Sanni Parkkinen

Breathwork and breathing world bustles with myths and opinions. Following the scene for a while I often come to ponder that soon we’re in the same kind of situation as the nutrition scene is: no one knows anymore which diet is the MOST beneficial for health.

What marks the conversation is black-and-white thinking and categorization, a typical way for the human mind to label approaches and perspectives. Right - wrong; works - does not work; beneficial - non-beneficial: healthy - non-healthy.

I put my finger in the pie regardless, but with good intentions. I want to get back to basics and challenge a couple of widely spread myths about breathing.

It's a waste of time to try to teach someone to breathe. You already know how.

In media that which get attention are individual breathing hacks and techniques, and the gospel of conscious breathing has reached at least the ears of those interested in their well-being.

Science brings forth research on the possibilities of breathing, but it feels that the forest gets blurred when focusing on the trees. Breathing is not about techniques or skills, but a precondition for life that supports, adapts and organizes the mind-body on unbelievably many levels.

My approach is based on yoga and coaching style that considers the human as a whole. It's a waste of time to try to teach someone to breathe. You already know how. 95 percent of those living a normal daily life do not need more kicks to the breath but more ability to calm down, listen to the messages of the mind-body and flow the breath freely.

Now to those myths:

Breathing Myth 1:

✅ There is only natural breathing.

Breathing always reflects the state of the body (and the nervous system). That is why it also changes constantly. If there’s a continuous overflow of stimuli and factors that excite the mind-body, in time the body might get used to movement patterns and habits that - unconsciously - maintain the stress state and anxiety.

Labelling breath as right or wrong only strengthens the under-the-surface feeling of not being enough.

The possibilities of the breath narrow down. The body thinks that higher arousal is the new normal that needs to be maintained at any cost.

There’s nothing wrong with that state! Body is doing what it should be doing. Labelling breath as right or wrong only strengthens the under-the-surface feeling of not being enough. Don’t I even know how to breathe.. Why can't I breathe at the same rhythm as everyone else...

That feeling often leads to trying extra hard and overdoing, which can further mess up the sensitive receptors tracking the body's state.

Breathing becomes free, functional and responsive to the situation when the automated breathing patterns are intervened with gentleness, focus on softening and wise strengthening of the respiratory system. Much of the "work" takes place completely unconsciously. In this kind of work the goal is not a certain habit, technique or accomplishment - but the gentle reprogramming of the unconscious breathing habit to support well-being.


Breathing Myth 2:

✅ In most cases, breathing small and low is the most natural way of breathing.

Breathing deeply does not (at rest) increase the amount of oxygen at body's disposal.

Big inhalation can of course carry oxygen in the body with greater volume, but in a restful state breathing small and low is more than enough to ensure oxygen intake, and necessary for ensuring proper carbon dioxide level.

Instead of deep breathing I talk about low breathing. 

Deep inhalation ALWAYS activates the sympathetic fight or flight response of the nervous system, so it is a fairly bad advice for managing stress. Small breathing strains the body way less - and soothes the stress reaction way more effectively.

Instead of deep breathing I talk about low breathing. This term corresponds better with what free and functional breathing is and what it feels like in the body. However, the body also needs deep big breaths from time to time to maintain breathing variability. Practices focusing on breathing big and deep can also have some other benefits.

Breathing Myth 3:

✅ Free and in all directions expanding movement of the diaphragm is the cornerstone of a well-functioning nervous system.

Belly breathing is generally called diaphragmatic breathing. I have never understood why. Diaphragm does not transfer to the belly or expand from the chest cavity to the abdominal cavity when it moves the breath. Diaphragmatic breathing is a much larger whole than belly breathing.

Belly breathing = Diaphragmatic breathing?

Breathing in which the movement of the diaphragm allows the expansion of lower ribs, belly, sides of the body and last but not least, the back, is free and effective. Diaphragm thus moves the structures around it in 360 degrees, that is, to all directions.

Relaxed, free and functional diaphragm is directly connected to good nervous system health. Free your diaphragm - and the stress reaction has automatically a shorter life span.

Breathing Myth 4:

✅ Breathwork starts with adaptive, appropriate and free breathing.

Many think that using the breath in for example calming the nervous system is based on ratios, calculations and controlled breathing.

If the foundation is not solid, there’s little use of breathing into ratios or controlling the breathing. These practices might even make the stuck, dysfunctional breathing habit worse.

Is the baseline breathing a safe place to return to?

Therefore, first one must lay the foundations for free, functional breathing and for the trust that the baseline normal breathing is a safe place to return to.

Breathing is a sensitive instrument. It should be intervened with high respect.


Breathing Myth 5:

✅ Breathing in yoga can be as natural as in any other situation.

This myth invokes conversation maybe more than the others altogether.

The idea of combining breath and movement in a yoga practice is not very old. It appears to be entirely a discovery of modern yoga and to derive from the beginning of the 20th century. When becoming modernized and starting to emphasize the asana practice (yoga’s postural and movement practice), modern yoga was strongly influenced by wrestling, bodybuilding and various gymnastics techniques.

I rest my case about authenticity and originality.

Breathing plays, of course, a big role in yoga. There is, however, a difference whether to try to control and alter the breath or to let it flow freely.

For some, guided breathing might fit exactly the metabolic requirements of the body; for some it strengthens the stress reaction being too fast; for some it might cause anxiety because breathing needs to be slowed down too much from its own natural rhythm.

Yoga practice affects the mind-body in various ways, and breathing is one of the important components that every second adapts, adjusts and supports the change in the state of the mind-body.

Is it important to breathe a certain way during yoga practice? I claim: no, it isn't.

If you spend the yoga class breathing in a certain way, you will most likely inhibit many of the natural processes that the postures will set forth during the practice.

Movement becomes more natural when breathing is not done or tried. At the same time breathing embodies what it is supposed to be embodying right at that moment.

Yoga practice does change the breath, so don’t worry. It does that completely naturally through movement, muscle activation, alteration between contraction and release and the inner felt sense of peace, support and spaciousness. It does so unconsciously, without you needing to intervene in the process.

What do you think about the breathing myths?

About the Author

Sanni is a breathing coach & educator, nervous system expert, yoga teacher and movement lover, spreading the wisdom of well-being, true embodiment and yoga in Norway.

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  1. I'm not sure if it's a typo or not but you've stated that deep breathing always activates the sympathetic nervous system. Did you mean parasympathetic nervous system?

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