Briefings Magazine

Got Breath?

Skilled breathing may be the ultimate high-performance biohack.

See the latest issue of Briefings at newsstands or read in our new format here.

By: Meghan Walsh

Zee Clarke knew high-pressure environments. She completed her bachelor’s in economics and an MBA at Harvard. She’d worked in senior positions at a number of Fortune 500 companies as well as Silicon Valley startups. She knew strategy. She knew marketing. She knew growth. She didn’t know how to breathe.

“My shoulders lived in my ears,” says Clarke, who authored the book Black People Breathe: A Mindfulness Guide to Racial Healing. “I had a constant level of stress in my body and I didn’t even realize it. That was my normal state.” In all her 43 years of elite education and professional development, no one had taught Clarke the craft of inhalation and exhalation. She would have to travel to India for that, which is exactly what she did. Ever the high achiever, Clarke took a two-year sabbatical to learn from the world’s foremost experts on breathing: yogis.

Today, Clarke is bringing that knowledge out of the Southeast Asian ashrams and into corporate America. Whatever an employee’s ambition or malady—from improved focus to confidence to stress management—there is a breathing technique, Clarke says. More and more organizations are hiring breath coaches for their employees, including Nike, JP Morgan and Google. Meanwhile, executives are adding breathing exercises to their peak performance toolkit. When time is the scarcest of commodities, breathing is the ultimate take-anywhere bio-hack. And a bio-hack is truly what it is; with just a few full inhalations and extended exhalations, it’s possible to regulate the nervous system, slowing heart rate, perspiration, and the fight-or-flight response.

“There is much more awareness of breath,” says Megan Morrison, a business coach who incorporates into her work with executives and corporate teams the Wim Hof Method, which uses hyperventilation, breath holds, and cold exposure to improve overall wellness. “Breathwork allows leaders to combat stress as it arises, increasing resilience,” she says.

(click image below to enlarge)

While breathwork may not solve all of our multifaceted problems on its own, the consensus is that a daily breathing practice can do wonders for physical and mental health—and in a tense boardroom meeting or on the receiving end of a racially charged microaggression from a colleague, a deep belly breath and extra long exhalation may be the only option available. Clarke was serving as the vice president of product management and business intelligence at a $2 billion global public company in 2020 when George Floyd’s murder prompted a reckoning that called on leaders of every public sphere to respond. That meant many hard conversations and still harder emotions. “I began paying attention to how I was feeling during the work day, then dealing with it,” Clarke says. “Breath was the medicine.”

While Clarke’s emphasis began with teaching breathwork to people of color in corporate environments, she points out it’s also valuable for aspiring allies—and anyone who has to work in collaboration with other people. A deep breath offers a pause, an opportunity to respond rather than react, an opportunity to show up as a higher version of ourselves. And it’s contagious. When the boss audibly draws in air in a slow and controlled effort and then visibly releases built up physical tension, it signals to the entire team to check in with their bodies. It signals safety.

These days, when Clarke feels her shoulders climbing upward, she pulls them back down with an extra long exhale. If she’s distracted and needs to refocus, she’ll do two minutes of sama vritti pranayama, better popularized by Navy Seals as box breathing. And always before hitting send on an email, she takes a big belly breath.


Download PDF