The Edge: Peak Performance Psychology

Essentials of optimal performance

The Breathing Edge - Part I

Who knew? There are right and wrong ways to breathe.

Asked about his meteoric rise to fame over the past year, American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert comments that it's fun and exciting-and adds, "There are moments when I get overwhelmed and I have to breathe."

Of course he does.

So do we all at times, whether because we're delighted or despondent, terrified or over-shooting our goals.

I'm not talking about taking just any kind of breath-since breathing is one sign that we're alive-but, as I assume Lambert meant, taking a deep breath.

But what does taking a deep breath mean?

Go ahead-try it right now. In fact, put a hand on your belly, with your middle fingers touching. See what happens as you inhale. And on the exhale? Do your fingers separate at some point? Come together? Nothing?

Now do the same thing-slow deep breaths, just like people say-this time with one hand on your chest and one on your belly. Which hand is moving?

You have just set up your own absolutely free-of-cost utterly portable biofeedback machine. Your hands will tell you if you are or aren't breathing deeply.

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The right answer? (Yes, there is a correct answer. For most other things, as a properly trained psychologist, I will respond "mmm-hmmm" to what you say. This is perhaps the exception to that rule.)

When your hands are on your belly, your fingers should separate as you inhale and come back together as you exhale. With one hand on your belly and one on your chest, just about all the action should occur at your belly.

I haven't come across any statistics about the number of people who know how to breathe the correct way. (It's also known as belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing.)

What I can tell you is that the vast majority of people I encounter in my performance psychology practice http://www.theperformingedge.com need to learn how to breathe diaphragmatically.

Perhaps Lambert is one of the lucky ones. After all, as a musician, he's no doubt learned this kind of breathing in order to sustain his tone and manage breath control. People encounter diaphragmatic breath training at other times, too, such as in childbirth classes or with a conscientious yoga instructor.

But sometimes, even with people who know how to breathe deeply, they don't know (or don't remember) that diaphragmatic breathing calms you down, rapidly and effectively. It is also an essential tool for tension regulation for optimal performance.

If you "failed" the tests, above, here are two ways you can learn to breathe right:

1. Start from the ground up: lie down on the floor and put a lightweight magazine on your belly. Exhale completely, and then focus on raising the magazine as you inhale. Lower it gradually as you exhale. That is what diaphragmatic breathing feels like. Once you've got this rhythm, you can check by removing the magazine and putting one hand on your belly, one on your chest. You should be feeling almost all the movement at your belly, very little at your chest.
Once you can breathe slowly and smoothly in this way lying down, you can ask your body to "teach" you-just as you would if you were learning some other motor activity-to breathe deeply when you are sitting or standing.

2. A picture is often worth a whole lotta words: you can see a good demonstration and explanation of diaphragmatic breathing, given by my colleague, Dr. David Carbonell @ http://www.youtube.com/davecarbonell#p/u

Kate F. Hays, Ph.D., is a psychologist and author whose practice in Toronto, The Performing Edge, focuses on sport and performance psychology.

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