Dear Doctor Huberman
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | April 8, 2023
I’m a huge fan of the Huberman Lab podcast (I’ve written about it before). But sometimes he gets so reductive I need to go do even more slow, mindful yoga before I can go back to listening to his marathon 3 hours sessions. But, I mean, what do I expect here – he’s a scientist, so he’s gonna talk about science – and he does an amazing job. But science does not always explain the phenomena of existence, and the reductionism is at times head-bangingly frustrating.
After listening to a recent podcast called “How to Breathe Correctly for Optimal Health, Mood, Learning, and Performance” my inner keyboard warrior couldn’t keep her mouth shut. (if you wanna listen to what got my yoga tights twisted, start around the 1 hour and 10 minute mark).
So I wrote a comment. LMK what you think – and if you’d like to get his attention – feel free to leave a comment (about my comment) on his YouTube channel. Thanks!
“Dr. Huberman I’d love to talk to you about this [breathing] as a yoga therapist and armchair neuroscience geek who has spent more than a decade curating the research.
I love your work and I realize scientific inquiry is by its very nature reductive.
But you have taken an intricate and sophisticated ancient system that confers self-regulation – ethics + asana + pranayama + meditation – and reduced it to “box breathing” here.
This is deeply problematic for a number of reasons.
Self-regulation via yoga practices is basically achieved in four steps:
- Operationalizing ethics is the first step towards co- and self-regulation – and the yoga system offers some deep wisdom about this as well as principles and practices.
- Yoga postures/asanas – have their own intrinsic value and their own mechanisms for self-regulation which go beyond the benefits of “stretching”. For our purposes here, in the context of this video, they prepare the respiratory structures via movement enhanced by specific breathing techniques and myofascial optimization for pranayama. But they are entirely overlooked in your discussion here and in most of the “breath work” literature.
Which is a crying shame IMHO because they are essential for creating an optimal state of body and mind in order to access the breath and its potential for self-regulation via pranayama.
- Pranayama is the third practice. “Box breathing” as you call it, is a tragically oversimplified form of what we call ratio breathing in the yoga tradition. Good yoga teachers advise that ratios are approached with caution. Equal ratios are not the only way that we work with ratios – and certainly not optimal for every nervous system. We can mildly stimulate the SNS but remain within the Window of Tolerance (Siegel, 1999) when we manipulate the ratios in specific ways – far too complex to explain in a YouTube comment BTW – it’s a whole course of study. Suffice it to say that both the inhale and the antara kumbhaka or pause after the inhale can have a mildly stimulating effect and promote concentration, focus, norephinephrine etc. Then you can downreg the SNS with the exhale and the pause after the exhale bhaya kumbhaka (as well as messing around subtly with the pause after the inhale) by manipulating the ratios.
But ratios need to be accessed gradually.
I would never recommend an 8-8-8-8 ratio (regardless of CO2 discard rate) without getting someone there gradually, intentionally, and with nuance. The problem is that you may not know the condition of their heart. And you don’t know what ratios might do to someone unless you proceed slowly and get feedback.
There are time tested guidelines for pranayama developed perhaps over thousands of years. It’s an art and science that deserves much greater attention than a simple recommendation of “box breathing.” It kinda breaks my heart TBH to see it taught this way.
Pranayama is seen as the stepping stone to meditation and the preparatory practice. It is meant to be more self-regulating than meditaiton. Because the point of meditation is not self-regulation. It’s expansion of mind – perhaps beyond the realms of scientific inquiry.
- Meditation – So yes, you got better data for self-reg with pranayama, because it is the practice that prepares the mind for meditation. It’s supposed to work that way! Any serious meditator knows that pranayama calms the mind so that meditation becomes deeper.
Any time you yank a component out of a system and research it, you are rendering the component, as well as the system less potent (think about the blueberry research).
These are 4 process tools that underlie the self-regulatory mechanisms of yoga. All of them should be considered in future studies, and please consider having a serious yoga professional consult.
Thank you for the work you are doing.”
If you would like to listen to the podcast, the link is in the comments. Feel free to comment on my comment over on YouTube because that might get someone’s attention at the Huberman lab!
Want 5 short practices to support back health? Please check out Subtle Yoga for a Stronger Back 5 Day Home Practice Challenge – videos are available (free!) until April 22, 2023.