TRY SOME WORK ON YOUR OWN (let us know if we can help)
Find Your Starting Point
While no self-report tool is fool proof, we find value in this scientifically validated questionnaire. Your score may indicate your starting phase.
Greater Than 19
Research indicates that you may have breathing behavior that would benefit from Phase 1 (Foundation) work. Reach out if you would like help connecting to a practitioner.
Our research indicates that you may have the basics of breathing down. Nice work. There may be room for you to improve in Phase 2 (Daily Activity) practice.
Less Than 10
It seems that your baseline breathing is on your side. Congratulations. You are likely breathing well at rest and during daily activities. You may be ready for the big work that comes in Phase 3 (Performance).
A SNAP-SHOT OF OUR APPROACH
This work is meant to be nothing less than enlightening. We recognize the value of an overarching mindful lens that is curious, playful, and most of all patient.
Activity: Sit quietly and comfortably. Feel what it’s like to adopt a lens of being curious, playful, and patient. Each one of those words carries a vibration or a sense. Simply feel that sense and get ready to bring this lens forward into the rest of the journey.
Let it Be
Breathing is impaired when we approach life through striving, with a background story that things are not right until something happens. Allow yourself to breathe, without an agenda of change.
Activity: Sit quietly. Simply observe the breath, and any feelings that seem associated with the breath. That may be a racing heartbeat or a calm heartbeat. It may be a sense of ease and wonder, or a sense of fear and concern. Whatever it is you are feeling, take this time to let go of changing it. Instead, trust that it will be okay if you simply rest in observation. If the feeling leaves, let it go. If it returns, accept it. Take solace in not having to decide if a feeling is good or bad. This is a great activity to return to frequently.
The human body functions in two camps, those things we can control by will and effort and those things that seem to function completely on their own. Upon closer examination, the line between these two camps blurs. Strategically positioned exactly between these two camps, we find the breath. The breath is capable of functioning on its own, and we as humans can exert control over the breath. The breath is a fantastic example of a mind and body bridge.
Activity: Sit comfortably and pay attention to the breath. Pay attention to the cool air coming in the nose, and the warm air leaving the nose. Notice that you may change the breath when you pay attention to it.
Let’s get right to the point. Noses are for breathing and mouths are for eating and talking. While we can breathe with our mouth, there are negative consequences. It is likely we are designed to breathe with the mouth during times of extreme stress.
- Humidifies air. When we inhale through the nose, air travels through the nostrils and nasal passages where moisture is added.
- Maintains hydration. When we breathe out through the nose, we retain vital moisture. We lose more moisture with mouth breathing.
- Regulates temperature. As air is humidified to just the right moisture level, air is also warmed to body temperature so that O2/CO2 exchange is made easier in the lungs.
- Filters air. Mucus and tiny hairs in the nasal passages collect particles of pollutants that we breathe in. Breathing through the nose greatly minimizes potential irritants from entering the lungs.
- Maintains a healthy pressure gradient. The nasal passages create a small amount of air friction, which helps lung inflation. This friction also helps activate the right muscles for optimal respiration. Breathing through the nose helps the diaphragm function and decreases upper chest breathing.
- Produces nitric oxide. Nitric Oxide (NO) is a tiny gas particle that, among many other things, helps hemoglobin bind (grab and hold) oxygen. In other words, NO helps oxygen get into the body more easily. Nitric oxide is produced in the nasal passages and the pharynx. By breathing through the nose, we deliver more nitric oxide to the lungs, which improves gas exchange. That’s a good thing.
- Helps facial structure develop. Research shows that nose breathing with the tongue resting on the roof of the mouth helps improve the diameter of the nasal passages as well as optimal widening of the midface. Mouth breathing slows and sometimes stops the development of the mid face and can lead to forward head positioning and long-term breathing problems.
- Emotional regulator. Breathing through the nose helps to slow the breath and improve diaphragm function. This increases activity in the vagus nerve, which helps our autonomic nervous system deliver the feeling of being calm, confident, and happy.
Mouth breathing is likely a problem if you experience:
- Dry mouth upon waking
- Chronic postnasal drip
- Chronically stuffy nose
- Forward head posture, possibly even chronic headaches and neck pain
- Difficulty engaging in cardiovascular activity
Pay close attention to mouth versus nose breathing during the day. If you are like most people, you may switch to mouth breathing many times a day, simply out of habit.
Take a moment and acknowledge what the word “deep” means to you.
The simple definition of the word implies a great distance from the surface to the bottom. Western cultural use of the phrase “take a deep breath” is usually given as advice to calm a person. It typically conjures up the image of a large breath into the chest. While a big breath has its benefits, it’s likely not what the ancient wisdom teachers meant when they recognized the health benefits of breathing deep. Today, modern science shows us that repeating a big chest-biased breath works against calming our mind and body. We can measure heart rate variability and blood levels of carbon dioxide being thrown off dramatically by repeating big breaths.
