Straw Breathing

Steve W.

Level 6 Valued Member
Straw breathing came up in the current thread on S&S 2.0. I’ve been practicing straw breathing semiregularly for many years (almost two decades) and find it extremely beneficial. When I practice straw breathing regularly, I feel like I get winded less easily and my breathing normalizes quicker after becoming elevated. I’m qualifying that statement with “I feel” because it’s my subjective impression and not backed by any specific measurement.

I like straw breathing from a practical standpoint because it’s so simple and easy – just get a straw and breathe. It doesn’t require any particular training and I don’t have to make separate time for it; I can do it while reading, doing paperwork, watching TV, etc.

My rationale for doing it and my hypothesis about how it works are perhaps a little different than what I’ve heard or read. People involved with Second Wind or other breathing practices may have their own ideas about it, but this is my perspective.

First, here are some ways I DON’T look at straw breathing, and what I focus on when I am practicing it.

First, I don’t see it as training deep or abdominal/diaphragmatic breathing. I never pay attention to what my diaphragm is doing when I straw breathe, and I don’t think about directing my breath to a specific location or using specific muscles. And I don’t think I am breathing deeply. If anything, I am breathing shallowly.

Straw breathing restricts the rate of air intake, and the volume of the straw probably also means you are “recycling” some air before pulling in fresh air in each breath. At first (especially when out of practice) it feels like you can’t get enough air. The tendency is to try to suck/blow harder to move more air faster. But this just butts against a bottleneck (almost literally) and doesn’t really work. Instead, I try to breathe slowly and lightly, consciously trying to minimize the pressure behind each breath, avoiding “overloading the bottleneck,” and keeping the flow of air through the straw free, smooth and steady.

But I also don’t think of it as a hypercapnic technique (and hypercapnia, by definition, is a pathological condition).

In fact, I don’t look at straw breathing as breath training or retraining at all. I don’t have any expectation that it has any effect on my breathing “technique,” beyond the time I am actually breathing through a straw.

Ultimately, I don’t really care how it works; I just do it and enjoy the benefits. But here’s my hypothesis about what is happening.

I think the benefit of straw breathing lies in retraining the nervous system to be less sensitive to mild oxygen deficiency. Instead of the threat/panic response of “I’m not getting enough air,” your body learns to relax and think, “No big deal, I’ve got this.” Then when you are engaged in strenuous activity, that blunted nervous response keeps your breathing from getting elevated as fast or severely, and the “emergency alert” state gets turned off quicker. Even if nothing different is happening in terms of breathing technique or metabolism, your body’s interpretation of its condition, and consequent reaction to that condition, is different.

Going off on a bit of a tangent, but I partly arrived at this hypothesis by analogy with pain science. Current pain science understands pain as an interpretation of the nervous system. Sometimes that interpretation is a protective response to tissue damage or immediate threat. But often it is a dysfunctional overreaction or misinterpretation that doesn’t serve a protective function, but still produces the sensation of pain.

IMO, physical therapy and non-clinical “movement training” should in many cases focus less on “stretch this/strengthen that” or on “correcting” “deviations” from “ideal” movement patterns and more on training the nervous system (sometimes this requires a little creative trickery and devious misdirection) to accept normal or desirable movements as safe and unthreatening, and not triggers for pain sensations or dysfunctional muscle tension and movement restriction. BTW, this is a similar principle to Pavel’s “Relax into Stretch.” You increase range of motion by convincing the nervous system to allow it, not by physically stretching tissues. It is also (IMO) why Original Strength has so many positive effects.

Anna C

Level 9 Valued Member
Elite Certified Instructor
Lots of great thoughts there. Makes a lot of sense and I think you're right - about the effects of straw breathing, how easy it is to do, the resetting of the brain's response to the slight oxygen deficiency, the mechanisms of pain science and the similarities there.

I've been slowly building my breathing practice to incorporate the things I learned at Second Wind, and straw breathing was the first that I started to use because in many ways it's the simplest to do. The tool teaches the method.

At Second Wind we did essentially what was in S&S 1.0, but a little more structured. 3 minutes breathing through 1 straw. 3 minutes break (while the lecture continued). Then 3 minutes with a second straw inserted to the first, so the straw was 2 straws long. Then 3 minutes break. Then 3 minutes with 3 straws, for those who were comfortable. It was quite pleasant and relaxing. The 3 straws definitely encourages a long, slow, deeper breath which is relaxing in itself. And the more straws there are, the more CO2 you are "rebreathing", so the greater the hypercapnic effect.

Pavel recommended to do this after training. Before training is OK, but not before high power/strength. You don't need to pause or take the breaks that we did, and can go right to the 3 straws or whatever you're comfortable with.
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