Two weeks ago I published a blog post (click here to read) on why I don’t practice deep breathing anymore. After a few thousand people read it I decided it was time to add some more details to clear up further concerns and language disputes. Thank you again to my colleague and teacher Steve Donald, who has sent me more research, and who helps me separate the valid feedback from the trollers.
I want to begin with exactly what I mean when I say “deep breathing” because this is the first point of confusion and debate. Right now most of us are sitting at our computers, reading along, subconsciously breathing a somewhat low volume of air. We can either allow our bodies to breathe naturally (as they were doing before I mentioned this), or override the settings and decide to breathe a higher or lower volume. The act of breathing more air than we actually need is what I consider deep breathing, in respiratory science this is sometimes called hyperventilation. In yoga this can be called “take a few deep breaths” which if you are following along, can become worrisome.
But what about deep diaphragmatic breathing? Yes the diaphragm is important, and yes we should breathe into our lower core. But we don’t need to take an excess amount of air to do that, rather than manipulating the volume, lets manipulate the physical movement of breathing. Chest breathing does have its place in times of strenuous exercise, to move more air, but chest breathing at rest is what we are aiming to avoid. One of the most common reasons people chest breathe is because culturally we suck in our stomachs to look smaller around the midsection. This can become such a profound habit, many of us have a very hard time actually breathing down into our lower core.
Breathing and respiration are two different things, that we sometime confuse as one. Breathing is behavioral, and respiration is based on a scientific model. In the ideal scenario, breathing will mirror respiration, but in most of us breathing is not a reflection of efficient respiration.
Breathing through the nose is also a big factor when determining whether our breathing is highly functional or not. The nose has been designed to warm and humidify air coming into the body. It has recently been discovered that Nitric Oxide (NO) is also produced in the paranasal sinus, which is important for its anti-microbial properties and protecting us from inhaled pathogens. Just another reason to nose breathe. The nose also has the ability to regulate the flow and volume of air we breathe. The mouth of the other hand lets in much more volume of air that doesn’t get properly humidified and cleaned, which as we will learn is dysfunctional in the long run.
In my last article I spoke about how our bloodstream is already quite full of oxygen, unless there is a medical condition. Normal levels for humans range between 95-100% oxygen saturation, so imagine a glass that is 95-100 percent full, that’s how much oxygen we already have. When we wrap our heads around that we realize that the notion of inhaling excessive amounts to get “more oxygen in” does not really make sense. Full is full.
Our bodies are constantly producing Carbon Dioxide (CO2), and it really is more than just a waste gas. The arterial pressure of CO2 determines how easily Hemoglobin releases Oxygen to our tissues. Let’s look at this in a bit more detail. Bio-medcal engineer Peter Kolb wrote an in-depth article about breathing and hyperventilation, the following is a quote explaining the basics of how we receive oxygen in the bloodstream. “Once oxygen attaches itself to the hemoglobin in the lungs, it is transported to the tissues where it is needed. CO2 is necessary to fully offload the Oxygen into the tissues. When the baseline level of CO2 is too low, the oxygen is not fully unloaded resulting in tissue hypoxia. The consequence is a feeling of breathlessness, which aggravates the condition, frequent yawning and sighing, build up of acids, such as lactic acid, in the body and joints leading to fatigue.”
As we read this information we might be thinking to ourselves, I breathe perfectly, I don’t need to worry about my breathing. In this day in age abnormal breathing traits are actually deemed to be quite normal. For example, the Asthma Society of Canada states that over 3 million Canadians currently suffer from asthma, another source states that forty percent of middle aged people snore, and the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America point out that 50 million Americans suffer from allergies. Along with these common breathing disorders are anxiety, sleep apnea, and high blood pressure. Next time you notice yourself breathing through your mouth, take a moment and see if you can breathe through your nose.
Many of us think we breathe through our noses all the time, and this may be true for the odd person. But unless you have had some specific training, most of us are sucking air through our mouths many times throughout the day. For example, as you read this article, start reading it out loud. Notice how you take a huge mouth breath at the beginning of each sentence. Now try to correct yourself, when you reach the end of a phrase, take a breath with your nose and carry on. Those of us who talk a lot or teach for a living are usually classic mouth breathers.
Most of us are also mouth breathing when we are exercising, or even walking up a flight of stairs on our way to work. Eating and showering are other activities where mouth breathing is common. It is possible to breathe through our noses most of the time, but it takes a bit of retraining. If you snore or wake up with a dry mouth you were probably mouth breathing while sleeping. When we add up all the little things, its easy to see how we might be breathing through our mouths many times throughout the day.
The last big point is how much our breathing can effect our autonomic nervous systems. A great way to amp up our sympathetic activation (fight/flight/freeze) is to begin taking deep breaths (breathing quite a bit more air than our bodies require). Want even more activation? Take a few deep breaths through the mouth and breathe into the upper chest.
On the one hand, we should be free to experiment with our bodies in any ways we see fit. On the other hand, for teachers of movement or yoga it is essential to have some baseline information on breathing and the possible consequences of instructing people to breathe in certain ways. For someone with anxiety, asthma, allergies, panic, PTSD or snoring, taking deep breaths for an hour at a time in a yoga or fitness class can actually be more harmful than helpful.
When we rehab our breathing patterns certain cues can be highly effective, reminding people to take gentle or quiet breaths with the nose is a great way to address breathing in classes. Reminding people to breathe down into the lower core, and to experiment with different types of diaphragmatic breathing will also help. Lastly, rather than counting people’s breaths for them, allowing everyone go at their own speed is a way to honour individuality and not overly stimulate the nervous system.