Podcast 162: Breathing Exercises & Herbs for Breath Work

“Take a breath, it’ll help!” You’ve heard it before. But what if breathing is difficult or constrained? Breathwork is the answer.

Breathing is like any other movement: there are ways to build efficiency and resilience through practice. Simple exercises can get you breathing deeper, and give you a visceral massage or “inside yoga”. And there are herbs for breath work, too! They can remove the obstacles to deep breathing and help to enhance your practice.

In this episode we’ll share some simple breathwork practices for you to explore. Then we’ll highlight three favorite herbs we turn to for help enhancing our breathing exercises: lobelia (Lobelia inflata), New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), & elecampane (Inula helenium).

Mentioned in this episode:

Our Respiratory Health course includes more discussion of the importance of breathing, as well as key herbs to work with and methods for targeting herbal remedies to the sinuses & lungs. Asthma, cold/flu/corona, COPD, and other troubles are covered in detail. Your purchase also gives you access to our twice-weekly live Q&A sessions, so you can connect with Ryn & Katja directly; as well as student communities, discussion threads, printable guides, and plenty more!

PS: Make sure to listen to the end of the episode for a discount code worth $50 off any of our courses!!

As always, please subscribe, rate, & review our podcast wherever you listen, so others can find it more easily. Thank you!!

Our theme music is “Wings” by Nicolai Heidlas.

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Episode Transcript

Katja (00:00:15):
Hi. I’m Katja.

Ryn (00:00:15):
And I’m Ryn.

Katja (00:00:16):
And we’re here at the Commonwealth Center for Holistic Herbalism in Boston, Massachusetts.

Ryn (00:00:18):
And on the internet everywhere thanks to the power of the podcast. All right folks. This week we’re going to talk about breathing, and breathing exercises, herbs to support them. Maybe make them a little more deep, a little more successful for you. Because you know, people are always telling you to breathe, right? Especially at moments when you’re, you know, stressed out perhaps or feeling a little agitated. Oh, just take a breath.

Katja (00:00:47):
Yeah, or like just try a breathing exercise. It comes right along with try meditation. And that can be so frustrating to hear. And yet actually it is super helpful. So it’s worth taking a minute to kind of think about how can we make this more accessible, even for people who have some difficulty with breathing.

Ryn (00:01:10):
Yeah. And I think a key thing here is that just like, hey, maybe you should exercise more. Or hey, why don’t you eat better? Like to say try a breathing exercise is just not enough information for people to really go ahead and get started with that. So we’re going to describe a few. And you can sample them and see which ones work for you. But before we dive in, let’s just take a moment and remind you that we are not doctors. We are herbalists and holistic health educators.

Katja (00:01:36):
The ideas discussed in this podcast do not constitute medical advice. No state or federal authority licenses herbalists in the United States. So these discussions are for educational purposes only.

Ryn (00:01:48):
We want to remind you that good health doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. Good health doesn’t exist as an objective standard. It’s influenced by your individual needs, experiences, and goals. So we’re not trying to present a dogmatic right way that you should adhere to.

Katja (00:02:03):
And everybody’s body is different. So the things that we’re talking about may or may not apply directly to you. But we hope that they’ll give you some good information to think about, and some ideas to research further.

Ryn (00:02:13):
Finding your way to better health is both your right and your own personal responsibility. This doesn’t mean that you’re alone on the journey, but it does mean that the final decision when considering any course of action, whether it’s discussed on the internet or prescribed by a physician, is always yours to make. All right. So first just a couple of comments on why breathing exercises are good for you.

Katja (00:02:39):
If you’re like, why does this work?

Breathing & the Vagus Nerve: It Goes Both Ways

Ryn (00:02:40):
Yeah, what’s going on with this. And we actually want to start talking about a nerve. So it’s a nerve or kind of a bundle of nerves called the vagus. And it’s the wanderer. Vagus means wanderer. You can think of like the word vagabond. Yeah. So it’s the wanderer, because it doesn’t follow a nice straight clean line. It kind of wiggles a little this way and then little that way, and moves in amongst your organs, your viscera. And it’s connected to each of them. It’s gathering information from them and sending that up to the brain. It’s passing information from the brain down into the organs. And a lot of the information in question here is are we safe? Is it dangerous? Should I be instituting a body-wide stress response? And so you get information coming from the organs up and from the brain down. And they kind of collaborate and make this sort of determination together.

Katja (00:03:37):
Right. But there’s like a dual reality of the vagus nerve maybe. Because on one hand it’s sort of assessing the situation to say should I be freaked out right now? But it’s also assessing the situation to say is everything chill? Is it actually time to just chill out? And it’s ready to receive either one of those messages, whichever message is the actual message, right? Whichever the state of your body is in and the state of your brain. And that’s I think why it’s so important that it goes in both directions too. Because if your brain is amped up, you can amp up the rest of your body. And so that message going down can be like panic, panic. Everybody panic. The brain is panicked. We should all panic. Or you know, it can go the other direction. Like your brain could be maybe not super engaged, neither panic nor chilled out, but the rest of your body is chilled out. And so the message going up could be like, oh. Everything feels pretty chill right now. All right, you know. Whatever. So it’s like four dimensional chess. I don’t know. It’s like messages are going in both directions, and like both messages are ready to be received in any moment. It’s like Schrodinger’s nerve signal. That’s what it is. In any moment it could be either message in either direction. And it just depends on if you are in fact chilled out or if you are stressed.

