“The yogi’s life is not measured by the number of his days, but by the number of his breaths.” — B.K.S. Iyengar (1918-2014)
In Chapter 3, we established the first four tenets of diaphragmatic breathing: 1) extend the breath over longer intervals, 2) breathe deeper to increase the tidal range, 3) breathe at a steady, smooth rate, and 4) breathe assertively regardless of social pressure. We also talked about how, if you are doing these things properly, your inhalations should be recruiting your diaphragm, thereby pushing your belly out. In Chapter 5, we added the passive exhalation, pointing out that you can let your breathing muscles go limp on the outbreath to provide them with a microbreak.
Hopefully, by now, you have practiced these using a breath metronome and have learned what paced diaphragmatic breathing feels like and how to sustain it. You should feel comfortable breathing for several minutes at a rate of around five-second inhalations and seven-second exhalations. Perhaps you have advanced closer to eight and 12. This chapter will return to the topic of breathing, offering further background and more breathing techniques to complement what you have already learned.
I remember being pulled around by the pressures and concerns of life. Everything felt rapid, loud, and urgent, and I would breathe fast and hard in an attempt to keep up with it all. Then, when things slowed down, and I found myself in a quiet room with others, my over-breathing stuck out like a sore thumb. They could hear me heaving, taking two or three breaths for every breath they took. I found it embarrassing, but because my body had adapted to hyperventilating, there was little I could do about it in the moment.
Today, many self-help breathing gurus tell their followers they are not inhaling enough air and, consequently, are not getting enough oxygen. The people giving this advice are mostly confused. It is over-breathing that is unhealthy, and it is the rapid cycles of heavy inhaling and exhaling that we want to stop. This excessive breathing is called hyperventilation and results in abnormally high oxygen levels and low levels of carbon dioxide. This is why medical personnel give people who are hyperventilating a paper bag to breathe into; it depletes them of oxygen. Rebreathing exhaled carbon dioxide trapped in the paper bag helps them reduce over-oxygenation and quell their panic. Inordinate oxygen intake can be just as bad as insufficient oxygen intake.1 Like overeating, over-breathing amounts to too much of a good thing.
During stress, thoracic breathing is accentuated to meet the anticipated increases in oxygen demands. If the anticipated event never arrives, there is no increase in physical activity and the extra oxygen is never used. This is why hyperventilation leads to problems. During hyperventilation, oxygen levels become so high that, paradoxically, many body tissues are deprived of oxygen. This is especially true in the brain, leading to reduced neural and mental function.2
A common criterion for hyperventilation is 30 liters of air per minute, and many people breathe normally in this range. Conventional medicine deems five to six liters of air per minute (at around 500 milliliters of air per breath) normal.3 This would be about as much air in three empty two-liter soft drink bottles. It is likely that you, like most people, inhale significantly more than this.
I was a chronic hyperventilator, and I was well acquainted with the symptoms: dizziness, poor concentration, muscle tension, cramps, irregular and rapid heartbeat (tachycardia), heart pounding (palpitations), and gastrointestinal upset. It is also strongly associated with nasal congestion, tightening of the airways, fatigue, tremor, shakiness, tight muscles, stiffness, muscle pain, weakness, constriction of blood vessels, asthma, rhinitis, and snoring.4 Because over-breathing is hard work, it leads to exhaustion, chest tightness, and pain around the ribs. Hyperventilation also leads to feelings of breathlessness, choking, and smothering.
Hyperventilation is thought to be a significant factor in medical conditions caused or aggravated by mental stress (psychosomatic diseases). These include headaches, backaches, nausea, dry mouth, sweaty palms, insomnia, ulcers, and many others. This may be partly accounted for by the fact that hyperventilation increases the concentration of stress hormones in the blood. In one study, a few minutes of hyperventilation increased adrenaline levels in subjects by 360 percent.5 The diaphragmatic breathing retraining regimen outlined in this chapter will reduce the amount you hyperventilate and potentially provide you with relief from symptoms you didn’t even realize you had.
Figure 11.1: A. The first sine wave depicts shallow rapid breathing characteristic of anxiety; B. The second wave depicts calmer, deeper breathing at longer intervals; C. The third depicts a form of breathing that involves the movement of a much smaller total volume of air. Breathing less than usual in this way as an exercise can reduce the tendency to hyperventilate. Again, the x-axis represents time and the y-axis represents the volume of air in the lungs
The benefits of breathing less have been appreciated for a long time. In the 1950s, Russian physiologist Konstantin Buteyko developed a now popular breathing program to counteract hyperventilation. He observed that the closer his patients were to death, the faster and shallower was their breathing. Today, his program is called the Buteyko method and is used for asthma, anxiety, and to increase pulmonary function in athletes. Reviews of the medical literature have come to different conclusions about the strength of the evidence supporting the Buteyko method,6 but it has a large number of steadfast adherents, and I think in principle it is credible and compelling.
