The 6 Dysfunctional Breathing Patterns

November 24, 2008 – 4:38 am

Frequently, I am asked the health, sportive and combative value of breathing patterns  Exploration of the answers may be confusing initially without practice. So, to give you a little insight into the science behind the fun, I’ve composed the following article for you.

“Oxygen Good, Carbon Dioxide Bad,” grunts the Neanderthal.

We are taught since childhood that you inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide and the conclusion to be drawn is that oxygen (since we take it in our body) is good and carbon dioxide (since we expel it) is bad. However, this couldn’t be farther from the truth, and this belief lies at the root of unhealthy lifestyle habits and diseases, not to mention at the core cancer of performance enhancement. Belief dictates behavior, and in this case, this myth creates unhealthy breath habits.

Bag that Bad Breath!

Should a person hyperventilate (“over-breathe”), a classic remedy is to give them a paper bag to cover the person’s mouth and breathe into. If you exhale carbon dioxide (CO2) and it’s bad for you, then why offer a bag to re-breath CO2? When you over-breathe, you lose carbon dioxide. Breathing into a bag has been a time-tested remedy for hyperventilation. This remedy works because it normalizes this dangerous breathing pattern by reducing the loss of CO2 supply in your circulatory system, thereby normalizing your breathing pattern.

When you breathe normally (“reflexively”), hemoglobin, the principle carrier of oxygen in the body, remains 98% oxygen (O2) saturated. When you breathe more, you increase O2 saturation negligibly but lose CO2 that is essential for O2 utilization. If the level of CO2 in the body decreases our hemoglobin does not release O2 to the tissues (called the Bohr Effect), which in turn causes O2 starvation.

As a result, the more you breathe the less oxygen the tissues of your body might receive!

The 6 Dysfunctional Breath Patterns

Like good nutritional patterns, good breathing patterns are those that meet your needs and provide optimal conditions for health and performance.  The commercial health and fitness industry preaches the common misperception that “the more you breathe, the better you live.”

This is like saying about good nutrition that “the more you eat, the better off you are,” (but then, what’s an all-you-can-eat-buffet?). Furthermore, if the industry does specify how to breathe, it is often through dysfunctional patterns detrimental to performance and health.

You breathe 70,000 thousand times per day and over thousands of years the human has developed defense mechanisms to compensate for lack of oxygen rich blood.  These defense mechanisms were meant to be temporarily compensations, not sustained substitutions for reflexive (natural) breathing.  Sustained reliance imposes a demand upon the organism causing an adaptation: conditioning dysfunctional breathing patterns.

The 6 dysfunctional breathing patterns are hyperventilatory, clavicular, thoracic, paradoxical, periodic, and hypoxic.  These may appear exclusively or in combination depending upon the state and level of the individual’s respiratory dysfunction.

