• Rob Orman

5. The Art of Breathing

Updated: Apr 30, 2020

We've been breathing since our first moments of life, but does that mean we are truly experts? In this episode of Stimulus, therapist and breathwork coach Ryan Cheney walks us through how we can make breath work for us, not just with us.

The icebath crucible for parasympathetic breathing

We discuss:

How we breathe can be used to create different mental and physiologic states [02:40];

  • Even though we’ve been breathing since the moment we were born, we might not have perfected it to the point that we can make breath work for us and not just with us.

  • Particular breathing techniques can up or down-regulate your mental state.  They can create calm, increase focus, or facilitate sleep.


Expanding your visual field is another tool for quickly adjusting your psychological state [03:15];

  • How we focus our vision has an impact on the nervous system and whether we’re in more of a sympathetic or parasympathetic state.

  • When you’re in a sympathetic state, your vision tends to dart around.  You’re looking for safety.

  • A powerful tool to down-regulate, if your nervous system is feeling stressed, is to open up your peripheral vision as wide as you can.  Doing this for as little as 10-15 seconds can engage your parasympathetic system and help you become more focused and calm.

  • Combining the panoramic vision with two or three deep, slow breaths can help you get centered and clear your mind.

The 3 pillars of breath physiology

1. The mechanics of breathing [07:00]

Chest breathing:  

  • Many people are vertical or chest breathers, underutilizing the lower part of the lungs and the diaphragm. They have a reverse breath wave, where their chest rises out and up and their belly collapses in when they inhale.

  • Chest breathing taxes the secondary breathing muscles in the neck and shoulders and can contribute to chronic musculoskeletal pain.

  • People who rely on this type of breathing breathe shallow and more often.  This creates more work for the respiratory system.

Diaphragmatic breathing:  

  • Ideally, with inhalation, the midsection of the torso around the lower rib cage should expand first, followed by expansion of the upper chest.  With exhalation, the chest releases first, and then the abdomen. 

  • When you use the diaphragm efficiently, you take the stress off the accessory muscles of respiration.

  • In addition, the diaphragm stimulates the vagus nerve and has a calming, parasympathetic effect.

Volume control:

  • Many people have trouble elongating their exhale because they haven’t learned how to control their volume.

  • Ocean breathing is a technique that can help lengthen the breath cycle by reducing the amount of air that passes through the throat. 

2. The physiology of breathing [10:40];

  • An individual’s recommended protocol for the timing of inhalation, apnea, and exhalation depends largely on his/her physiology.  

  • You can do a CO2 tolerance test to guide you. This is a subjective measurement of how well your body tolerates CO2.  

  • People who breathe shallow and fast typically have poor CO2 tolerance. The theory:  low CO2 tolerance translates to poorer utilization of oxygen and a higher overall level of arousal and stress sensitivity.

  • With breath practice, your system will adapt and become more tolerant of CO2.

  • Link to instructions for performing the CO2 tolerance test. The State Breathing App can be used to customize breath protocols based on one’s CO2 tolerance and emotional reactivity scale.

  • To downregulate the nervous system, Cheney recommends cadence breathing, following a 1:2 ratio of inhalation:exhalation time. For example, he might start a client with ten cycles of 5 seconds in followed by 10 seconds out.  But if that’s too challenging, those times can be shortened.

3. The psychology of breathing [15:30];

  • There are specific breath patterns that induce different nervous system states.

  • Generally, exhalation and apnea are down-regulating. Elongating the exhale engages the parasympathetic nervous system.

  • Breathing exercises can be used to down-regulate the nervous system on purpose and with intention.  This can help with sleep or to control stress.

3 categories of breath exercises [16:05];

1. Apnea breath patterns -- These have a hold pattern and are down-regulating.

  • A simple protocol might be 5 seconds in, 10 second hold, and 5 seconds out.

2. Cadence protocols -- Help with gaining focus and energy. For example:

  • 5 seconds in and 5 seconds out

  • Fire breathing -- this involves breathing rapidly, rhythmically and continuously through your nose in a 1:1 ratio of inhalation and exhalation.

  • Box breathing has 4 corners starting with an inhale, then a hold, then an exhale, and finally another hold.

  • Tactical 3160 is a type of box breathing Cheney recommends for people who work in a stressful environment and need to rapidly shift their mental state. It involves a 3 second inhale, 1 second hold, 6 second exhale and no hold at the end.

3. Super ventilation -- Hyperventilation patterns are up-regulating to the nervous system.

Mouth vs. Nose Breathing [18:00]

  • Most of the time, we should be breathing through our nose.

  • Nasal breathing helps us take fuller breaths and warms the air. Also, it mixes the air with nitric oxide (a pulmonary vascular vasodilator) from the paranasal sinuses.

  • While the mouth is sympathetic toned, nose breathing induces the parasympathetic nervous system and is calming.

  • Mouth taping is one way to train yourself to breath out of your nose. You can start by taping 20 minutes during the day and work up to taping all night while you sleep.

  • One study found that mouth breathing led to an increased oxygen load to the prefrontal cortex. They postulated that this might link mouth breathing to ADHD.

Why stress can be a good thing, but we need to learn how to come down-regulate from it [26:00];

Specific breathing exercises and how they can change your mental state [28:45],

The calming effect of ocean breathing and elongating the exhale [33:20]; and


Shownotes by Melissa Orman, MD


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