Common Pitfalls; Shortcomings - Deep Breathing Exercises, Techniques

(contributed by one of my students. Kristy Van Hornweder)

Although the intention of breathing exercises aims at achieving positive benefits, such as reduced stress, increased energy, and deeper breathing, there are numerous common shortcomings and pitfalls to be aware of when practicing various breathing exercises and techniques. Many of these exercises can actually lead to body tension, breathing tightness or restrictions, especially if they are practiced on a regular basis. Some of these problems are discussed here.

Ratio of Inhale Time to Exhale Time

    Many breathing exercises may instruct people to inhale to a count of, say, three and exhale to a count of, say, two. The problem here is that the exhale lasts for a shorter time than the inhale. Furthermore, the exhale lasts for a very short time. Uptake of oxygen occurs primarily during exhalation.

    Within reason, the longer the exhale is extended, the more oxygenation can occur, and thus the more oxygen that goes into the blood and eventually the cells, which ultimately leads to having more energy and vitality. Cutting the exhale short will result in less energy and increase the cost of respiration.

    Another problem is that a two-second exhale does not allow enough time for a person to exhale completely. A full resting exhalation triggers a natural reflex in-breath, which aids the next exhale and inhale to be deeper, easier, and with less effort. This deep, easy in-breath stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation, therefore helping to alleviate stress and anxiety.

A Healthy Breathing Rate

    There are many misconceptions about what a healthy breathing rate should be. Some breathing exercises may tell people to breathe slowly and deeply at 12 breaths per minute. However, an optimal breathing rate during relaxation is actually about 4 to 6 breaths per minute! A breathing rate that is too fast (especially if it is predominantly in the high chest) may often result in hyperventilation, or over-breathing, in which the body undergoes 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 and/or hypocapnea actually result as the body is deprived of oxygen. Too fast a breathing rate invites a host of health problems, such as anxiety, panic attacks, stress, nervousness, strokes, and high blood pressure. Slow breathing exercises that are telling people to breathe slowly and deeply at 12 breaths per minute are simply a contradiction. This can be overcome with certain techniques and breathing exercisers.
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 Breathe Diaphragmatically

    Another issue is that most breathing exercise teachers seem to assume that people actually know how deep abdominal breathing feels. However, for various reasons, most people really don’t know what proper, deep, diaphragmatic breathing feels like. These people have spent years with poor breathing habits and attempting abdominal deep breathing exercises may 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 deep breathing exercises may still result in high chest breathing, since that is the way their body is used to breathing.

    The exercises will not be effective for them, and may possibly result in hyperventilation or dizziness, thus exacerbating their situation. One exercise that will help these people breathe in the correct place is our “Squeeze & Breathe” exercise. This exercise forces people to breathe into the abdomen since the position and pressure of the hands gives the person a place to direct the breath.

    It should also be noted that the exhale count is at least 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 and into the right place.

Belly Breathing

    Popular belief about breathing associates breathing into the belly with “true deep breathing.” While this is a good place to start, belly breathing does not constitute a “true deep breath.” A full, deep breath expands the body in a 360-degree radius, meaning that during the inhale, the breath also expands into the sides and the back in addition to the belly area. Most of the lung volume is actually contained in the back of the body. The belly only comprises about 40% of the total breathing volume. Breathing into the belly will steer the person in a better direction than focusing on the upper chest, but true deep breathing does not end there.

Three-Part Complete Breath

    Some breathing exercises will instruct the person to breathe into the belly, then into the middle chest (expanding the ribs), then finally into the high chest. However, breathing should consist of one, smooth, continuous motion, rather than split into parts. Splitting the breathing into parts may well disrupt the breathing's natural flow, foundation and balance. This can lead people into being too conscious of their breathing instead of just letting it happen on its own.

Forced Exhalation

    Breathing exercises often include forced exhalations. Exhaling forcefully can often cause tension in the belly, which will inhibit deep, easy breathing. Tension in the belly can also exacerbate the startle reflex, which is associated with the activating of the sympathetic, “fight-or-flight” nervous system. Sometimes forced exhalations are included in exercises that deal with voicing and sound production. For example, a humming exercise may instruct the person to squeeze out sound for as long as possible. To avoid creating possible tension, it is better to produce the sound with roughly half of the breath, and still have some air left after completing the sound. We learn more about that via the OBWINDOW in the Fundamentals video

Hyperventilation vs. Hyper-inhalation

    There are stimulating or “bellows breath” exercises that involve breathing quickly in and out. If done properly in the belly area (hyper-inhalation), it will stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and a calming energy can result. But if the bellows breathing is done in the high chest (hyperventilation), this will stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, which can lead to dizziness, vasoconstriction, asthma, migraines, anxiety, phobias and panic.

Breath Holding

    Numerous breathing exercises incorporate breath holding into their instruction. Holding the breath (at the top of the inhale) often causes body tension and breathing restriction and can also adversely affect the voice.

Mouth Breathing

    Mouth breathing is another technique used in many breathing exercises. Forced or audible exhalation through the mouth can lead to exhaling too quickly, which can interfere with oxygen absorption and restrict the triggering of a natural breathing reflex that allows deep, easy breathing. Breathing through the nose will, via back pressure, enable the exhale to last for a longer period of time.

Breathing Pauses or Extended Exhales

    Certain breathing exercise intended for inducing relaxation often include a brief pause after the exhale, before the next inhale begins. The pause is when the body rests and prepares for the next breathing cycle. Other exercises may require an extended exhale. Either of these may enhance the breathing reflex and allow easier deeper (more relaxing) breathing to come in. In this way, the breathing is allowed to happen automatically by itself without any need for controlling it.

    Our deep breathing exercises avoid these common pitfalls and allow for easy, deep, relaxing, natural breathing. Guided audio and video breathing exercises are available in our store. For a free sample, try our “Squeeze & Breathe” exercise.

Content copyright 2009-2010 by Michael Grant White and All rights reserved.