Less is More

June 8, 2022

No matter what we eat, how much we exercise, how resilient our genes are, how skinny or young or wise we are – none of it matters unless we’re breathing correctly. ~ James Nestor

Important question: Do you suffer from shortness of breath, asthma, snoring/sleep apnoea, anxiety, migraines, high or low blood pressure, poor immunity, or brain fatigue? These are just a few of the symptoms associated with over breathing, also known as hyperventilation. As counterintuitive as it sounds, over breathing is problematic for our health, as it reduces the amount of oxygen available for our body functions. Less is more?! How so? Well, oxygen is released from our blood cells (haemoglobin) and delivered to our muscles and organs only in the presence of carbon dioxide. When we over breathe, too much of this precious carbon dioxide is washed out of the body, causing the haemoglobin to hold onto the oxygen, resulting in reduced oxygen release, and therefore reduced oxygen delivery to the tissues and organs. We keep ourselves in this carbon dioxide deprived cycle of hyperventilation every time we feel breathlessness or anxious and have the urge to take bigger deeper breathes, as this does not provide us with more oxygen but rather reduces oxygenation even further.

So, what to do? Firstly, a simple test can be done to measure ones tolerance to carbon dioxide, which indicates whether there are high or low levels of CO2 in the body. Known as the Comfortable Pause or Control Pause (CP); it approximates ones comfort level with breath suspension after the exhale. To measure your CP all you need is a timing device to track seconds:

  • Take a gentle inhale through the nose

  • Exhale lightly out through the nose

  • Pinch your nose shut and start timing

  • Hold after exhale until you feel the first desire to breathe (do not force) *

  • Release and look at the time. This number represents your CP

*(When the pause is truly comfortable the breath immediately following the pause will be calm and relaxed, no gasping or laboured breaths!)

A CP is below 12 is an indication of very low CO2 levels and highly symptomatic of over breathing. 12-20 indicates low CO2 and a vulnerable system. 20-25 indicates a more stable and resilient system. Between 30-40 correlates to a full tank of CO2 and good health.

Now, to increase your CP and ultimately your CO2 levels, here is a practice to help slow down and regulate the breath. The Subtle Breathing Practice is short, simple, and can be done throughout day - please see the full description below. I invite you to start now while you are reading, by making your breath as subtle and slow as possible - imagine there is a feather beneath your nostrils that you are trying not to move!

Subtle Breathing Practice

  • Begin by taking your CP to keep track of your progress and improvement

  • Sitting comfortably with your spine straight. Place one hand on your chest and the other just below the top of your rib cage.

  • If the arm position is uncomfortable, use pillows or towels for support, to allow the neck and shoulders to fully relax.

  • Breathe softly through the nose, pacifying the muscles of the chest so there is no movement in the upper rib cage or tension in the neck.

  • Emphasize a soft lateral expansion of the lower ribs with the inhale, and a gentle inward contraction with the exhale.

  • Place attention on the sensations of the breath moving through the nostrils.

  • Progressively make the breath lighter as if making the breath “invisible”.

  • Visualise the ‘Subtle Breath’ permeating every cell within you, as if you are inhaling voluminous amounts of space rather than air.

  • Consistently lighten the exhale so it becomes thread like and imperceptible.

  • The breath is silent, movement becoming less discernible with each cycle.

  • Discover the soft edges of air hunger where you are aware of a desire to take in more, yet you are not “starving” for air.

  • The key is to practice maintaining a sustainable level of air hunger without pushing yourself into the need to gulp or gasp more air.

  • If you lower the volume too much the rate will pick up.

  • Note that if you slow the breath what is sustainable, the volume will increase.

  • Find the tolerable level of low and slow “subtle breathing” and maintain it for 2-3 minutes. Use a timer so you can focus on your breathing for the full time.

  • After a round of Subtle Breathing, continue to breathe through your nose but relax the breath and release the hands from your belly and chest.

  • Notice the contrast between your normal breath rate and the effects of Subtle Breathing on your system, observe for 1-2 minutes.

  • Repeat another round of Subtle Breathing, building to 3-4 minutes as is tolerable.

  • Then rest again and observe 1-2 minutes.

  • End the practice by measuring your CP and record your efforts.

NOTE: The lower your CP at the start, the more quickly you will experience sensations of breathlessness. Work gently, always maintaining a quality of relaxation even while experiencing the challenge of breathing less. As you practice Subtle Breathing you may experience a variety of sensations that are normal responses.

These include:

  • Sensations of warmth and /or cold in the limbs or centre of the body

  • An increase in saliva in the mouth

  • A sense of moistening in the eyes or slightly glazed vision

  • Draining of the nose – especially if there is light congestion

  • An opening in the sinus passageways

  • A feeling of calm, alert awareness in the mind

  • Relaxation in the body without sleepiness

If you do feel sleepy or drowsy, it is likely you were not riding the edge of air hunger but rather staying in a comfortable, relaxed breath zone. Gaining the benefit of Subtle Breathing requires dropping below the level of pure comfort to another state, where every breathe requires attention and fine tuning.

Wishing you a beautiful day experimenting for yourself with the benefits of breathing less. Please share your experiences or comments with us below. 

The reputable resources informing this content are as follows:

Breath by James Nestor and Restoring Prana by Robin Rothenberg