As it turns out, modern science and ancient wisdom teachings align. The breath that calms our body and allows digestion, healing, and emotional balance is a breath that is based deep in the body (but not big). Taoists refer to a breath that goes to the lower dantien – a space four inches below the navel and two-thirds of the way into the body. Yogi’s refer to breath into the root, sacral, and solar plexus “chakra.” Modern science shows that a breath low in the belly, that allows the lower ribs to move laterally, helps maintain healthy diaphragm and pelvic floor function. It also helps us get air into the lower lobes of the lungs where the best oxygen exchange occurs. All of this points to the same wisdom. It is wildly healthy to breathe low in the body, especially at rest, when not running away from a mastodon. Note: you should breathe big, into your chest when running away from a mastodon.
Activity: Sit comfortably and allow the in-breath to expand the lower abdomen downward and out to the sides. You may even feel the lower ribs expanding in the back of the body. Get a sense that you can breathe into your pelvic floor, even if you don’t know what that is. Each in-breath brings a sense of letting go, to allow an even deeper breath, without effort. The out-breath brings a sense of returning.
Less is More
Picking up where going deep left off, let’s consider the amount or volume of air that we breathe. While this may seem counter intuitive, the most common breathing dysfunction in people with normal heart and lung function is over-breathing. For many, this becomes the new norm. Over-breathing disrupts the normal acid-base balance of the blood and leaves us with a feeling of needing to breathe more. As we over breathe, normal levels of carbon dioxide are lowered. If this is done excessively over time, the body adjusts. The kidneys produce less bicarbonates and the chemical receptors that drive respiration in the hind-brain become more sensitive to carbon dioxide. All of this has a negative effect on digestion, heart function, brain function, and more. It makes baseline living harder than it needs to be.
We commonly hear that people report feeling worse after taking 10 deep breaths. There is a good reason for this. If you are already over-breathing and then take 10 deep (big) breaths, it’s very likely you will feel worse, much worse.
Most of us will experience better oxygen delivery by decreasing the amount of air we breathe. This restores the deficit in carbon dioxide that is depleted from over-breathing. This improves our acid-base balance and gives us better access to oxygen. This is key to better breathing and more important than improving diaphragm strength – which we’ll get to later.
Here is where modern science and technology come to the rescue. In practice, we use capnography biofeedback to give real-time feedback on CO2 levels. This feedback is extremely valuable in the beginning.
The section “Go Deep” helped us appreciate the importance of a breath low (deep) in the body because it allows air to move into the lower lobes of the lungs.
The section “Less is More” helps us appreciate the importance of a breath that is quiet and subtle, because it improves our blood chemistry.
The next section will help us understand the significance of breathing slow.
Activity: While sitting comfortably, allow the breath to become quiet. Listen to the in-breath and listen to the out-breath. Once you can feel a sense of being able to hear the breath internally, quiet the breath even more so that felt sense of hearing goes away. You may have a sense that your breathing is less than you need, but surprisingly you feel like you could do this for a while.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is divided into two parts – the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system correlates with feeling excited, wild, and energetic. It also correlates to feeling stressed, anxious, and panicked. This system helps us move through space in big and powerful ways. It takes resources from non-essential activities like digestion, sexual function, and rest. The parasympathetic nervous system correlates with feeling content, peaceful, and calm, but also correlates with feeling lethargic, lazy, and uninterested. This system helps improve digestion, sexual function, and healing through rest.
Health can be defined by being skilled at both running wild and being calm. When one system is overused, things go poorly. Modern western society seems to demand a surplus of sympathetic activity. For many of us, our sympathetic nervous systems have stuck “on” and our parasympathetic nervous systems have become underdeveloped. Ironically, without a well-functioning parasympathetic nervous system, our sympathetic nervous system will eventually fail.
Breathing is tied to ANS function. Fast breathing is associated with more sympathetic activity while breathing slow is associated with parasympathetic activity. Breathing slow increases the tone of the parasympathetic nervous system, primarily by stimulating the vagus nerve. As a result, we are better able to access the good part of the PNS: feeling happy, content, calm, and better able to rest and heal.
The section “Go Deep” helped us appreciate the importance of a breath low (deep) in the body, because it allows air to move into the lower lobes of the lungs.
The section “Less is more” helped us appreciate the importance of a breath that is quiet and subtle, because it improves our blood chemistry.
The section “ANS” helped us appreciate the importance of a breath that is slow, because it calms our culturally overstimulated nervous systems.
The next sections will expand these concepts and set the stage for deeper work.
Activity: Sit comfortably and allow the breath to be low. Once you have this feeling, gently slow the first half of the exhale, as if to savor it. Allow the rest of the breathing to be what it wants to be. Simply slow the first part of the exhale. For most people, the breath will slow to about six breaths per minute. Slower than this is not necessarily better.
The Amazing Diaphragm
By now you appreciate that at rest, our best breath is low, subtle, and slow. Understanding the diaphragm will help you appreciate how breathing is so much more than just respiration (exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen).
The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle in the lower rib cage that separates the lung cavity from the internal organs.