  1. Hyperventilatory: This rapid-breath pattern (averaging 20 breaths/minute) uses accessory muscles and restricts diaphragmatic movement being predominantly Thoracic (see below) in nature. Produced from poorly managed anxiety, this pattern manifests as very shallow, very rapid, and compounded by sputtered sighs (periodic) and gasps (clavicular).  Panic, anxiety, and shock habituate this common phenomenon.  People exhibiting this pattern immediately imperil their health.
  2. Clavicular: Those conditioned with this pattern exhibit chest-raising that elevates the collarbones while drawing in the abdomen and raising up the diaphragm. People who are “open-mouth breathers” attempt to increase intake through oral inhalation, but this provides minimal pulmonary ventilation. Worse still, the accessory muscles used in this pattern consume more oxygen than it provides. In exercise, these individuals fatigue quickly.
  3. Thoracic: These “chest-breathers” typify aggressiveness. This pattern lacks significant abdominal movement, being shallow and costal. Enlarging thoracic cavity creates a partial vacuum by lifting the rib cage up and out through external intercostals muscles. Although the lungs do manage to be expanded by negative pressure, it is not enough to ventilate the lower lobes. This reduces pulmonary ventilation, since the lower lobes receive the greatest blood volume due to gravity.
  4. Paradoxical: Often called “reverse” breathing, this abdominal pattern contracts during inhalation and expands on exhalation (using the muscles for the opposite purpose for which they were intended.)  Paradoxical breathing associates with the expectation of exertion, sustained effort, resistance to flow, and stress. I see this most prominently in new trainees, who require intense pattern counter-conditioning.  Through stress, shock and fear, they have conditioned themselves to inhale (often married to Clavicular and Thoracic patterns), followed by Hypoxic breath-retention and Periodic sighs. As a result, this pattern causes very rapid fatigue.
  5. Periodic: This pattern demonstrates rapid-shallow breathing, followed by a holding of breath, followed by a heavy sigh. It is an over-responsiveness to CO2 concentrations in the bloodstream. This “airy” panting “blows off” or flushes out the CO from the bloodstream, which causes the brain’s autonomic system to shutdown respiration until the CO2 level raises to appropriate gas mixture. In the Periodic pattern, this cycle perpetuates. This is not to be confused with true Apnea, and can be diagnosed by witnessing that the pattern does not cause a change in color – no blueness of the lips – and the individual resumes shallow, rapid breathing without intervention, following the sigh. This pattern can be created through sustained anxiety, or by post-traumatic stress syndrome.
  6. Hypoxic: In preparation of perceived exertion, this pattern comprises an inhalation, withholding of exhalation (breath retention) until the perceived exertion concludes. Holding the breath dramatically increases intra-thoracic pressure, causing health risks such as, fainting associated with Vagal nerve stimulation, increase in blood pressure, and hypoxia (lack of oxygen). Chronic, baseline hypoxic breathing is very common, especially in “athletes” – those conditioned to exertion. Hypoxic patterning connects with Fear-Reactivity, the defense mechanism of “bracing” caused by anxiety.  This inflexible armor either aggressive exerts (breath-holding)

Through these six dysfunctional breathing patterns, alone or in concert, you undo your health, as well as your sportive and combative performance.

Dysfunctional breathing patterns reduce oxygen delivery to the lungs, as well as biomechanical and structural efficiency, resulting in fatigue. This sets you in motion for a feedback loop, where the longer within the dysfunctional patterns you remain, the more you attempt to work harder through the patterns, which conditions you more to remain in the patterns, and so on and so forth.

Becoming “fat” takes a lot of hard work, and requires a great deal of work to maintain. Understand that increasing your “fat” takes training; you “succeed” at the outcome of fat-ness. Becoming healthily fit requires the same dedication, especially with breathing.

Remember, training happens all the time, whether you like it or not, whether you intend it or not. Everything in life is an act of conditioning. For this reason, you can find difficulty counter-conditioning dysfunctional patterns, and normalizing Reflexive Breathing. Only once Reflexive Breathing is restored can you enhance your performance to optimal levels. Playing the guitar is not difficult, merely strum or pluck the strings! Making music however takes study and discipline, and so it is with breathing training.

The Hyperventilation Feedback Loop

Many people believe that they breathe too shallowly but in fact they breathe very deeply. Those who suffer asthma, allergies, bronchitis, or emphysema will tell you they cannot breathe enough, when in fact they are breathing three or more times the normal volume of air. People suffering these symptoms require deep breaths all the time, while healthy people with natural breathing patters exert themselves without breathing deeply.

Russian and former Soviet research surmised that deep breathing serves as the root CAUSE of such illnesses. These deep-breathers suffer from O2 starvation, and so they begin to over-breathe, which begins an endless cycle of over-breathing, called the “Hyperventilation Feedback Loop.”

When you’re anxious or stressed, people advise you to, “relax and take deep-breaths.” However, deep breathing in a relaxed state causes dizziness and sometimes fainting. People often incorrectly attribute this to O2 saturation, when actually the ratio of CO2 to O2 permits the release or retention of O2 from the blood.

