The Human Operating Manual

Breathwork Basics

The Benefits of Breathing

Breathing is essential. Ground breaking stuff, right? Whether we are conscious of it or not, we breathe somewhere between 20,000-30,000 times every day. Additionally, the way we breathe directly affects our physical and mental health, our athletic performance, emotional intelligence, day-to-day stress management, and even our longevity. In fact, this seemingly autonomous process is responsible for regulating damn near every system in our bodies.

At a glance, breathing regulates the following:

  • Acid-base (pH) physiology
  • Electrolyte balance
  • Hemoglobin chemistry
  • Blood flow
  • Kidney function
  • Muscle function
  • Cardiac electrophysiology

Now, you may be thinking, “I know breathing is important, but that’s why our lungs just do their thing automatically, right?” While that is absolutely correct (we wouldn’t make for old bones if they didn’t), if we begin to look at the quality and quantity of our breathing rather than the act of breathing itself, we quickly discover that the breath is essentially the first gateway into achieving autonomy of our physiology. As an extreme example of the influence the respiratory system can have, it has been shown that the average lifespan of mammals is closely correlated with their respiratory rate. Meaning, the higher the respiratory rate of the animal, the shorter their lifespan was discovered to be.

While the reality is a lot more complicated than this, typically when we favor deep and slow breathing over quick and erratic breathing, the total number of breaths we take will decrease, and as a result, total oxidative stress that we accrue from poor nutrition, stressful lifestyles, and polluted environments will decrease too. It goes without saying that optimizing our breath with intentional breathwork training may have positive downstream effects on our wellbeing. 

How might breathwork improve our wellbeing:      

  • Alleviating depression symptoms by normalizing a patients’ brainwave patterns and by increasing serum prolactin.
  • Specific breathwork exercises have been shown to reduce clinical and non-clinical anxiety symptoms.
  • Relief from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 
  • Increasing levels of nitric oxide and improving blood vessel health.
  • Decreasing cortisol levels and a reduction in chronic stress levels.  
  • Regulating healthy sex steroid hormone levels. 
  • Lowering blood lactate levels (a biochemical measure of stress that has been shown to increase under extended psychological stress). 
  • Increasing antioxidant enzymes (superoxide dismutase, catalase, and glutathione) and potentially providing resistance to free radical damage. 
  • Lowering levels of total cholesterol, low density lipoproteins (LDL cholesterol), and triglyceride levels.
  • Increasing levels of natural killer cells in cancer patients (who were in remission). Suggesting improved immune function in those who practiced specific breathwork exercises. 
  • Improving brain function. Significant increases in beta activity have been observed in the left frontal, occipital, and midline regions of the brain (indicative of increased mental focus/heightened awareness).
  • Improving emotion regulation. The ability to calm strong emotional reactions by mentally re-framing the meaning of events (cognitive reappraisal). 
  • Having an effect on gene expression. Better antioxidant status both at the enzyme level, and corresponding gene expression patterns, in immune cells.

Do You Breathe Correctly & What Happens If You Don’t?

By unconsciously breathing ineffectively, you may be increasing the risk of worsening a whole host of preventable health conditions. These links may not be directly observable, but downstream symptoms such as fatigue, poor posture, sleep problems, mood dysregulation, poor mental performance, and worsened asthma, apnea, and chronic pain symptomology are common.

For example, if we look at sleep apnea (low O2 and obstructed airways while sleeping), it has been associated with decreased levels of sex steroid hormones. At face value, a lack of optimal oxygen intake and utilization appears to have nothing to do with regulating testosterone or estrogen. However, there are estrogen and testosterone receptors on some of the neurons that innervate the lungs, which may have an effect on how full or empty the lungs are detected to be. Breath holding in sleep (apnea) also increases cortisol levels, which then decreases testosterone and estrogen. This is because there is competition for available cholesterol between sex steroid hormones and cortisol (if stress levels are too high). We need to breathe properly throughout the day to prevent apnea states and to promote a deep-sleep state. When apnea is reduced, there is measurable change in testosterone levels in males, and proper estrogen to testosterone ratios in females.

