The Science of Optimal Breathing

“Every neuron, every synapse, every muscle feeds on the flame of your breath. Breathing is not only critical to sustaining life, but done correctly and consciously, it can be a valuable tool for getting the most out of every human endeavor...” - Al Lee & Don Campbell, Perfect Breathing

The importance of breathing is often overlooked because it seems so easy and automatic. On the surface, it’s a simple activity without much to it. But with a basic understanding of how breath influences your physiology, it’ll become clear why Navy SEALs and yogis alike train the breath extensively.

Each breath you take sends information to your heart, lungs and brain via your autonomic nervous system (ANS). Specifically, a thin bundle of fiber called the vagus nerve transmits electrical signals between these essential areas of the body. Your vagus nerve is primarily responsible for bringing your body into homeostasis, or balance.[1] 

The ANS manages your body’s internal functions, like regulating heart rate, pressure and digestion, and was previously thought to be completely out of your conscious control (hence the name “autonomic”). More recently, we’ve discovered that the breath affects this system directly, enabling you to influence your ANS on command. The manner in which you breathe causes the vagus nerve to communicate to the rest of your body how it ought to behave. An elongated, smooth breath will tell your body to relax, while a rapid, disjointed breath will tell your body that it’s being chased by a lion, triggering the fight-or-flight (sympathetic nervous) system.

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When you breathe correctly, your physiology syncs up. This state is called Coherence, which is defined as “a specific physiological state associated with optimal cognitive functioning and emotional stability.”[2] We can all use the breath as a tool for achieving this flow-like state at will.

Coherence is defined by Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which measures the variability in intervals between your heart beats over time. If you’re healthy, in general you ought to have a higher HRV with greater variation as your body is more capable of adjusting to and recovering from stressors. HRV is a key metric that can quantify energy levels and predict the risk of cardiac arrest.[3] It’s a powerful indicator of what state your body and mind are in.

Enhanced Breathing Technique

So how should we be breathing? Let’s hone in on the three most important aspects of breath, which you can use to achieve optimal physiological and mental states.

1. Full Diaphragmatic Breathing

For starters, breathe with your full diaphragm. Doing so will activate your rest-and-digest (parasympathetic nervous) system and remove stale air in the lower lungs. Breathing fully and deeply through your diaphragm will also give you maximum energy from the breath. If you want to see perfect diaphragmatic breathing, watch how a baby breathes naturally. We basically need to re-learn to breathe like a baby, as we did before modern life coded us to breathe in a shallow and disjointed way.

2. Smooth Breathing

Try to focus on making your breath as even as possible. The opposite of this would be to breathe in a lumpy, staccato manner, perhaps gulping in air to start and then taking in less air at the end. In other words, you want a steady flow rate, an equal volume of air entering your lungs consistently throughout the time you’re inhaling and exhaling.

Smooth Breath = Smooth Mind

3. Rhythmic Breathing

You want a fixed ratio of inhale to exhale. Whether this is 5 seconds in and 5 seconds out, or say 4 seconds in 6 seconds out, it should remain a constant ratio. The key is that you bring regularity to your breathing pattern.

What’s called your “resonant rate” is the ideal breathing rate for you personally, which involves taking longer breaths the larger your lung capacity (the taller you are). While most people naturally breathe at 6 - 12.5 breaths per minute, enhanced breathing has been found to be around 5 breaths per minute, which might be closer to 3 breaths/min if you’re taller. The resonant rate has a significant impact on your physiological state, influencing HRV.[4]

Breathing in a diaphragmatic, smooth and rhythmic manner will bring you quickly into coherence. It can be helpful to practice this for 5-10 minutes before meditating, as well as throughout the day, especially when you encounter a stressful situation.

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[1] Borovikova, Lyudmila V., et al. "Vagus nerve stimulation attenuates the systemic inflammatory response to endotoxin." Nature405.6785 (2000): 458

[2] McCraty, Rollin, and Maria A. Zayas. "Cardiac coherence, self-regulation, autonomic stability, and psychosocial well-being." Frontiers in Psychology 5 (2014): 1090.

[3] La Rovere, Maria Teresa, et al. "Short-term heart rate variability strongly predicts sudden cardiac death in chronic heart failure patients." circulation 107.4 (2003): 565-570.

[4] Lehrer, Paul M., Evgeny Vaschillo, and Bronya Vaschillo. "Resonant frequency biofeedback training to increase cardiac variability: Rationale and manual for training." Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback 25.3 (2000): 177-191.