Soothe Your Nervous System with 2-to-1 Breathing

March 23, 2016    BY John Clarke, MD

A 40-year-old student of meditation sits upright in an upholstered chair, his eyes closed. He quiets his breath, making it slow and serene. Electrodes are attached to his forehead and fingertips to monitor muscle tension, hand temperature, and skin resistance; a blood pressure cuff circles his right arm. The biofeedback technician instructs him to prepare for meditation by relaxing completely and refining his breathing, just as he usually does.

The technician watches the screen intently as the minutes pass, but the level of sympathetic nervous system arousal remains high—not what would be expected from someone who has practiced meditation for 15 years. So the technician instructs the man to lengthen his exhalation so that it is twice as long as his inhalation.

The results are nearly immediate: the heart rate begins to decrease on exhalation and increase during inhalation, indicating a drop in the arousal level of the sympathetic nervous system. The subject settles into a deeper level of relaxation, one that creates the conditions for a more effective meditation.

The practice of 2-to-1 breathing (exhalation at a duration twice as long as inhalation) is a simple breathing practice often overlooked or underrated, even by veteran meditators. Along with even, diaphragmatic breathing, alternate nostril breathing, and breath awareness, 2-to-1 breathing helps regulate the motion of the lungs and quiet both the nervous system and the energy fields that influence the body and mind. By using these techniques to facilitate relaxation, we can become serene and stabilize our minds for meditation.

The practice of 2-to-1 breathing (exhalation at a duration twice as long as inhalation) is a simple breathing practice often overlooked or underrated, even by veteran meditators.

Although 2-to-1 breathing is an important adjunct to even breathing and systematic relaxation, it is not the first step. First, we must regulate the breath so that it is nasal (which means it comes through the nose rather than through the mouth), diaphragmatic, and free from noise, pauses, and other irregularities of flow. When these characteristics are established, the next step is to adjust the inhalation and exhalation so that they are of equal duration. This even-breathing technique creates a pattern of regularity in the functioning of the autonomic nervous system by toning down arousal in the sympathetic nervous system.

The Effect on the Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system is the branch of the nervous system that carries out the vital functions of the heart, lungs, circulatory system, and glandular system without our conscious control. It is further divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

The sympathetic nervous system mediates the body’s response to physical activity by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tone (tension) in the large skeletal muscles, sweat secretion, pupil dilation, and other functions. In short, it helps the body gear up for physical exertion. The parasympathetic nervous system does much of the opposite work. It decreases heart rate, blood pressure, and skeletal muscle tone, preparing the body for rest, sleep, or digestion.

Stimulation of one of these branches occurs without our conscious awareness through our activities (sleeping, eating, exercising) or through our mental processes (having stressful thoughts or peaceful thoughts).

Stimulation also occurs during each cycle of the breath. Inhalation emphasizes sympathetic activity (the stress/exercise branch), and exhalation stimulates the parasympathetic activity (the relaxation, rest, and digestion branch). By adjusting the ratio of inhalation to exhalation, we can adjust the relative emphasis given to sympathetic or parasympathetic activity in each breath cycle.

The technique of 2-to-1 breathing facilitates a deepening of relaxation by extending the period of parasympathetic activity within each breath. To put it more simply, 2-to-1 breathing decreases nerve activity in the sympathetic nervous system, which arouses the body for physical activity and exertion, and increases the influence of the more quieting parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates the relaxation response.

The Technique

To learn the technique, select a comfortable seated posture in a chair or on the floor, with head, neck, and trunk aligned vertically. Release tension from all muscles not needed to maintain your posture and establish quiet, smooth, nasal, diaphragmatic breathing. Count the duration of both exhalation and inhalation as you breath normally and adjust it gently so you are exhaling and inhaling for the same amount of time. Most people are comfortable with a count of 3 or 4 for each exhalation and inhalation; thus one breath lasts for a count of either 6 or 8. The mental counting should be done gently, without whispering. Mental counting itself can create subtle irregularities in the flow of breath and slightly disturb the smooth, continuous flow of your breath. However, until you have established a rhythm and acquired the habit of maintaining it, counting mentally is fine.

