Why Leaders May Want to Breathe

This is an experimental Read2Lead, so I would especially like your feedback. Today I go in. It’s about leading the leader. It’s a different kind of Leading by Two, where the observing self engages with the living self. Me leading me. You leading you. The reflection below flows from a friendship/mentorship with my TA, Mina. She and I are doing different forms of breathwork. She’s a runner on Cal’s track team, and she has been experimenting with her breathing while running, while I have been deep into a meditative breathwork practice that includes fast-and-deep breathing for a couple minutes followed by breathholds of 1 to 2+ minutes. Some links to guided breathwork below, should you be interested. 

She’s been curious about the breathwork practice. She told me she’d like to make it routine, but she doesn’t. I said, “well something in you is resisting and that might be worth looking at.” A few days later she said, “I think I don’t engage in sitting breathwork, because I don’t see the why of doing it.” Her why has been percolating in my head, and after doing my breathwork this morning, the following reflection flowed out of me like a river. It reflects why in a world that seems so fractured – and which puts so much pressure on leaders – I think breathwork can be so helpful. That’s the context. Here is the unedited reflection. 

  1. Context: the beginning of the third quarter, the second half of the year. I did the six rounds, maxxing out at about a 2 ½ minute breathhold. I was literally lol at the end. The narrator says the funniest damn thing, “alright, well done, have a good one.” His tone is so incredibly matter-of-fact and it contrasts with the drive, discipline, and focus it takes to hold one’s breath for so long. His voice is flat. But there’s something about it that I like. It just is. I just am. The breathing just happens, just as it happens all day and all night long. In. Out. In. Out. It doesn’t have to be great or good or bad. It doesn’t have to be anything. Just breath. When Mina asks me: why breathe? Why should anyone have discipline around it? I guess one answer I would have is: you don’t. You don’t have to do it.
  2. There’s a lot in Christian spirituality about getting beyond obligation (external) and compulsion (internal) to pray. God, the great mystics and spiritual directors say, wants you to freely choose to be with Him, Her, It. It’s one of the things about breathwork. It is such a direct manifestation of the great line the Book of Deuteronomy: “I put before you life and death. Choose life.” In this most foundational sense, breathwork lets you become aware that you can consciously breathe in and breathe out. And that makes you aware that you’re gifted with this body that does it all by itself, all day long, all night long. Your body chooses life. That’s just what it does. But when we become more disciplined and attentive to this most basic function, when we intentionally and attentively engage in the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, some awareness seeps in: Wow! I am alive. I am alive. Beyond all the polarities of good and bad and strong and weak and smart and stupid, I’m alive. And that just brings a huge smile to my face. What a flippin’ gift!
  3. And then when (instructed to) I intentionally stop the breathing. Hard stop. Freezing my life for a brief moment. Extending that hold until levels of fear dissipate – fear that I will die – that I – I, my will must breathe, there’s an even deeper quiet that arises. And then it’s so wonderful to be able (when instructed) to consciously, fully, gratefully take that inbreath again! Something muscular yet luscious when following his instruction with full lungs to “squeeze the belly, the neck and then the head.”  Some strange alliance with life to push oxygen out into the body and the brain-mind.
  4. And then there’s the extraordinary aftermath that persists with me now, after 6 rounds. It’s just a quiet recitation of life. It’s as if my brain also – like my lungs- has its own natural rhythm or beat. To be sure, the brain’s beat is jazzy, sometimes contrapuntal, and uneven in rhythm in volume, in pace. But nonetheless an energetic pulsing of its own. So that words flow out of this state with so much ease, gravitationally pulled like a river that starts as a trickle up in the mountains, but levels off in places to be nearly flat but never ever losing its momentum completely. So goes the mind, like the breath and like the extraordinary resilient muscle we call the heart, naturally. It can flow from a deeper source, a quieter source that is fully aligned with the gift of life, the miracle of life, and the call to simply be present in the splendor of life.

That’s why I breathe and why I perceive myself to be so much more present – as professor, coach, husband, parent, son – and beneath all the other hats I wear, identities I inhabit, I feel able to choose life, be present and to  

Lead with my best self.

Dan  (who would love to know whether you would like to read more thoughts on leading-the-leader within: Yes! Maybe! Meh! No thanks. All feedback welcome.)


If you’re interested in learning and/or practicing, here are some resources:

I’ve used all of these and love them for various reasons.



Length of holds


Great intro breathing exercise. 5 rounds.

One minute


Wim Hof – a wonderful character – beginner

30 seconds builds to 90 seconds


Jesse Coomer – great intro to many styles of breathing. Super voice (he also has an excellent book)

Varied practices. Holds are typically 90 seconds.


10 rounds, but do as many as you want or have time for

All 90 seconds


5 Rounds

from 90 to 120 seconds


6 rounds

My favorite

Goes from 1:20 to 3:00 and has meditative music at end




Great books:

James Nestor, Breath: the new science of a lost art.  Fun. Fascinating. Audible book has an appendix with various breathing practices for various purposes, e.g., athletic, sleep, stress, etc.

Jesse Coomer, A Practical Guide to Breathwork. Title says it all. Really helpful in terms of exercises as well as background.  

  • I’ve been struggling with finding time for breathwork too. I need to find my “why” too. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Kitty,
      Most of my life I have struggled with the “I should set aside time for prayer / mindfulness / meditation / yoga / etc., but I don’t have the time (and self-discipline.)” My experience (over decades now) is that I begin to round that corner when I actually EXPERIENCE something that is intrinsically rewarding and I pay attention to the richness of that experience.
      I also think that a practical strategy is to make a bargain with ourselves: I will spend 15-20 minutes in the morning, and I will exchange that for (X TV show, Y online game, Z time on Amazon, P time spent with someone who guilts me into it, etc.)
      In that light, here is a really short yet very powerful piece of breathwork: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocdnOeNVaek
      Let me know if you try it!

  • Great article, Dan. I say bring on more like it! It definitely speaks to the importance of finding the inner quiet in order to bring your best self to the table. Thanks for the reminder to B-R-E-A-T-H-E…..

    • Viki,
      Thanks for your feedback. I love your expression of “inner quiet in otder to bring your best self to the table.” Expect some more like this and perhaps a spin-off type blog more focused on “leading the leader.”

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