The Politics of Breathing: Still Liberating Women, After All These Years? By Kelly McGonigal

At my request, Kelly has submitted the following provacative article. I hope it will arouse reactions, comments and thoughts that you will share. Kelly is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and is also one of the presenters at The Future of Breathing, the symposium I’ve organized at Kripalu September 8-11.

I recently came across an article from 1905 that dispelled a popular breathing myth of the time: that women naturally breathe differently than men. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it had been observed that men breathed “into the belly” (with the diaphragm and abdominal muscles), whereas women breathed shallowly into the upper chest and rib cage. As with any observed differences between men and women, it was tempting to attribute these breathing differences to some basic biological cause. Tempting, but wrong.
Perhaps you have already guessed the primary source of the observed breathing differences. Corsets, which dramatically restricted abdominal movement, forced women to find alternative strategies for breathing (a problem that some corset manufacturers attempted to address by developing corset braces called “lung expanders”).

Corset-free, one would expect women to breathe freely and deeply, using the diaphragm. The authors of the 1905 paper reported that women who had not been raised to wear corsets breathed identically to men: diaphragmatic contraction and abdominal expansion. More amusingly, but unsurprisingly, they found that men in corsets demonstrated the stereotypical female breathing pattern of chest expansion.

What does this lesson from history have to do with current research on breathing? Some social pressures may have changed (women no longer wear corsets), but other pressures have emerged to create much the same effect on women’s breathing.

In my work as a breathing educator, I have noticed a disturbing pattern: many women are still breathing as if they were wearing a corset. In particular, women report shallow breathing and frequent breath-holding. This tendency has been called the “inhibited breathing pattern” by some researchers, and it is more common in women than in men. It is associated with chronic stress, anticipatory fear (being afraid of something that hasn’t happened yet), being on the bottom of the social power totem pole, and a reluctance to express anger.

Researchers have shown that an acute inhibited breathing response is common among threatened animals and threatened humans. In fact, this inhibited breathing pattern has all the hallmark features of the “freeze” response, which is the tendency among animals (including humans) to play dead when they are threatened by something they cannot run from (the “flight” response) or successfully overpower (the “fight” response).

If inhibited breathing is a response to feeling overwhelmed and powerless, it is not surprising that more women than men would demonstrate the inhibited breathing pattern. Women are more likely than men to try to avoid conflict or disappointing others; they are also more likely to feel powerless in work and social situations. This leaves the “freeze” response as the most likely reaction to stress – and with it, the habit of breathing shallowly and holding the breath. Unfortunately, the inhibited breathing pattern only reinforces the feeling of being overwhelmed and powerless – and it is associated with harmful health outcomes, such as chronic hypertension.

Women may be free of literal corsets, but many of us feel the pressures of a psychological or social corset that restricts our breathing. Breath education is one way to counteract learned breathing tendencies and fear responses. I teach a technique called empowered breathing: powerful diaphragmatic breathing that creates a sense of peace and purpose. Empowered breathing cannot change all of the pressures that women face, but it can transform our experience of – and reaction to – those pressures. In many cases, the pressures women face are self-imposed – based on our own beliefs about what we are capable of, or what is appropriate behavior. Breathing deeply is a way to reject those beliefs, and to build a new habit: feeling capable to meet any challenge, and powerful enough to do as we please.

Links to More Information:

The 1905 corset article:

Descriptions of research on inhibited breathing in women:

About the Author:

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. is a health educator and yoga teacher at Stanford University, and the Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy.

9 thoughts on “The Politics of Breathing: Still Liberating Women, After All These Years? By Kelly McGonigal”

  1. Wow. This seems like the sort of thing that should be on the front page of the New York Times Science section and a cover story for MS. magazine at the same time. Imagine the implications for intervention– we could change the dynamics for girls by teaching them how to breathe fully. Imagine if girls were taught that breathing deeply were a way to have power and strenght in scary or stressful situations. What kind of funding would this require? Comparatively, I would think this would be a low-cost, amazingly effective intervention. I would like more information about how to publicize and promote this research into the public eye.

  2. Great article! How can we spread the word more? I want every young girl to learn empowered breathing! We should be teaching this everywhere – from medical schools to scout troops. Thanks for calling our attention to this gender difference; we can only work to change the things we are aware of.

