’t had a baby through a vaginal delivery. I don’t have to worry about this,” you’re dead wrong. Pelvic floor problems and pelvic floor herniations affect people who are long distance runners, who lift weights or crossfit, who are overweight or obese, or who are smokers. That’s a lot of people who end up having dysfunctional pelvic floor muscles often and who need to know how to breathe to strengthen their pelvic floor muscles.
Brett McKay: Right. You’re contracting those pelvic floor muscles to sort of squeeze that air out.
Belisa Vranich: Yes.
Brett McKay: I’m imagining it like your diaphragm and your pelvic floor muscles acting sort of like a billows, a little bit. The diaphragm expands to fill your lungs up with air. Then your pelvic floor contracts to push it out.
Belisa Vranich: Yes. It does work that way. If you were to put your hands with some space one on top of the other, when your diaphragm flattens out, when your top hand flattens out and makes space in your thoracic cavity, it also pushes all your digestive organs down, so your pelvic floor has to relax to accommodate for all those organs. You’re already doing this, by the way. When you’re doing a belly breath, you’re already doing this, but I wanted to bring more attention to it. On the exhale, your body narrows and your pelvic floor muscle comes up in your body, so your whole body narrows and your pelvic floor contracts, as well. It should feel synchronized.
On the inhale, I want you to think about rocking your hips forward. You inhale. You relax your glutes. You relax your pelvic floor. You relax your belly. Exhale, you squeeze your ribs, your abs, and you contract your pelvic floor. It actually should make a lot of sense. One of the reasons most women haven’t done kegel exercises, although we know we should, as you’re told by your gynecologist after birthing, is that we’re not told where the breathing happens. If your diaphragm and your pelvic floor connected, you have to know in which direction each of them are going. It’s pretty complicated unless you have a picture in front of you. I do have a picture in my book. I forgot on what page. All you have to know is that on the inhale, when you rock forwards, you relax your glutes, relax your bicycle seat, relax your belly. On the exhale, when you roll back and tip your whole body back, you squeeze your lower abs and you squeeze your pelvic floor almost pulling it away from your seat.
Brett McKay: Okay. Just now, you gave me a glimpse to another insight or another benefit of proper breathing is this idea that your diaphragm pushes down on your intestines when you breathe in and then your pelvic floor pushes up on them when you exhale. It’s like you’re giving your intestines a massage. I’d imagine that helps with digestion, right?
Belisa Vranich: Oh, Brett, I am loving you right now. Exactly, it’s exactly it, so when people say, “How is my breathing supposed to affect my digestion?” it’s not a miracle. It’s not magic. It’s really just anatomy. Exactly what you just said is that your diaphragm supports something called peristalsis. Peristalsis is that wavelike motion that has to do with digesting that your organs do. Now, if you’re not using your diaphragm to breathe, if you’re using your shoulders, your stomach isn’t getting that supportive massage from the diaphragm that’s right above it and your pelvic floor that’s right below it. Think about how happy your digestive organs get when all of sudden, they’re getting massaged from the top and from the bottom of you breathing with a horizontal breath. One of the things that happens almost immediately is that your acid reflux can actually go away or get much less because now you’re using your diaphragm like the secondary esophagus that it was meant to be.
Brett McKay: That’s awesome. That’s really interesting. That’s awesome.
Belisa Vranich: Isn’t that crazy?
Brett McKay: Yeah. Well, so beside, we’ve been talking about breathing technique, but in the book, you also talk about breathing patterns and that you can screw that up, too. What are some examples of poor breathing pattern? This is someone who’s doing the vertical breath, probably, but the way, the cadence of breath might be messed up, as well.
