In | Out
It’s self-evident. These cycles we witness playing out over the course of each year — each month, each day, each breath — are indicative of life itself. Consider, as we approach the Summer Solstice, (June 21, 2022, in this case), where the Sun reaches its highest excursion of latitude (23.4° N) before turning and reversing course, descending to its lowest (23.4° S) six months later, on the Winter Solstice. Of course…and I know you know … it’s not the Sun that’s rising and falling, rather it’s the changing geometry of the Earth’s position along its orbital path, and its axial tilt, both relative to the Sun, that produce the annual changes we call seasons. Here, in the Northern Hemisphere, the greater insolation of the Spring and Summer months is generally the growing season. Flora and fauna flourish now before retreating and withering later, after the Autumnal Equinox. (Of course, exceptions exist: evergreen trees, for instance.) This contrast between Summer & Winter extremes increases with latitude. Whether midnight Sun or 24 hour darkness at the top / bottom of the world or, whether dry season or monsoon nearer the equator, a year is but one life cycle on this planet. In some ways, it’s the Earth’s respiration.
Over shorter periods — months, in this case — the lunar phases follow a similar pattern. While not directing seasonal growth / decay, the Moon’s revolutions around the Earth produce meaningful tidal shifts affecting the behavior of marine organisms. As well, lunar phases seem to effect behavior in humans too. Grunions are the small, sardine-like fish that rush the Southern California shorelines during Spring and Summer months. In an effort to spawn at the higher tides of the New, and Full Moons theirs is a spectacle to behold. With humans, well, whether scientifically validated or not, some people do some crazy things under command of the Full Moon. Theirs is, as defined by Apple Computer’s Dictionary App, an “insanity of an intermittent kind.” Lunacy! Practically, humans have organized weeks and months around a lunar calendar simply because it’s a natural time keeper. A week begins with Monday, or Moon-day. A single lunation is a month (Moonth). Ancient despots would add days and even months to the calendar for their own aggrandizement. July, August, for instance. That said, Solar and Lunar years don’t easily coincide. But no matter, since, as Steven Hawking pointed out, Nature isn’t perfect. (But her rules are.)
Daily, well at least between latitudes 66° north and south, the Sun appears to rise and set over 24 hours, delimiting day and night. Within these intervals of light and dark, this quotidian cycle, we work and rest, we wake and sleep, and we breathe … in and out. These rhythms, beats, pulses, are apparent in the swirling paisleys of the Taiji — the Yin / Yang symbol — and they reveal an ancient wisdom. In fact, any naturally occurring cycle, or antagonistic pair — light / dark, hot / cold, loud / quiet, push / pull, up / down, this / that … what-have-you — describes the Way. Work with these contrasts, complements, and processes that have been developed over several billion years to your benefit. Or not, to your detriment. Respiration is one of the processes. And, of course, it’s self-evident. Still, somehow, we as a society tend to miss the recurring opportunities to hitch a ride with the Tao. The natural order.
Healthy animals breathe naturally, without even trying. They are breathing only enough to satisfy metabolic needs. Animals in captivity, however — as zoo attractions, as laboratory subjects, or as pets in your home — may breathe as neurotically as do many humans. That’s a reaction to a contrived milieu. Some threat produces an autonomic nervous system response — fight / flight — that increases ventilation. Since in an artificial environment, like our day-to-day, which is filled with outsized mental stimuli and little ability to recover, a negative feedback loop ensues. This self-perpetuating perception of threats stokes a primal sympathetic response. Adrenaline is released, respiration increases, and the body / mind is ready to engage. Problem is, the daily threat is not immediately physically endangering. It isn’t real in the way threats were real when nervous systems were developed on Earth. Yet, the perceived threat is continual. Individuals are jolted throughout their day and have little to no way of grounding that charge. Anxiety follows, as does rapid breathing, as does adrenaline release, as does anxiety, as does breathing … and it becomes a vicious circle. It’s useful to note that just breathing in excess of metabolic demands — hyperventilation — puts the organism under stress, and into a continuous sympathetic drive, a hyper-vigilance, that eventually exhausts the body and mind, opening the door to any number of psychophysiological ailments. Our state of health or disease hinges on our rate of breathing in and out. While we can unconsciously count on our nervous system to take care of us in time of emergency, we must consciously manage our nervous system responses the rest of the time. (That’s pretty much all the time.) And, we do so by breathing.