Ryn (00:05:11):
Yeah, yeah. So if we get stressed by something that we perceive or that we observe, whether that’s a real threat in our immediate life or whether it’s something scary on TV, that influences our breathing, right? You know when we feel stressed or anxious, we breathe faster, and we breathe in a more shallow manner. The thing is that this signal can, like you say, run in both directions. And so the way that we breathe intentionally, the way that we take control over our breathing, that can have this direct influence on our state of nervous system activation. So if we breathe short and fast and shallow in the upper part of the lungs, it triggers sympathetic activation. Even with just a few breaths like that I’m like, okay. Let’s get moving. I’m ready, you know. You can feel it happen. You can go ahead and try that if you want. And when we breathe long and slow, then that triggers what’s called parasympathetic activation. And parasympathetic is your rest and digest state. So just taking a few slow, deep breaths can be a very helpful way to quiet down your whole nervous system and say, all right. Let’s shift things over away from fight or flight towards rest and digest. And this is what’s sort of, I guess, supposed to be happening or like the most generous interpretation of that moment when you’re feeling agitated or a little pissed off. And someone’s like, just take a breath, you know. The trick is always like can you, in that moment of that agitation and anxiety or whatever else it is, can you remember to take a long slow breath? Can you get yourself there, you know, to that point where you’re ready to do it.

Katja (00:07:01):
So this also is really interesting to me on like a different level, because this kind of breathing, right? Just even if we didn’t do breath work exercises or whatever, and there was nothing fancy. It was just like take a deep breath, literally nothing else. There is a direct connection between taking a deep breath and your hormonal cascade. And that is super interesting to me. Especially because these days so much of the health concerns that we have involve the hormonal cascade, involve endocrine function, involve inflammation in the body. And so, you know, so often we’re talking about inflammation. And I’m always coming back to sugar, because it’s such a fast way to directly impact inflammation levels. And even, you know, right now we’re filming some new videos for the reproductive health course. And we’re talking about why sugar is such an effective way to work with hormonal problems in the reproductive system. Because it’s such a fast way to access and sort of reregulate the entire endocrine cascade. Whereas it’s very difficult actually to reregulate, you know, the hormones at the very end of that cascade, like estrogen and progesterone. So very much like sugar as like the fastest easiest on-ramp to endocrine reregulation, I feel like breathing is another one. That it’s like ,we are by way of the vagus nerve by way of the messages that are being transmitted about our current state, we are actually directly influencing our hormonal state. Directly making changes in cortisol levels, in adrenaline levels, and a bunch of other hormones that are really big disruptors. And so when there is something like this I get very excited, because those are not necessarily super easy or super fast always to control. You know, I mean the big ones, okay. We can do it with sugar. We can do it with breathing. But sometimes there are other things that are a little bit more complicated. And when we can access them, when we can find a way to access them quickly and easily, right? Okay. Now it’s not super fun to give up sugar, but taking a deep breath is actually. Like it’s not nearly as difficult as giving up sugar. And it’s such a quick, direct access route who the endocrine cascade, that all right. Well, I’ve just had my moment. But I have to tell you I’m very excited about it.

Ryn (00:10:00):
Yeah. Yeah. But you know sometimes people will try some deep breathing, and feel like they’re not getting the effect that they expect or that we’re talking about here. And part of that could be because the lungs are not particularly strong. And maybe they’ve been weakened by illness or didn’t develop particularly well in utero. I personally was born two months early and you know, the lungs are one of the later organs to develop in fetal development. And so those of us who were born early are often going to struggle with breathing, especially when we’re young. So, you know, I had asthma as a kid. And I can remember like being in a soccer game. And having to stop and go to the side and retch a little bit and all of that and, you know, feel bad. And you know I sort of quote unquote grew out of it over time. By the time I was in high school I could run cross country and stuff like that. But yeah, I mean, it can be a thing. And like I say, it can be that kind of congenital bit of weakness, or maybe you had a real tough round of respiratory infections. And that knocked down the lungs a bit.

Katja (00:11:13):
Listen, it can even be like there are actual muscles involved in breathing. Like we say it’s the lungs, but it’s not even just the lungs. There are all these muscles that help you do the breathing. And just like any other muscle in the body, sedentism makes them weaker. And so if you’re a person who, honestly, like most people you have the habit of shallow breathing and sort of just taking those slower, but still shallow breaths as your sort of normal breath pattern. Then that means you’re not using all those muscles that are required for that deeper breath. And so maybe it’s hard to activate those muscles. And also maybe a little like, okay. I took two deep breaths and I’m kind of out of breath, you know? So there is like just an outright exercise component to this, like an actual there’s muscles here that need to practice.

Positional Breathing Exercise: Expansive

Ryn (00:12:14):
Yeah. I just want to make a note, we do have an entire course on respiratory health. And that definitely can help out, regardless of what kind of weakness or lack of efficiency might be present in the breathing. If there is a lingering infection, if there is an issue where we need to strengthen the lungs in particular or improve oxygen uptake, there are tons of herbs that can help out with all these things. So we’re going to share a coupon code that you can use for that course at the end of the pod. But first let’s get started with some suggestions for things that you can do right now. Let’s start with some breathing exercises that can build up lung strength, and also those muscles that move the lungs. Build up strength there. And then we’ll talk about some herbs that can support that work. Okay. So with breathing exercises, there’s a few different ways that you can break these out. I’m going to kind of divide them into position, volume, and timing focused kind of exercises. So we start with positioning. Because if the position and the kind of activation that you’re using to breathe is not allowing your lungs to expand fully, then any other sort of exercise that you try is going to be limited. And it may not give the effect that you’re looking for.

Katja (00:13:37):
It’s so funny. You started to say that, and I noticed I sat up straighter.

Ryn (00:13:44):
Because you know, there is a difference in the way that you uptake oxygen from air if you just breathe into the top of the lungs, versus if you breathe down deep. They’re actually differently populated with like receptive blood vessels that are going to pull the oxygen in and move it around the body. So deep breathing is important here. And we talk about this as diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing. People use the term yogic breathing sometimes. And you may have encountered this before, but if not here’s how it goes. As you breathe, you want to kind of focus on pulling the breath down into the belly and you should feel the belly expand. And as this happens, it should be that the belly is expanding before your ribs really move. So one way to feel this is to put a hand down on your belly and another one, right on your sternum, and take a deep inhale and feel which hand moves first or moves most. You can try this sitting up. You might feel it a little more clearly if you do it while you’re laying down, laying down on your back. That should make it very clear where the movement is happening. So for now just focus on having that belly movement. That expansion of the belly as you inhale, and then a contraction or a pulling in of the belly as you exhale. There are two different muscles, or there are several different muscles, but two major ones that are involved here. The diaphragm itself is kind of like a sheet of muscle that divides your thorax from your abdomen. So the part of your chest that has like the lungs and the heart in it, that’s above the diaphragm. And then the stomach and the intestines and the liver and everything else is below the diaphragm.