The Buteyko method uses breath holding, resistance breathing, and breath restriction exercises to counteract over-breathing. The practice focuses on reducing breathing movements until you feel a tolerable air shortage and hunger for air. I do not recommend reducing breathing to the point of air hunger per se, but I do recommend the bread and butter of the Buteyko system: 1) resistance breathing, 2) breathing through the nose, and 3) breathing “slower and less.” These are legitimate methods to counteract hyperventilation. Allow me to explain why.
Resistance breathing is any kind of breathing that creates resistance to the flow of air. You can create resistance by breathing through clenched teeth, pursed lips, or a straw. Resistance breathing forces the breathing musculature to work harder, thus strengthening it substantially over time. Because it proceeds slower and disallows air gulping, it forces the diaphragm to do the work.
Many people use “elevation training masks” during exercise to create intense pulmonary resistance to strengthen the muscles of respiration. These masks are meant to simulate the benefits of training at high altitudes. Studies show that the masks are useful, and I imagine the masks might be very helpful when used with diaphragmatic breathing. However, simply breathing through the nose is a free and easy alternative to train resistance breathing.
Because the nasal passages are narrower than the oral one, taking a full breath through the nose takes significantly more time and effort. It takes 50% more work to breathe exclusively through the nose compared to breathing through the mouth. It is hard work for the diaphragm and will make it stronger fast. Also, it forces you to breathe more slowly, at an even pace. You’ll notice that you cannot gasp through the nose, and several researchers agree that “one cannot easily hyperventilate when breathing through the nose.”7 I consider nasal breathing the sixth tenet of optimal breathing.
Most mammals breathe exclusively through their noses with their mouths closed, but there are a few exceptions. Some mammals will breathe through the mouth when engaging in intense cardiovascular activity. Others use mouth breathing for evaporative cooling, like a dog panting on a hot day. Some mammals will breathe through their mouth during an aggressive confrontation. Usually, the dominant animal will breathe exclusively through the nose and the subordinate one will open the mouth and pant non-diaphragmatically. Many dog trainers interpret nose breathing as defiant and mouth breathing as acquiescent. The dog that pants rapidly with an open mouth is usually seen as the most obedient. Chronic mouth breathing, like hyperventilation, is a submissive, handicapping signal. Otherwise, mammals breathe almost exclusively through their noses. Whenever a veterinarian sees a mammal at rest breathing through its mouth, it is taken as a sign of sickness or serious injury.
In humans, mouth breathing is thought by many experts to increase the stress response.8 It has been shown to lead to high blood pressure, poor posture, cognitive disturbances, and heart problems.9 In newborns, it is a sign of failure to thrive. However, there is no medical consensus merely because not enough studies have been performed. Neither is there any rubric in medical science helping people to stop breathing through their mouths. This is a serious oversight.
In 1862, George Catlin wrote the book Shut Your Mouth and Save Your Life, in which he extolled the virtues of nose breathing. He was an American adventurer who specialized in painting portraits of Native Americans in the Old West. He observed a large proportion of Native Americans breathing exclusively through the nose, even during sleep. He attributed their good health and serene countenance to this habit. He even saw mothers encouraging their infants and children to breathe through their noses. If a baby opened its mouth to breathe, the mother would gently push the baby’s lips together to ensure nasal breathing. He compared this to Europe, where it seemed to him everyone breathed with their mouths.
He claimed the American Indians referred to the white men not only as “pale-faces” but as “black-mouths” due to their penchant for breathing through their mouths. He said that breathing through the mouth leads to a derangement of the “whole face, which is not natural; carrying the proof of a long practice of the baneful habit, with its lasting consequences; and producing that unfortunate and pitiable, and oftentimes disgusting expression which none but ‘civilized’ communities can present.” He called mouth breathing “the most abominable and destructive habit that ever attached itself to the human race.”
The following are two drawings by Catlin from the book. They illustrate what he saw as the difference between English mouth breathers and Native American nasal breathers.
Illustration 11.1: George Catlin’s 1862 sketch comparing mouth-breathing Londoners to nose-breathing American Indians.
