Mansplained by the Breathing Expert
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | February 4, 2021
Recently, I was virtually mansplained by a breathing expert who informed me that I don’t teach “proper” breathing.🤔
Ah, the remarkably satisfying interoceptive experience of responding to social media blather with… crickets.
I’ve been doing my thing long enough not to be bothered by cyber-mansplaining. But it got me thinking about how there’s a lot of confusion out there about breathing.
So, I’d like to share a few things.
First, breathing is an incredibly complicated activity involving many parts of the body and mind. The foundation is the brain stem – whose job is to keep you alive. But breathing is influenced by all sorts of physiologic and psychologic factors as well.
The brain’s limbic system is involved in breathing because breathing is both affected by, and affects, mood and emotions. When you take conscious control of the breath (e.g. when practicing pranayama) the front brain gets in on the action. Respiration is incredibly complex and, while we can work to optimize the system using various breathing practices, the idea that there is some sort of correct or “proper” way of breathing is a ruse.
So, breathing expert, please put all that in your pipe and inhale deeply.
This doesn’t mean that breathing practices are useless BTW, what it means is that one person’s “proper breathing” may be another’s nightmare.
Here are three things to remember about breathing:
- There is NO Magic Breath
People breathe differently because they must. Your breath is essentially a reflection of your biography. For some folks, it could be that a traumatic birth, a lung infection or disease, asthma, an assault, or an accident set down a survival pattern of breathing. Along comes a breathing expert and tells you all your problems stem from your dysfunctional breathing and he’s going to fix you.
But it typically doesn’t work that way.
Some breathing techniques may be wonderful for you. But others that are touted as cure-alls may not have the desired effect at all. They may increase stress and/or anxiety (not to mention make you feel bad about your pathetically inadequate breathing skills).
The bottom line is this: you probably won’t know which techniques work for you until you try them out for a while.
There are lots of promising studies about breathing, but the only well researched breathing technique that seems to be beneficial for everyone (and there are caveats of course) is slow, deep breathing. Other evidence is more anecdotal – which is fine, but it makes it very difficult to make blanket statements about breathing.
Also, it’s important to understand that we breathe differently at different times to accommodate different activities – that’s the way the system is set up. When you walk up a hill, your breath better speed up. When you lie down, it better slow down. Your breathing rate is all about homeostasis – keeping the right balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide to maintain homeostasis in the system depending on the activity, thought, or emotion.
You can mess around with that when you are doing different activities and sometimes you will have a good result, or it may send you straight for the Xanax bottle.
I teach Structural Breath á la Desikachar with asanas (here’s a video) but always with a lot of freedom to explore and discover what works best for you. The reason I teach Structural Breath is because asanas pose certain risks biomechanically and supportive breathing during asanas can help to prevent injuries.
Another reason I teach Structural Breath during asanas is because it can give you a chance (for a relatively short period every day) to utilize yoga postures to massage, mobilize, and optimize the different structures of breathing – organs, myofascial structures, joints, ligaments, etc. and thereby optimize the function of the system – which then prepares the body and mind for whatever breathing practice you may choose.
However, I don’t recommend that folks practice Structural Breath all day every day – it’s a technique. It’s not the “right way” of breathing.
And some people don’t like Structural Breath and/or prefer not to focus on their breath while doing asanas and that’s okay with me too – because I never, ever want to force anyone to breathe in a way that triggers their survival mechanisms and provokes anxiety, panic, etc.
- You are not Oxygen Deprived
One of the things the breathing expert said and that I’ve heard repeated many times by others, is that human beings are oxygen deprived and proper breathing will solve that. But there’s really no evidence for this statement.
Breathing is about the exchange of gases – oxygen and carbon dioxide. And while we all know that we need oxygen and trees need carbon dioxide (and I’m an admitted tree hugger) but it’s just not that simple.
Human beings also need carbon dioxide to function and the job of respiration is to constantly monitor and find balance between the two gases.
The thing is that your breathing rate is always being regulated by your O2 and CO2 levels. The average person, with no pathology, gets plenty of oxygen. Actually, studies show that regular old automatic, involuntary breathing supplies 100% of your oxygen needs.
I would suggest that increasing oxygen is not the benefit of pranayama. The main benefit is that research shows that taking conscious control of your breath, through just about any technique, tends to bias the nervous system towards a more parasympathetically oriented mode – i.e. it’s relaxing.
Interestingly, hyperventilating pranayamas and kriyas like Kapalabhati actually lower CO2 levels. This makes blood vessels and airways constrict and blood pH increase. So, if you do these practices for too long, you will get dizzy and maybe even pass out.
However, shorter holds at the top of your inhale will increase CO2 levels which makes your blood vessels and airways dilate and lowers your blood pH.
And, that short hold may support a nice, long, slow exhalation which then (theoretically at least) kicks in a soothing parasympathetic response.
But there’s a law of diminishing returns here.
Too much breath holding has the opposite effect. You will turn blue and pass out eventually – which is the brain stem’s way of shoving the front brain aside and taking control of the wheel in order to force you to start breathing again – because survival trumps everything else.
- Belly breathing is not proper breathing
Belly breathing can be really nice – but it does not solve all problems nor is it the Holy Grail of breathing.
Belly breathing can be wonderful for reducing stress and anxiety. It can be great for practicing meditation and seated breath awareness. It can be soothing and can reduce anxiety – for some people. But it isn’t the right way of breathing, it’s just another technique.
And just because babies belly breathe, doesn’t mean that it is the best way for adults to breathe. Belly breathing is developmentally appropriate…for babies. But that doesn’t mean that it’s appropriate for adults.
The inconvenient truth is that when a breathing expert, master, or doctor promotes a breathing technique as universally helpful, it suggests that they don’t have a good grasp on the mechanics, physiology, intrinsic survival mechanism, and/or subtleties of human respiration. And then their students or clients feel inadequate because they can’t seem to achieve the desired result.
But it’s not your fault, the fault lies in reductive thinking about breathing.
Remember that what worked for ancient Chinese people may not be appropriate for the coffee-injected, media-bombarded, 12-lane-highway-navigating nervous system of today.
One more note here – breathing practices without asanas are sort of like baked apples without the pastry, cinnamon, and whipped cream – just not that satisfying.
Breath-centric asanas help prepare the system for pranayama practices. That’s one of their main functions. They mobilize and strengthen the wild and wonderfully varied structures of breathing. So that when you sit to practice pranayama, your system is ready for it. Without them, whatever technique you used will, most likely, lack luster.
I hope this is helpful!
Here are some studies for further exploration:
Mason, Heather, Vandoni, Matteo, DeBarbieri, Giacomo, Codrons, Erwan, Ugargol, Veena, & Bernardi, Luciano. (2013). Cardiovascular and Respiratory Effect of Yogic Slow Breathing in the Yoga Beginner: What Is the Best Approach?. Hindawi Publishing Corporation.
Nestor, J. (2020). Breath: The new science of a lost art.
Nuckowska, M. K., Gruszecki, M., Kot, J., Wolf, J., Guminski, W., Frydrychowski, A. F., Wtorek, J., … SpringerLink (Online service). (2019). Impact of slow breathing on the blood pressure and subarachnoid space width oscillations in humans. (Scientific reports.)
Zaccaro, A., Piarulli, A., Menicucci, D., Gemignani, A., Piarulli, A., Laurino, M., Gemignani, A., … Gemignani, A. (September 07, 2018). How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12.