Katja (00:15:34):
You know, the liver is going to be important here actually, because I got so excited about breathing being a direct access to hormonal function in the body. But listen, breathing is also a direct function to the detoxification processes in the body. Because when you breathe deeply and your moving, the diaphragm, your liver is kind of right up against it like underneath, but kind of like right against it. And so every time that you really get that diaphragm going, you’re literally giving yourself a liver massage. And that is assisting in moving more blood to the liver. It’s assisting in helping the liver to do its own functions. And it’s not super easy. Like, you know, we’ve talked before about the liver kind of is fighting against gravity during the day or during any time that you’re upright. And so getting a little movement into your liver by moving the diaphragm is we’re back to the free flowing fluids, right. We’re back to helping the exchange of blood, of oxygen, of nutrients, of waste fluids that need to be removed, all that stuff. So that’s cool.

Ryn (00:16:51):
Yeah. Right. When you exhale in this method, you’re engaging…

Katja (00:16:55):
Oh, I hope everybody wasn’t holding their breath that whole time.

Ryn (00:16:59):
I mean if you were, that’s a good practice too. We’ll come to that in a minute. Yeah. When you exhale, you’re working the transverse abdominis. And that’s important because we want to train our bodies to use these two muscles to help us to breathe, and to be the kind of automatic way that we breathe. It’s going to be more important for breathing deeply and maintaining good respiration while you’re moving or while you’re carrying something heavy. So when we do the kind of abstract practice, like just be there. Breathe deep. Feel your belly moving separate from your ribs. A lot of the intention with that practice is to make this pattern become automatic so that you can still be using that when you’re carrying something heavy, or picking your body up or climbing over things or whatever else.

Katja (00:17:51):
Or sitting in a chair at work.

Ryn (00:17:53):
For long hours. Yeah.

Katja (00:17:55):
Right? Yeah.

Ryn (00:17:57):
Yeah. Right. Okay. So once you’ve gotten that feeling of that, that belly breathing and that diaphragmatic expansion, and you’ve got that pretty solid, then we can start to explore the ribs. You know, your ribs do have a lot of movement to them really in all directions, including towards your back. And that in particular is a breathing space that we often don’t access or don’t move to. So as you breathe in and you filled your belly. It’s good and round and all full. There’s like another, there’s sort of like a space in between. And then you shift into the next gear almost. And then you can start to expand the ribs. So with this you’re not trying to lift upwards first off. Which is a common pattern that people will adopt and kind of use their traps or use their shoulders to kind of lift their rib cage and expanded it a little bit. That will get you some movement. It’s not always bad, but it’s not the primary kind of movement we want for expanding the lungs this way. It’s really that the ribs are expanding outward in all directions. They’re kind of moving away from the center of your body outward in this expressive way. So one way to feel that is to put the hands on either side of the rib cage. Fill your belly first, and then fill your upper lungs. And try to feel your hands moving away from each other and expanding in all directions. Okay. So, you can experiment with that. And again, try to always have the belly be filling first and then the upper lungs. And remember to keep some attention to your shoulders, and whether those are getting hitched up by your ears as you do that. Try to drop them down. Try to maintain relaxation in the rest of your body.

Katja (00:19:52):
I really like to do it either laying flat on the floor or sitting just like a quarter of an inch away from a wall. Because if you put your hands on the sides of your ribs, then it’s very easy to feel your ribs expanding in that direction. I mean it’s not as easy to feel your ribs expanding towards the back. And so if you are just like a quarter inch away from a wall, and then you try to breathe so that your back touches the wall. Like you try that when you take the breath it pushes your lungs. Not that you like lean back, but that your chest cavity expands backward enough to touch the wall. That is a really good way to kind of get that feedback of, okay. Now those muscles are moving back there.

Positional Breathing Exercise: Constrained

Ryn (00:20:47):
Yeah. Another way to feel that is actually another practice that I find helpful or other type of exercise around positioning. And that’s to intentionally constrain your breathing a little bit. So you’re still going to be trying to do that same kind of inner movement of expanding the diaphragm, expanding the belly, and then expanding the ribs away from the center of the body. But to do that in different positions. Like you can curl up upon yourself and then try to take that same deep breath. See how that feels. See where you feel spots of tension or resistance. You can try twisting over to one side, and then doing deep breaths into there, bending in various ways. So if this sort of sounds like what you do at a yoga class, that’s for real, right? This is sort of the inside part of yoga. You are doing some visceral massage, you know, as you twist and squeeze your organs a little bit and then get that inner movements of the expansion and contraction happening. It’s not just the liver that benefits from this.

Katja (00:21:51):
Right. You’re massaging all the, every place that you like breathe into. Like kind of if as you twist you kind of just imaginarily draw a dot on your side. And then try to breathe so that you expand into that dot, right? And you’ll feel that. You’ll feel it like massaging the muscles in that area.

Ryn (00:22:15):
Yeah, absolutely.

Katja (00:22:17):
And I think especially because in our culture and the types of things that we tend to do, we often are not having a lot of those twisting kinds of movements. Which are actually really important for core strength and really important for organ function. That when you can get a little bit of twist and then breathe into that twisty part, that really undoes some of the sedentism from when we have to get through a whole day at a desk or whatever.

Ryn (00:22:50):
Right. Yeah. And this practice I also find helpful, because it’s common when we are under load or under strain or doing something difficult, to stop breathing entirely.

