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Category: Breathwork

Breathwork is the practice of respiratory & physical exercises, aiming to improve one’s ability to control the breath. The 2 pillars of breathwork are: hypercapnia & hypoxia. It can be used to:

a. improve control of the Autonomic Nervous System (Improve body temperature control, activation of the Sympathetic or Parasympathetic Nervous System, slow down Heart Rate)

b. delivery of oxygen to working muscles and biomechanics during exercise (Release tension around the diaphragm, strengthen the diaphragm, improve oxygen delivery to working muscles during exercise, accelerate recovery time after training)

c. unconscious breathing (Improve respiratory function by enhancing Carbon Dioxide tolerance)

d. enter meditation (Help you enter into an empty state of mind)

Breathwork can be practiced in conjunction with physical exercises: dynamic; or on its own: static.

Under this category you will find articles discussing the use of breathwork through the Yoga tradition (Pranayama), Buteyko Method, and modern systems such as the Wim Hof Method. My aim is not to get stuck in the method but look into the effects each technique has on the body on a biochemical, biomechanical, and psychological level.

If you are interested in the role breathing plays in the Nervous System you should sign up for the #FreeBreathing mini-course.

Articles in this category

Breathing in yoga

5 things I learned from Wim Hof.

 

3D approach to Breathing Biomechanics

The Biomechanics of Breathing

The biomechanics of breathing involve the function of all the primary and secondary respiratory muscles that are involved in respiration. These can be grouped into the respiratory tract, respiratory support muscles, the abdominal muscles.

3D approach to Breathing Biomechanics

The respiratory tract

Yoga practices can affect the function of both upper and lower airways. Neti kriya, a cleansing technique, allows the bathing of the nasal passage. Ujjayi breathing can reduce dead space in the lungs and increase this way, the surface of oxygen diffusion to the bloodstream. While many asanas facilitate the delivery of air in one part of the lungs by restricting it in another, allowing this way the utilization of the entire organ. Finally, the diaphragm which seats at the bottom of the lungs can also get stronger through breathing exercises and/or asanas.

 

The supportive muscles

Muscles, fascia, and neurons all play an active role in supporting our respiratory function. While these tissues, cells and organs are not always classified as “respiratory”, failure of their function means compromised breathing.

 

Supportive muscles above the rib cage

Scalenes and sternocleidomastoid are 2 pairs of muscles sitting on either side of our neck. Their recruitment is often considered synonymous with upper chest breathing. It is my observation that when these muscles, alongside the trapezius, are tight there is zero movement possible in the upper chest and upper back, limiting this way the expansion of the lungs in this area.

 

Supportive muscles below the rib cage

Psoas and quadratus lumborum are 2 pairs of muscles on either side of the spine that attach posteriorly to the diaphragm. Having reviewed 1,000s of papers I am yet to see these 2 muscles mentioned in publications as respiratory or secondary respiratory muscles. There are 2 reasons why I think their structure and function are pivotal in breathing:

  1. As they both attach to the diaphragm, when they are tight, weak, or uneven (between the left and right side) they will restrict the way the diaphragm moves.
  2. Both muscles play an important role in our posture. A compromised posture will most likely cause restrictions in our breathing.   

 

Our posture

This is an area of the respiratory function that often does not get much attention. Think for a second of an old man bearing more weight on one foot, maybe having one shoulder higher than the other. Or a woman with pronounced scoliosis. How would these postural asymmetries affect the ideal symmetrical movement of the rib cage and diaphragm? Or someone with pronounced thoracic kyphosis. Do you see how the movement of his diaphragm will be restricted (ref)?

 

Diaphragmatic restriction due to kyphosis

Conclusion

It is my belief that yoga can improve the biomechanics of breath in most elements of this Venn diagram and it’s for that reason a lot of yoga practitioners with respiratory problems have benefited from practicing yoga without paying much attention to the volume of air they breathe which determines the biochemistry of respiration. At the same time, the benefits are amplified when someone pays equal attention to both qualities of breathing (ie. biomechanics & biochemistry).