Now, without altering the duration of the total breath cycle, adjust your breathing by slowing the exhalation and gently quickening the inhalation to achieve a 2-to-1 ratio. For a breath lasting 6 counts (3 on inhalation, 3 on exhalation), this means exhaling for 4 counts and inhaling for 2. If you are using an 8-count breath, you need to alter the count slightly for convenience, exhaling for 6 counts and inhaling for 3.

The best way to extend the breath is to deepen the exhalation, contracting the abdominal muscles to gently push out additional air. Inhalation then primarily involves smoothly releasing the contracted muscles. Extending and deepening the exhalation in this way helps release waste gases—such as carbon dioxide—more thoroughly and efficiently. The extended abdominal contraction also creates a gentle pumping action to help blood return to the heart and lungs.

Using This Technique in Formal Pranayama Practice

The 2-to-1 breathing pattern is the foundation for advanced pranayama techniques that yogis use to increase their vital energy, in part because it enhances relaxation. However, you must be patient and attentive while building your capacity. Forcing this technique can damage the heart and other organs.

Be patient and attentive while building your capacity.

As your breath slows, less air exchange takes place. Carbon dioxide levels rise and oxygen levels drop. This increases the flow of blood to the brain and activates the energies associated with our most powerful and basic reflex—the need for air. If you go beyond your capacity in slowing the breath, this survival response is activated, causing you to gasp at the beginning of inhalation to rebalance your oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.

You can minimize this tendency to create a rough, uncontrolled breath by paying careful attention to the transition between exhalation and inhalation. Your present capacity is reflected in the need to inhale as you draw near to the end of the exhalation. If you can create a smooth transition, you are within your capacity. If a subtle gasp or tremor occurs, you need to shorten your next breath slightly.

Two-to-one breathing is used during alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhanam), thus combining the benefits of both practices. The nadis (subtle pathways of energy) are purified as waste gases and carbon dioxide are effectively expelled from the lungs. It can be easier to extend the breath in a 2-to-1 ratio during nadi shodhanam than when breathing through both nostrils because breathing through only one nostril increases the resistance to air flow; there is an unconscious reflex to slow our breathing in the face of increased airway resistance. This resistance is especially marked when breathing through the passive nostril.

One traditional guideline for learning to extend the breath is to learn to lengthen both exhalation and inhalation equally to 16 counts each (32 counts total duration) when practicing alternate nostril breathing before superimposing a 2-to-1 ratio.

After you have become proficient in 2-to-1 breathing with a normal duration of breath, you can begin to use this technique to increase your vitality. This involves learning how to extend the overall duration of the breath, but it must be done in a gentle, relaxed manner.

2-to-1 Breathing During Exercise

Many people who practice 2-to-1 breathing while walking or running have experienced improved ability to do aerobic exercise. Simply adjust your count so it is in synchrony with your steps—one count per step—and adjust your pace so that you can breathe comfortably through your nose. Practice this first while walking. When you can do it comfortably, experiment with lengthening the breath while maintaining the 2-to-1 ratio.

The next step is to experiment with 2-to-1 breathing while jogging or running. Extending the exhalation helps you more thoroughly expel waste gases, which in turn increases the amount of fresh air you can take in with each inhalation. Even well-trained athletes may begin to experience a perceptible improvement in meeting the body’s demand for oxygen while under exertion when using this technique.

If you are an athlete in competition or if your pace is being regulated by an external rather than an internal standard (i.e., a race, the pace of your companions, or an uphill terrain), you may need more air than can be comfortably provided by nasal, diaphragmatic breathing alone. If so, add a bit of chest motion and let some air come in through the mouth while maintaining your awareness of the nasal, diaphragmatic component. Adjust the ratio slightly (5-to-3, for example, instead of 6-to-3) so that you feel comfortable. If you lose your awareness of the movement of the diaphragm, it will tend to become inactive and you will resort to chest breathing, which is shallower, more rapid, and less efficient.

