5 Common Breathing Myths – Busted!

Article by Lucas Rockwood

Breathing exercises are an effective way to reduce stress, improve sleep, balance energy, and boost digestion. Most people assume the goal is to boost oxygen in your lungs and increase their capacity, but the real reasons breathing exercises work are more complex and interesting.

In this guide we’ll clear up some of the common myths and confusion so you can get more from your at-home practices.

5 Common Breathing Myths

MYTH #1: You should ONLY breathe with your diaphragm (belly breathing)

A full yogic breath is driven primarily by diaphragmatic breathing. Let’s assume at least 80 precent of the breath starts low in the belly region, but a full breath also involves your intercostal and accessory muscles for the remainder of the inhale. High costal breathing is a problem for some, and this occurs when you invert the ratio and do most of your breathing with their chest and shoulders.

MYTH #2: Breathing exercises are aimed at getting more oxygen into your lungs

With a $20 blood oximeter, you’ll quickly see that most people have a full tank of oxygen, meaning they are at a healthy 95 to 99% blood oxygen saturation all the time. When your tank is full, breathing faster is not going to increase the oxygen in your body, and oddly, it can have the opposite effect. When you have a healthy level of blood oxygen, you need a balanced amount of CO2 to make that oxygen accessible for use in the cells. This is referred to as the Bohr Effect and it’s why slower breathing is often the focus on breathing exercises.

MYTH #3: CO2 is a toxin and we need to get rid of it

CO2 can be a toxin, yes, but so can oxygen! As we learned in myth #2 above, we need a certain level of CO2 to help make the oxygen in our blood available for use in the body. Too much CO2 is bad, that’s true, but too little is a much more common issue since most people breathe much faster than they need to for optimal gas exchange.

MYTH #4: Top athletes breathe only through their noses

When your heart rate is in zone four or zone five, it’s nearly impossible and unsafe to attempt nose-only breathing. During accelerated respiration during sports, mouth breathing is healthy and normal, and this is why you’ll see top athletes breathing this way.

MYTH #5: You need to increase your lung capacity

Your current lung capacity is four to six liters, and the surface area of your lungs likely measures 100m2, about half the size of a tennis court. Through training and exercise, it might be possible to increase your capacity a little, but the real gains come from making the most of the huge surface area for breathing that you already have. Rather than focusing on lung capacity, the focus should be on strengthening and coordinating the muscles of respiration, optimizing O2 and CO2 exchange, and lastly, choose breathing practices that affect your nervous system in the desired manner.

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Breathing Exercises

Water Category Breathing (balancing)

Balancing practices are designed to calm you down if you’re over-stimulated, and to boost your energy if you’re feeling lethargic. Just like a glass of water, balancing practices are appropriate at any time. Your goal is to target four to six breaths per minute which is about half the rate you’re breathing now—but double the volume. Think of this as steady, deep breaths.

Here’s how to practice:

  • Inhale through your nose 1-2-3-4
  • Exhale through your nose 4-3-2-1
  • Repeat for 10 rounds

Whiskey Category Breathing (relaxing/sleep-inducing)

Deeply relaxing breathing practices stimulate the parasympathetic, rest-and-digest branch of your autonomic nervous system. The slow rate of breath boosts your carbon dioxide levels, opens your breathing passageways, slows your heart, and lowers your cortisol levels. Whiskey category breathing practices typically follow a rate of three breaths per minute or slower. Think of this as super slow, deep breathing, and since it makes you sleepy, we usually do this before bed.

Here’s how to practice:

  • Inhale through your nose 1-2-3-4
  • Exhale through your nose for 8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1
  • Repeat for 10 rounds

Coffee Category Breathing (stimulating/energizing)

Like the name suggests, coffee category breathing exercises rev up your sympathetic nervous system. These practices are most appropriate first thing in the morning or right before exercise. The go-to coffee category practice is called kapalabhati or breath of fire. It sounds and feels like a sharp sneeze as you use your abdomen to force the exhale. The inhale happens automatically as you relax between forced exhales.

Here’s how to practice:

  • Forcefully exhale by engaging your lower abdomen
  • Sneeze the breath out in a short, sharp sneeze
  • Relax and allow the inhale to happen naturally
  • Repeat for 20 rounds at a pace of one exhale per second

Safety & Best Practice

If you are pregnant or suffer from asthma, COPD, or any other respiratory illness, avoid coffee category breathing practices and always check with a medical professional before starting any self-care routine.

Coffee Practices – 20 x rounds, first thing in the morning or before exercise.
Water Practices – 10 x rounds, anytime.
Whiskey Practices – 10 x rounds, at night before bed.