 

Buteyko vs Yoga breathing

Buteyko vs Yoga Breathing

Both Buteyko and Yoga breathing techniques have benefited the health of many individuals and especially respiratory problems (ie. bronchitis & asthma). To the novice, the two systems may seem to contradict but I would argue there are more similarities and synergies between them.

 

While Pranayama is a component of the yoga tradition, which also consists of meditation and physical postures, Buteyko is a system solely focusing on breath training.

*ref

Pranayama vs Buteyko Breathing

So far there has been only one study from the University of Nottingham that compared the 2 systems (ref). The study was conducted among 90 individuals (69 of which completed the study) that suffered from asthma and were on corticosteroid medication. At the end of the study, which run for 6 months, the Buteyko group showed improvement in both symptoms and a reduction in bronchodilator use.

 

Buteyko vs Pranayama Corticosteroid Buteyko vs Pranayama symptoms

How do pranayama techniques compare with Buteyko breathing?

Pranayama techniques, primarily due to the lack of one reliable source, are practiced in different ways. A few practitioners use “Light on Pranayama” BKS Iyengar as a reference. Most exercises can be performed in an easier or more challenging way by modifying the duration of the volume of breath. It is beyond the scope of this article to explain how this can be achieved but to help you grasp the concept think of box breathing:

Version A:  Inhale for 2 sec, Hold for 2sec, Exhale for 2sec, Hold for 2sec. Perform x5 rounds.

Version B:  Inhale for 20 sec, Hold for 20sec, Exhale for 20sec, Hold for 20sec. Perform x10 rounds, while keeping the volume of air inhaled & exhaled low.

While most pranayama techniques are (unfortunately) instructed without much reference to the volume of air, by the time the duration of each cycle increases minute ventilation will unavoidably reduce. Reduction in minute ventilation is at the heart of the Buteyko Method which aims to prevent individuals from chronic and acute hyperventilation.

In the table below you can see a list of pranayama exercises. Those with a sign 〰️ can lead to hypercapnia, while the ones with an ❌ are likely to cause hypocapnia.

Hypercapnia is a key element of Buteyko training.

One of the hallmarks of yoga is Ujjayi breathing which often (and correctly in my option) it’s suggested to be performed at all times during asana. Given the different ways that ujjayi breath is practiced, it may appear to be diametrically opposite to Buteyko breathing or very much in-line.

Ujjayi breath is characterized by a sound during the exhalation caused by the constriction of the throat. The sound, for some unknown to me reason, is sometimes exaggerated making the breath loud. In my opinion, ujjayi should be performed as follows:

Both the inhalation and the exhalation take place through the nose with the tongue at the top of the pallet. The inhalation is soft. During the exhalation, the back of the throat gently constricts allowing the elongation of the exhalation further than normal. The exhalation to inhalation ratio is 2:1 or much higher. The breath is quiet.

When practiced like this, the ujjayi breath will lead to hypercapnia and thus cause an increase in body temperature, similar to all hypercapnic breathing exercises.

 

How to incorporate Buteyko in yoga?

To the extent that you want to support the oxygenation of your brain 🧠 and peripheral organs during your physical practice, you would benefit by breathing light from start to finish. Breathing this way is likely to cause a sense of air hunger, especially in classes where the pace is fast.

 

You can also incorporate hypoxic breathing in your practice depending on your level of experience and breathing capacity. It is always important to account for the challenges asanas cause to the breath during yoga.

 

The role of Control Pause in Yoga

Buteyko practitioners, like myself, like to use the Control Pause (CP) test as an approximation of clients’ respiratory capacity. CP can also be performed at the start of a yoga practice. Below is a list of factors that need to be considered:

• CP will tend to be lower later in the day

• CP will be affected by fluctuations in hormone levels. That is likely to be more pronounced in women.

• If the practitioner is seating on the floor (as opposed to a chair), limitations in his posture is likely to affect the CP negatively.

Normal Respiratory Rate

What is a normal respiratory rate?

