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Breathing Innervation Question

I've been told by meditation & yoga instructors and naturopathic doctors that inhalation is controlled by sympathetic innervation, and exhalation is parasympathetic. Based in this, we are taught to change our meditation breathing based on whether we desire to emphasize activation or calming. The idea is that by extending the inhale and shortening the exhale, you increase your sympathetic activity. More often the idea of extending the exhale to double or more the length of the inhale is used, to help us release the stresses of modern life.

My question is this: It seems reasonable to me and I do believe that the autonomic innervation of breathing is as they say. My issue comes with the fact that by intentionally altering our breathing pattern, we are no longer breathing autonomically, or automatically. We have shifted over to another pathway for governing breathing, that starts at the frontal cortex with our will, instead of in the medullary (brainstem) breathing center. Are these new pathways also sympa/parasympathetic? Or not?

Based on my own experience (I breathe a lot) I would say that exhalation is only parasympathetic when you release and let the body do it autonomically. When I intentionally extend my exhale it no longer feels as relaxing to me. Anybody have more knowledge or experience with this???

EDIT 7/18/09:
I cross posted this and received many replies mostly from the Buddhists, who hastened to remind me that Buddhist meditation involves observing the breath but not controlling it. I come from a broader base, and so I consider breath control and mantras both to be meditative tools. The purpose in my view is to stabilize the mind, to stop it from flitting about like a hummingbird from thought to thought. Practices that involve focussing on something train the mind, so that it is possible to remain conscious for longer periods of time. This, as far as I can tell, is the purpose of nearly all practices that call themselves meditation.

But back to my original question, I learned a little more:


these centers located in the reticular formation:

governs inspiration rate and rhythm
usu 12-16 breaths/minute in humans
input from CN 9 & 10, glossopharyngeal and vagal
chemoreceptor in medulla stimulated by acidic pH and increased pCO2
chemoreceptor in carotid bodies (CN 9) stimulated by same
chemoreceptor in aortic bodies (CN 10) stimulated by decreased pO2 !!!
output via phrenic nerve to diaphragm (wikipedia says external intercostals too)
(accessory breathing muscles not involved)
unconscious breathing incl diaphragmatic exertion for inhale only (exhale is relaxation)
composed of cells in the solitary tract nucleus
found in many types of fish and mammals

governs active expiration
contains both inspiratory and expiratory neurons
responsible for motor control of inspiratory and expiratory muscles during exercise
2nd in line for initiation of inspiratory activity, after DRG
nucleus para-ambiguus is active during inspiration
nucleus retrofacialis and the nucleus retroambiguus are active during exhalation


lower pons
stimulates inspiration, gasping, apneusis
prolongs inspiration
controls intensity of breathing
signals dorsal respiratory ctr (medulla)
signal: delay 'off' signal for inspiratory ramp from pneumotaxic centre of pons
inhibited by pulmonary strech receptors

aka pontine respiratory group (PRG)
upper pons
inhibits inspiration: 'off' signal
regulates rate and volume
antagonises the apneustic center, cyclically inhibiting inspiration
limits the burst of action potentials in the phrenic nerve
decreases tidal volume
absence of PRG results in an increase in depth of respiration and a decrease in respiratory rate

periodic breathing, abnormal pattern
oscillation of ventilation between apnea and tachypnea
crescendo-decrescendo pattern in the depth of respirations
caused by damage to respiratory centers (which ones??? late response to changing pCO2???)
characteristic of newborns with immature respiratory systems
ETIO: heart failure, stroke, brain injury dt trauma or tumor, altitude, CO2 poisoning, morphine
may occur during sleep

consistent very deep resp at normal or increased rate
deep and labored
ETIO: severe metabolic acidosis (DKA), renal failure
during acidosis, breathing is first rapid and shallow-->deep, slow, labored and gasping

hyper/hypo ventilation
hyper = any breathing pattern that reduces plasma CO2 dt incr rate/depth of resp

Question remains: what recruits the accessory muscles of inspiration? the VRG??
* External intercostal muscles
* Scalene muscles
* Sternocleidomastoid muscle
* Trapezius muscle


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 17th, 2009 03:50 pm (UTC)
Interesting. I can't comment on the parasympathetic vs. sympathetic responses; however wanted to tell you that I attended a stress workshop here at work the other day, and we practiced breathing techniques.

First, we tensed and relaxed our muscle groups, starting with the feet and working our way up. Then, we breathed in deeply to the abdomen, through the nose, for a count of four. Then held the breath for four, and exhaled for eight. Repeated this several times - probably a dozen.

We were told that this is good practice for relieving physical symptoms of stress.
Jul. 17th, 2009 05:13 pm (UTC)
Yep. It's out there. Lots of people teach variations on this breathing technique--it's even considered a treatment for hypertension. ... Are you doing it??
Jul. 18th, 2009 08:52 pm (UTC)
Can I ask you: At which communities you also post this? Was some good answers from there?

Maybe you must to practice long enough for not thinking about breathing.
Or on the contrary: thinking only about that and because of that leaving behind all other things.

And off-topic: I saw this your post at community hatha_yoga, after that came to your lj. Like it and themes that are here. So subscribe for you posts and will read it with interest, also practicing in my english :)
Jul. 18th, 2009 11:58 pm (UTC)
Hello Alice-vic! Thank you for responding. I posted several places but got the most response from the Buddhists, who informed me repeatedly that proper Buddhist meditation involves observing but not controlling the breath. The practice of breath control is more yogic. It is my experience that after a while I do not need to focus on the breath anymore, just as using a mantra grounds me and then I do not need it anymore. Both serve the same purpose: to anchor the mind on something so that it does not wander in thought.

I have learned more about the nerves and I will add to the original post with what I have learned about the breathing centers in the medulla and pons.

I will follow your name link and find out more about you if I can. Where do you live? What language(s) do you speak? Your English is good.
Sep. 7th, 2011 03:28 pm (UTC)
responses to same post @ yogateachers group
I'm deleting the post on yoga teachers because it has become a magnet for spam. But I want to remember the suggestions:

This from royalbananafish:

Have you read Doug Keller's work on pranayama? www.doyoga.com I think is his website.

IMLHO (that's "In My Least Humble Opinion"):
Intentionally slowing our breathing (or altering it in other ways) as a practice has an effect on our parasympathetic breathing, just like practicing a yoga posture repeatedly has an effect on the way you sit or stand. So I think the point isn't trying to switch from one type of response to another, but more to practice in such a way that the response alters itself. (Does that make sense?)

Also, there are varying ways to extend your exhalation, and the amount of time you spend practicing and how quickly you attempt to lengthen it (er, meaning the length of the practice period in which you attempt to extend from, say, "normal" to something much longer) all have an effect. I find that trying to jump into too much (advanced/whatever) a practice makes me much less relaxed. The teachings I have experienced on pranayama all have a beginner mode where you are extending just a little bit more, or holding your breath for just a little bit, and students are expected to practice that beginner practice for quite some time before gradually moving into more difficult practices (longer inhale, longer exhale, longer retention, etc.).

One other thought is that the mind does interesting things when you change your breathing. Maybe your feeling not as relaxed in intentional exhalation extension indicates something else? I'm thinking anything from needing in inhale a greater volume of air to a mind reaction that you're doing it wrong or need to breathe or something. Just thoughts, YMMV.

and another:

Me again, posting from work (which won't let me sign in for some reason). Okay, now that I se what you are driving at, your best resources are "Yoga as Medicine" by Dr. Timothy McCall, and David Coulter's "Yoga Anatomy." You might also try looking into past and future publications in the research journal published by IAYT.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )



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