Yes, this has been a long-winded way of getting to these breathing exercises, but doesn’t it make sense to acknowledge the inherent cyclical workings of Nature, in the grand and more minute scales, so as to better appreciate how we humans are a part of the natural world, the natural universe, and not separate and apart (as we so often seem to think)? While we are indeed clever, and while we can solve many ostensible problems through our development and application of specific technologies, that doesn’t necessarily make us smart. Smart would be recognizing and blending with natural cycles instead of fighting them. Historically, many solutions we find are for problems we ourselves create. While the last sentence could lead to lengthy discussions, one very simple solution — breathing less — could very well stem the endemic breathless, irrational decision-making that inevitably leads to our overlooking or ignoring the natural order in favor of short-sighted artifice and expedience. One problem created is that of the big breath. The early yogic texts reference minimal breathing, and only recently has a dramatic Ujjayi breath been incorporated into commercial Hatha practices. Ujjayi may well be felt on the back of the throat, but it was never supposed to be heard. A loud breath is a big breath. A big breath is an inefficient breath. Generally, you’ll benefit by reducing your breathing.
Biochemically, reduced breathing allows for CO2 to accumulate. Since CO2 is a vasodilator, blood flow increases. What’s more, in the presence of CO2, Hb (hemoglobin — the O2 carrying protein in the red blood cells) releases O2 more readily into cells, tissues, organs, and the brain. That means, even as the reduced breathing results in something known as air hunger — a desire to take a bigger breath — greater oxygenation is occurring throughout the body. And, since CO2 accumulation indicates when to take a breath, desensitization to CO2 allows for a reduced breath to eventually feel normal (which it is). And there’s more. A reduced breath provides for nitric oxide (NO) to be produced in the nasal sinuses in exponentially greater amounts. This NO is a vasodilator, and a bronchodilator, and it is antibacterial, and anti viral. The slowly, nasally-inhaled air is purified as it enters the airways, and once there it opens the airways, and increases blood flow, too. Then, of course, is the extended duration of both the inhale and the exhale which will — if the breathing is light, and slow — tend to promote a diaphragmatic breath. This diaphragmatic breath will necessarily be deeper, and as such will be more efficient. The reason being is that there is roughly 150ml of anatomical dead space in the airways. This dead space, between the nose, mouth, trachea, and the first 16 bronchioles is not involved in any gas exchange. That happens between bronchioles 17 to 23, deeper into the lungs. Rapid ventilation takes in and expels, say, 500 ml of air, and the dead space accounts for 150ml of that air. Only 350 ml is available to deliver O2 to the blood, and receive CO2 from the blood. Slower ventilation takes in and expels, say, 1000ml of air in half as many breaths, so proportionally less air is lost to the dead space, and proportionally more is available for gas exchange. Slower, diaphragmatic breathing is therefore more efficient. Reduced breathing is a tremendous example of how less really is more.
Some Examples of Useful Breathing Patterns
In my Yin yoga classes, while I do utilize various breathing patterns, here and there, I normally direct what I call a Yin breath. It’s an inhale over 4 seconds and an exhale over 6 seconds, or a 1 : 1.5 ratio. For some, an inhale over 2 seconds, and an exhale over 3 seconds may be all that’s possible. The shorter of the two provides for 12 breaths / minute, which depending on the posture, depending on the individual, may have to suffice. The longer, the 4 : 6, provides for 6 breaths / minute. During some of my own meditative explorations I’ve used comfortably an 8 : 12 pattern, which provides for 3 breaths / minute. Between these breath cycle spans, even if the counts are not precisely second-accurate, most students can find their own correct breathing pace. So, even as heart rate variability (HRV) is said to be optimized at the 4 : 6 second pattern, which produces a 10 second breath cycle, any 1 : 1.5 should provide benefit. If not immediately, at least down the road when breathing duration — in particular, the exhale — has been extended. Heart rate variability references respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), which simply means the heart beats faster on the inhale, and slower on the exhale. One takeaway would be that the increase in heart rate brings more blood to the lungs while that blood is being loaded with O2, and that the decrease in heart rate provides a little more time for that O2 to be offloaded into cells, tissues, organs, and the brain, and, for CO2 to be offloaded into the lungs and expired. Another takeaway is that the HRV is indicative of Vagal Tone.