This is just a brief look at one of the many consequences of not breathing efficiently. So, it stands to reason that there may be something to this whole breathing exercise thing. Surely this only relates to “sick” people, right? To find out, let’s have a look at the possible symptoms that may suggest ineffective breathing practices.

Who Could Stand to Benefit from Breath Work Training?

  • Do you feel unrested after 8 hours of sleep?
  • Is your mouth dry in the morning?
  • Do you often feel highly-strung?
  • Do you suffer from depression, anxiety, PTSD, or autoimmunity disorders?
  • Do you struggle to lose weight, no matter how much you exercise or diet?
  • Do you or your family have a history of high blood pressure or diabetes? 
  • Do you suffer from brain fog?
  • Are you struggling to improve your physical performance? 

Chances are, we could all do with a little bit of breathwork training. It’s a good thing breathing is free right?  

So, if Breathing is Essential for Longevity, why isn’t Breathing Properly Automated?

Here comes another groundbreaking revelation: Our modernized lifestyles have deprived us of our natural ability to breathe effectively. 

First our diet was the issue, then it was our lack of movement, now you’re telling me a Westernized lifestyle is stopping us from breathing???  

Indirectly, yup… 

By promoting and encouraging the “hustler” mindset (life fast die young), the constant influx of fear driven news reports, obsessing over resource accumulation, and by stigmatizing communal cooperation, we have placed a heavier demand on the individual, and as a result, dramatically increased chronic stress levels worldwide. We are living in a perpetual state of fight or flight and have forgotten how to decompress.

“What does this have to do with our breathing?” I still hear you ask. By constantly activating our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) our bodies take shorter and sharper breaths into our chests, in order to quickly shuttle oxygen into our cells. This is a great strategy during a short-term battle, but in the long run, we are decreasing our CO2 tolerance and reducing our ability to utilize the longevity promoting effects of a deep diaphragmatic breath.          

Am I Doomed to Yoga?

Now I’m not saying that yoga doesn’t have incredible wellbeing boosting effects, but the reality is we don’t need to contort ourselves in a room full of people if the objective is to improve our carbon dioxide tolerance. Similarly, we know that paying exorbitant fees to join a CrossFit class isn’t the way to achieve membership within a close-knit community. By practicing the breathing exercises on this website, you may learn to counter the seemingly inevitable effects of a Westernized lifestyle by improving your resilience, and with enough practice, improve your mental and physical health. The best part is, you can practice most of these techniques at any time of the day depending on how you would like to direct your physiology. All you need is a spare minute or two to harness the power of your breath to improve your immune system, reset your stress threshold, and gain greater control over your health and wellbeing.    

What Happens When We Breathe?

As we are only touching on the basics of breathing, we’ll try to briefly cover what happens when we borrow a lungful of atmosphere. If you’re interested in digging deeper into the specifics, click on the Breathing Rabbit Hole link.  

Why Do We Need to Breathe?

To put it simply, to create energy. Our body requires oxygen, and when oxygen is utilized, it produces CO2. As a consequence, CO2 affects the blood pH, which we need to get rid of (in appropriate levels) to regulate our blood pH levels.

How Do We Breathe?

The respiratory system is made up of the lungs, the trachea, muscles of the chest wall, the diaphragm, blood vessels, and tissues that help to facilitate gas exchange. Our brains and blood vessels control how fast we breathe, by detecting carbon dioxide and oxygen levels in the blood. 

The breathing process begins with the contraction of the diaphragm, which moves downward and initiates the following:

  • The space in your chest cavity increases, the ribcage rotates up, and the lungs expand.
  • As your lungs expand, air pressure drops, which draws air into the lungs to equalize the air pressure.
  • The air first enters your nose or mouth and is warmed and moistened.
  • The air then travels down your windpipe, your bronchial tubes, and then the bronchioles (picture a tree trunk breaking into smaller branches).
  • The air then enters the alveoli, where oxygen is passed into your bloodstream, ready to be transported around the body.
  • Oxygen passes into your blood via the surrounding capillaries and is carried inside your red blood cells by hemoglobin. Carbon dioxide simultaneously moves from your blood into the air sacs, ready to be breathed out.
  • The oxygen-rich blood from your lungs is carried to the left side of the heart, which pumps the blood to the rest of the body.
  • Finally, the oxygen in the red blood cells moves from blood vessels into your cells. Your cells use freshly acquired oxygen to produce energy during aerobic respiration (addressed in the next section). A byproduct of this process is carbon dioxide.
  • Carbon dioxide moves from the cells into the bloodstream, where it travels to the right side of your heart. The carbon dioxide rich blood is then pumped from the heart through the pulmonary artery to the lungs, where it is breathed out. During an exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes and moves up into the chest cavity. Exhalation should be passive, like letting go of a spring.

