Yoga and the Respiratory System at Soul of Yoga

check out my workshop at Soul of YogaIn anticipation of my upcoming “Yoga and the Respiratory System” workshop at Soul of Yoga’s therapeutic training in Encinitas, CA, I’m posting a snippet of an article I’ve been working on to discourage people from feeling they must always get the deepest possible breath. This is a preview of one of the topics I’ll be covering in an information-packed two days of learning and exploration at Soul of Yoga. Other topics will include:

  • How breathing occurs on every level – from cells to systems and beyond
  • The basics of breath physiology
  • The structure and function of the diaphragm
  • The key structures involved in breathing
  • How breath coordinates with and supports movement
  • The physiology of meditative states
  • Western and yogic models of anatomy and physiology
  • The physical correlates of the koshas, chakras, nadis and kundalini

If you can get to Southern California (and who doesn’t want to spend time there in December!), come join me Friday and Saturday, December 9 & 10.


The working title of the article is “Breathing Myths vs Breathing Reality.” This excerpt addresses maximal oxygenation, an often misunderstood concept related to oxygen, carbon dioxide, hyperventilation, and metabolic loads.

To read many yoga and breathing books, one could get the impression that deep breathing and maximal oxygenation are the holy grails of health, well-being and enlightenment. The assumption is that the more deeply you breathe, the more oxygen you will get in, the more carbon dioxide you will get rid of and the healthier you’ll be. The facts are:

  1. not enough carbon dioxide is dangerous,
  2. deep (maximal) breathing is only occasionally appropriate, and
  3. too much oxygen is toxic.

Breathing activity should always be linked to your body’s metabolic needs. If your level of activity requires a larger than usual supply of oxygen, deeper or more frequent breathing is perfectly appropriate. That same level of respiratory activity, if applied to a resting state, would produce blood alkalosis (hyperventilation).

Your body has homeostatic mechanisms that prevent a toxic excess of oxygen from building up in the tissues. The idea that one can improve health by increasing O2 concentrations in the blood is physiologically incorrect, and shouldn’t be confused with the immense relief that accompanies a deeply satisfying breath. In fact, freeing the breath allows respiratory activity to more closely match body metabolism by releasing excessive, oxygen-hungry tension from the breathing musculature.

Your body is many times more sensitive to changes in blood levels of carbon dioxide than it is to oxygen. Carbon dioxide plays a critical role in helping hemoglobin transport oxygen from your blood to your body’s tissues. If you don’t have enough CO2 in your blood, the O2 gets held too tightly by the hemoglobin, and not enough oxygen will be released into your tissues. The idea that one can improve health by ridding oneself of excess CO2 is physiologically incorrect, and shouldn’t be confused with the simple act of exhaling more effectively (which is a prerequisite for filling your lungs).

This is why I have gotten out of the habit of using the phrase “take a deep breath” when teaching yoga. Instead, I try to say things like, “take a relaxed breath” or “let your body fill with breath.” These are ways I seek to help students trust that their body knows what it is doing, and the best breathing happens when we get out of its way.

Breath Education Myth #2 – "Deep Breathing is Always Better"

As promised, here’s our next breath “mythbusting” contribution courtesy of my esteemed colleague and co-presenter Amy Matthews

MYTH: “Deep breathing is always better.”

It is NOT true that we should always breathe as deeply as we possibly can. There is not one single ‘right way’ to breathe, and the most effective breath is the one that is most suited to that person, in that moment.

Sometimes a shallow breath is the most effective choice – in biological systems the qualities of being deepest, longest and biggest are not necessarily indicators of success. Success arises from being effective . . . just good enough. So taking a deeper breath than we need might literally be a waste of time and energy.

Instead of always going for deeper and stronger breaths, can we instead cultivate adaptability and responsiveness?

Our October 24 & 25 symposium is filling up fast, so be sure to register now!

The Saint in my Garage

This is the story of how one of the greatest modern sages of yoga, Swami Satyananda Paramahamsa ended up delivering a lecture in my garage in Santa Monica in early 1983.

It is also the story of how a misunderstanding of Tantra is not limited to NY Times science reporters – sometimes it comes from Indian Swamis who should have known better.

Did Yoga really start as a sex cult?

In this video follow-up to my previous post “William Broad is at it again at the NY Times,” you can hear me tell Mr. Broad that every time he opens his mouth, he loses another piece of whatever credibility he may have had as an authority on Yoga.