Catlin wrote that no “excitements” could cause the Indians to part their lips. He said their mouths remained closed unless they were eating or speaking and that they even smiled with their mouths closed. He recounted a story in which a quarrel arose between a white fur trader and a Sioux brave. The men decided to settle the dispute naked, in a prairie, with knives. Minutes before the fight, Catlin intervened and convinced the men to reconcile and shake hands. Afterward, he asked the brave whether he was afraid of the other man, who was both bigger and stronger. The Indian replied: “No, not in the least; I never fear harm from a man who can’t shut his mouth.” He wrote that both Indian mothers and medicine men told him that Native Americans breathe through their noses to ensure strength, confidence, athleticism, and long, peaceful lives.
If I were asked to name a single habit that could be corrected to increase longevity and quality of life, it would be mouth breathing. So, the question arises: “What is the best way to ensure nasal breathing?” Well, at first take, it’s not easy. There are two main hindrances to nasal breathing: 1) it is easy to forget to breathe nasally, and 2) we transition from nasal to mouth breathing unconsciously when we become stressed. However, spending time with the mouth taped can help you to overcome each of these issues.
You may think you breathe through your nose but you likely often switch to mouth breathing. Many people switch from nose to mouth breathing when they feel nervous or when they are socializing. You may have never noticed it, but you probably make this switch repeatedly as your stress levels fluctuate throughout the day. In many cases, the diaphragm is not strong enough to support nasal breathing under stressful conditions. Breathing through the nose is unnerving for many people in social situations.
I was very uncomfortable nose breathing in my twenties, partly because it made me look expressionless. I was afraid people would think I looked “bold-faced” or insolent. But my face looked “disrespectful” while nose breathing only because I was uncomfortable doing it. Once you become complacent breathing through the nose, with mouth closed, you can get away with sporting a highly expressionless face. In other words, nasal breathing builds composure. Spend time breathing with your mouth shut more often. Practice it in public and with social contacts. Notice how difficult it can be in certain situations and how you have the repeated impulse to switch to mouth breathing. If you allow yourself to transition to mouth breathing when you feel stressed or excitable, you will resort to hyperventilation.
To address this, I strongly recommend taping the mouth shut as often as possible. It stops you from taking intermittent gasps and sighs through your mouth. The gasping and sighing compensate for the air hunger created when stress rises and nasal breathing becomes nonassertive and weak. Even when you are making a concerted effort to breathe through the nose, you will probably only do it halfheartedly because you know in the back of your mind that you can always switch to mouth breathing if you need to.
Taping your mouth will teach you to breathe through your nose without recourse to the mouth. Nasal breathing will be your only option, so you will unconsciously lean into it more. This will train your diaphragm to be self-sufficient and uncompromising. I recommend using a bandage or surgical tape, which can be found in drug stores as it is made for contact with skin and won’t chafe your lips or strip them of their natural oils. When I started taping my mouth, my nasal passages stung from the heavy increase in airflow. Each breath felt cold and dry, but this only lasted a few days. I urge you to tape your mouth as often as you can for a few months until you are nasal breathing by force of habit.
While your mouth is taped, you will inevitably find some mundane stressor to get worked up about. Let’s say, for instance, that your doorbell rings and you aren’t expecting anyone. Your respiratory rate will increase ahead of the anticipated social demands, and you will feel air hunger. However, you won’t be able to sustain an increased breathing rate because you cannot gasp through your mouth. As you are forced to continue to breathe through your nose, the worries about the doorbell fade. This will ensure that the person who answers the door is courageous rather than fretful. Every minute your mouth is taped, you have small victories like this one that will take the reins over your diaphragm from the environment and place them in your own hands.
After 20 cumulative hours of taping my mouth in the first month, I could feel I was breathing far less and had conquered the restlessness in my chest. After three months, I realized that, for the first time in my adult life, I was holding eye contact with others while breathing calmly through the nose. I also found that when I was having a conversation with someone, I would close my mouth as soon as I stopped talking. This shifted my entire style of communication from overexcited and frivolous to levelheaded and measured.
Everyone should be breathing exclusively through their nose even while sleeping. Many nose-breathing adherents recommend taping the mouth shut before going to sleep to strengthen nocturnal nasal breathing.10 They claim, and I agree, that it helps you fall asleep more quickly, stay asleep longer, and wake feeling energized. It also limits snoring, stops drooling, keeps the mouth and throat from getting dry, reduces bad breath, and keeps you in the diaphragmatic sweet spot throughout the night. For all these reasons, I strongly recommend you tape your mouth before bed. However, it is a sharp right turn into hard diaphragmatic demand. You might need to work your way up to it using other Program Peace breathing exercises (including taping your mouth during the day) before you can start to tape your mouth at bedtime.