Our respiratory rate (RR) depends on our age, phase of the menstrual cycle, health state, and heart rate. Having a normal respiratory rate will partially indicate healthy respiratory function but will not be sufficient to identify one’s respiratory capacity.

In this article, you can find out the benefits and limitations of controlling your RR.

Respiration Rate 1.01

How do you check respiration rate?

Respiratory rate is measured at rest. In order for the measurement to be accurate, it is useful to sit in a chair still for a few minutes. One breath will compromise one inhalation, a possible pause, and one exhalation, possibly followed by a second pause.

What is a normal respiratory rate?

Respiratory rate is the number of breaths we take per minute. It’s one of the body’s vital signs, alongside blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature. Normal respiratory rate will vary with age.

While 12-20 breaths per minute (bpm) are often used as the normal reference range (ref), it is not necessarily optimal. Optimal breathing is determined by minute ventilation, ie. the total volume of air we inhale per minute. For adults, normal minute ventilation is 6-8.4 L/min. With a tidal volume of 500 to 600mL, if you take 12 bpm your minute ventilation is 6-7.2L/min (500mL x 12 bpm), which is the volume of our lungs. If instead of 12bpm you take 20bpm (at 500mL tidal volume), your minute ventilation is: 10L/min. With that in mind:

optimal respiratory rate range: 8-14bpm

What does respiratory rate indicate?

Respiratory Rate (RR) is one of the body’s vital signs, and as such changes in RR indicate improvement or deterioration in health. The other 5 vital signs are pulse rate, systolic blood pressure, level of consciousness, oxygen saturation, and body temperature.

What increases respiratory rate?

The respiratory rate will increase due to an increase in metabolic demands but also during anxiety, acidosis (referred to as Kussmaul’s respiration), asthma, COPD, dehydration, fever, heart conditions, lung conditions (including lung cancer), an overdose of aspirin or amphetamines. During pregnancy and the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle, RR also increases.

What decreases respiratory rate?

The respiratory rate will decrease when we are relaxed but also from alcohol consumption, brain conditions (including strokes and head injuries), consumption of narcotics (ie. marijuana), and sleeping apnea.

 

Respiration Rate and Breathwork

When you should focus on your respiratory rate?

Performing breathing exercises based on the respiratory rate offers some benefits, especially for beginners. Respiratory rate can:

• be measured independent of the body position

• be monitored by the practitioner as well as an observer

• be easily manipulated

So if you are starting out now with breathwork or have no experience with breath control:

Try to reduce your respiratory rate; it is likely to bring a profound sense of relaxation.

A lot of pranayama exercises, cadence breathing, as well as asana practices, focus on the number of breaths per minute. An exercise I developed to improve your concentration based on the manipulation of the RR is the following:

Why focusing only on respiratory rate will limit your breathing practice?

During most physical exercises (including yoga) you would benefit by reducing the volume of your breath so that it matches your metabolic needs. This is due to the role of CO2 in breathing. In this case, the focus should be on how much you breathe and not how often.

This is also the cornerstone of Buteyko breathing, which advocates reduced breathing aiming to avoid hyperventilation and improve breathing biochemistry. If you are not yet convinced think of the following 4 breathing disorders:

• Bradypnea: breathing abnormally slow.

• Tachypnea: an elevated respiratory rate. Fast breaths that are usually shallow.

• Dyspnea: shortness of breath, that can occur with a high, normal, or low respiratory rate.

• Hyperpnea: breathing deeply and labored.

Only 2 out of 4 problems can be addressed by focusing on the respiratory rate.

Even Cadence breathing can lead to Hyperventilation (ref).

Conclusion

While reducing the number of breaths per minute can be a great starting point, once confident start reducing the volume of air you breathe in order to become a better breather.

The Breathe Right 2-week online course is developed to help you breathe better when you are not conscious of your breath.

K Buteyko

Buteyko Breathing for sinus infection

Sinusitis is caused by swelling or inflammation of the tissue lining the sinuses, leading to nasal blockage and breathing discomfort. Those seeking natural relief can use Buteyko Breathing for sinus infection as it will help them restore their respiratory hygiene and function.