When we breathe in, the diaphragm contracts on itself, flattening toward the internal organs. This decreases the pressure above the diaphragm (intrathoracic) and increases the pressure below the diaphragm (intra-abdominal). The decrease in pressure in the chest cavity creates negative pressure in the lungs, causing them to inflate. The increasing pressure in the abdomen helps move the contents of our stomach and intestines and stimulates the pelvic floor and spine stabilizers.
The diaphragm returns to its starting position with the breath out. As the diaphragm returns, it forces the air out of the lungs. It also increases stimulation to the vagus nerve. The slower we breathe, the more the vagus nerve is stimulated. As you remember from the previous section on the autonomic nervous system, this increases activity in the parasympathetic nervous system – which effects most systems.
Correct movement of the diaphragm has mechanical and neurological effects that help:
- Move air into the lungs for respiration (gas exchange)
- Regulate pressure in the abdomen and thorax to help with posture, spine stability, and efficient movement
- Return blood to the heart
- Move lymph throughout the body
- Circulate nutrition in the internal organs
- Move contents in the stomach and intestines
- Control gastric reflux
Activity: Sit comfortably and place the hands on the lower ribs in the back. Feel the ribs gently expand with an in-breath and return with a breath out. This may feel like breathing into the back of the body (which is a very good thing). Appreciate that this helps to reinforce all the points listed above.
No one likes having good posture by stiffening up, and it’s not actually good for you. It can cause back pain and impede diaphragm function. So, we’re here to tell you, do not over work good posture. What a relief, huh?
Good posture is still something you want to visit frequently. The key is to do it smartly and in a relaxed way. Here’s how:
First, know that you have a built-in system to help with posture (small muscles close to the spine) and a built-in system to help move you through space (big muscles close to the surface). Using the big muscles for posture makes them very cranky (think lactic acid).
Second, the larger muscles get a signal to turn on with an in-breath and the smaller postural muscles get a signal to turn on with an out-breath. So, you guessed it. It is best to correct posture with a breath out, not a breath in.
Activity. Sit comfortably with a small slump. Take a breath into the lower abdomen, and with a breath out, gently lift the sternum a small amount. Repeat this 2-3 times to come all the way up. Once you have reached your “upright” position, allow the muscles between the shoulder blades to relax with each breath out. The muscles between the shoulder blades are not the muscles you want to use for posture, so let them go the best you can.
You Are What You Train (and you train all day long)
We could really just stop here and let those words that seem so obvious resonate. But we know the value of pointing out a few crucial aspects that often get over-looked.
We know it’s easy to learn some healthy breathing information and then set out with the best intention to “work on your breathing” every day from 9 to 9:20 am. Then you can get on with the rest of your day, right? The good news is that you do not have to set aside time (though that is super nice, and you may want to). You can likely guess the “next” news. This work becomes impactful when it becomes part of every day, with a healthy dose of patience, curiosity, affection, and humor. The next time you catch yourself mouth breathing while watching TV (we promise not to judge what you’re watching), it may be a good moment to laugh at yourself and redirect your next in-breath to your nose.
Here are some examples of potential “training” times:
- The gym, especially the gym, no matter what your gym is. How we breathe while engaged in intentional training will train how we breathe during other parts of the day, especially during sleep. If we go about our exercise, workout, or training session with a series of breath holds, forced breathing, and mouth breathing, we’ll do the same thing at night.
- The grocery store (or any such activity). Notice what happens when you pay attention to your breathing while shopping or standing in line at the grocery store. Remind yourself to allow the breathing to be low, slow, and subtle.
- Moments of transition. Pay attention to the moments when moving from point A to point B. We often roll through these moments as if they are insignificant and give them little attention. See what happens when you stay mindful of the breath during these times of transition from one position to the next, or one activity to the next. These moments are part of your life and they are important.
Activity: Identify the part of your day that is “training.” Prioritize paying attention to the breath during this time. In general, that means keeping the breath steady, low, and most likely slower than you would if not thinking about it.
The primary goal of this work is to help people live easier, happier lives. We know that many folks want to push the edge of performance, as well as the depths of meditation or mind work. The work up until now creates a great foundation, and there is more. Over-breathing, discussed in “Less is More,” conditions the chemical receptors in the hind brain to be overly sensitive to carbon dioxide. When these receptors are overly sensitive, a small spike in carbon dioxide will trigger an increased ventilatory response. This increased breathing response is not likely needed and will rob precious energy reserved for breathing. Conversely, if the chemical receptors in the hind brain are frequently exposed to higher levels of carbon dioxide, in pleasant conditions, the receptors become much less sensitive. This means the body tolerates higher levels of carbon dioxide (think of it like lactic acid). This leaves more energy for activity. This training effect is very similar to (and essentially what happens when) living at altitude.
Ancient wisdom traditions have leveraged the breath to reach different states of consciousness. We find these practices work best when a solid foundation is set – mastery of all previous points.
Activity: Begin conditioning the chemical receptors in the hind brain to tolerate higher levels of carbon dioxide by maintaining nose-breathing during exercise.