Some people claim that they cannot breathe through their nose due to nasal obstruction or congestion. If this is true for you, know that your nasal passages will clear from nasal breathing practice. Mine certainly did. Before taping my mouth, I was lucky to have one nostril clear of congestion. However, you should find that after you start taping your mouth, the congestion clears on its own. Just like you don’t let dry eyes keep you from widening your eyes or dry lips keep you from smiling, don’t let a stuffy nasal cavity keep you from breathing through your nose. You might want to try nasal irrigation (i.e., a neti pot, Nasaline, or nasal relief spray), a personal hygiene practice used for flushing excess mucus and debris from the nasal cavity and sinuses.
Also, make an effort to breathe through the nose while chewing. Because I breathe through my nose now, I can close my mouth while I chew. Thus, much to the pleasant surprise of my friends and family, I no longer smack my lips.
The “alternate nostril breathing” technique is common in yoga and stress reduction circles. In this exercise, the index finger is used to close one nostril at a time. Many hypotheses have been advanced regarding why breathing through only one nostril seems to have a calming effect on people. Some scientists think you can activate different hemispheres of the brain this way. I think blocking one nostril works because it narrows the breathing bottleneck even further, increasing the resistance and necessitating that each breath is even slower and smoother. Try it. There are many guided alternate nostril breathing exercises online.
Modern-day hunter-gatherers are known to be nose breathers, and even the persistence running they do during prolonged hunts is accomplished with the mouth closed. As you get better at nose breathing, force yourself to breathe exclusively through the nose during exercise. Keep tissues with you if you need to. Blow your nose frequently, and train as often as you can with your mouth closed.
Illustration 11.2: Hyperventilating man breathing into a paper bag; B. Man running with an elevation training mask; C. Man with tape over the mouth to ensure nose breathing.
Months of paced breathing helped, but breathing exclusively through the nose was still a challenge for me when I started. Inspired by the writings of Konstantin Buteyko and George Catlin, I forced myself to do it. You haven’t accomplished it until every time you think to notice, you find yourself breathing through the nose. Don’t try to accomplish exclusive nasal breathing in a matter of weeks. Give yourself at least a few months to make a comfortable transition to exclusive nose breathing. Teaching myself to breathe through my nose made diaphragmatic breathing much more accessible and gave me a whole new level of composure and poise. Breathe through the nose as much as possible. It calms your mind and turns your breathing musculature into a powerful, relentless, irrepressible bellows.
When you breathe with a smooth flow rate, you should feel that your breath proceeds at an even tack. You should hear and feel a constant stream of breath that doesn’t vary in speed. I think the best way to perfect a smooth flow rate is to inhale as little and as slowly as possible. When you do this, the tumultuous discontinuities (apneic disturbances) discussed in Chapter 3 become magnified. This enables you to perceive them and work to “iron them out.”
Breathing slowly like this feels dangerous—either like you are not getting enough air or like it is too much work. Some of the most archaic brain areas ring their alarm bells when they can tell that the conscious system is imposing a slow diaphragmatic breath. Deep down, our unconscious mind is afraid that the diaphragm will be overexerted and that this will lead to death by some form of cardiorespiratory fatigue. It is afraid that we will ignore the pain signals from our weary breathing musculature and succumb to diaphragmatic failure. And it is true that if a person who is a heavy hyperventilator that takes in 20 breaths per minute was forced to switch to four breaths per minute without any deviation, the abrupt change in demand could lead to respiratory shutdown after many hours. However, a few minutes of diaphragmatic fatigue is not going to kill you. You don’t want to push it too hard for hours at a time, but you must get past this instinctual dread of exerting the diaphragm.
To do this, embrace the feeling of “suffocating” yourself with the slowest, smallest breath exercise. These breaths should feel like prolonged, streamlined sighs that “ooze” in and out of your body. Taking extremely slow inhalations will strengthen your diaphragm and teach your mind to control it on a very precise and fine-grained scale, putting an end to hyperventilation.
When you perform exercise 11.3 above, imagine that you are training to be the best in the world. Pretend that the national pastime consists of stepping up to home plate, pressing your nostril against a microphone, and taking the smoothest inhalation and the smoothest exhalation you possibly can. You want to inspire the entire stadium, as well as the folks watching at home, with how constant and unperturbed your breath is. Of course, we will never get the opportunity to show off in this way. However, if you breathe as if you are training for it, the results will significantly affect your every word, thought, and action. It will also make your breath extremely quiet.