 

What helps breathing with sinus infection?

Those suffering from sinus infections can find relief through the following methods:

1. Use decongestant essential oils:

🍃 peppermint oil, which also has anti-bacterial (ref), and anti-inflammatory properties (ref).

🍃 eucalyptus oil (ref).

🍃 lavender oil, which also has pain-relieving properties (ref).
🍃 tea tree oil, that has antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial properties (ref).

🍃 oregano oil, which can stop bacteria from growing (ref).

🍃 rosemary oil (ref).

🍃 clary sage oil, which acts as an antimicrobial agent (ref).

2. Massage the maxillary sinuses to encourage fluid drainage [ video ].

3. Have a hot bath, apply a warm compress (towel or water bottle) or breathe over a humidifier as the heat will loosen up the mucus in the nasal cavity.

4. Practice breathing exercises in line with the Buteyko Method.

Can breathing exercises help sinusitis?

The way we breathe determines our nose’s hygiene. Hyperventilation, mouth-breathing, and erratic breathing are types of dysfunctional breathing that promote inflammation in the sinuses and lead to a blocked nose. The Buteyko Method through the application of basic biochemical principles can help reduce inflammation and restore good respiratory function.

In order to unblock your nose, you need to increase your levels of CO2 and NO in your nasal cavity.

A quick way this can be achieved is by performing short breath-holds:

Inhale – Exhale – Pinch your nose for 60% of your max capacity – Inhale from the nose – take 3 recovery breaths – repeat x7

The longer the breath holds, the higher the build-up of CO2 and NO, while the more physically active you are CO2 will further increase. You can increase CO2 levels by moving your body from side to side on the spot or walking during the breath-holds. What matters most is to keep the recovery breaths short and nasal.

Does chronic sinusitis ever go away?

In contrast with acute sinusitis, chronic sinusitis is more likely to be caused due to chronic dysfunctional breathing patterns (ref). Increasing one’s Control Pause [video] to 30 sec will be a step in the right direction.

Sinusitis is considered chronic if it persists for 12 weeks or more. The symptoms may include:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Pus in the nasal cavity
  • Runny nose
  • headaches, tooth pain, bad breath
  • Fever

While the exercise with the short breath-holds described above can still be used, a more structured approach will be needed.

Conclusion

The way you breathe on a daily basis is going to play a significant role in the occurrence and severity of sinusitis. You can improve the way you breathe when you are not conscious of it with the 2-week online course Breathe Right.

 

FAQ:

Can deviated nasal septum cause sinusitis?

If the septum has deviated far enough it may block the nasal passage increasing the chances of sinusitis. The more one uses his nose 👃🏼 the less likely it will be for the nasal passage to get blocked and fluids to back up in the sinus cavity. For that reason, even following an operation, it can be beneficial for the individual to practice some breathwork in line with the Buteyko Method, such as CO2 Breathing Therapy.

Can sinusitis affect your lungs?

While sinusitis is considered an upper respiratory infection (URI) it is sometimes linked with poor diaphragmatic recruitment or lung function. As the respiratory tract operates as a system consisting of different organs, the function of breathing muscles needs to also be considered in respiratory infections.

In a paper published on the 23rd of March 2020 (ref) 12 patients (7 men and 5 women) with SARS-CoV-2 and symptoms of acute respiratory distress syndrome at the Jinyintan Hospital showed improved lung function when alternating between pronated and supine position vs supine only.

 

 

 

Autonomic Nervous System

Breathing and Autonomic Nervous System

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breathing and Autonomic Nervous System hold a unique relationship:

Of all functions of the ANS, breathing is the only one we can consciously alter, offering us a backdoor 🚪 to the rest of the Nervous System.

Below is the list of some errands our body runs without our conscious participation:

Digestion of food
Detoxification of environmental toxins
Hormone production
Circadian rhythm cycling
Breathing
Circulation of blood

Take a moment and think 💭, can you control any of the above? Breathing seems to be the easiest one to alter❗️

 

How is the respiratory system linked to the nervous system?