In competition, it may be necessary to modify the technique somewhat. Keep the 2-to-1 ratio in mind, but make any adjustment necessary to keep from straining. Maintain your awareness of the solar plexus or navel center, breathing to it and from it, as if the abdominal muscles contracting during exhalation were an energy pump, pushing tension and wastes out as you exhale and, at the same time, pushing energy through the body to the active muscles. Inhalation draws fresh energy into the solar center, which is then pushed out to the muscles during exhalation.

With practice, this technique can become a powerful ally in overcoming fatigue during physical exertion. Athletes use it to extend their endurance during vigorous exercise and to shorten their recovery time after a strenuous workout.

Experiment with using it to release stress and to calm yourself when you find tension building during the day.

In Summary

Two-to-one nasal, diaphragmatic breathing is a versatile technique with a variety of applications. Experiment with using it to release stress and to calm yourself when you find tension building during the day. When you are exercising, it is a natural way of maintaining an efficient, healthy breathing pattern. It can also be used to lay a foundation for the more advanced pranayama techniques. Last, and most important, 2-to-1 breathing helps reduce, coordinate, and stabilize the activity of the brain and the nervous system in preparation for meditation.

The Ins and Outs of Meditation

• When 2-to-1 breathing is used as preparation for meditation, whether in conjunction with deep diaphragmatic breathing or with alternate nostril breathing, it helps us to quiet the autonomic nervous system so that we can gain access to more subtle levels of tranquility. In other words, it is a means of achieving a level of function in the nervous system and brain in which the nerves are as quiet as possible. This helps to stabilize the mind and allows the nervous system to become responsive to more subtle inner energies, including the vibration patterns of a mantra.

• The brain and body are linked by the sensory and motor divisions of the voluntary nervous system and by the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of the so-called involuntary or autonomic nervous system. Preparing the body properly for meditation reduces activity in both systems.

• Meditating in the early morning, when most other people are still asleep, reduces the chances of external disturbance to the senses. Sensory nerve activity is further reduced by a quiet, dark environment and by closing the eyes. Nerve and muscle activity in the motor division of the nervous system is reduced by sitting in a vertically aligned, stable, unwavering posture so that minimal muscular effort and motor nerve activity is required to remain upright. Parasympathetic activity associated with digestion is quieted by selecting a time to sit when the stomach is empty. Diaphragmatic breathing, systematic relaxation, and 2-to-1 breathing all help facilitate relaxation and reduce excess sympathetic arousal.

• When nerve activity associated with the muscles, the senses, stress, and digestion has been minimized, the motion of breathing still remains and causes activity in the vagus nerve, which is the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system. The process of inhalation and exhalation results in a slight lowering and raising of blood pressure, respectively; blood pools in the lungs as they expand and is squeezed back into circulation as they contract. To compensate, heart rate (which is controlled by the vagus nerve) increases during inhalation and decreases during exhalation. During exhalation, when blood pressure increases slightly, parasympathetic nerve activity in the vagus nerve also increases, causing the heart rate to slow.

• Gently prolonging the duration of the breath and allowing it to flow as evenly as possible quiets and smooths the wave-like ebb and flow of the vagal nerve impulses associated with breathing, thus bringing the vagus nerve to a minimally active state. This—in combination with the other preparations for meditation mentioned above—reduces the influence of peripheral nerve activity on the brain and can facilitate a deep state of relaxed vitality, which is ideal for meditation.

John Clarke, MD
John Clarke, M.D., graduated from Harvard Medical School and is board certified in cardiology, family practice, and internal medicine. He has integrated the disciplines of yoga into his professional practice and his research.