Using Your Breath to Feel Better: An Interview with Max Strom
Max Strom is a global speaker, author, yoga teacher, and trainer, best known for deeply impacting the lives of his students with teachings that reach past the limits of contemporary yoga culture. Over the past decade, Max has become a prominent voice of personal transformation skilled at touching the hearts of people from all walks of life, nationalities, and backgrounds.
1440: Do “breathwork,” “breathing exercises,” and “breathing patterns” refer to the same thing?
Max: Yes, they’re essentially the same. I started using the term breathing patterns because when you tell somebody that we’re going to do breathing exercises, it conjures up a bunch of unknowns. But if I say breathing patterns, I can explain that we breathe in a specific way, several times in a row, just like when you do reps when you lift weights. They still don’t completely know what they’re in for, but they can follow it better.
1440: Is there an ideal way to breathe, with an ideal number of breaths per minute?
Max: There are two types of breathing. The first is our automatic breathing, which we don’t need to think about any more than digesting our food. It just happens.
There’s no one “right” way to breathe automatically, but you can do things to affect your automatic breathing. For example, you can sit up straighter. If you’re slouching the way we do when on our phones and computers, you’re basically compressing your diaphragm and lungs together and you can’t breathe well. It’s like having had a big Thanksgiving dinner or being pregnant. It’s harder to breathe. So you can work with posture to make it easier to breathe automatically.
The second type of breathing is when you take over from the automatic breathing and do a conscious breathing pattern.
The reason to do this is because your emotions affect your breathing and your breathing affects your emotions.
Let’s say you have depression. I might give you a protocol to do a particular set of enlivening breathing patterns every day. If you are anxious, I would suggest breathing patterns that soothe the system. In any of these patterns there may be a certain number of breaths per minute, but once you finish the exercise, you just let the automatic breathing take over again.
1440: How quickly can someone feel the results of doing breathing exercises?
Max: You should feel it the first day. Your depression or anxiety won’t disappear in one day; I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is when you do a breathing pattern, in 10 minutes you will feel much better. The first time. There’s immediate impact. With things like meditation, it usually takes some time to get results. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do or teach meditation, it just means it takes longer that way.
Opening Through the Breath
July 19 - 22, 2018
In a world of tumultuous change, where can we look for stability and wisdom? Unlock your capacity for healing and empathy by looking inward to the power of your breath. Join renowned yoga teacher and coach Max Strom for a...
1440: What do we know about the link between the breath and emotions?
Max: Neurologists still don’t know exactly how breathing patterns affect the nervous system, but they know they do. What we do know is that some basic things happen to the body when we feel certain emotions. For example, let’s say you’re watching a funny movie and you start to laugh. What is that? Your lungs are doing this interesting thing in response to a feeling.
We don’t control this, it just occurs.
We can stifle or force a laugh, but it also rises up unbidden.
You could also be in a good mood and get a phone call with really terrible news. The next thing you know, you’re sitting down in a chair, with your hands in your face, weeping. How has your breath responded to this emotion of grief? We call it crying, but what is happening? I asked one of the leading neurologists in the United States why our lungs and diaphragm spasm when we feel grief and he said we don’t yet know.
We can also observe that we gasp or make a sudden inhale when we’re surprised, inspired, or have a great idea, even for something as simple as suddenly thinking of a great place to go to dinner. In this case the lungs expand and we inhale fully.
Neurology is an exploding science. They’ll probably figure out why these connections exist sometime soon, but even if we don’t know why they exist, we can know from experience that they do exist.
1440: What if someone experiences a lot of emotion when doing breathwork? How do you suggest they work with it?
Max: This means they’re releasing old grief and they just have to go with it and not be afraid of it.
To constantly withhold and suppress our emotions really causes harm—releasing them does not.
What I always tell my students is when emotions come up from breathing, they rarely come up alone. They usually come up with some insight or memory. So it’s useful to do some writing or journaling after this happens because you’ll get insights that you didn’t have an hour ago.
1440: How do you teach breathing as part of a yoga practice? Do you teach it separately or integrate it into the movements?
Max: I have found over the years that people do a better job focusing on their breathing if they’re standing—especially newer students. I also found that if people can move their arms in a rhythmic pattern they’ll do a much better job at following their breath. In most of my classes we do a brief stretch for the spine on the floor and then come to standing for about 15 minutes of breathing patterns. That’s about four to six specific exercises, depending on the day. I teach people to expand their ribs laterally and other breathing techniques like ocean breathing (another term for ujjayi breathing).
Once people get the hang of the breathwork, I start to add more traditional yoga postures and do the breath exactly the same way. But if I see them start to lose the breath, I stop and we begin again. This is a breathing system accompanied by postures, not a posture practice where you try to remember to breathe. There’s a 30-minute routine I offer on YouTube called Inner Axis 30 if people want to check it out.
1440: Are others beyond the yoga world interested in your breathwork?
Max: At this point I’m teaching not just yoga teachers but a lot of psychologists, social workers, and Pilates teachers.
There’s a real revolution happening.
I’ve also been invited to several conferences for medical professionals over the last year. Suicide among doctors in America is skyrocketing, and many of them are living on antidepressant and antianxiety drugs and they want to learn another way.
Recently, a 30-year-old woman took my workshop who had insomnia, chronic anxiety, and depression, including skin rashes from the anxiety. By the third day, she said she felt no symptoms of anxiety for the first time in as long as she could remember. Since she took the workshop a few months ago, she’s done a 20-minute routine each day and she let me know that she has no more skin rashes and is sleeping through the night. Breathing patterns aren’t difficult to do, and anyone can benefit from this work.