Misconceptions In the Media About Optimal Breathing
by Kristy VanHornweder PhD
A report entitled "11 Ways to Find Your Energy" was published in USA Weekend with the help of Prevention magazine. It suggested various ways that people can increase their energy to revitalize themselves. One of the items discussed belly breathing, in which it is stated that most people don't breathe correctly and that they are shallow chest breathers. The article goes on to state that most people are not even aware that the abdomen is supposed to expand upon proper inhalation, and there is an exercise given to supposedly help people breathe deeply from the belly. However, some of the techniques given in the exercise were contrary to what some breathing experts believe, in particular, Mike White at breathing.com. Mike has been researching optimal breathing for nearly 30 years and his mission is to promote health and well-being through proper breathing techniques.
There are three aspects of the Prevention exercise that I find to be problematic and inconsistent with the information found on Mike's web site. I will discuss each of these in detail.
The first fault in the exercise is that it instructs readers to inhale to a count of three and exhale to a count of two. The issue here is that the exhale lasts for a shorter time than the inhale and also that the exhale lasts for a very short time. According to Mike, I find two problems with this. The first is that oxygenation occurs primarily during exhalation. The longer the exhale is extended, the more oxygenation can occur, and thus the more oxygen that goes into the blood which ultimately leads to having more energy. Cutting the exhale short will result in less energy and increase the cost of respiration. The second problem is with only a two second exhale, this does not allow enough time for a person to exhale completely. A full exhalation triggers a reflex, which allows the next inhale to be deep and easy. This deep, easy breath stimulates the parasympathetic rather than sympathetic nervous system, therefore resulting in alleviating stress and anxiety. Mike has an exercise (Better Breathing Exercise #2) geared for using breathing to energize. The exercise starts out with the inhale and exhale counts being the same, and the exhale count gradually increases throughout the exercise. The exhale count eventually becomes more than 20.
The second problem with the exercise is the breath rate. It is stated that the exercise should be done at 12 breaths per minute. However, according to Mike, an optimal breathing rate during relaxation is somewhere around 5-8 breaths per minute. A too fast breathing rate will often result in hyperventilation, or over-breathing, in which the body undergoes a severe respiratory chemistry imbalance as it is purged of carbon dioxide. This causes the blood vessels to constrict and actually deliver less oxygen to the cells. Thus, hyperventilation/hypocapnea actually results in the body being deprived of oxygen. Too fast of a breathing rate invites a host of health problems, such as anxiety, panic attacks, stress, nervousness, strokes, and high blood pressure. The fact that the exercise tells people to breathe slowly and deeply at 12 breaths a minute is simply a contradiction.
The third issue is that the exercise assumes that people know how deep abdominal breathing feels. According to Mike, "some people have no clue" what proper deep breathing even feels like. Some people have spent years with poor breathing habits and doing this exercise will not help them since their body will not allow them to breathe abdominally. For these people, their body has become locked up and constricted, and so any attempt at this exercise may still result in high chest breathing, since that is the way their body has been trained to breathe. The exercise will not be effective for them, and may result in hyperventilation, thus exacerbating their situation. An exercise that will help these people breathe in the correct place is Mike’s "Squeeze & Breathe" exercise.
This exercise forces people to breathe into the abdomen since the position of the hands gives the person a place to direct the breath. It should also be noted that the exhale count is more than twice as long as the inhale count. This exercise will offer the energy (and relaxation!) that people are looking for, since it truly instructs the person to breathe properly.
The intention of this article is to point out that the media can often times distort the facts and confuse the public. A person should take care to be sure that what they are reading comes from a credible source. Mike White at breathing.com is one such source, as he has been extensively researching the topic of optimal breathing for 30 years and has gained much insight from his own experiences with optimal breathing development. The breathing exercise given in Prevention magazine is contradictory to what Mike maintains about optimal breathing. Forced deep breathing is counter-productive and actually inhibits deepest, easiest breathing. People who do this exercise may likely end up hyperventilating and become even more stressed out and anxious. Because of the fast breathing rate, this exercise is the last thing that people with asthma want to do. Mike's breathing techniques involve triggering a natural reflex and using strapping techniques in the Fundamentals video #176 to free up space to allow for deeper easier breathing. The key is to create a state where we may let the body breathe naturally, rather than try to forcefully make it breathe.
From Mike: There are most likely millions of teachers and students with misconceptions about healthy breathing. Thousands of people with .edu (educational institution 4 years or more required attendance) email addresses have subscribed to our newsletter and have been a significant percentage of the 6 million emails sent in the last 8 years. From my experience the educational community is not very much better then the media at getting it right. That translates into school systems teaching dysfunctional breathing on a mass scale. Many training tools including DVDs used for anatomy and physiology are flawed and biased towards dysfunctional breathing.
Professor Kristy VanHornweder who wrote this article is one of the very few student/teachers that have taken the time to delve deeply enough into the subject to ask me some very searching and revealing questions. We cleared up her misunderstandings and that resulted in a dependable article.
Too many I imagine, scrape the essence of what they believe or have been taught, are pressured by deadline (the keyword is DEAD), relate to a few catch phrases or key words that add to their understanding but rarely completely enough, and then pass on their lack of same to their peers and readers. Even the incredible Donna Farhi admits that after 20 years of teaching yoga and writing for the Yoga journal that she did not know how to breathe. How many students and teachers do you suspect might be passing on this miss-information.
Writers are encouraged to contact Mike for assistance in articles related to breathing.