In the end, I just tell him to shut his mouth until such time as he’s willing to do a modicum of valid research into the actual history of Yoga practice – which did NOT begin with the Tantric sex cults of Medieval India. He actually contradicts himself in the space of two sentences in his interview with Stephen Colbert, when he first asserts that Yoga is 4 to 5 thousand years old, then follows up with “…real yoga started out in a sex cult..”

Someone with as big a platform as William J. Broad has an equally big responsibility to speak accurately about this subject.  In this, he has repeatedly and utterly failed.

William Broad is at it again in the NY Times

This time, Mr. Broad is riding the coattails of the John Friend “scandal;” and sharing his expertise about how Yoga’s origins have always been steeped in sexuality.

It’s astounding how this guy thinks that doing sun salutations since the 70’s and book research for a few years makes him an authoritative scholar regarding the history of Yoga.  He can’t even keep the science in his book straight, and that’s supposed to be his field.

Yoga Fans Sexual Flames and, Predictably, Plenty of Scandal – NYTimes.com.

A lively discussion on Amazon

I stayed up until 4AM on Feb. 7th to insure that mine was the first Amazon review of William J. Broad’s “The Science of Yoga.” My review is listed as “the most helpful critical review” and as of this writing 237 of 264 people found it helpful. It has also generated 47 comments by Amazon users.  It makes for some interesting reading.

Video Review of "The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards," by William J. Broad and a defense of my friend Larry Payne

In this video review, I accuse William J. Broad of launching an ad hominem attack on my friend Larry Payne.  Realizing this may need further explanation, I offer the following:

“Ad Hominem” literally means “against the man.” It is the name of an often-employed logical fallacy that seeks to refute a person’s ideas by discrediting their character.  For example, “Mr. Smith is known to be a drunkard, therefore his views on the economy should be dismissed.”

As I mentioned in the video, as a longtime friend of Larry Payne and teacher of the anatomy section of his LMU course each year in Los Angeles, I am hardly a neutral observer regarding Larry. This does not reduce my ability to offer objective criticism of Broad’s tactics in this part of his book.

On page 154 of “The Science of Yoga,” Broad lays the cornerstone of his attack: “If the origins of the modern field [yoga therapy] can be traced to a single person, it would be Larry Payne.”  Here, Broad is preparing a case of guilt by association in which he will try to discredit the entire field of “modern yoga therapy” by assaulting the character of the person he is identifying as its key founder. He will go on to portray Larry as an opportunistic huckster who, unlike Loren Fishman, M.D., one of Broad’s heroes, took what he considers an easy path to credibility by obtaining a Ph.D. from a questionable school. Broad goes on to point out some commonly-held physiological errors that ended up in Larry’s book “Yoga for Dummies” as a way of further discrediting him.

Broad’s clear goal in the chapter in question (chapter five for those following along) is to cast aspersions on the organization Larry helped to found, the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT), by drawing a parallel between what he perceives as Larry’s lack of a valid credential and the certificate one obtains upon joining IAYT. Broad observes that the IAYT membership certificate resembles a professional accreditation, but “a quick read shows that the document is in fact quite meaningless…The phony credential does an injustice to the talented yoga therapists who have labored for years and decades to develop their healing expertise and have helped countless people.”

This is a classic example of an ad hominem attack, setting up guilt by association. Forget the fact that Larry Payne is also one of the “talented yoga therapists who have labored for years and decades to develop their healing expertise and have helped countless people.”  Forget the fact that IAYT has never represented their membership certificate as anything other than what it clearly states on its face.  Forget the fact that never – to my knowledge – has any yoga therapist, whether a member of IAYT or not, expressed outrage over misrepresentation via a “phony credential.” Forget the fact that there is a real, live human being named Larry Payne at the other end of this attack who has been walking around for the past week feeling like he’s been simultaneously kicked in the gut and stabbed in the back by the writer to whom he granted – in good faith – full access and lengthy interviews.

William J. Broad makes a strong case for accurately representing oneself in the professional sphere.  Did he do that when he approached my friend Larry for the purpose of writing an authoritative book about the field in which he has faithfully labored for four decades?  I’m sure Larry Payne, Ph.D. welcomed Mr. Broad with the same open heart he offers to everyone he encounters.  He deserves far better than what he got in “The Science of Yoga.”