The Brain & Breathing: Active & Passive Breath

In both yoga and corrective exercise we often draw awareness to the breath.  It’s an important aspect as breath is fundamental part of any movement pattern.

“If you don’t own breathing, you don’t own the movement”

-Dr. Karel Lewit

Breath gives us the biggest indication of where we are at currently in the exercise or yoga posture.  I’ve written about that here: Which Layer Should I Take?.

To give you a quick summary:  The moment you hold your breath or find it too hard to breath, you’ve taken a progression or movement too far.  Take a step back or do less reps and train the breath in a comfortable range so that you can move onward successfully.  You hold your breath as a form of compensatory stability to brace your core.  It works, but you just trained a bad pattern rather than work on the foundation: breath.

“What happens when you load a bad pattern?  You get really good at sucking.”

-Eric Cressey

In this article we’ll look at the two sides to the breath to assure that you set it up properly for your nervous system.  There’s Active (Sympathetic) breath and Passive (Parasympathetic) breath both are beneficial, but often get crossed hence why it’s important to know the difference between the two.


There are some serious noggin increasing knowledge bombs in today’s post

Active Sympathetic Breath

Just to make sure we’re on the same page let me set up some quick definitions to some terms common in this article:

  • Sympathetic: state of the nervous system geared towards activity – “flight or fight,” primes the body for action, reacts to stress
  • Parasympathetic: state of the nervous system geared towards relaxation and digestion – “rest and digest”

I used to fall into the camp of Practitioners and Yoga teachers that set up breath right away in both treatment and at the start of my class.  I’d set it up in some nice, relaxing, setting where my patients/yogis were laying on the ground and feeling very safe.  We’d do some diaphragm breathing and in yoga Ujjayi and then we’d move on to the corrective exercise or the rest of yoga.

I had assumed this was a great set up as it gave time for them to relax, unwind, and focus a bit on their breath.  Oh boy was I wrong.  I set up an Active style of breathing, in a Passive, or safe/supported, environment (Parasympathetic dominated).

The moment we switched over to more active exercise and yoga a different side of the nervous system switches over, the Sympathetic Nervous system.  Your body is put under duress and stress during exercise and it’s the Sympathetic nervous system that increases your heart rate and force of contraction to accommodate.

The breathing style set up in the Passive environment is often lost and now your brain defaults to it’s normal breathing pattern, which can then result in dysfunctional chest/belly (rather than diaphragm) breathing.  This then leads to an insufficient amount of air entering the lungs and therefore bloodstream, leading to quicker fatigue.

lateral line diaphragm

The diaphragm is a postural muscle.  

Dysfunctional breathing can also result in you holding your breath because we now lack the stability of the diaphragmatic breathing pattern.


All that time cueing perfect breathing erased the second things get difficult.  

Ahhhh sh*t right?  

We’ve taken away our success and the potential success of our patients/students all because we set up Active breath in a Passive space.

Now I will add the disclaimer: some people can condition themselves to default to a good pattern when they switch.  These are usually quite advanced people that have some higher level of awareness to their breath.  Average folk likely do not have this awareness and in order to train it, breath needs to be programmed accordingly.

The fix is simple: Set up Active breathing (diaphragm/Ujjayi/etc) in an Active Setting!

[Edit: Since the post of this article it’s become aware to me I need to define Active breath a little more.  By Active breathing I am inferring Active awareness of the breath.  This can be anything like simple awareness of the sensation, diaphragm, Ujjayi, etc.  The goal of the breath here is to be calm and controlled, while the body is placed in a strenuous environment.  I am not implying hyperventilation or various other forms of extreme pranayama.  Calm controlled breath that you are Active and participating in.  Now back to your regularly scheduled programming]

Put people’s body under an accessible state of duress.  THEN cue them into some breath.  My favorite place to cue Ujjayi is now in Birddog (Table Top pose with one arm and the opposite leg extended, we also hold it rather than move [can be accomplished with just the leg lifted too]).  Holding High Plank, Forearm Plank, Chair pose, or anything that puts a decent level of stress so that they can still breath will work (obviously gauge it based on your audience).  For patients I’ll put them in a Horse pose, or some variable of a squat.  Sometimes simply standing with the feet together if they are in a lot of pain or have problems balancing works great too.

If they own the breath there in that active, physically stressful situation, they can own it anywhere.

Just make sure they are Active when you set up Active styles of breathing.  Within just a few instances of this people’s brains will program that style of breathing with Active work.  You’ve changed their default programming and set them up for some amazing success!


Once you own the breath!

Now all you have to do is thrown in the occasional reminder and it will be much easier for them to recall the breathing pattern you set up since the nervous system will be in the same state.

Passive Parasympathetic Breath

Active, Sympathetic, breathing is all about knowing when to use it and set it up in a proper space.  Passive, Parasympathetic, breath is also immensely important but for different reasons.

Modern day life with all of it’s beautiful lights, colors, sounds, notifications, etc is a constant bombardment of stimulus and often places people in a Sympathetic dominant space.  Passive relaxing breath in the beginning of treatment/yoga class helps relax and prepare people’s minds and bodies for more Active breath when things get hectic.

Passive breathing gets set up in a Passive space.  Examples include anything where you feel supported, so laying on your back is what I usually use.  A strong connection to the ground gives your nervous system a sense of safety and support.  Laying on the ground or being in quadruped (all fours like Table top) is also said to slacken and release tension in the Peripheral nervous system (Diane Jacobs – Dermo Neuro Modulation).

It’s simple too:  Just draw awareness to the sensation of the breath

My favorite: “Inhale feel your nostrils widen, exhale feel the air upon your upper lip” Leave them with some silence after that so they can feel it

I also use “Let your exhales be longer than your inhales: 6 count exhale to 3 count inhale”  I do not count the breath for them.  Everyone has a different breathing rhythm and we want our patients/students to find something natural, their 6 count and 3 count.

I usually sandwich Passive breathing with Active breathing.  Meaning I use it at the beginning of treatment/yoga and at the end to help balance everything out.


Just make sure the air is coming out of your mouth when you relax 😉

End: Breath Reprogrammed

It’s pretty amazing how sturdy people become when their default breath is more active, rather than normal.  It can seriously revolutionize people’s yoga practices and strength gains in exercises.  The first thing we lose when things get nuts is usually the breath.

Avoid setting up Ujjayi and Active styles of breath when people are in safe, grounded, supported positions like Supta Baddha Konasa, Easy Bridge, Child’s Pose, Savasana (laying on your back) etc.  We want the right part of the nervous system active with Active breathing.  Stoke a little fire, put people in a little bit of duress, then drop your breath breakdown!

Save the time on the ground for simple breathing like awareness and length.  That time on the ground is Passive and the breath should reflect that to better people’s ability to relax and restore their minds.

Feel free to comment below on where/how you like to set up Active styles of breath or maybe your favorite way to cue Passive relaxing breath!

More on breath:


Breathe on Friends!

-Dr. YG

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