Lateral Breathing: Lower Lung Training for Longevity

Lateral Breathing: Lower Lung Training for Longevity

A written guide to Dr. John’s Lateral Breathing Technique can be found at the bottom of this page.

How many breaths do you take per minute? Tortoises take an average of four breaths per minute. A tortoise lives on average to about 150 years, with some species living to 250! A 65-foot-long bowhead whale with can live over 200 years and dive for up to an hour, all while breathing just 1-2 times per minute. An African elephant can live to 70 years with an average breath rate of 4-5 breaths per minute. It is well known that the longest living mammals have very slow metabolisms with very slow breath rates.

According to Swara Yoga and the Vedic text Shiva Swarodaya, each human is given a certain number of breaths at birth to last their lifetime. Therefore, the slower you breathe, the longer you live. Fortunately, the breath rate for humans is something we do have control over. Breath rate is in part governed by the autonomic nervous system, which means it is controlled involuntarily. New research has confirmed that we have control of our breath rate and depth and, by slowing down the breath, the body can better heal and repair itself.

The average adult breathes at about 14-18 breaths per minute, which may be as many as 25,000 breaths per day. Most studies suggest that health and longevity benefits of slow breathing begin once you reach 6 breaths per minute or 8,600 breaths per day. 

The primary benefit of slow breathing is the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Slow breathing more dramatically moves the diaphragm, which in turn stimulates the vagus nerve, which governs the parasympathetic nervous system–sometimes called the rest, digest, rebuild, and rejuvenation system. Studies show that maintaining a breath rate in the range of 4-9 breaths per minute (BPM) keeps you in the range for vagal stimulation, with 6 BPM being ideal. 

Many Yoga breathing practices can slow the breath rate down further than 6 BPM. Training the body to breathe slower at rest allows the body to ideally breathe naturally at a rate near 6 BPM during the activities when breathing is mostly involuntary or subconscious.

In This Article

The Science Behind Six Breaths per Minute

In a 2021 study, 59 individuals were evaluated during breathing sessions at a rate of 6 BPM at different durations of 5, 10, 15 or 20 minutes. The results showed no difference in parasympathetic vagal stimulation at the longer durations, suggesting that even a quick 5 minute session can be an effective therapy. Researchers reported that breathing sessions of 6 breaths per minute were found to provide support against depression, anxiety, and stress. 

A 2023 study introduced deep breathing exercises to a workplace where 50% of the participants had high blood pressure. Slow, deep breathing was found to be as effective as other lifestyle interventions such as meditation, exercise, DASH diet, or salt restriction for lowering blood pressure and reducing work stress.

Finally, another study with 40 participants compared diaphragmatic breathing at 4 BPM to a control group that did not practice breathing. Before and after each session, the groups were given a rigorous test that demanded intense attention and focus. The deep-breathing group sustained attention and focus better than the control group. They also had significantly less cortisol (a stress hormone) in their saliva than the control group, suggesting a decrease in stress levels.

The study concluded that slow, deep breathing was an effective tool for mental health, sustained attention, and ability to handle stress.

See also The Best Diaphragmatic Exercises: Breath Training for Better Health

The Power of the Exhale

Take a minute and notice how you are breathing at rest, when you are not focusing on your breath. Most folks inhale for 1-2 counts and exhale for 1 count, suggesting that the exhale is typically shorter than the inhale. With breathing exercises, we are told to lengthen the exhale, but after the exercise is over, it is easy to quickly revert back to shallow breaths with a quick inhale and a quicker and more passive exhale.

The exhale is perhaps more important than the inhale, as it becomes more difficult to fully inhale if the lungs have not completely emptied. One study demonstrated that with long, slow, deep breathing pranayama, there was a significant reduction in dead space inside the lungs. The dead space is stagnant air that is not inhaled or exhaled during normal respiration. Typically about 500 mL of air remains stagnant when we breathe shallowly; deep breathing with a full and complete exhale effectively removes the dead air space. A full exhale is therefore a logical prerequisite for getting a full inhalation. This study showed that after 2, 5, or 10 minutes of deep breathing there was a significant increase in forced vital capacity (maximal exhale) and peak inspiratory flow rate (maximal inhale). This suggests that the efficiency of a full exhale sets us up a natural and complete inhalation.