The components of Respiration

Our breath has 4 phases*: Inhalation “puraka”, Retention “kumbhaka”, Exhalation “rechaka” and 2nd Retention. Breathing exercises determine the:
1. pace: fast/slow
2. source: nose/mouth
3. volume of air: high/low

The components of the Nervous System

Our Nervous System (NS) consists of a network of neurons delivering signals to and from the brain and the peripheral parts of the body. The neurons in the brain and spinal cord belong to the Central Nervous System (CNS), while the neurons in the peripheral tissue belong to the Peripheral Nervous System. The ANS belongs to the Peripheral Nervous Systems and consists of 3 subparts. The:
1. Sympathetic
2. Parasympathetic
3. Enteric

How does the Autonomic Nervous System control Breathing?

Breathing and the Nervous SystemWhile a few regions in the brain contribute to the regulation of the breath all information is consolidated and decisions are made by the brainstem (made up of the midbrain, pons, and medulla oblongata). In order to regulate the breath according to our metabolic and psychological demands, the brainstem has established a 2-way communication with many areas in the body.

The inputs are derived from muscles and specialized sensory neuron receptor cells (called chemoreceptors). Chemoreceptors monitor our levels of CO2, O2, and pH. The brainstem after processing the inputs communicates to the diaphragm how fast to contract.

Image source: Aminoff’s Neurology and General Medicine

How does the Breath affect the Autonomic Nervous System?

A very compelling theory was put forward in 2006 proposing that voluntary breathing affects the ANS in 2 ways biomechanically (ref). Slow breathing:

  1. activates Slow Adapting Stretch Receptors (SARs) which subsequently cause the inhibition of neurons.
  2. stretches fibroblasts in the lungs leading to the slow down metabolic activity in the surrounding tissue.

Both actions, according to the authors, lead the ANS to a Parasympathetic dominant state. Biochemically though as well our slow breath holds and slow breathing activates the baroreflex receptors decreasing the basal Heart Rate (ref).

What is the fastest way to regulate the nervous system?

Many breathing exercises can help you regulate your nervous system. The following variation of box breathing, called “Empty State of Mind”, has worked wonders for many people.

 

To improve your breath though when you are not conscious of it check out the Breathe Right 2-week course.

Breathwork for Pregnancy

Breathwork for Pregnancy

Breathing exercises during pregnancy will allow you to stay relaxed, focused and support adequate oxygen delivery to the fetus and your body. The safest and easiest way to achieve that is by breathing slow, softly, and nasally in a seated position.

The purpose of the article is for educational purposes only. Prior to practicing, consult your primary physician.

Your breath is going to change throughout pregnancy. If you want to learn:

• How will your breath change during these 9 months?

• Which breathing exercises are safe in the 1st trimester?

• How to breathe in order to support oxygen delivery to the fetus?

Read on…

 

Benefits of breathing exercises during pregnancy

Different breathing exercises during pregnancy can help:

  • You improve blood circulation and thus oxygen and nutrient delivery to the fetus and your body organs.
  • Keep your muscles relaxed, alleviating some of the tension some times builds up due to stress
  • Keep your nervous system calm
  • Breathe comfortably, while the natural increase of progesterone and the growth of the baby will make breathing harder.

A 2010 study showed that fetuses respond to maternal stress with changes in their fetal heart rate (FHR). Stress hormones appear to impact blood flow to the fetus through their vasoconstrictive effect on the placenta (ref). So…

By breathing better you are looking after your baby.

Women at risk of premature labor benefited from massage therapy, breathwork, and hypnotic relaxation while the type of delivery and duration of labor was shown to positively correlate with having practiced yoga (ref). So…

Breathwork increases your chances of an easy pregnancy.

Is breathwork safe for pregnancy?

Breathwork is safe in pregnancy provided the new mother has developed awareness of her breathing first. In the absence of prior experience, breath holds and breathing techniques involving hyperventilation should be avoided as they can cause oxygen deprivation to the fetus.