Several Eastern arts, such as tai chi, yoga, and qi gong, recognize the importance of quiet, gentle breathing. Japanese legend holds that samurai would be tested by placing a feather under their nose. If the feather wavered, then they were not ready to progress. Qi gong master Chris Pei explains, “Generally speaking, there are three levels of breathing. The first one is to breathe softly so that a person standing next to you does not hear you breathing. The second level is to breathe softly so that you do not hear yourself breathing. And the third level is to breathe softly so that you do not feel yourself breathing.” The Chinese practice of Taoism defines ideal breathing as “so smooth that the fine hairs within the nostrils remain motionless.” In the 6th-century B.C. Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “The perfect man breathes as if he is not breathing.”
I find these quotes inspiring, and I do believe that quiet breathing is an indicator of diaphragmatic health and precludes hyperventilation. However, the breath cannot always be inaudible. When you first transition to nasal breathing, it is often loud. Don’t necessarily suppress your breath to make it quiet and don’t be embarrassed by the sound of your breathing. Instead, be proud that others will hear how smooth and deep it is.
Calming Your Gasping Reflex
As discussed in Chapter 3, your default tidal range can be expanded by taking longer, deeper breaths. But your tidal range can also be reduced by teaching your body that it is safe to take more shallow breaths. When you first try to take several shallow breaths in a row, your diaphragm and other breathing muscles will stubbornly resist the process. Again, your nervous system will be afraid to let them relax. This is why breathing less feels uncomfortable and can be downright scary. It brings you face to face with your gasping mechanism.
It is difficult to breathe in a tidal range that is shallower than usual (as in diagram C in Figure 11.1 above) because it exposes a reflexive gasp that powers your every inhalation. Once you are breathing more shallowly than usual, you can feel the jerk from this gasp in your chest. It initiates each inhalation and is essentially a violent convulsion and another manifestation of trauma keeping you in fight or flight. The more time you spend breathing less, the more you experience it and the more you calm it. Calming it will tremendously reduce your tendency to hyperventilate. You can use the following exercise to do this.
I think the exercise above brings you into contact with the cramp in your diaphragm. It is the portion of the diaphragm that is always heaving in an effort carry on with hyperventilation. It is trying to overpower your current rate. It is doing this because your body is afraid that you are not going to get enough oxygen to deal with the environment that it assumes is adverse. By ignoring the gasp and feeling the air hunger you get a panicky sensation. By attenuating your breath, you ignore the panic. You should get this feeling sometimes as you come down from exercising. Treat it as if that is all it is. Even though you are not exercising, feel comfortable coming down a whole level. It is the ultimate form of underreacting and it sends a message to the body that says, “There is no way we need that much oxygen right now.”
You may have to be experiencing anxiety for this to happen, but when performing the exercise above, people often breathe like an actor in a scary movie and it may feel “horrific.” That gasp reflex is trying to break through. We normally try to avoid this sensation at all costs. It is like a big wave hitting the body. The idea is to let the waves hit and prove to your body that it doesn’t hurt and breathing less is not the end of the world. Not startling in response to it is detraumatizing. I think this is what Buteyko was trying to lead people to do, but he didn’t articulate it this way.
Figure 11.2: The first sine wave depicts a gasping form of inhalation. The slope starts steeply, indicating an abrupt force at the beginning. This is a violent and exhausting way to breathe that perpetuates hyperventilation and stress. The second wave depicts a relaxed form of inhalation that is not powered by an initial jerk of the breathing musculature. In both waves, the exhalation is shown as a straight line to simplify.
Many breathing exercises utilize breath holding. They come with names like breath restriction, hypoventilation training, and hypoxic therapy. There are even paced breathing routines that ask you to hold your breath between each inhalation and exhalation. The popular 4-4-6-2 exercise asks you to inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for four, exhale for six, hold the breath for two, and then repeat. Try it. The 4-7-8-0 technique is also very popular. The 5-5-5-5 version is a drill. Sometimes called “box breathing,” it is utilized by the military to calm and rehabilitate warfighters with PTSD. I think breath-holding exercises like these can be helpful, but
I do not recommend holding the breath during paced breathing because practicing so many pauses may influence you to hold your breath habitually without realizing it. Due to the strong association between breath holding and anxiety, I think this is counterproductive. Still, doing it for as long as you can a few times per week might be beneficial. Holding the breath causes panic. By desensitizing yourself to this panic, you may harden yourself against trauma.