Near the close of the 19th Century, Verigo, a Russian Physiologist, and Bohr, a Dutch Scientist, independently discovered that without CO2, oxygen remains bound to hemoglobin, unreleased and incapable of being utilized by our tissues. As a result, there is an O2 deficiency in tissues such as our brain, kidneys and heart, as well as a significant increase in our blood pressure.

Notice how someone “holding” his/her breath becomes increasingly hyperactive. Over time, the level of CO2 increases dramatically causing the rapid consumption of O2. This hyperactivity continues until syncope, or unconsciousness.

Regardless of how this sounds, the cause of O2 deficiency is not due to the lack of O2 presence, but by the lack of CO2 retention. Over-breathing causes O2 deficiency. If you breathe too much, you have less O2 in our body.

The Exercise “Cardio” Myth

Over-breathe for 5-10 minutes and we may experience an asthma attack, blocked nose, dizziness, chest pains, palpitations, coughing, epileptic seizure, and many other symptoms. Properly reducing the depth of your breathing by breathing shallowly can reverse these symptoms often within a few minutes. Mild, chronic breathing dysfunction, crowned “Hidden Hyperventilation,” forged from sustained anxiety and tension, creates a lifetime of symptomatic aches and pains. This may be why advanced Circular Strength Training students just seem not as susceptible to illnesses.

Hidden Hyperventilation often goes undetected, predominantly due to conventional fitness training, which remains ignorant of Dysfunctional Breathing Patterns. However, the basic premise of Circular Strength Training - which is to integrate breathing, structure and movement - helps you understand this.

This misperception spawns from “Aerobic Debt” – which we create through intense anaerobic exertion.  If you sprint a short distance or lift a heavy object, the O2 you utilize may exceed our current reserves.  Since these activities occur anaerobically, you reflexively begin to breath heavily to compensate for the debt of oxygen you owe. Unfortunately, the aerobic debt becomes misapplied to respiratory health. When you intensely exercise, this heavy breathing pattern indicates your objective accomplished. Through an erroneous leap of logic, conventional thought presumes, respiratory health equals heavy breathing.

As a result, when people go to the gym, they do not feel comfortable leaving until they have accrued their aerobic debt. When they go to “do some cardio” they’ll pulverize their knees until they are puffy, red-faced, and gasping for air.  All this because they have been taught to assume that being “out of breath” is having “worked cardio.”

Furthermore, there are breath-retention exercises for extreme power exertions that have become foolishly associated with respiratory efficiency.  The inherent health risks (such as aneurisms) of embedding this type of exercise as a sustained breathing pattern are utterly perilous!

You can guess the dramatic negative impact on our health and performance these gym cardio myths create.

The Purpose of Reflexive Breathing

Your pulse, blood pressure, sugar levels, temperature and breathing each have relatively constant physiological norms. When at rest, breathe only superficially and nasally.

Natural (or Reflexive) breathing results in the accumulation of a very specific gas mixture that our organism requires for optimum normal function (“normal function” here refers to those times of little to no externally or internally imposed stress). The function of your respiratory system is not merely as a bellows - to “push out the bad air” and “pull in the good air,” but is designed to maintain a very specific ratio of O2 to CO2.  The Reflexive Breathing Pattern instinctively perpetually calibrates this mixture.

How much O2 and CO2 do we need in this mixture of gases we call breathing?  For the cells of the brain, heart, kidney and other organs, our blood requires a concentration of:  6.5% CO2 and only 2% O2. Your actual breath contains 10 times more oxygen than we require and 200 times less carbon dioxide than we need.

The Role of Natural Breathing, or “Resilience Breathing”

Changing your breathing pattern increases CO2 retention, which utilizes more O2 from each breath, which in turn leads to significantly improved health and disease prevention. Resilience Breathing works to counter-condition dysfunctional breathing patterns and to retain CO2.

Initially, you may think that we lose CO2 through forceful exhalatory exercises. However, don’t think of  it as vigorously blowing out air. You Be Breathed to structurally move your breath. You produce breath through alignment and movement.