As a side note, the breathing skeletal muscles (external intercostals) don’t do anything unless the nervous system tells them to. They contract via innervation from the brain stem (Pre-Bötzinger Complex).

Aerobic Respiration

As previously touched upon, aerobic respiration is the process of using oxygen to create energy. It does this by breaking down glucose (simple sugar) to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is required for our body’s basic functional needs. Aerobic metabolism can also break fat down into ATP. Despite being slower than anaerobic respiration (without oxygen), aerobic metabolism is much more efficient, and can generate 34 molecules of ATP from a single molecule of glucose, compared to the pitiful 2 molecules of ATP from anaerobic glycolysis. Not to mention the production of lactic acid as a byproduct, which contributes to muscular fatigue. This is why anaerobic metabolism is only used short-term for sudden bursts of energy (sprinting, powerlifting, throwing), whereas aerobic respiration is for longer activities, such as long-distance running and swimming. In saying that, with enough fuel, and a progressive warm-up, you should be able to eliminate anaerobic respiration waste fast enough to smoothly transition into aerobic respiration. 

Aerobic metabolism consists of the Krebs cycle and the electron transport chain, both of which occur in the mitochondria. These processes occur after anaerobic respiration takes place and require both oxygen and water. Let’s not go down that rabbit hole here though, as it gets much much more complex. To keep it simple, we’ll leave this equation here to summarize…

Deep and efficient breathing + Hydration = Greater energy production and lower fatigue symptoms during exercise

Autonomic Nervous System Control

Typically, when we think of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), and the parasympathetic (PNS) and sympathetic nervous systems (SNS) it is comprised of, we consider it outside of our control (it is autonomic after all). The PNS for example, slows down the breathing rate by causing the bronchial tubes to narrow and the pulmonary blood vessels to widen. The sympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, increases your breathing rate by making your bronchial tubes widen and the pulmonary blood vessels become narrower. This suggests that when you are relaxed (PNS activated) your breathing rate will become slower, and when you are more vigilant (SNS activated) your breathing rate will speed up to acquire more oxygen in order to deal with a potential threat or challenge.

Still with me? Excellent because this is where it gets cool… We can intentionally influence our ANS by taking a few deep and rhythmic breaths, to activate the PNS, or we can activate the SNS by hyperventilating.

As we covered earlier, a disproportionate number of us are chronically adapted to operating in SNS mode, regardless of any actual threats being present. Which is why the simple act of taking a slow and regulated breath can make all the difference. Helping us to reframe our perspective during a nerve-wracking or anxiety-inducing moment.   

As you may already be aware, our breathing rate also changes during physical activity. Increasing or decreasing depending on the body’s oxygen demands. Unfortunately, even if you’re considered a fit individual your physical performance may be hindered due to poor breathing efficiency. Luckily there is a way to change this.  

To help adjust your breathing, your body has sensors that send signals to the breathing centers in the brain. We also have sensors in our joints and muscles that detect the movement of our limbs, which play an important role in increasing our breathing rate during physical activity. Without getting too deep into the weeds, you can slow your heart rate quickly by lengthening the exhalation of your breath. Alternatively, you can increase your heart rate by increasing your inhalation. 