A few red flags 🚩 are:

🚩 You have pre-existing health conditions. If you previously experienced any neurological, cardiovascular or blood sugar regulation conditions you should be extra cautious and work with an instructor.

🚩 Gestational diabetes. Lowering of O2 saturation can cause a sudden drop of 🩸 blood sugar. While some breathing exercises will be appropriate using an oximeter during practice is highly advisable.

🚩 The use of medication. This, of course, is a case-by-case scenario and actually, there are very few counterindications. It is worth checking with your physician first though.

Having said that, during the 9 months of pregnancy life doesn’t stop. Pregnant women perform cardio workouts, swim, and practice yoga all of which directly challenge the respiratory system. As the focus of all breathing sessions during these 9 months will be to make breathing comfortable at no point there should be a loss of consciousness or strong air hunger.

To be extra cautious with breathwork you can invest in an oximeter which will allow you to monitor continuously both your HR and SPO2.

When to start breathing exercises during pregnancy?

Breathing exercises that involve either monitoring the breath or slow manipulation of the inhalation and exhalation can be performed from the very start and can help deal with nausea, cramps, and lower back pain.

At what point in pregnancy does it become hard to breathe?

Shortness of breath is common both at the start of the pregnancy due to an increase in the progesterone hormone and around weeks 31-34 when the uterus is likely to press against the diaphragm.

During the 3rd trimester and as the fetus grows the pressure in the lungs increases limiting lung capacity. The additional weight of the fetus will also tax the cardiovascular system and thus the respiratory. It is often at that stage that breathing becomes labored even during simple tasks such as walking and laying down.

How can I increase my oxygen levels during pregnancy?

To maintain oxygen delivery to the fetus and your organs you need to maintain adequate levels of CO2 (due to the Bohr effect). Did you know that CO2 has therapeutic properties? This can be achieved by breathing as softly as possible through the nose 👃🏼, making the exhalations x1-2 longer than the inhalations.

Start by breathing in for 4 seconds out for 4 seconds. If that feels comfortable gradually increase the exhalations to 6 seconds and then 8 seconds.

Within 10 mins you will feel a lot better.

3 best breathing exercises during pregnancy

Synchronize heart and belly breathing

Place one hand ✋🏼 on the chest and one 🤚🏼 on the belly, in a seated position and with your back supported 🪑. As you inhale feel your hands moving. You may notice 1 of the 2 hands moving more than the other. Try to expand both parts of your body (chest and belly) evenly. Perform that for 5 mins and then place your hands on your knees. Recover your regular breathing but keep your attention on your chest and belly.

 

Ujjayi breathing

Ujjayi breath is achieved by constricting the back of the throat during exhalation creating a deep sibilant breath 🌊. As Timothy McCall mentions in his book: Yoga as Medicine, the constriction can be generated by imitating that you are trying to fog your glasses. The breath should be performed through the nose at all times. When practitioners are starting out they may find it easier to produce an audible sound 🔊, but over time the sound becomes so gentle that is hard to notice 🤫.

Alternative Nostril Breathing

In Alternative Nostril Breathing, the inhalation and the exhalation of each cycle take place from a different nostril and the direction reverses at the end of each cycle. Start by breathing in from the right nostril, exhale from the left, breathe in from the left, exhale from the right…

 

FAQ about breathing for pregnant women

Is belly breathing, good for pregnancy?

The reason I don’t recommend belly breathing during pregnancy is due to the tension it can bring to the abdominal muscles, increasing this way the risk of abdominal diastasis❗️ A safer recruitment of the diaphragm, is through the slow inflation of the lungs 🫁, and outward expansion of the ribcage.

Pelvic floor contractions have also been shown to improve respiration (ref), while experienced practitioners will have no problem performing belly breathing without tensing their abdominals (and thus staying safe).

Conclusion

Breathwork for pregnancy 🤰🏻 is very powerful yet it is much easier to practice if you have prior experience. Knowing that if you planning on getting pregnant in the next 6 months start soon❗️