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The Law of Least Effort in Doing Breathing Exercises

July 15, 2009
Dennis Lewis

Dennis Lewis

Controlling the breath causes strain. If too much energy is used, exhaustion follows. This is not the way of Tao. Whatever is contrary to Tao will not last long.–Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching (Translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, Vintage Books, 1989, p. 57)

So often today I hear from people who have been and are attempting to breathe in a healthier way that their efforts don’t seem to bring them many results, and, in some cases, even make them feel worse. When I talk in depth with them about how they work with their breath, I not only discover that they often have little idea what is involved in healthy breathing (some people wrongly believe that healthy breathing is equivalent to “deep breathing”), but, just as important, I discover that many people use too much physical effort in their attempts at better breathing, however they define it. This is especially true on the in-breath, where many people feel like they have to “grab” air and force it in.

For anyone who is interested in allowing “the breath of life” to animate them more fully, for example in qigong or yoga, it is important to realize that excessive effort actually impedes the diaphragm and secondary breathing muscles and thus makes healthy, harmonious breathing more difficult. It is therefore imperative that anyone who is attempting to work with their breath use the minimum amount of physical effort necessary when doing any kind of breathing exercises and learn how to sense what happens not only in their breathing muscles but also in their entire body when they undertake these exercises. The key, here, is self-sensing and awareness, which I go into in depth in my various books, including The Tao of Natural Breathing, Free Your Breath, Free Your Life, and Breathe Into Being: Awakening to Who You Really Are.

In my book The Tao of Natural Breathing, I discussed the importance of “The Law of Least Effort.” Here is a passage from my book that explains the “psychophysical law” that underlies this discussion:

As we begin to learn how to sense ourselves–especially in relation to our breathing–we will quickly see that the sensation of intense effort in the many areas of our lives often signals a “wrong” relationship not only to what we are doing, but, perhaps more importantly, to ourselves. It is not wrong in any moral or ethical way, but simply because it is counterproductive–it goes against the laws of harmonious functioning. Wrong effort constricts our breathing, cuts us off from our own energy, and produces actions that we did not intend. … It is clear to me today that as we learn to sense ourselves more completely and impartially, we free up the inner intelligence of our minds and bodies to learn new, better ways to accomplish our aims and promote health in our lives.

The Law of Least Effort

To understand how this is possible, it is important to understand that the brain learns and performs best when we use the least possible effort to accomplish a given task. For thousands of years, Taoist masters have emphasized this principle through their advice to use no more than 60 or 70 percent of our capacity in carrying out physical or spiritual practices. The Weber-Fechner psychophysical law demonstrates one reason why this is so important, since it states that the “senses are organized to take notice of differences between two stimuli rather than the absolute intensity of a stimulus.” When we try hard “to do” something, when we use unnecessary force to accomplish our goals, our whole body generally ends up becoming tense. This tension makes it more difficult for our brain and nervous systems to discern the subtle sensory impressions necessary to help carry out our intention in the most creative way possible.

The “law of least effort” is not, however, a license for laziness. Our health, well-being, and inner growth all require a dynamic balance of tension and relaxation, of yang and yin. They depend on the ability to know through our inner and outer senses what is necessary and what is not in our efforts and actions. To sense ourselves clearly, we need to be able to experience a part or dimension of ourselves that is quiet, comfortable, and free of unnecessary tension. It is the sensation of subtle impressions coming from this more relaxed place in ourselves that allows us to observe and release the unnecessary tension in other parts of ourselves. In short, effective action requires relaxation. But this relaxation should not be a “collapse” of either our body or our awareness. It is more like the “vigilant relaxation” of a cat. Vigilant relaxation makes it possible to manifest the appropriate degree of contraction–the life-giving tension called “tonus”–in any given situation.