The first sincere desire for air will occur with an involuntary contraction of the diaphragm. The diaphragm starts to push and pull involuntarily to get breathing going again. The amount of time it takes for you to feel this sensation is a good measure of general breathing health. Many people will experience diaphragmatic contractions between 10 and 20 seconds. Breath holding practitioners maintain that a person who breathes optimally will not experience this until 30-40 seconds.
The more you practice the exercise above, the longer you will be able to hold your breath before you feel your diaphragm attempt to kickstart the breath. Buteyko adherents call the practice of breath holding the “control pause.” It is also known as the “blood oxygen level test” (BOLT), and using the four rules will help improve this score. Breath holding is thought to improve your blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity and increase the maximum volume of oxygen that you can use in exhaustive exercise. This metric is known by athletes as VO2 max and is highly coveted.11
Stressful situations (such as a tense conversation that involves gasping and breath-holding) often lead to feelings of air hunger. Intermittent air hunger contributes to anxiety. So, once you have spent a few days desensitizing yourself to the sensations involved in breath-holding, you will notice that you feel calmer in general. You will realize that a fear of suffocation regularly intruded into your everyday life but that it does this no more.
Earlier in this chapter, we discussed how constant hyperventilation is extremely unhealthy. Deliberate hyperventilation on the order of a few seconds, however, may be health-promoting. Many forms of breathwork induce hyperventilation. Tummo breathing is an ancient Tibetan example. Similar forms such as holotropic breathing and the Wim Hof method have recently become popular. Each of these involves taking very rapid, full breaths for minutes at a time, often followed by breath holds. This voluntary hyperventilation leads to high levels of oxygen, low levels of carbon dioxide, the feeling of pins and needles, and even panic. But if you can expose yourself to these sensations without panicking, you can further desensitize yourself to stress. I recommend voluntary acute hyperventilation (try the Wim Hof guided breathing session on YouTube) because I think numbing yourself to it is another experience that will strengthen you as a person.
Insufficient skill in coordinating the transition between rapid inhalations and exhalations is a manifestation of trauma. For example, it keeps you from being able to project your voice strongly and decisively during times of tension. Building better coordination over the switch between breaths may make you a less hesitant, more confident breather. One reason I believe this is that chimpanzees perform rapid, loud panting displays daily. These are called ventilating displays or pant-hoots and are used to indicate dominance. They are more intense and more frequent in highly ranked individuals. The higher a chimp’s dominance rank within its party, the more intensely it pant-hoots.12 Pant-hoots are most common in the presence of high-quality food or females in estrus, indicating that it is used during social competition to designate status and priority. These vocalizations are set to almost violently fast breathing and are used to prove to others that the vocal and respiratory systems are robust.
The pant-hoot is a series of deep yells that take place while rapidly switching between inhalations and exhalations. Each cycle lasts between a half and a quarter of a second. Perform a video search on the internet for the term “pant-hoot,” listen to the sound, and try to recreate it yourself. You might also search for an episode of the Arsenio Hall talk show from the 1990s. The pant-hoot was used by the audience in a collegial, energetic way to show support for the host or his guests. The crowd would often swing their arms above their head and hoot uncompromisingly. You will find that hooting is very strenuous at first yet becomes facile over just a few days. This may seem like another bizarre exercise, but remember, Program Peace is all about finding weaknesses in the body and rehabilitating them to find new strength, especially when this strength is associated with dominance in closely related animals.
I believe that humans and chimps add tension to the aspect of the diaphragm responsible for the pant-hoot as a function of their social standing. They do this as part of a submissive display that self-handicaps the bark and roar, both of which are powered by the diaphragm. This is why only the most dominant chimps are capable of performing an optimal pant-hoot. Pant-hooting loudly and forcefully will drive this underused aspect of your diaphragm into full fatigue, allowing it to recover from the tension you have imposed on it for years. I strongly believe that after just a handful of sessions, you will realize that the pant-hoot achieves a diaphragmatic detox, reaching into and purging the nucleus of your anxiety.
Completely avoiding breathing at short intervals is like being an endurance runner who never sprints. I think it is important to spend time every day not trying to lengthen or even control the breath. Let it get as shallow as it wants and breathe through your mouth if it feels right. Forget about the rules of diaphragmatic breathing sometimes and let the unconscious breath regulation modules do what they will. Stated simply, allow yourself to breathe shallowly once in a while as a form of cross-training.
The next exercise provides a great maneuver to stretch and contract your stale, stiff diaphragm. This stretch will bring it blood and help make it stronger and better at its job. Think back to the hiccup activity from Chapter 3. When simulating a hiccup, you sealed off your glottis (the vocal opening in the throat) and contracted your diaphragm. Using the following maneuver, you will similarly close the glottis so no air can enter the lungs and contract the diaphragm as if you were inhaling, creating a brief vacuum.