Carl Stough, a breathing instructor who worked with opera singers, is perhaps most famous for training the summer Olympic athletes in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics (the first Olympics at high altitude). He trained elite athletes like Lee Evans to breathe more efficiently, focusing on training toward a more complete exhale. The U.S. Track and Field team won more golds than any Olympics in the history of the team. They were also the only team that did not use oxygen during the games. Lee Evans reported that the key to Stough’s training was to fully complete the exhale.

One study compared three types of breathing: prolonged exhalations, box breathing (inhale, hold, exhale, hold), and deep, fast breathing (longer inhale and shorter exhale). Each of these were practiced 5 minutes per day. The breathing practice with the prolonged exhalations produced greater improvements in mood and lower respiratory rates than the other types of breath.

Vertical Breathing

Most humans have adapted to a “vertical” breathing pattern that supports an efficient stress response. When under stress, our bodies take a gasping, upper-chest breath through the mouth in an effort to activate the fight or flight receptors in the upper lobes of the lungs. Long, slow nose breathing naturally directs the oxygen into the lower lobes of the lungs (where most of the “rest, digest, and rejuvenate” receptors are found). As a result of chronic stress-based shallow breathing, the lower rib cage becomes tighter and more rigid. When shallow breathing is the norm, the elastic recoil of both the lungs and rib cage are constantly contracting in an effort to move air out.

During exhalation with a tighter lower rib cage, the diaphragm is unable to fully deflate (like a parachute) into its natural, resting, relaxed position up under the rib cage, where it pushes up into the lower lobes of the lungs. A tight lower rib cage does not allow for a complete exhale. The diaphragm cannot push the dead-space air out of the lower lungs, resulting in a less-than-efficient inhalation. 

See also How Nose Breathing Can Prevent Dental Cavities

Lateral Breathing

To resolve these issues, most humans have to re-learn how to breathe properly into the lower lobes of the lungs, by way of “lateral” breathing. When you watch your dog or a horse breathe, you will see their rib cage expand laterally and their shoulders remain still. Most humans have adapted to a pattern of stressed breathing by engaging their shoulders and sometimes the neck to pull the air up into the upper chest. This is because the rib cage has literally become a cage, squeezing down on the heart and lungs some 26,000 times a day. The tighter the lower rib cage becomes, the more likely we will adapt to breathing vertically into the upper chest. As the rib cage narrows to support shallow vertical breathing, the diaphragm weakens and fails to fully contract and relax. 

One study showed that 91% of athletes that were tested did not have a diaphragm that was fully relaxing and contracting. If the best athletes have failed diaphragmatic function, then very few non-athletes do, suggesting that we all would benefit from working on our diaphragmatic function and rib cage elasticity.

Try This Lateral Breathing Exercise!

Step One: 

Lie down on your back or sit up comfortably. Take a slow breath in through the nose into the lower abdomen but do not move the chest or shoulders. Fill your belly a little, then try to breathe into the lower rib cage and expand those ribs laterally out to both sides. As you breathe into these lateral ribs, keep filling the rib cage laterally as far as you can. Keep inhaling and try to push the breath into the ribs that wrap around to your back. This is called lateral breathing. Continue for 10 breaths. 

Do 2-3 sets of 10 of these breaths 2-3 times per day.

Step Two: 

Then, raise your arms up over your head and laterally bend to the right. Once you are in a maximal but comfortable lateral bend, take a long, slow, and deep lateral breath, pushing the lower left rib cage out to the side. Once you reach your max, you can take some small sips of air through the mouth to fill the lateral rib cage even further. Then as you slowly exhale, slowly laterally bend to the left side, breathing all the air out of the lungs. Repeat this 10 times on the right and 10 times on the left with full exhales each time. 

Do 2-3 sets of these 2-3 times a day.

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Dr. John

2 thoughts on “Lateral Breathing: Lower Lung Training for Longevity”

  1. Dr. Douillard, I continue to be in awe of your tremendous Ayuervedic knowledge and wisdom and the great effort you put into sharing them.
    Your kind and caring generosity is a blessing to us all, as are your products and teachings. With much appreciation and heart felt thanks.

  2. Thank you sir. So much wisdom. If only the people can follow and practice with full awareness, many health issues can be resolved.


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