I hope this discussion of “The Law of Least Effort” and the Weber-Fechner psychophysical law (the law can be found on page 48 of Peter Nathan’s book The Nervous System, Oxford University Press) helps you understand (at least to some extent) why, if you want real, lasting results, it is so important to work as gently as possible with your breathing–especially when you are working on your own. When you put yourself in the hands of a body worker or breathing therapist, of course, he or she may work on you in necessary ways that are not always gentle. But when you do breathing exercises on your own, it is your inner sensitivity and awareness, combined with right intention and knowledge, that will eventually bring about any necessary changes. Self-inflicted force and manipulation, including tension-filled efforts to breathe deeply, will not only seldom help, but in many cases will only cause further problems.”

Many people do breathing exercises today, especially those involving breath control (pranayama), and, as I have pointed out in my books and articles, these practices can cause harm when done prematurely or without proper guidance. Many people today simply have too little body awareness and understanding for the advanced breath control exercises they read about or are given. They often walk into a yoga class that has people of varying levels of experience both teaching and taking the class and are given pranayama exercises that may be totally unsuitable for them at that time.

An even more fundamental problem is that the mind doesn’t really have a clue about how to direct the body to breathe in a harmonious and balanced way for the particular situation of one’s health and life. Carrying out various counting and breath-holding exercises that one has learned on the Internet or from a video or book, for example, and often doing so with excessive tension in order to reach the count, is the height of absurdity, especially for people filled with stress and tension. To be sure, when one interrupts one’s habitual breathing patterns, one often feels better initially. But this feeling may well mask the negative impact that such exercises can have on our breathing in the long term. One good example is advanced breathing exercises involving breath holding, where one tenses in order to hold the breath. This can create more tension in the diaphragm and secondary breathing muscles and seriously undermine the overall functioning of your breathing muscles. Advanced breath control exercises for increased health, energy, and other goals can be beneficial for those who already breathe in a natural, relaxed, and harmonious way, but they are contraindicated for those who do not already breathe naturally.

So, if you are one of those who does breathing exercises on a regular basis, especially exercises involving so-called deep breathing, I suggest that you sense your body/mind as honestly as you can and do far less than you believe is possible for you. When you experience any kind of tension as you breathe, you are probably doing too much. The recent adage “less is more” applies in this case. The less tension you have, the more you will be able to discern both what is going on in your body/mind and what is actually needed.

Copyright 1997-2009 By Dennis Lewis. All rights reserved. This article, which is an edited and expanded version of an article that appears on the Authentic Breathing Resources website, may not be reproduced for any purpose without written permission from the author.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 18, 2009 1:40 am

    Hi Dennis

    I am enjoying your internet presence and all that you have been writing.. Wishing you Peace and Bliss

    all love,

    • July 18, 2009 11:24 am

      Hi Wendy,

      Thank you for your kind comments and good wishes. I hope you will stay in touch and respond to my posts when you feel inspired.



  2. August 10, 2009 9:25 am

    It is amazing to me that even if I already knew not to “effort” in our breathing exercises, I have through the years been reverting back to do such exercises such as holding the breathe in a meditation. I am glad to have “found” you again and hopefully will take this reminder to heart.

    I am wondering how holotropic breathwork fits in to this? The last time I went to a session, I pretty much paced myself and breathed at my own pace. I get so many benefits from it as do others, I would imagine if I breathe at my own pace and not force or effort that should be okay. My intuition tells me yes, but I still wanted to ask your thoughts.

    • August 10, 2009 9:49 am

      Thanks for your comment and question. Yes, it is very important not to force your breathing in any way. The key is staying aware and discovering your own authentic pace.

      When we observe ourselves honestly, however, we see that the mind, in particular the ego, is always trying “to do” the exercise (whatever it is). So it is important to stay vigilant and let the exercise unfold from within. The more you see and accept how the ego interferes, the less power it will have.

      As far as Holotropic Breathwork goes, the only thing I know for sure is that you need a really good, observant, and caring guide. Since I haven’t actually experienced it, I really cannot say more.

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