  3. Dear Anonymous (X2)

    This is exactly why Kelly and I (and the other presenters) are excited about The Future of Breathing. We are trying to make breath training and awareness more a part of the general educational process in our society.

    Please consider attending the symposium and meeting all of us in person.

  4. Karen Schwartz

    There is another aspect of inhibition in women’s breathing that I have come across countless times in my years as a Yoga teacher, clinical social worker and fitness instructor, and that is the tendency to hold the belly in to create the illusion of a flat stomach. Whether done via abdominal contraction (which eventually becomes second nature) or with the help of control top pantyhose (today’s version of the corset), this holding serves to inhibit, in conjunction with breathing, full access to the voice, to assertiveness, as Dr. McGonigal mentioned, and to the free flow and experience of sexual energy. Releasing this type of holding and freeing and deepening the breath could certainly serve to empower girls, young women and all women by increasing thier full flow of energy; this needs to be accompanied by a firm sense of grounding, support for personal power and self-expression, and awareness of where the social and psychological constraints may come from. Yoga teachers, for one, might address this issue consciously through the exploration of such holding patterns and encouraging greater freedom through breathing exercises, deep relaxation, chanting and a variety of other techniques that they normally utilize in their teaching.

    Om shanti.

  5. Thanks, Karen, for that comment – fashion and the beauty industry continues to give us “corsets” in the form of tight clothes and the idealized flat stomach. One of the first things I have my students notice is whether their clothing restricts their breathing.

    My most revealing experience with this came during a professional presentation – I was wearing much more restrictive clothing than I usually do, in the form of “business” attire (restrictive suit). I noticed that I had a hard time breathing, and I felt it – as you described – as difficulty accessing my voice and power. It very much influenced my ability to respond to the aggressive audience questioning. Once I had this experience, I got rid of the suit and always try deep breathing in the dressing room!

    It’s also really important, as you described, to focus on both internal and external factors. We can use the breath to gather our strength to create external change in the world.

    I’d love to hear more about your experiences and observations.


  6. -practice deep breathing in the dressing room. this is such great advice! i for one could probably benefit from spending less time judging myself in the dressing room mirror and more time being conscious of how I feel in the clothing. conscious of whether the clothing is restricting my ability to breathe and have voice and deal. love the discussion this post is generating. good luck with the workshop!

  7. ((LK: I’m posting this comment on behalf of Tom Myers, who forwarded it to me privately. Tom is one of the world’s leading bodywork educators; author of “Anatomy Trains,” and founder of KMI (Kinesis Myofascial Integration), a state-of-the-art method of hands-on repatterning. His website is: ))

    Love these discussions.

    Hated that article Leslie posted – what a load of old drivel about women, and from a woman too! I hate these persistent victim stereotypes, which end up being victimizing.

    If women are really still breathing as if they had corsets three generations later, then it wasn’t the corsets, or Jews would by now be being born without foreskins! This is a pseudo-Lamarckian argument of the thinnest kind.

    ((LK: Tom is referring to Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s long-discredited theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. ))

    If there is a gender difference in breathing between modern men and women, which I would tend to be skeptical of in the first place, it would have come about from sex role differences in the pre-Neolithic era, and maybe into the Neolithic. There has been some evidence that there are differences between the autonomic systems of men and women, and that most of what we have learned and preached about the autonomic systems (including my lecture on the Physiology of Emotional Release and arcs and such) is based on the male system, and thus does not take account of possible differences. I cannot put my hands on the article, but will try to get a reference here.

    Because breathing is so affected by autonomic state, we could then imagine that the autonomic differences lead to a different ‘default’ operation under stress, although even that instinctual response would be very subject to social learning and ‘engineering’.

    The yoga and Pilates folks you speak of (and all of us as well) have given up Blackaby’s ‘innocent breath’ forever, as we have eaten of the fruit from the tree of cognitive knowledge, and thus can never be truly innocent about our breathing again, I imagine. We do so in service of other people finding the free breath, the innocent breath, and thus we have to be very careful of how we induce it – to do so without taking away their innocence (and giving them the ‘right’ way to breathe). They will take it that way even when it is presented very carefully.

    Ida Rolf said that the belly ‘should’ fall back during the in-breath. I can make it work, but feels anything but innocent or free to me.

