The 4 Domains of Breathing
For 5,000 years we have breathing practices. Some practices are taught from the perspective of tradition, many are included in yogic practices for example. Some breathing methods form the basis of health practices like meditation from tai chi. And more recently, some methods teach breathing for physical performance such as enduring extreme environmental temperature with the Wim Hof method. And yet, with all our knowledge and experience of breathing, we have never defined how it affects us and where we should start with a breathing practice. Essentially,there are 4 domains of breathing – biomechanics; physiology; psychology and spirituality.
There is a heirarchy, or a peeling back the layers process, which we can use to gently influence each of these domains with a domino effect, beginning with respiration and physiology, continuing into biomechanics, psychology and then spirituality.
But as with everything in the world we do not have to be linear in our thinking or our practice. People have been known to take an alternative route with breathing practice.
Breathing practices have been used to influence people’s psychology and spirituality for thousands of years. If the practice is gentle, people generally have very positive results. However, there is also the risk of great damage to your mind, spirit and body when these practices are misused.
Start with the Basics
As with all health practices, I believe we should start with the basics, master them and then move on to more advanced techniques. As Paul Chek once said:
“You can’t shoot a canon out of canoe”.
So to build solid foundations is to control the power of more advanced teachings. When it comes to breathing foundations Laurie McLoughlin summed the 1st principles of breathing beautifully in the book “Recognizing and treating Breathing Disorders”. They are really simple, she defined them as:
Breathe with your Nose.
Breathe Low into your stomach with your diaphragm.
Breathe Slow. Reduce the rate of your breathing.
Let Go on exhale. The exhale is passive. There is no muscular contraction, like letting air out of a balloon.
Breathe Quiet and reduce the volume of your breathing.
The purpose of these principles is to guide you to your Optimal Resting Breath Wave or a breathing pattern that is optimal for you when your body is at complete rest. I’ve written a deeper article on the Breath Wave here for you if you’d like to know more.
However, breathing can also be used for postural benefits and to the advantage of other systems in the body, such as the nervous system. I include postural benefits and exercise in the 1st principles of breathing because it is so important to our overall health. So, to add to Laurie’s foundation principles I would also include:
Alter your breath to support the spine.
In theory, these principles are simple to implement but in reality, they are not easy. It requires
Daily Practice, Perseverance and Patience…
My three favourite P’s when it comes to lifestyle change and health performance. We breathe 25,000 times per day on average so gaining the benefits of a one-off breath session will hardly change your way of life. Practicing your breath-play daily is the way to find the most benefits for you.
Persevering when you don’t see results and relaxing into the practice are key to your success with breath – play. The breath is responsive to everything that goes on in your life. One day you can have a super result, the next – nothing, no difference.
That is ok and quite normal. I like to record how I’m feeling, note certain numbers and review progress over a weekly and monthly basis rather than focusing on the benefit day to day.
Notice I call it play and not work. The aim isn’t to force the practice and get somewhere with it. Rather, the aim is to enjoy the practice for what it is and feel the difference it makes to your life.
Mastering the 1st principles of breathing and building upon them affects change in three domains of the body. But what is there to change and how does change in one domain affect another you may ask?
The Primary Purpose of Breathing
The foundation function of breathing is to exchange gases in the lungs (a part of physiology) and to provide stability for the body in varying postures and during exercise. These two functions are inversely related.
The greater the need for stabilization (like in a heavy weighted barbell back squat) the less gas exchange can occur.
Reciprocally, the greater the need for oxygen in the cells, the less the diaphragm can be used to create stability. This is where ‘knowing your breath’ comes in. When you are in tune with your breathing, your body and your exercise, you can direct your breathing more to either given function, posture or physiology.
When you practice your breathing mindfully not only do you affect posture and function but you also affect your mind and your spirit. The key to unlocking the power of any or all of these domains is the intensity of attention in the exercise.
So when I talk about the domains of the body, I am referring to the ‘areas’ most affected by breathing. The relationship between breathing and these domains is reciprocal –
Breathing affects biomechanics for example & the biomechanics of the body affects your breathing.
Breathing also affects your spirit and the state of your spirit affects your breathing patterns.
The 1st Domain of Breathing: Biomechanics
The nose and the diaphragm are perhaps the two most important biomechanical structures when it comes to breathing foundations. These are supported by the intercostals, the muscles of the abdominal region, the upper chest and the neck.
We are designed to breathe with our nose, not with our mouth. It filters the air, warms it and prepares the body for the incoming oxygen. It also controls the amount of carbon dioxide we release from the body, thereby affecting our blood pH, our blood viscosity and the quantity of oxygen delivered to the cell. The Nose Knows is an article I wrote which divers deeper into the benefits of nasal breathing for you.
We are also designed to breathe with our diaphragm. Diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing oxygenates more of our body than upper chest breathing. It massages our heart and abdominal organs with each oscillating breath. It controls our heart rhythm, gives form to our posture, can provide stability when lifting heavy things and can initiate the kinetic chain of the lower body from for all exercise – running, sprinting, cycling, jumping, twisting and turning.