Belisa Vranich: Sure. Well, when you’re breathing vertically, you have no choice but to breathe in a faster, shallower way. You just can’t help it. If you’re going to get the air that you need, you have to be breathing faster. Most of the time, when someone’s told to breathe slower and breathe in a pattern that helps, for instance, their heart rate variability, it’s hard to do continuously because they are continuing to use the smallest part of their lungs. That’s why I teach your style of breathing needs to change so that then you can support that slower breathing pattern. A slower breath usually is a better breath. The best breath, the most coherent breathing pattern is five or six breaths per minute. That’s actually the perfect breath. That’s what you want. You can’t do that unless you’re breathing horizontally with the biggest part of your lungs. Once you have your style of breathing to a horizontal breath, getting your breath to be as slow as possible, that five or six breaths as a goal, that’s what you should be aiming for perfectly.
Brett McKay: That’s awesome. Well, Belisa, I’m curious. You’ve worked with lots of clients on their breathing. I’m wondering do you have any stories of people whose lives were changed because they just focused on their breathing and became more mindful of it?
Belisa Vranich: Oh, so many and so many different ones. One of the reasons I get up every day and I love what I do, I absolutely love what I do, is I never know who’s going to walk in through the door and what problem they’re going to have. For me, it’s a challenge. As soon as I get someone and they have something that I don’t know why it is or they’ve been perplexed or they’ve seen so many people, trying to figure it out is kind of like a medical mystery trying to move them around, figure out if their diaphragm is locked up, if they’re traumatized, so they’re not breathing at all, looking at their style of breathing, breaking that down. Then trying to figure out how I get them to have that aha moment where they fix their breathing and they do it all the time.
I don’t know if I can give you one story, but I can tell you that the range of stories has really been fascinating for me. I’ve gotten everything from someone who works in a precision sport or a precision career that all of a sudden, they’re able to do it better. For instance, putting. If you’re a golfer and you don’t know how to exhale and you don’t know how to breathe horizontally, it’s going to affect your short game. If you are an MMA fighter and you don’t know how to breathe horizontally, it’s going to affect your center of gravity and it’s going to affect how quickly you recover when you go to your corner.
If you’re someone who has panic attacks or anxiety, unless you change your style of breathing, you’re going to be on medication and you’re going to be struggling with anxiety forever because the medication can help your anxiety, but your neurological system is going to keep you in that anxious state unless you change your breathing. It’s really about the range of people that I’ve worked with that blows my mind every single day.
Brett McKay: That’s awesome. No, I’ll admit I’ve been doing this for probably about two weeks now trying to be more mindful about my breath and working on it through the exercise. It’s helped out a lot. I love it. I do these exercises before I go to bed.
Belisa Vranich: Oh, good.
Brett McKay: Even like I was in the post office today standing in line. I was like all right. Let my belly relax a little and then to the pelvic floor thing when I’m exhaling. It works. For those of you who are listening and want to check this out, where can people find out more about your book and your work?
Belisa Vranich: Sure. Well, The Breathing Class is my website or drbelisa.com. The book is anywhere you buy books. I usually tell people to support their local bookstores. It’s also on audio. Then I do Facebook Lives and I answer questions when people email all the time. There’s lots of ways to find out about it. You can also go to your public library and take the book out there. I actually recommend that people do that, too, to support their local libraries. The book pretty much has everything in it that you need. It’s not that it’s a commercial for breathing. It actually starts. It gives you all the tools that you need, all the exercises that you need from beginner to intermediate to advanced, for anyone who either feels like they’re not breathing well, intuitively, they know something’s wrong, or they just feel like breathing better because they’re struggling with COPD, anxiety, or trying to get to sleep at night.
Brett McKay: Awesome. Well, Belisa Vranich, thank you so much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Belisa Vranich: Thank you. My pleasure.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Dr. Belisa Vranich. She’s the author of the book Breathe: The Simple, Revolutionary 14-Day Program to Improve Your Mental and Physical Health. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can also find out more information about her work at thebreathingclass.com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/breathe, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoy the show, have gotten something out of it while you’ve been listening, I’d really appreciate it if you’d take time, a minute, give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, really helps us out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.