Katja (00:23:03):
Oh, that would be me.

Ryn (00:23:04):
And that’s not entirely wrong, you know. There is some aspect of not exhaling fully when you’re under load or when you’re in motion, to maintain a little bit of inner bracing. Like that’s necessary for a lot of movements, especially if you’re carrying weight. But you do still want to be able to breathe. So as you’re moving, as you’re loaded, you’re not going to be taking like your entire deepest breath ever. But you do want the same basic kind of movements to be happening. And so practicing in these bent or constrained or curled positions, it helps you to get used to that feeling. And to not stop when there’s even a little bit of resistance. You know, because I think that’s the driver when we’re carrying something heavy or in an odd position. We sort of stop breathing or we take small shallow breaths, because we reach those points of resistance. And then be like, oh no. Don’t go near that. But you do need to kind of push on it, move through it a little bit. Yeah. All right. So those are some position ideas around breathing exercise.

Volume Breathing Exercise

Ryn (00:24:02):
Another one is around volume. This would maybe be the simplest, but again, position is going to come first. Because if you start doing lots of deep inhales and exhales, but they’re only deep in the upper part of your lungs, then you’re not really going to get the full effects that we’re looking for with this. So maintain that belly breathing. But this volume practice is simply, you know, X minutes of deep inhales and exhales. It could be two minutes, it could be five, it could be 30. You can do this for an hour, you know? And there are some yoga studios that run breathwork classes, where there’s a little warmup, a little belly breathing instruction, and then we’re just going to lay back and breathe deep for 40 minutes or so. I’ve been to a bunch of those in my time, and it’s a really interesting experience. So you are going to get an elevated oxygenation state in your body when you do this. You’re essentially taking in more oxygen than you really need. And that can have some benefits, but it can also get you a little bit dizzy. So when you’re doing deep breathing for volume or for time, lay down or sit down somewhere, because you are likely to get dizzy. When you’ve done it for a while, you might get more used to that feeling and better able to move around with it. But for getting started find a nice comfy spot. Lay down. Establish that good belly breathing pattern. And then stick with it and just keep on going. Set yourself a timer and get into that space. It’s a very interesting sort of a meditative experience. It does change the feeling of your body in a lot of different ways. And it’s going to vary a little bit from person to person. So explore it and see what you experience.

Katja (00:25:52):
This is something that you have a lot of control over. So my brother is, among other things, a concert tubist. He plays tuba. And he’s a big guy, but tuba requires you to be more than just a big person. Like you really can’t play it very effectively if you don’t already have large lungs, but that’s not enough. Then you have to spend a lot of time increasing the capacity of your large lungs, because tuba just requires so much air. So he spent, I mean I’m sure he still does it actually, but years and years and years with this thing called an incentive spirometer. And they use these in hospitals too for people who are recovering from lung procedures. But it basically shows you the volume of air that you’re breathing, so that you can actually see an amount on a little gauge. And then sort of the idea is, okay, now try to get like one level higher on that amount. And try to get one level higher. And you really can increase lung capacity just by doing this every day, exactly like you would do some other kind of workout. And again, sit down while you do it, because you know, like you are going to get really oxygenated. You may get a little dizzy, but over time you’ll realize that that feeling of dizziness happens later and later and later. And that your regular breathing capacity is growing every time that you do this work. So you know, and those you can literally get one of those on Amazon for $10. So if you’re a person who really does better with feedback when you’re trying to learn something, then definitely pick one of those up, because it will make a huge difference.

Ryn (00:27:47):
Yeah. It can be fun to get measures like that. You could also get a pulse oximeter, which a lot of folks picked up during COVID. Because it’s a cheap little thing. You put it on the end of your finger and it does some laser magic. And then it tells you what your oxygen saturation is. But you could try that and experiment with different breathing patterns, you know. Try some of that hyperventilation short, fast, shallow breathing and see what happens to oxygen status there. Try this like long slow belly breathing for a while and see how that changes. Yeah, it can be interesting to see those things. So while you’re breathing ,whether it’s just for a minute at a time or it’s one of these longer sessions, you can also experiment with timing a little bit. Often times when people are just sort of naturally thinking about deep breaths, maybe they understand belly breathing. They’ll often kind of breathe in and then sort of breathe out right as soon as they’ve reached their peak inhale.

Katja (00:28:47):
It’s like flow breathing.

Timing Breathing Exercise

Ryn (00:28:50):
Yeah. And there’s no problem with that. That’s a fine pattern to follow, but there are some other ways to explore timing variations here that can be worth doing. So one is called square breathing. And the square is kind of imaginary, right? What you’re imagining is an equal length of time for the inhale. A hold, an exhale, and then another hold. And so if you imagine like a little bug who’s marching along in one direction as you inhale. And then makes a left turn and then marches along as you hold your breath.

Katja (00:29:24):
My little bug made a right turn.

Ryn (00:29:26):
Okay. That’s fine.

Katja (00:29:27):
Just to be clear.

Ryn (00:29:29):
You can visualize this however you want, right? But it’s equal length of time, equal length of distance traveled for each of those four phases of the breath. And so that’s the square we imagine as we do this. So this technique is just good to practice, because there’s something extra about holding the breath in between the inhalation and the exhalation. It adds further calming effects to the system through the vagus nerve and from there to the brain and from there to everywhere else.

Katja (00:30:01):
It’s like that moment of satiety almost, and that comes in both ways. Like you can feel sated because, okay. I’m filled with breath. I have plenty of materials to draw oxygen from. And then okay, now I’ve exhaled. And there’s also a satiety there like okay. I’m in that place where I’m receptive. I’m waiting for just a moment. And then it’s going to fill again. And there’s something appealing about that too.

Ryn (00:30:36):
Yeah. And you know, when you do this it feels comfortable. You’re not like aaah, when can I breathe again? When can I breathe again?

Katja (00:30:42):
No, no. It just kind of feels like oh yes. I have all this air right now. And then aaah, okay. Wow, I have all this space right now.