By restricting the flow of air, closure of the glottis isolates the diaphragm in a fixed position, allowing it to contract isometrically. To contract it, you only have to try to breathe in. With the glottis closed, you won’t be able to, but trying will pull the central tendon of the diaphragm down toward the abdominal cavity, stretching the entire diaphragm as well as the organs near it. Again, I thought I originated this exercise, but after entering a description into a search engine, I found that it is a variant of an age-old yoga pose called uddiyana bandha, or “flying abdominal lock.”
There are other ways to isolate and contract the diaphragm isometrically. Breathing deeply from some yoga positions offers challenging opportunities for diaphragmatic stimulation. I want to strongly encourage you to try a full inhalation from either a forward fold or plow pose because these yoga positions decrease the volume of the abdominal cavity, forcing the diaphragm to work harder than it normally does. Full breaths from these positions are hard work with a big payoff.
You have an extensive muscular knot behind your face that comes from constricting the nasopharynx. The nasopharynx is an opening in the back of the throat, just behind the uvula. My nasopharyngeal sphincter was highly tense and painful. Contraction of the nasopharynx is a natural reflex that occurs during swallowing to prevent food or liquid from going up into the nose, but bracing it is another manifestation of trauma. People brace it out of fear of appearing “too calm.” This knot becomes tighter every time you feel stressed. It contributes to wincing and grimacing and it gets worse every day because it is never massaged or even touched. I advocate that you perform compression and self-massage specifically for your nasopharynx. It is very uncomfortable at first, but it gets easier every time, and it only takes a few weeks to get rid of the pain completely.
Illustration 11.3: The nasopharynx is a small opening just behind the uvula that connects the oral cavity with the nasal cavity.
You can provide compression to your nasopharynx by donning a plastic glove, putting your thumb into your mouth and up into your nasopharyngeal opening. This opening is where your nasal passage connects with your throat. To do this, insert your thumb into your mouth as if you were sucking on your thumb. To find the opening, you must feel around the roof of your mouth, traveling away from the teeth and toward the area where the hard roof of the mouth (hard palate) turns soft (soft palate). An inch behind (posterior to) this border is the uvula, a fleshy hanging structure. Just behind the uvula is the opening of the nasopharynx. The nasopharynx is an invagination that you want to explore and massage using one of your thumbs. The opening will feel tight and painful, and pressing against it will initiate a gag reflex. The best way to bypass the gagging is to breathe diaphragmatically, preferably to a breath metronome. Within the first week, you will notice that it is less painful to probe, that your face feels and looks calmer, and that mucus clearance is easier.
It is essential to employ paced breathing and focus concertedly on remaining calm before, during, and after this exercise. Influencing how your brain interprets intense forms of stimulation is incredibly decisive in how your body copes with them. I also recommend doing this while relaxing at home before sleep. While you have the rubber glove on, I recommend that you use the thumb to press into muscular areas all over the soft palate.
You can massage the tongue as well. This can be done in two ways: (1) squeeze your tongue between your thumb and forefinger, or (2) use your middle finger to gently compress the length of your tongue down toward the floor of your mouth. Allow your tongue to go limp and drop down to a lower point in your throat. Unbracing your tongue and allowing it to become flat and broad at its base will help relax your voice, the topic of the next chapter.
Illustration 11.4: A. Nasal cavity and nasopharynx; B. Man inserting thumb into nasopharynx; C. Man squeezing tongue.
Have you ever heard of mewing? It is a popular do-it-yourself facial restructuring technique developed by Dr. Mike Mew, a British orthodontist. Mewing involves flattening out the tongue against the roof of the mouth (the hard palate). The tip of the tongue is placed on or near the top front teeth and the body of the tongue is placed on the roof of the mouth. Proponents claim that learning to rest the tongue here habitually will define the jawline and change the shape of the face for the better. Like many similar techniques (including most of the exercises in this book), there is not enough scientific evidence yet to support the practice.
However, it is interesting to point out that resting the tongue against the roof of the mouth seems prevalent in most mammals and human infants. This indicates to me that resting the tongue on the floor of the mouth (not mewing) may be a traumatized posture associated with mouth breathing and a widened airway diameter facilitating hyperventilation (discussed in the next chapter). I think it is possible that mewing could aid in nose breathing, expressionlessness, reducing oral and pharyngeal bracing, decreasing vocal tension, and reinforcing ujjayi breath (also discussed in the next chapter).