The Vagus nerves, the 10th cranial nerves, meander from either side of the neck to the major organs of the trunk, and into the intestines. An active inhale is more a sympathetic nervous system activator, and the passive exhale a parasympathetic cue. During the reduced breathing just described it effects what’s known as the relaxation response, which includes lowering the heart rate. This Vagal Tone is indicative of a well-functioning autonomic nervous system, and is recognized through greater RSA — the difference between heart rate on inhalation, and exhalation. The Vagus nerve responds to reduced breathing, especially the extended exhale, by sending acetylcholine to the heart, which lowers heart rate — a relaxation response. While the autonomic nervous system has been considered automatic, and beyond conscious control, it’s actually quite accessible. Through breathing.
On the other end of the equation is stressing the system with big, fast breaths. The Wim Hof method of hyperventilation does exactly that. Patrick McKeown’s Oxygen Advantage does, too, with a slight modification. The Oxygen Advantage protocol is 20 big, nasal breaths to hyperventilate, followed by a long breath hold to induce hypoxia / hypercapnia, and then reduced breathing after that. Hyperventilation, once again, is simply breathing in excess of metabolic demands. That is, blowing off more CO2 than is produced from cellular respiration. This sort of breathing, big breathing, is a stressor, and stimulates the sympathetic nervous system — fight / flight. This sort of breathing pattern is stimulating, up-regulating, as is not relaxing, per se. I only use this sort of breathing leading into a relatively active, relatively Yang, Full Moon class.
A third approach, reportedly used by S.W.A.T. outfits and Navy SEAL teams, is Box Breathing. Box breathing is so named as it reveals a somewhat square pattern when diagrammed. Inhale for 4 seconds, retain the breath for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, and suspend the breath for 4 seconds — four sides of equal duration, a square, or box, right? The idea is that a balance between relaxation and stimulation is achieved. That is, an alert calm, a composed readiness. Probably a good state of being for those functioning in a life and death, or otherwise stressful, professional environment. However, since the breathing cycle is quite long, less than 4 breaths per minute, it’s therefore something of a reduced breath. Whether this breathing pattern consistently does what’s purported is not always a given. I cannot speak to armed combat scenarios, but within my experience as a martial artist, and as an athlete, I favor a 1 : 1.5 breathing ratio, or a 1 :1 ratio, in general. Nonetheless, by virtue of it’s symmetry, it’s Yin-Yang-at-once pattern, it’s well suited to Quarter Moon classes.
In a Nutshell
A Reduced Breath is one that’s that 1 : 1.5 ratio, whether that is in seconds, or some fraction of seconds per count, and supports parasympathetic nervous system’s relaxation response, aka, rest and digest. Through light, slow, and deep nasal breathing incoming air is purified, breathing passages are expanded, blood flow is increased, and O2 is more readily delivered throughout the body. By practicing air hunger you are reducing your sensitivity to air hunger, so reduced breathing becomes easier and more natural. Do this for four minutes, or longer, as a meditation, as part of a class, or for a short while when you just need to settle yourself.
A Bigger Breath, in this context, is a series of strong inhales and exhales, followed by a breath hold, and followed by reduced breathing. The initial inhales / exhales, while big, are made through the nose which provides some of the above benefits. One benefit not mentioned earlier that is present in all nasal breathing is that the incoming air is warmed and moistened, properly conditioning it for entry into the bronchioles and alveoli, the tubes and air sacks where perfusion of O2 into pulmonary capillaries takes place … but I digress. So, it goes like this: Twenty strong inhales / exhales of 1 second each, followed by a maximum breath hold that begins on the 20th exhale. After however-long, commence reduced breathing, that is, light, slow, and deep, for three minutes. Repeat twice more. Do this as a pick-me-up in the morning, mid-afternoon, or pre-workout.
The Box Breathing is a simple light, slow, deep nasal breath over four counts of four, right? Inhale for 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4, hold for 4. Try this when you need to be simultaneously on your game, and serene. Equanimous!
All the other cycles aside, breathing in and out is the one that is absolutely reflective of life. That should be self evident. The Way of the Tao is to flow with the natural cycles, yet without flowing with your own inherent cycle of life, how could that be possible? Whatever your state, now or in the future, you can flow in harmony with the natural order simply by breathing in and out. Quite literally, change your breathing, change your being. And now, you know how.
Come explore your breathing in a streaming Yin yoga class!