It’s contractile force “squeezes” fluid-air out of your lungs. Remember, the lungs do not operate – your movement and structure operate your lungs. The muscular control allows you to regulate your exhalation, finely tuning intensity and volume. Furthermore, it retrains inhalation to be a product of the release (of exhalatory contraction), rather than an exertion: you don’t need to “breath-in.” Rather you are breathed by your release and expansion, allowing the negative pressure of your squeezed-out lungs to “suck” in air.

Be Breathed Puts the Fun in Functional Training

“Being breathed” by your movement is exercise, not breathing patterns. Patterns are your habits; whereas exercise enhances your current pattern.  Rather, you Be Breathed to increase the efficiency of your breathing patterns.

Hidden Hyperventilation results from airy, loose, flaccid, shallow, inhalatory-dominant breathing patterns typifying the average “untrained” breath. Be Breathed allows you to cease this low-intensity, baseline over-inhalation, through regulation of exhalation (retraining inhalation to be a product of releasing “squeezed” exhalation). As a result, your breathing patterns continue to be enhanced over time, increasingly preventing the CO2 over-expenditure.

You benefit from Be Breathed by preventing the Hyperventilation Feedback Loop. Remember how anxiety makes us breath fast and shallow (in an effort to gain more oxygen for fight-or-flight syndrome)? Through Be Breathed you prevent excessive inhalation: hyperventilation - that would flood you with oxygen while depleting carbon dioxide needed to utilize the oxygen. As a result, you do not become swept into the downward spiraling cycle of poor performance and health. With the necessary oxygen, you’re able to have the physical energy and mental wherewithal to address crises. Not just Hyperventilatory, but Be Breathed works to counter-condition all six Dysfunctional Breathing Patterns, returning you to your abundant, radiant health.

However, there’s an even more subsequent benefit: Be Breathed as a means of optimizing respiratory performance in the presence of stress and through the medium of anxiety. Life does not happen in a vacuum.  You’re fraught with internal and external stressors that seek to deteriorate your health, state of being, and performance. Be Breathed trains you to operate within this volatile and viscous medium.

Using the above as a template for appreciating this, personal Be Breathed development comprises:

  1. Counter-conditioning dysfunctional patterns (Recovery Period)
  2. Normalizing Reflexive Breathing (Coordination Period)
  3. Optimizing Performance Breathing (Refinement Period)

The Refinement Period lasts… as long as you continue to be addicted to breathing… all of your life!


Scott Sonnon

  1. 6 Responses to “The 6 Dysfunctional Breathing Patterns”

  2. hello,

    coach sonnon? until very recently, including this article, hadn’t ever regarded breathing as particularly complex. always knew there was “more to it”, but figured it only necessary for “yogis and swamis”.

    have noticed that slight adjustments to breathing suggested in intu-flow and flowfit yield good results. makes workouts and movement easier.

    payday is soon. will be getting this dvd. would like to give some concentration to breath control/efficiency.


    By lorenzo damarith on Nov 24, 2008

  3. this is the best thing I have read for a long time. thankyou

    By andrew on Dec 17, 2008

  4. Coach, where do Ujayi, and various other forms of pranayama fall into this? Would you say that ujayi breathing is causing potentially dangerous, and performance dropping results?

    By Chris Twigg on Dec 18, 2011

  5. Chris,

    Ujayi regards energetic levels, not physiological, firstly. Secondly, on a physiological level, the controlled inhalation teaches ventilatory control, rather than panicked, anxious inhalatory gulping and gasping.

    By Scott Sonnon on Dec 18, 2011

  6. Thanks Coach.

    By Chris Twigg on Dec 18, 2011

  7. hello Sir..I suffer from ptsd..and have recently gone into a fear-reacting aroumed feels like I’m breathing out the front of my face and I am unable to return to normal breathing..or even know how to at this this contion reservable and wondering if know what..who or where I could appoach help..thank you for your time…

    By Jared huumonen on Jun 1, 2013

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