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Faculty Viewpoints

The Breathing Technique that Can Make You a Better Leader

Yale SOM’s Emma Seppälä found that a weeklong training in the SKY Breath technique provides a lasting reduction in anxiety and greater resilience to stress, even for those who don’t continue to practice it.


I was working with veterans with trauma and we were trying to figure out some interventions we can use to help them, because many traditional interventions like therapy or pharmaceutical interventions were not helping all of the veterans. Many of them were not liking the treatments or were not responding to them. And so that’s when I thought, let’s see if breathing can help them.

Our first pilot study looked at veterans who had come back from Iraq and Afghanistan. One group was placed in the control group—did not receive an intervention—and the other went through the SKY Breath meditation intervention, and what we found was that after one week, those who had gone through the intervention, their anxiety, their post-traumatic stress was normalized. Many of them no longer qualified as having post-traumatic stress, and the results were maintained one month and one year later.

Now, this is where people often ask, well, did they continue doing the breathing practices after that initial week? And most of them did not. But it’s as if going through that practice for one week had stabilized their nervous system and they were able to move on with their life. That’s what they said: “I could just move on.”

We know meditation has a lot of benefits, but while meditation usually involves being aware of your body, your mind, your thoughts, your breathing, what we’re talking about here is actively changing how you breathe in order to change your thoughts. We know that breathing is connected to our emotions. When you’re feeling different emotions like stress or anger, your breath changes. But what research also shows is that by changing your breath, you can shift your emotional state. So we know, for example, that when we inhale, our heart rate increases, and as we exhale, it starts to slow down.

If you do a short exercise like closing your eyes and breathing out for twice as long as you breathe in for, say, five minutes, you’ll notice that you start to calm down because you’re tapping right into your physiology. You’re triggering the parasympathetic nervous system, the calming response within. Just doing that for five minutes, you’ll notice your physiology calming, you’ll notice your mind is clearer. And if you do a longer protocol on a daily basis, such as the SKY Breath meditation, you’re training your nervous system for greater calm and stress resilience throughout the whole day. Trained instructors lead participants through a workshop that’s three or four days long, and the participants learn a 20-minute daily home practice that they can do, that you can think of as training your nervous system to come back to this calmer place. Just like you would go to the gym to train your muscles so you can be stronger in your daily life, when you practice this kind of breathing technique, what we’re seeing is that people are more resilient to stress and have just more normalized anxiety.

Pre-pandemic, we knew that it was important to have emotional intelligence as a leader, but during the pandemic it became very, very obvious. And just looking through the most popular articles on LinkedIn these days, it’s all about, How do you manage the culture of your organization? How do you take care of people? And for a leader, it starts with yourself. It starts with being able to handle your own mind, handle your own emotions, and show up as your best self for others. How do we do that? We need something that works really well, that works really efficiently, and that’s where our breathing practice can help calm anxiety, calm stress in just minutes so you can show up more present, more focused, more emotionally intelligent, make better decisions. That’s what we need right now.

Department: Faculty Viewpoints