Ryn (00:30:51):
Yeah. So this technique is something that is really helpful for anxiety or even panic attacks. You know, with a panic attack it would be you there with another person trying to echo and to model breathing for them. Like the one good scene in that movie After Earth. Don’t go. It was not a good movie, I’m sorry. But there was this one great scene where, you know, this father adventurer and his son. They’re like in the thing and it’s dangerous. And he wants them to calm down. And he’s like modeling breathing with his hands and the movement and the presence and all of that and like, okay. That was great. But yeah, this is something that is super helpful if you’re feeling anxious and you can get into that. Breathe in slow, hold. Breathe out slow, hold again. It really will rapidly move somebody from a stress state to a calm state.

Katja (00:31:44):
This can be handy in an asthma attack as well. And I’m not saying that somebody should just not use their inhaler and just do breathing. But you know, you don’t have to only do one thing. So, and also you know your body. Maybe you could feel the asthma attack maybe starting to get going. And you could be doing this and then okay, now the inhaler. And then do it a little bit more, and it might wrap up the attack faster.

Ryn (00:32:14):
Yeah, yeah. Well, so there’s a variant on this that would be rectangular breathing. And with this, what you’re doing here is you’re having shorter inhales than exhales, right? So people have different, you know, numbers or patterns for this. One you’ll see a lot is like a four second inhale, little bit of a pause, and then an eight second exhale, and then a little bit of a pause again. But the essential idea is that you’re spending more time exhaling than you are inhaling. And again, this is all about moving into that calmer place. As we breathe, any kind of breathing – normal resting breathing, intentional breathing, any kind at all – when we inhale, the heart rate speeds up a little bit. And when we exhale the heart rate slows down. This is one of the key factors behind what’s called heart rate variability, which is a kind of a key indicator for health. Not just respiratory health, but whole body health in a number of different ways.

Katja (00:33:16):
Yeah, your heart should not beat perfectly like a metronome. It needs to actually vary in a micro way, like just in between breath, breathing in and breathing out. But sometimes in a larger way depending on activity, depending on just different things. So you know, that idea of sort of that your heart should be a very steady rhythm. You know, people say like a drum beat, but I like metronome better because drummers are notoriously…you know, they’ll speed up.

Ryn (00:33:51):
They’ll play around with it.

Katja (00:33:51):
Yeah, exactly. But a metronome is like always going to be right on the beat. And that’s not actually how the heart needs to function. Like that’s not actually healthy for your heart. It’s actually healthy for your heart to shift depending on what’s going on.

Ryn (00:34:12):
Yeah. So those lengthened exhales are a way to emphasize that slowing effect, that calming effect, that relaxing effect. So yeah, so that’s a great one to experiment with too.

Katja (00:34:23):
Oh wait, there’s another factor there. And that is remember that your lungs are an organ of elimination, right? This is another way that you remove waste from your body. And it’s not just – I mean it is just aerosol waste – but it is not just like you breathed something in that you didn’t need. It’s also – we can just use garlic as an example – that if you eat a bunch of garlic, the essential oils of garlic, or many of them, are going to be excreted through your lungs. And that’s part of why garlic is so helpful for respiratory problems. Because even if you didn’t do a steam and breathe in the garlic, it is still going to get to your lungs, and to do so fairly quickly. But so the thing here is that because we typically only breathe with the top of our lungs, it means that there’s just a bunch of trash piled up at the bottom of the lungs. It might be leftover pathogens from the last respiratory infection that you had. It might be just gunk that is waiting to be eliminated from your body and that you haven’t really gotten out of you yet. And this is also why, like let’s say you get a cold or a respiratory infection, and you stay home for a couple of days. But then you really have to get back to work, and you’re not really better yet. So you go back to work and you’re like kind of limping along, but whatever. Like you pull everything together. And now you’re kind of fine, but not really, exactly fine. And then like a month later you have another respiratory infection. Because what really happened was that a bunch of the pathogens were leftover. And they kind of like went down to the bottom of your lungs to hang out where you weren’t attending to them. And then they come back. Like they multiply there, and they rear up again. And now your respiratory infection comes back. Like they really are just hiding there in the corners where you weren’t cleaning. And so exercises like this where you’re really focused on the exhale. And you’re really…it’s like spring cleaning in your lungs. You’re really getting down to the very bottom. You’re getting the corners. You’re getting under the rug. And getting everything up and out of the lungs so that everything is clean in there, and sort of a metaphorically clean. But it’s really about that free flowing fluids, except here it’s actually free exchange of, full exchange of air.

Ryn (00:37:03):
Yeah. I think technically air qualifies as a fluid, but I’m not a physicist though.

Katja (00:37:10):
Any rate it’s like, you’re not walking around with stale air at the bottom of your lungs. You really are exchanging all of the air all the way down to the tippy bottom.

Breath Holding Exercise

Ryn (00:37:20):
Yeah. All right. So the last kind of exercise I want to talk about is breath holding. And this is one where you’re for sure going to want to do this sitting or lying down, because dizziness or seeing a little stars may occur if you’re really going for it. And with this you can kind of expand on the square breathing or the rectangular breathing idea. You’re going to want some long inhales and exhales but you can try holding at the peak of your inhale. Just hold as long as you can before you start to breathe out. You can also do it at the peak of your exhale, or I guess that’d be the nadir of the exhale, right? As you breathe all the way out, just to hold, wait. See what happens. Aaaah. There might be some diaphragm spasms that occur, and that can feel really uncomfortable. You, after a little while with this practice, will start to be able to pass through some of those. My experience has been that in time you begin to be able to allow some of those spasms to occur, some like tension to build in the diaphragm, and learn how to intentionally relax it. And this will only ,go on so long. Eventually there’s going to come one that’s too much and you find yourself breathing in kind of involuntarily. That’s okay. But the idea with breath holding is that this is a way to try to improve your body’s capacity for oxygenation, and your body’s capacity for cellular respiration to occur easily without always needing an immediate breath or an immediate inhale as soon as you finish your exhale or vice versa.

