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Learning to Breathe: How breath-work can help you perform as a workplace leader

Learning to Breathe: How breath-work can help you perform as a workplace leader

Most of us don't know how to breathe correctly.

The quality of our breath affects our lives so much, yet we often pay no attention to it. While shallow breathing will keep you alive, it certainly won't help you perform to the best of your abilities.

Breathing is neither as easy nor as difficult as you might think. While breathing is simple, breathing correctly is difficult and complex; it is also a powerful tool that can be learned and leveraged with practice. 

When you breathe slowly and deeply, your organs are supplied with ample amounts of oxygen, your heartbeat slows down, and your blood pressure stabilizes. You immediately feel calmer, relaxed, and less stressed, with sharper focus and more mental clarity. Yoga breathing techniques have been proven to activate the brain and improve cognitive function, and a study done on a group of students showed that deep breathing also enhances concentration. With this in mind, it's clear that better breathing has a lot to offer a successful leader.

How you breathe affects the kind of leader you are

Suppose you wish to run your team in a productive and empathic way. In that case, you probably already know that new types of leadership models explore creative solutions and question traditional corporate practices. Many of these new leadership models adopt techniques and best practices from all sorts of influences, including those that rely on science-backed breath-work practices (such as mindfulness or meditation). 

As a leader, there are certain expectations about how you conduct yourself in workplace situations, especially in moments of crisis. Nobody feels particularly encouraged by a leader who is visibly shaken when stressful situations occur, doesn't speak up when needed, and suffers from stage fright at big meetings. 

Leadership is about inspiring confidence and showing that you can think strategically, operate at a high capacity in crisis management, and make good decisions in stressful circumstances. This is where breath-work comes into its own. 

Breathing can help you maintain an executive presence in high-stake situations

When you are faced with pressure in the workplace, breath-work can help you maintain your composure and preserve your executive presence. The ample oxygen your body gets from slow, deep breaths supports your voice and prevents sentences from hanging in the air, breathlessly. 

In contrast, shallow breaths leave your body deprived of oxygen, increasing your anxiety levels. This will quickly become apparent in your posture, your voice, and your racing thoughts.

One of the breath-work techniques that can help you maintain your oxygen levels in high-stress workplace situations is pranayama breathing. This ancient yogic practice has been proven to improve executive function and working memory

Similarly, interesting findings come from a program held for over 600 high-potential leaders in Microsoft, in which leaders were taught deep diaphragmatic breathing techniques. The goal was to both reduce the impact of stress and increase mental clarity and focus. The participants praised breath-work as the most useful tool for managing stress and productivity, and the majority of them continued to use it after the program ended.

Breath-work can improve your learning and focus

Leadership is not only about taking the forefront during moments of crisis; it is also about the ability to learn from and adapt to changing circumstances, seeing the bigger picture so that you can help your team choose the right path forward.

Diaphragmatic breathing can help with this as well, improving your attention capacity, as well as your overall health, by reducing the amount of stress hormone cortisol, in your bloodstream. Our breath influences our attention. Therefore, you can optimize your learning and mental performance by controlling your breathing. The result? You become a calm, focused leader, and always ready to learn and adapt. 

Breathe slowly for better cognitive flexibility

Slow-paced breathing can also improve your cognitive flexibility.

Cognitive flexibility is the skill of switching from one way of thinking to another, allowing you to adapt quickly and effortlessly. By practicing this skill daily, you can create new neural pathways in your brain, increasing your problem-solving capabilities. 

Being cognitively flexible can help take the stress out of learning and increase your adaptability to new and unforeseen circumstances. The result is a leadership style rooted in adaptability and ready to tackle any challenge.

If you'd like to assess your cognitive flexibility, I highly recommend you read my upcoming article: How to change your brain? Start with brushing your teeth.

The practices described in this article can genuinely bring profound and lasting changes to your workplace and, by extension, to your team. If you'd like to learn more about how they can help you improve your leadership skills, get in touch - I will be happy to help.

Jessica Godshall is a solutions-oriented professional with a proven track record of leadership success in launching a startup business, serving on leadership committees, promoting engagement, and advancing philanthropic campaigns.

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