    I agree with Lauree that a complete out-breath leads to the instinctual inhale demand, and that is a good thing. The ability to watch the breath during emotion is a good thing. Being able to track your client’s breath without calling attention to it is a good thing. The free movement of the diaphragm is the principal element, but not the only element, to the ‘complete breath’- my substitute for the innocent breath. But Leslie’s #1 myth still stands: No right way to breathe!


  8. Thank you, Tom, for taking the time to respond to my original essay. You make some very good points – however, they are directly in line with the research and ideas I described and teach.

    Indeed, aby differences in breathing between men and women that is associated with the stress response is likely to be the result of evolutionary pressures. What I love about the inhibited breathing research that I cited is that it includes animal models and evidence that are consistent with the theory of human differences.

    Animals with less social power in a clearly defined hierarchy, animals of smaller physical size, or animals anticipating a negative event demonstrate the same patterns as humans.

    It has been observed that women show this pattern more than men – and it just so happens that women also report experiencing the kinds of emotions and perceptions associated with the situations created for animals in the laboratories. Why women experience this is up for discussion – as I mentioned in my original essay, much of the pressure comes from within.

    Women’s physiological and behavioral stress responses differ from men (you might have been thinking of Shelley Taylor’s work) in several important ways – and that includes breathing (along with hormonal differences and different coping strategies). These differences are partly the result of environmental and social differences in our evolutionary history.

    However, just because a difference has emerged based on the environmental pressures of long ago does not mean it continues to be adaptive.

    That is clearly seen in the effects of both men’s and women’s physiological stress responses – and the health consequences of continously responding to our psychological stresses as if they threatened our physical survival.

    My desire to teach empowered breathing to women (and men) is similar to my desire to teach anger management skills, relaxation skills, cognitive reappraisal, and other methods of stress reduction. In the case of “liberating” women, the evidence is clear: women experience psychological and social stress, from both their social environment and from within, and breathing is a method to reduce that stress and engage fully with the world.

    I’m not sure where the victim story is there, but I appreciate Tom’s comments, b/c they invited me to elaborate on the original essay.


  9. L – This isn’t really in response to the article or Tom’s opinion, but to his closing words…”#1 myth…”

    I’m reacting to the casual way we are spreading around this new phrase: “there’s no right way to breathe”. It sounds like a marketing blurb, and probably is not not what you actually think and may create impressions other than those you intend. I understand that it has arisen in response to previous conflicting and confusing ideas about “how to breathe”. So I guess the choice of language reflects the misunderstandings of the past, and I’d like to see language in a catch phrase that really shines light into new places.

    It rings my warning bells re: the modern “dumbing down” current we are all trying to swim against. Like “whatever”. There may be people who will just remember THAT (no “right” way to breathe…) and give up trying to take responsibility for learning when the going gets rough. Which of course it does.

    I am reacting with the same sort of confusion that I think I would respond to a nutritionist or naturopath who said “there’s no right way to eat”. I would find that discouraging if I had embarked on a course of study to find a way of eating that would work for me, and for my clients. There is not one way to eat that is right for every person, nor do we eat the same way at different times of day or under different circumstances. But given all the variations, there is definitely a right way to eat – different for each person at different times, depending on goals and intention, but a “right” way for each of us to continually discover nevertheless. (How fortunate we are to have the opportunity to figure out what is the right way for us to eat, and then choose to do so or not!)

    It’s the same with breathing. Each of us here learning about the complexities of breath, and developing continuous new awareness through the process, has the opportunity and responsibility to find the way of breathing that is right for us in a given situation, and choose it or not. We make choices according to our goals and intentions.

    To say there is “no right way to breathe” seems like it could narrow rather than widen our field of choices. There are many styles of breathing and exercises to develop skills according to one’s intentions. For those healing from trauma or disease or ordinary social degration (or “whatever”), changing unconscious patterns can be a long and daunting process. Maybe we should just say “there are many possible ways to breathe, and a way right now that is just right for you, wherever you are on your path”.

    What I think there is NOT is perfection. With all our knowledge and good intentions we still may suppress emotion when we intend to express it or vice versa. We may perform our theater pieces with brilliant breath awareness and still find that the audience simply was not able to connect emotionally. We do the best we can and come back to compassion for ourselves and others. Watch the breath go out and come in and awaken to another moment.–>

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