Ryn (00:39:07):
So you can try your breath holding practice in in various ways, right? You can try taking in a deep breath, holding as long as you can. And then when that moment comes, you just let it all out. You breathe in again. You’re fine. You can also try it the other way around. Exhaling fully. Waiting in that space for as long as you can. You could try alternating back and forth. Like I’m just going to allow myself that one inhale, hold as long as I can. Breathe out as far as I can and then hold there too. And then wait for the next inhale. So that you can play with this in a lot of different ways. One important way to try experimenting is to take three minutes or five minutes of deep, slow belly breathing to oxygenate your system before you embark on a breath hold. That will usually extend the amount of time you can hold your breath by a pretty substantial amount. So that will feel really different. And that can also be quite helpful to reach the kind of quiet space in a breath hold. Where it’s not like you’re actively working or like gritting your teeth the whole time. In fact, that’s quite counterproductive. The goal here is to become as relaxed as possible through your whole body. So it’s kind of like in a meditation practice where you sort of move your consciousness through your physical body. And find the tense places and say it’s okay. Let go. I don’t need that right now. Just let it go. And there can be this really deep place of calm and quiet in the midst of a breath hold when you do that. Especially if you’ve gotten a little extra oxygenation beforehand. So yeah, so a little more advanced, but it is worth experimenting with. And not only if you’re interested in diving.

Katja (00:40:55):
Right. I think that there’s so much in terms of emotional…I’m going to say emotional control. I don’t love exactly that phrase. So I’m acknowledging that it’s imperfect. But I can’t think of a better one right now. But like that kind of a practice can really help you when you get into a space where you don’t have what you need emotionally. And you know, because you’ve spent all this time practicing not having oxygen for a minute, and it’s fine.

Ryn (00:41:29):
It’s so emotional. It’s like oh, I’m worried. I’m getting a little more worried. Okay. All right, calm down.

Katja (00:41:34):
Like I can decide to breathe any time, actually.

Ryn (00:41:36):
It’s going to be okay. Yeah. But there is. There’s a lot of emotional regulation that’s required here.

Katja (00:41:42):
Right. And then when you get into the moment of like, you’re feeling a little panicky. You’re feeling dumped on. You’re feeling like you’re carrying more weight than you have the resources to carry like emotionally. All those things are real. And there may need to be changes made, because it’s not necessarily sustainable. But in that moment it becomes a little bit easier to manage when you’ve done this kind of practice.

Ryn (00:42:12):
You could describe yourself in that moment as feeling breathless. Right? Like I’ve got so much going on. I’m just out of breath all the time. And if you’ve practiced holding your breath when needed for a little while, like yeah. That’s going to shade over into the rest of your life too.

Katja (00:42:25):
Yeah. Almost like this may not be okay. And yet I’m trained, and I know how to do what I need to do right now. And so we’ll deal with whether or not it’s okay. You know, that’s a separate issue. I’m not saying that you should continue to be in a situation where you know, where it’s not emotionally sustainable. But sometimes in a moment you do have to do that, and this is like training for it. And training that resilience up for like, okay. In this moment I can do what I have to do.

Lobelia to Relax the Breath

Ryn (00:42:59):
Yeah. All right. Well, so we’re herbalists after all. And there are some herbs that can really help with these practices. So you know, when we were chatting before and thinking about a few herbs to highlight, I think lobelia was probably the first one to come to mind.

Katja (00:43:16):
Yes. So the thing here is that I have anaphylactic allergy of all things to marijuana. And yes, that is tremendously inconvenient. And I work with lobelia to manage that. And so, you know, I have like literally countless experiences with being unable to breathe, feeling my throat closing up. And then, you know, a little bit of lobelia and then things opened back up again actually very, very quickly. It’s phenomenal. And so yeah, whenever anybody is talking about well, it gets to be hard for me to breathe. That’s always the first thing that comes to my mind, because it’s so visceral for me in my own body. Lobelia is a relaxant, and it is serious about it. Like it’s not a joke. It is super duper relaxing, and really it’s relaxing effects are systemic. In fact, we have a student – well, she’s not a student anymore. She’s a graduate.

Ryn (00:44:29):
Graduate. Yeah.

Katja (00:44:30):
She’s got her own practice now, and she’s amazing. And she’s also a doula. And she was working with somebody, and they were kind of stalled out in their labor process due to tension. And that’s so common. Like feeling stressed out, feeling, fear, feeling the different things that make your body tense up is the most common reason for labor to stall.

Ryn (00:44:55):
Now why would anybody feel that way in the midst of labor?

Katja (00:44:57):
Right.

Ryn (00:44:58):
It’s such a, you know, day in the park.

Katja (00:45:01):
Right, exactly. And so she was in the position to, she gave this person lobelia. She’s like, oh, let’s try this. And then she was in the position to measure, like within 10 minutes, there were three centimeters worth of dilation just from the relaxation. And that got her very excited. So then she started doing it frequently with the intention of, I want to try this and then I want to measure to see if this is universal. And so I thank all of her doula clients who allowed her, and were also interested in this, to be able to gather that data. But so I want to be clear that lobelia is not just having this effect only on the lungs.

Ryn (00:45:49):
Which is great because like, you know, there’s going to be that diaphragmatic spasm, and this is an antispasmodic. It’s going to help to limit that effect at least a bit,

Katja (00:45:59):
Plus that tension happens everywhere. When you start to not be able to breathe, like that’s actually only half of the problem. If it were just that alone, and you didn’t have an emotional response, it would be way easier to manage. But what happens is that as it starts to happen then the panic happens. And that tenses up your body. Like it’s almost like as soon as you start to realize that you’re not breathing, the panic sets in, and it just starts to snowball. It starts going so fast. And so lobelia is managing actually all of these situations, because of its relaxant qualities. And it’s fast. It’s super, super fast. So whether you are…like you can work with lobelia every day if you want to. If you’re a person who just carries a lot of tension in your lungs. If you frequently breathe very shallowly and it’s difficult for you to take a really deep breath. Even if you have a lot of like constriction in the muscles around the ribs.