Controlled and long exhalation + Diaphragm usage = Calm physiological state

Nasal Breathing

The pharynx (the muscles in the throat right behind the mouth) control the lips, tongue, soft palate, and other structures to help with breathing. Problems with these muscles can narrow the airway, make it more difficult to breathe, and contribute to sleep apnea, lowered nitric oxide production, nasal congestion, facial malformation, postural problems, ADHD, and worsened asthma symptoms. To counteract the side effect of a lowered oxygen intake the individual may unintentionally breathe through the mouth during sleep and high exertion activities. Occasionally, the tonsils may be removed in the case of infection and swelling, which frees up more space for breathing. A tonsillectomy may be great in the short-term, but it doesn’t solve the problem of nasal cavity deformation and atrophy (muscle decrease).  

This is where nasal breathing comes in. The act of breathing through the nose creates a higher pressure within the nasal passage, which ensures those muscles stay nice and strong. Excessive mouth breathing may reduce the air pressure within the nasal passage and result in the pharynx muscles atrophying. Mouth breathing may occur when an individual is eating too much food that inflames the airway and produces phlegm (often grains, dairy, legumes, etc.) or foods that are too soft (breads, purees, smoothies, etc.).

Low inflammation and harder foods + Nasal breathing = Greater oxygen intake and health

Diaphragmatic Breathing 

The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle below your lungs, which separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. It contracts and expands to bring oxygenated air into the lungs and relaxes and moves up to expel carbon dioxide. The diaphragm is notorious for being the muscle that singing and yoga teachers alike demand you tap into for a more powerful breath. Unfortunately, the tendency to breathe short and sharp has become much more prevalent, and the usage of the full extent of our diaphragms is underutilized. The term, “use it or lose it,” applies here. Hence why many of us require targeted diaphragmatic training to regain diaphragmatic strength and function. 

For most people, this can be accomplished by sitting down in a comfortable position, placing the hands on the belly and chest, and learning how to intuitively draw air into the belly region, rather than into the chest. You should notice quite quickly how much additional air you’ll be able to take in during the inhalation. You should also feel calmer after using the full extent of the diaphragm to take 5-10 deep breaths. If you are struggling to use your diaphragm during this exercise, you may need to lie down with your feet flat first. You can always place a light item (like a shoe) on your belly to try and move with your inhalation, so you can focus more on the sensation of breathing deep. Once you can intentionally reactivate the diaphragm, the next stage is to try and create a 360-degree expansion instead of pure belly breathing. For more exercises you can always sift through the Breathing Cheat Sheet.  

Diaphragmatic activation + Breath work exercises = Greater breathing efficiency and a calmer mind

The Most Common Issue: Over Breathing (as per Peter Litchfield)

It may sound counterintuitive, given how important oxygen is for our survival, but over breathing seems to be a greater modern issue than under breathing. When we are stressed or anxious, we breathe high into the chest to get more oxygen in and we reduce our tolerance to carbon dioxide (CO2). This results in a lower threshold for CO2 and an even greater urge to breathe, reinforcing our overbreathing patterns. Also, when too much CO2 is removed from the blood you become too alkaline (hypocapnic).

Effects of Overbreathing Habits (Hypocapnia):

  • Compromises O2 delivery (hemoglobin). Vasoconstriction and blood sugar restriction in the brain too
  • Disturbs acid-base physiology (extracellular pH)
  • Triggers emotions, including anxiety, fear, panic, anger, and frustration
  • Compromises cognition, including memory, learning, and attention
  • Triggers a wide range of stress symptoms, including fatigue and hyperarousal
  • Compromises pulmonary, cardiac, muscle, and nervous system function
  • Disturbs electrolyte balance (bicarbonate, sodium, calcium, potassium)
  • Causes physical symptoms of existing conditions (panic, epilepsy, asthma)
  • Exacerbates symptoms of existing conditions
  • Perpetuates symptoms of existing conditions, that might otherwise abate
  • Interferes with behavior (social, learning, speaking, working, performing)

Symptoms and deficits may include:

  • Emotional: anxiety, anger, panic, stress symptoms.
  • Cognitive: attention deficit, poor memory, learning deficits.
  • Behavioral: communicating, socializing, working, resting, exercising.
  • Performance: sports, test taking, public speaking, operating equipment.
  • Physical: dizziness, pain, headache, numbness, fatigue, sleep disturbances.
  • Psychological: personality changes, disorientation, disconnectedness, dissociation.
  • Can exacerbate or be brought on by asthma, epilepsy, hypertension, injury pain, angina, anxiety disorder, etc.