When we change our breathing mechanics, we also influence the posture and strength of the rest of our body. Dr. John Doulliard for example, was known in the 1990’s for his breathing method to reduce injury in elite endurance runners. He said that:
“the body is weakest at the bottom of an exhale.”
So instead of having his athletes breathe to an even two-step count ( this means breathe in for steps and out for two steps, as is normal in running circles), he had his athletes breathe to an uneven count (inhale for two steps, exhale for three steps). This alternative step breathing balanced the exhale with the load on each limb. The result of his rhythmical breathing was known to vastly reduce injury in his athletes.
The 2nd Domain of Breathing: Physiology
The obvious physiological process that breathing governs is the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide gases.
Breathing is solely responsible for getting oxygen to the cell by regulating the ideal levels of carbon dioxide and inspiring enough oxygen to meet the demands of the body in any given minute.
But breathing goes deeper into your physiology than just the regulation of cell metabolism. It also governs:
the pH of the blood,
mediates the flight-freeze and rest-digest states of the nervous system and
it has an important role in several hormonal cascades.
The 3rd Domain of Breathing: Psychology
We now know that breathing is directly linked to attention and concentration functions in the brain.
Earlier this year (2018), researchers from Trinity College Dublin published a paper in the Journal of Psycho-physiology (you can get it here). It identified the exact area in the brain where breathing and attention cross-over – It is known as the Locus Coeruleus, in the Pons area of the brain stem. This paper combined with previous research demonstrates that:
breathing affects attention and attention affects breathing,
they are intertwined processes.
The downstream effect of this relationship is the secretion of a cascade of hormones which enhance concentration. Hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol are influenced by the way we breathe. This means that the effect on concentration can be positive or negative, depending on the way we breathe. This relationship and its downstream effect also has implications for our emotions. Other papers, most notably this one from 2016, shows that breathing patterns have a relationship with fear. They found that
faster mouth breathing induces a fearful response compared with slower nasal breathing for a relaxed response.
The 4th Domain of Breathing: Spirituality
Without doubt, breathing impacts your spirit. Dysfunctional breathing alters your psyche, your thoughts and your love for life. Vice versa, life events (birth, death, separation, aging, trauma etc.) all impact your breathing.
Breathing positively and subtly affects your spirit as you restore your physical body back to optimal health. This is good for your body and spirit. However, breathing practices can also aggressively impact your spirit by inducing altered states of consciousness as discovered by Stan Grof back in the 1950s.
Although there are some very popular breathing methods that promote entering into an altered state of consciousness so you can
“Get High On Your Own Supply”
and find a feeling of euphoria, I am more reserved in my thinking for now due to my personal practice with Stan Grof’s methods.
Even with 15 years of breath training experience and personal development with intent I am still cautious about when I enter these states of consciousness, who I enter them with and how deep I go with them.
In my experience, I know that entering deep into these states of consciousness require a high level of structure, support, experience and tender care. Without the appropriate supports entering into these states on your own can be highly dangerous and damaging to your health. You may think you are doing good but you may also be building a wall around the traumas. This will make your work to become whole again much more difficult. As such, I suggest you stick with breathing for a physical purpose first. Learn to breathe to gently enhance your health by changing your physiology, your posture and your mind.
So what is my purpose for breath training you may ask?
It is to empower you to be your own health hero;
to peel the layers of the onion one at a time;
to embed a new lifestyle built on health one habit at a time.
Initially, my goals with breathing are three-fold:
1. To create awareness of your breathing pattern.
2. Reset your breath pattern to its natural state when your body is at complete rest from the stresses of the world. I call this breath pattern, the Optimal Resting Breath Wave
3. Empower you to use your breath as a gauge for health at any given time in the day.
Once you know your natural resting breathing pattern and you have learned to use it to mediate your stresses in life. Then you can utilize your breath to ‘hack’ other systems in your body. Some people may wish to use it to access non-ordinary states of consciousness, others will use it for physical prowess and some people like to use the breath for complete relaxation and focus.
At this point in time, I concentrate on coaching people to use their breath for the latter – complete rest, focus and physical prowess. Having said that, no matter what awesome life goal you want to use the breath for; you must first learn to know your optimal resting breath wave and understand how it affects the 4 domains of your body – biomechanics; physiology; psychology and spirituality.
Douillard, J., (2001) Body, Mind, and Sport. The Mind-Body Guide to Lifelong Health, Fitness, and Your Personal Best. Three Rivers Press
Chaitow, L., Bradley, D. & Gilbert, C., (2014) Recognizing and Treating Breathing Disorders. A Multidisciplinary Approach. 2nd Ed. Elsevier
Melnychuk, M., et al. (2018). “Coupling of Respiration and Attention via the Locus Coeruleus: Effects of Meditation and Pranayama.” Society for Psychophysiology Research
Zelano, C., et al. (2016). “Nasal Respiration Entrains Human Limbic Oscillations and Modulates Cognitive Function.” Journal of Neuroscience. 36 (49).