Andy Smyth: I Think I Better Breathe Right, Now!
Before you read the rest of this article, take a second and close your eyes before taking one single deep breath.
Ideally you’re still awake and eager to read on as opposed to on the floor hyperventilating. If so, reflect back on whether that one single deep breath exited your body through your mouth or if it was through your nose.
Through your mouth? Incorrect technique.
Through your nose? Correct technique.
As mentioned, if your deep breath came from your mouth, well, according to both science and breathing expert Andy Smyth from Elements of Breath, you could do with learning a bit about the correct way to breathe and the numerous performative and mental benefits that can come with it.
“Learning to breathe better has positively affected every part of my life. I am a better dad because of how I breathe now and a better husband,” said Andy.
Since a young age, Andy was a self-confessed mouth breather. Like most of us growing up, breathing in the correct and most effective manner wasn’t something we gave an awful lot of thought about and we weren’t taught it in school. As a youngster, if one Friday evening my mum or dad sat me down to teach me about breathing exercise techniques, I don’t think I’d have been very keen to take it on board. Whilst most people simply aren’t in positions to learn about breathing properly, Andy’s incorrect technique instead came from a condition that left him with next to no function in the nasal region.
“Ever since I was a youngster, I seemed to have no function in my nose — I just couldn’t breathe through it. I then had a big operation when I was 14 which was supposed to clear everything up but it just didn’t work that well. Since then, I had a lot of sinus problems and then when I moved to Stirling in 1998 (where the air temperature is on average four degree cooler) the cooler air meant that my nose completely closed up.”
It wasn’t until some self-enrolled education Andy became aware of the route of his breathing problems and how he could rectify them.
“I was working at Stirling University and had an hour commute so I decided to use that as a time to learn. So I’d always pop on a podcast, 90 percent of the time it would be self help and the other 10 percent would be basketball interviews or something. I first became aware of how much an effect breathing was having on my performances whilst listening to Oxygen Advantage Podcast with Patrick McKeown, who is a world leader in functional breathing.”
What exactly did Andy learn from the podcast that hit him so deeply?
“I learnt that we’re trained from an early age to think that when you’re running and you have that desire to take in more air, you should open your mouth to allow that to help you. That’s actually extremely counterproductive, you take in less oxygen that way when you breathe throw your mouth with bigger breaths than lighter ones through your nose.
As an avid basketball player himself, it gave him the perfect opportunity to put the breathing techniques into practise after a career often filled with an abnormal level of fatigue.
“I played basketball and my breathing technique had a massive detrimental effect. I’d somehow always be knackered midway through the very first quarter. I just always remember wondering why my thighs were burning so early on in the game. I was eating loads of shakes, nuts and high nutrient foods so that I could have stuff to put in place to help me through games, but the issue wasn’t diet it was my breathing.”
What exactly though was the problem and why does mouth breathing result in earlier fatigue?
“Because of my breathing, basically I didn’t have enough carbon dioxide in my blood for the oxygen to absorb into the working muscles. That meant they filled up with lactic acid quicker and meant I had less stamina and strength. I loved basketball, but I often wonder what it would have been like to play without that feeling of constant utter exhaustion.”
Fast forward to now though, it’s clear that Andy possesses an impressive encyclopaedic knowledge of all things breathwork and how to maximise performance and wellbeing through it, the positives Andy has experienced across his life has meant that he’s eager to pass on this knowledge to others.
“I listened more to that podcast, bought the Oxygen Advantage book and learnt techniques myself on how I could try breathe better through my nose. When I started to feel the benefits, that was when I realised that this was something I had to pass on to others. I started to look out and see people who are mouth breathers. For example, where I live there’s people who run past my house and I’m looking and thinking to myself, yep they are a mouth breather, that person breathes fine, oh that’s another mouth breather.
“Working in sport and coaching, which deals with management of people, I started to see a correlation of how people deal with difficult or stressful situations and emotions and how it often relates to their breathing style.
“When you breathe through your mouth (the wrong way), you are stimulating your sympathetic nervous system, which is basically fight or flight. You are constantly petering over the edge when you are in that state and it means that if you’re a mouth breather as opposed to through your nose, that one snappy email you receive from a colleague or a comment from a partner makes you tip over the edge more easily.”
After being furloughed in early 2020 due to Covid-19, Andy decided to flip the uncertainty that he and many were feeling into an opportunity for growth. After taking one big deep breath (through the nose of course) he was fully ready to commit to giving functional breathwork coaching a real go.
“I went from having a full-time job to making this my full-time job. I started my company in November, picked up clients from then and build up a client base and taught a few courses. I’m now reaching out and looking at bigger companies to work with over a few consecutive months to help reduce stress, anxiety and improve performance.”
It appears that, so far, the US has taken more of the initiative than the UK when it comes to educating individuals about the power of breath, Andy’s latest client being a clear example of that.
“I’ve started a project with Houston Baptist University and their basketball team. I worked with the coaches in July and during August and September we’ll be implementing functional breathing day to day and during performance for the athletes. This will include ways in which they can create microclimates for recovery through breathwork during the likes of stop ball situations and timeouts. This will help them increase their overall stamina and energy.
“The tide is turning when it comes to organisations wanting to really listen to how this field can help. It’s definitely gathering pace now. There’s a momentum building within sport that suggests that sport clubs and athletes are beginning to tap into the marginal gains that can come through functional breathing.”
Describe yourself in three words?
Fun, calm and relaxed.
How would your family and friends describe you in three words?
I’d say they’d probably say I’m a bit zany.
Are you more introverted or extroverted?
What is your biggest energiser?
It might sound strange because they are absolute polar opposites but I’d say absolute quiet, but also people.
Although I’m quite compassionate to other people, I can sometimes be a bit unkind to myself.
Best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
“Slow and steady wins the race” from the story of the hare and the tortoise.