Ryn (00:47:00):
Or the belly. You know, like sometimes people have trouble like releasing the ab muscles, because they’ve been holding in that bell. Got to get that nice tight belly and always be, you know, don’t let anybody see a little bulge happen. But for this kind of deep breathing, like you’re intentionally trying to make Buddha belly.

Katja (00:47:20):
Yes. So one little thing about lobelia though. The best way to work with it is in tincture, because it is not only not delicious, but it is a emetic. Now that is not because it’s toxic, and it’s not a bad thing either. Sometimes you require an emetic. And so it’s really helpful to know that this plant can do that. But in this particular case, puking is not necessarily on the menu. It’s not what we want to be doing.

Ryn (00:47:53):
Not a part of our, you know, relaxation building breath work practice.

Katja (00:47:58):
Yeah, no. Not very relaxing. So with tincture we can really dose it very carefully, and get pretty precise about how much we’re taking. So people hit that emetic action at different points. In my body that’s about three droppers full, but that’s not common. I think it’s because I’ve been working with it for like, I don’t know, close to 20 years now. And so frequently that I don’t start to feel that nausea happen until like I’ve taken a pretty large dose. But for somebody who’s just starting with lobelia, then probably five drops. Three to five drops is a good starting point. Now that might not be enough to get the relaxation effect that you need. But it’s a good place to start because it’s very safe with regard to the emesis. If you’re a person with a touchy belly, that’s probably not enough to make you feel nauseous or vomit. And then you can start there and say oh, I do feel myself relaxing. Or I don’t feel it yet. I’m going to take three drops more and three drops more. And you’ll find what your dose is when you feel that relaxation. Maybe it’s 10 drops for you or 15 drops or maybe eight will do it. But you’ll find it, and that’ll be your dose. And that way you’ll just have that as your dose so that you don’t…you know, this is not the sort of thing that you want to just take a whole spoonful, because that will probably make you vomit.

Asters to Open the Breath

Ryn (00:49:30):
Hmm. Yeah. All right. So the next one that I want to talk about is really not just one single herb, but kind of a group. So here we’re thinking of resinous aster family plants, or asters in particular. So New England aster is a great one here, and the one that we’ve worked with mostly. Because, you know, we’re in New England.

Katja (00:49:54):
No, it grows all over. It doesn’t just grow in New England.

Ryn (00:49:58):
But it does grow here, you know. Purple sticky aster is one that folks have worked with in similar ways. You know, so New England aster was one that I first heard about from Jim McDonald. Because herbs, they kind of come and go in in popularity.

Katja (00:50:15):
There’s trendiness in herbalism, yeah.

Ryn (00:50:17):
Yeah. This herb has been known to American herbalists since like the 1700s. And you can see monographs about it from the eclectics and the physiomedicalist people.

Katja (00:50:26):
I mean I would bet that people living on this continent probably were working with it much longer than that, but in terms of white people who wrote it down in a book..

Ryn (00:50:34):
Yeah. Thanks. That’s exactly what I meant. Yeah. So it kind of isn’t quite on the level of like your chamomiles and your lavenders and your peppermints and whatever.

Katja (00:50:48):
Well, in terms of relaxation?

Ryn (00:50:50):
No, just in terms of the commonality and popularity. Sort of like in the conference, Facebook, and internet discussion lists herbal community.

Katja (00:50:58):
Yes. That’s true. But I think also, because I thought you were comparing it in a relaxing way, and I think that is also a true statement. But because it’s got…like there’s a Venn diagram between New England aster and chamomile, right? And like in the middle of that Venn diagram is that like some relaxing action.

Ryn (00:51:20):
A nervine effect. Yeah.

New Speaker (00:51:21):
Yeah. But then New England aster continues to have this also…Like the part that is not shared with chamomile is this like strong expectorant or potent expectorant, strong in the terms of effective. It’s not strong like you’ll immediately start coughing all of the gunk out of your lungs forever. I don’t mean it like that. I mean effective.

Ryn (00:51:43):
Yeah. Yeah. This one, I mean, it is an expectorant. But I’d say more than that, it’s an anti-spasmodic and a bronchodilator, right? So the bronchi are those tiny little tubes inside the lungs where the gas exchange happens. So this herb helps to open those up. And it’s one of those things where you can feel it most if you’re having trouble breathing, right? If your breathing is constrained, if the amount of expansion you can get is quite limited, or if you feel like you’re trying to take deep breaths, but you’re not feeling that oxygenation wave coming into you. Then it might be a good idea to experiment with purple sticky aster, New England aster, or other kinds of resinous aster flowers. And see if they can get this kind of effect we’re looking for. I’ve worked with purple, with New England aster primarily as tincture.

Katja (00:52:37):
Yeah. We’ve never really had enough of it to make us tea, although some people do.

Ryn (00:52:40):
Yeah, there’s a spot I used to visit more frequently. And there was some New England aster growing there. And so whenever I went by, I would like grab a few flower heads and eat them. It’s actually a great way to work with the herb, if you have some growing or if you can cultivate some around where you live. Just getting the fresh flower heads right off the plant is a really awesome way to work with this one. They taste good, you know. They’re pleasant for this and everything. So yeah, that or tincture. And with tincture if I take this before a breath work session, I do feel a difference. I did that last night actually. And I was like, all right. Let’s try this out and try it out again, and see that feeling. And yeah, it adds a little different quality, especially in the first few rounds of a breath holding practice. That can like take a little while for you to get into the groove. And I feel like this helped me to get into that state a little bit more easily. Yeah.