To get a gauge on whether you may be overbreathing, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How does your breathing currently feel?
  • Are you getting enough air?
  • Is it a struggle?
  • Are you taking your breaths or allowing them?
  • Do you feel stressed or fatigued?
  • Do you have any tingling, numbness, or pain?

Rather than taking a big breath to try and force air into your lungs, take a quiet inhalation, followed by a passive exhalation, then wait until your inhalation reflex kicks in before taking another. 

Be the Breath, Not Do the Breath:

  • Step away and observe your breathing. Feel it and notice any nuances.
  • Focus on the exhale, allow it rather than forcing it.
  • Wait for the inhale to occur automatically.
  • Allow the breath to become gentle.

The aforementioned respiratory reflexes are regulated by pH levels, CO2 concentration, and O2 concentration. 

Breathing Habit Analysis

  • Behaviors, e.g., aborting the exhale, using upper body muscles, “taking” the breath
  • Effects, e.g., breathing reflex system preempted, overbreathing
  • Triggers, e.g., places, times, people, emotions, tasks
  • Symptoms and deficits, e.g., emotional, cognitive, behavioral
  • Motivations, e.g., fear of not getting enough air
  • Reinforcements, e.g., fear reduction, feeling in control
  • Learning history, e.g., injuries, medical conditions, trauma, stress, pregnancy

Use a capnograph to measure CO2 levels and identify triggers of overbreathing.

The Inhalation Reflex

  • Occurs between the exhale and inhale. It operates based on CO2, pH, and O2 requirements.
  • Is there a quiet space between your exhale and inhale?
  • Do you take the breath or does it come on its own?
  • Allow for at least a second of transition time between exhale and inhale. Does allowing time make you anxious or apprehensive?
  • If so, it may be motivating you to take big breaths rather than to allow them.
  • If so, you are likely preempting and deregulating the reflex.
  • Desensitize yourself to the transition time. Eliminate apprehension. Remove the motivation to take a big breath.
  • Extend the transition time to 2 seconds for a few breaths, then breathe normally. Repeat with 5 seconds transitions. Then try 10 seconds.
  • How does each feel? Is it difficult?
  • Think about something positive during the extended transition times. Learn to experience these times as peaceful, meditative, comfort zones. Develop a sense of trust.

Quietening the Inhale

  • Practicing breathing alternately with smaller and quieter breaths, followed by larger ones.
  • Which do you prefer and why?
  • See how little you actually need to breathe to feel relaxed and comfortable.
  • Larger breaths can take you into unbalanced chemistry.

You need to pinpoint the triggers, history, and motivations for dysfunctional breathing habits. Then you can use breathing interventions to attach to times/periods where the patient may find dysfunctional breathing patterns arise. Get rid of the motivations to take huge inhalations and to preempt the inhalation out of fear. Learn to trust the reflex.

Dysfunctional habits need to be unlearned and replaced with habits that properly aligned with respiratory reflex-regulated breathing.

The Respiratory Equation: pH (blood plasma) = [HCO3] (buffer-fixed concentration in kidneys)/PCO2 (regulated by breathing)

  • Acid base balance = bicarbonates/CO2
  • Body fluid pH = kidneys/lungs
  • Body fluid pH = acid-buffer/breathing
  • Physiological change = acid buffer/breathing mechanics
  • Symptoms = physiology/learned breathing habits
  • Performance = physiology/learned breathing habits


Before jumping headlong into practicing these exercises with the usual “type A” and Westernized diagnostic mindset, it is important to keep in mind that we don’t need to follow these routines non-stop. The purpose of practicing these techniques is to both regain control of our nervous systems and to expand our capacities for breathing, so that we are less susceptible to suffering from the common Western diseases and to help our energy systems to become more efficient. Depending on your condition, you may need more or less training to get yourself to a reasonable level, but just remember that retraining the breath will help you to build new habits that will becoming the keystone of your health journey. Meaning, once you’ve established effective breathing techniques, the following exercises on the website will utilize these practices without your conscious input. 

JayPT +