On Breathing Patterns

Thanks to a reader of The New Rules, for inciting me to write again about breathing. It’s a HUGE topic, so this post is a distillation. Here’s my reader’s query: Here in Germany, singers, yogis, and tai chi practitioners are hotly debating the possibility of two types of people with different body organization. The focus lies on differences in breathing: exhalers and inhalers. In my understanding, their spatial organization corresponds to what you call earth-orienting and space-orienting, respectively. In everyday breathing, it is wise to give breathing muscles a regular break by alternating active and passive movements, i.e. to exhale actively and inhale passively or vice versa. If I understand correctly, earth-orientation leads to a forward-leaning stance while space-orientation leads to an upright posture. The forward-leaning stance of earth-orientation leaves the belly free and facilitates passive inhalation, whereas the upright posture goes with active inhalation into the chest and facilitates passive exhalation. It is puzzling to me that breathing types seem to be general principles, yet only few people know about them. But maybe more is known by different names, e.g. spatial orientation.


Consider these photos, one by one. Notice your inhalations and exhalations as you contemplate each one.  Does your breathing pattern vary depending on what you see/feel? (Click on each one in turn to view full screen.)

arizona desert view


It’s important to remember that there’s no one correct way to breathe. Whether you engage only the primary breathing muscle, the diaphragm, or the whole array of accessory breathing muscles depends on what’s going on with you in that particular moment. If you’re lying down, completely at rest, gentle diaphragmatic contractions provide you with all the oxygen you need. If you’re strenuously exerting yourself in the gravity field--upright and moving--you need the accessory muscles to get in on the act. There's always debate about muscular function, but accessory breathing muscles may include intercostals, scalenes, sternocleidomastoid, pectorals, serratus anterior, latissimus dorsi, and the spinal erectors. Exhalation is a passive relaxation of the inspiratory muscles, except when abdominals are recruited under exertion


Remember also that orientation is a felt sense rather than a body position. What I call “earth-orienting” in The New Rules of Posture, refers to people who have a clearly embodied reference to the ground. They can readily experience the weight of their bodies and use that experience to initiate movement—they push off from the ground. They also tend to be able to exhale freely. This is because sensing the weight of one’s body correlates to muscular relaxation, including the relaxation of the diaphragm.

“Spatially-orienting” people are more likely to locate themselves in reference to what’s going on around them. They move by reaching mentally and physically into their destination. They inhale freely, and may be too busy to exhale completely. They have to learn to fully experience the weight of their bodies and to allow themselves to feel supported by the ground.

Your body’s center of gravity when you’re standing is a little below your navel, just in front of the second sacral segment. This is a theoretical center--its location changes as you move around.  Your torso and head also have a functional center. This is just in front of T3—you can think of it as your heart center. When you’re standing upright with your weight evenly distributed between the front and back of your feet (imagine yourself arranged around a midline), you can feel the movement of respiration as a subtle forward and back sway of the upper center. With inhalation, the upper center slides slightly forward of a horizontal line between the greater trochanters (hip joints); with exhalation, the upper center slides slightly behind that hip line.

Ideally, both respiratory motions are equally available and responsive to the oxygen demands of the present moment. In fact, though, people have habits of standing and breathing that limit their respiratory expressiveness. People can be habituated with the upper center behind the hip line. This can be expressed in a variety of postural shapes. It is common to see this pattern in someone with a depressed chest and kyphotic spine. But, a very erect person can still have the upper center behind the pelvic center, and will thus find it more comfortable to exhale than to inhale. This person will likely initiate walking with the lower part of the body—resting downward to move ahead, earth-orienting.

Someone with the upper center fixated in front of the hip joints is likely to initiate her walking from that upper center, and to inhale more easily than exhale. She’ll reach into space rather than push away from the ground. But her postural shape may not be erect—it can be kyphotic.


There are many ways to evoke new patterns of breathing. Here is just one idea. Begin by noticing how your present everyday breathing pattern feels. Sit in a supported but relaxed way (There’s a good sitting lesson in my DVD, Heal Your Posture), and breathe through your nose (read about nose breathing in The New Rules, p. 78). Notice inhalation: do you pull the air inside? Sip it in? Gulp? Or can you simply open your nasal passages, throat and chest to welcome the air inside?

With exhalation, do you seem to push the air out? Sigh it out? Let it slide out but with a sound that indicates you’re putting on the brakes? Or can you soften your body (this doesn’t mean collapse), feel yourself to be supported by the earth, and allow the air to vacate?

Naturally, under the duress of something like a road race, we must pull and push our respiration. Thank goodness we have that capacity. But for everyday breathing, it’s good to cultivate the feeling of welcoming and surrender, with gratitude in both directions.

For more about breathing, see Heal Your Posture, Lesson 2, and The New Rules, Chapter 4.

© 2015 Mary Bond