Elecampane to Build the Breath

Katja (00:53:41):
Okay. So then there’s another one of my favorites, and that’s elecampane. And I feel like elecampane is one of the poster child herbs of the Commonwealth Center for Holistic Herbalism, right? I really am on the elecampane train. And I think that’s also because it’s just so necessary. It never has not been necessary, right? Like human health changes over time. The types of health problems that people have change over time. Maybe, you know, there were probably centuries and millennia where it was pretty much always just infectious disease and bronchial infections and gastrointestinal.

Ryn (00:54:26):
And injuries.

Katja (00:54:26):
Yeah. Like probably it was the same old stuff for a long time. But then like even not though, like it was really punctuated by the development of big cities in different locations. Because listen…

Ryn (00:54:38):
Yeah, particularly respiratory issues.

Katja (00:54:40):
Yeah. But I want to sort of differentiate between diseases of civilization – and I’m putting quotey marks around that – because what I really mean is diseases of citification. And those have always – you know, cancer and inflammatory diseases and whatever – those are not new. The ancient Greeks were writing about that. And they were writing about that in ancient Rome. And, you know, if you get a bunch of people together and you feed them bread and sugar, like they’re going to get diabetes. They’re going to get inflammatory diseases. That’s how a human body works. So I think that these days, because inflammatory diseases and like industrialization-mediated diseases are so common in our culture, we’re so frequently focused around inflammation. But and maybe a little less around injury these days, you know, because we’re not out with the scythe and the sickle and the, you know, like that kind of work all the time. But the thing that really hasn’t changed over all this time is respiratory diseases. Like that is a big thing that just is always true. And elecampane has been important all through history. And for me, I’ve got to tell you, it is the number one most important respiratory herb – okay, except lobelia – in my personal practice, like for myself, but also with my clients, because it is just so darn effective. And this is a plant that is extremely effective when you’re super sick, like really sick. And there’s just crud in your lungs that you can’t get out. It is super effective if it’s even something like COPD, where it’s like the crud in your lungs that you can’t get out is also becoming obstructive. But it is also a plant that you can work with every day to build up strength.

Katja (00:56:47):
It’s one of those gentle, but potent herbs. And especially if you’re a person who has always had a lot of lung problems. I’m thinking about a woman who, you know, she grew up and her parents were both smokers. And so she had that all of her life, like just being around cigarette smoke all the time. And now she’s, you know, in her fifties or early sixties and gets respiratory infections really, really easily. And sort of looks back and says like, wow. My lungs really have never been strong. And I think it’s because I grew up in a house full of smokers. And like that’s one of those kind of perfect examples of in a situation like that, Working with elecampane every day, just a little. You know, it can be tincture. It’s not a delicious decoction. And I really love working with it as a decoction, because I find it so effective. But if you’re going to do it every day, it is more like it’s just easier to do as a tincture. That’s totally fine. But a little bit every day really does keep things running. It’s like your daily maintenance kind of thing. And I get very excited when there are plants who can do these daily maintenance, this kind of daily maintenance work, and then also the like, oops, catastrophe, like everything is broken down kind of work.

Ryn (00:58:17):
Yeah.

Katja (00:58:18):
It’s like the Scotty of…or chief O’Brien or whoever in the Star Trek world, right? Like they can keep it running from day to day. And then when the warp core shuts down and we need to give it all she’s got and all the other things, then they can do that too. Like whatever you need.

Ryn (00:58:35):
Nice. Yeah. Elecampane is pretty fantastic that way. So I’d say especially,

Katja (00:58:41):
It can’t beam you up, but other than that…

Ryn (00:58:43):
Yeah. I would think of this one particularly if there has been a history of respiratory weakness, childhood asthma, you know, other things like that. Whether it’s still with you or whether it feels like it’s mostly receded, it could still be a good idea to work with elecampane consistently for a month or so. And see how it affects your respiratory resilience and strength over that period of time. I’d bet on good things. Yeah. All right. So there we go. There are some breathing exercises to try out. There are some herbs that could help out with that or enhance that or maybe clear some obstacles for you. So this is again, this is a practice that I’ve gotten a lot out of over the years. I’ve tried a pile of different variations from various teachers. I’m about to go take a little training and try to bump up my breath holding capacity a little further. So I’ll report back and let you know how that all goes. But for more on respiratory system and respiratory health…

Katja (00:59:47):
Right. Because wait, there’s more. There’s so much more.

Ryn (00:59:50):
Yeah. So for more on that, managing and supporting them, check out our respiratory health course. It’s an online video-based training course for you to learn how to work with herbs – and other natural, you know, holistic interventions like breath work – to improve the health of your respiratory system.

Katja (01:00:12):
You will not only get the videos in the course, but you’ll get access to the twice weekly Q&A sessions that Ryn and I host live every week. And so you can just ask us your questions right there in person. Of course you can ask your questions in writing any time, and we try to reply to those in less than 24 hours. We usually do.

Ryn (01:00:30):
Yeah, those are integrated right into the course itself. It’s not like you have to, you know, bounce over to your email and send us a message. Right there in the video…

Katja (01:00:39):
While you’re watching, you can be typing the question.

Ryn (01:00:41):
Yeah. Yeah. Put in your discussion thread comment right in there.

Katja (01:00:44):
But it’s also cool because we love chatting with our students at Q&A. We love answering questions. We love seeing what everybody’s working on, what everybody’s thinking about. And so we would like to do that with you too. So you can sign up for the respiratory health course or any of our online courses at online.commonwealthherbs.com. And bonus, you can use coupon code PODCAST to get $50 off. So you should do that.

Ryn (01:01:19):
That’s a good deal y’all. Yeah. So remember at checkout using the coupon code PODCAST, get $50 off the respiratory health course or any of our other courses. And we’ll see you in the discussions, we’ll see you in the Q&A. Yeah. Sounds good. So until then, and until next time we come back with some more Holistic Herbalism podcast, take care of yourselves. Take care of each other. Drink some tea.

Katja (01:01:44):
Drink some tea.

Ryn (01:02:02):
And breathe deep.

Katja (01:02:02):
Yes. Bye bye.

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