Pair Diaphragmatic Breathing with Anything and Everything
I hope you feel you now have more tools to ensure that your diaphragm is working properly. When it is working, it pacifies your interpretation of and responses to any experiences you have. It helped turn my nasopharynx from a “pit of pain” to a painless, normally functioning part of my body. I believe that this diaphragmatic generalization can similarly enhance the positive externalities from many forms of traditional and alternative therapy. Existing forms of therapy that may be vastly augmented by proper breathing may include:
Mainstream Therapies: yoga, psychotherapy, relaxation techniques, muscle and joint rehabilitation, mindfulness-based stress reduction, chiropractic, acupuncture, osteopathy, cognitive behavioral therapy, medical massage, neurotherapy, biofeedback, positive affirmation, somatic therapy, etc.
Exercise and Movement Based Therapies: personal training, physical therapy, Pilates, tai chi, qigong, martial arts, acroyoga, dance, the Gyrotonic Method, Gyrokinesis, the Franklin Method, the Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, Nia, ChiWalking, ballistic stretching, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, gymnastics, Laban Movement Analysis, somatics, etc.
Complementary, Holistic, and Alternative Therapies: meditation, prayer, cold showering, electronic pulse massage, abdominal or visceral massage, kneading, petrissage, craniofacial manipulation, gua sha and Mei Zen acupuncture, muscle stripping, guided therapeutic imagery, active release technique, Rolfing, craniosacral therapy, tantric sex, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, visceral massage, colonic irrigation, reiki, autogenic training, hypnosis, mewing, ASMR, forest bathing, art therapy, animal therapy, etc.
After you perform the breathing exercises from this chapter and Chapter 3 for 12 weeks, you will notice that many of the people you know breathe two to three breaths for every breath you take. Relative to the new you, everyone else will be hyperventilating.
- Distress causes over-breathing, also known as hyperventilation, which is strongly associated with anxiety and has many negative symptoms and repercussions.
- Taking exaggeratedly slow breaths will put you on an “air diet,” reducing distressed breathing and hyperventilation.
- You want your diaphragm to approximate a large piston moving in slow motion.
- Because nasal breathing forces you to breathe more slowly, it will strengthen the diaphragm and greatly reduce distressed breathing. Taping the mouth helps with this.
- Breathing in for as long as you can will force the diaphragm to contract completely, expanding its range, pushing it to fatigue, and allowing it to rest afterward.
- Stretching the diaphragm and contracting it isometrically will make it stronger and increase its range of motion.
- Breath holding, mewing, and pant-hooting may help rehabilitate your breathing habits.
- Providing compression to the nasopharynx, soft palate, and tongue will remove trauma in these areas.
- Sauty, A., & Prosper, M. (2008). The hyperventilation syndrome. Revue medicale suisse, 4(180), 2502–2505.
- Sauty & Prosper, 2008, The hyperventilation syndrome.
- Naifeh, K. H. (1994). Basic anatomy and physiology of the respiratory system and the autonomic nervous system. In B. H. Timmons R. Ley (Eds.), Behavioral and psychological approaches to breathing disorders, (pp. 17-47). Springer.
- McKeown, P. (2015). The Oxygen advantage: The simple, scientifically proven breathing technique that will revolutionize your health and fitness. Harper Collins.
- Staubli, M., Vogel, F., Bärtsch, P., Flückiger, G., & Ziegler, W. H. (1994). Hyperventilation-induced changes of blood cell counts depend on hypocapnia. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 69(5), 402–407.
- Rosalba, C. (2008). Strengths, weaknesses, and possibilities of the Buteyko Breathing Method. Biofeedback, 36(2), 59–63.
- Park, Y. S. (2012). Sleep, interrupted: A physician reveals the # 1 reason why so many of us are sick and tired. Jodev Press.
- Park et al., 2012, Sleep, interrupted; Morais-Almeida, M., Wandalsen, G. F., & Sole, D. (2019). Growth and mouth breathers. Jornal de Pediatria, 95(1), 66–71; Masahiro, S., Sano, S., & Kato, T. (2013). Increased oxygen load in the prefrontal cortex: A vector-based near-infrared spectroscopy study. Neuroreport, 24(17), 935–940.
- Nestor, J. (2020). Breath: The new science of a lost art. Penguin.
- McKeown, P. (2015). The Oxygen advantage: The simple, scientifically proven breathing technique that will revolutionize your health and fitness. Harper Collins.
- Fedurek, P., Donnellan, E., & Slocombe, K. E. (2014). Social and ecological correlates of long-distance pant hoot calls in male chimpanzees. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 68(8), 1345–1355.