Essential Elements Series: Breathing

Breathing in the context of Speaking Circles practice refers to the act of consciously paying attention to one’s breath and of deliberately taking full breaths at various points during an act of public speaking, expression, or silent receptivity.

In Speaking Circles, participants are encouraged to begin and end any act of engagement with another, whether verbal or non-verbal, with a full breath. This applies both before and after the audience’s applause as well as before and after a Speaking Circles turn. They are also encouraged to take full breaths, in Relational Presence with one person, at any time when they notice that their emotions are running high, or they find that they have “run out of things to say.” Such breaths help the speaker to come back to a sense of being more emotionally centered and also give the audience time to “catch up” and absorb what is being said. In addition, participants’ attention to their perception of breathing brings awareness to physical and visceral sensations, which helps to ground them in the present moment with conscious awareness.1

A focus on breathing is a core of many meditation practices to build a calm and concentrated mind. Breathing practices can directly modulate the nervous system. For example, research has shown that having a longer outbreath than in-breath tends to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and deactivates the sympathetic (fight or flight) response, helping to calm people down.2 This may make people feel not only calmer, but more able to engage relationally with their companions or audience.3 Hand-in-hand with tranquility and social connection,1 having a breath focus during mindfulness practices, including that of Relational Presence in Speaking Circles, increases concentrated attention,4 helping the speaker to center their attention in the present, relational moment with their audience, one person at a time.


1. Vago DR, Silbersweig DA. Self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART): a framework for understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness. Frontiers in human neuroscience. 2012;6:296.

2. Lehrer PM, Vaschillo E, Vaschillo B. Resonant frequency biofeedback training to increase cardiac variability: rationale and manual for training. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback. 2000;25(3):177-191.

3. Porges SW. Social engagement and attachment: a phylogenetic perspective. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2003;1008:31-47.

4. Hasenkamp W, Barsalou LW. Effects of meditation experience on functional connectivity of distributed brain networks. Frontiers in human neuroscience. 2012;6:38.