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This book, which covers Visions and hallucinations, explains what causes them and summarises how many hallucinations have been caused by each event or activity. It also provides specific help with questions people have asked us, such as ‘Is my medication giving me hallucinations?’.

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Controlled breathing

Category: Actions



Introduction and description

Controlled breathing is abnormal breathing consciously controlled. There is a section in the science section on normal breathing so that you can compare. 

During this activity, we control how many breaths we take per minute, how deep each breath is, how long we inhale and exhale [for example 5 seconds for inhalation, 10 seconds for exhalation]  and how we use the lungs  - do we try to exhale all the used air? Do we breathe from the diaphragm or stomach area?   We can decide to take very slow very deep breaths or we can take lots of rapid breaths, we can breathe through the nose, or breathe through the mouth.

There are literally hundreds of breathing techniques described in books and also taught on courses that are classified as controlled breathing. 

Some are totally ineffective, but do no harm; some are potentially dangerous; some would be classified as producing overload effects visions, hallucinations, and out of body states.  Some produce states of relaxation conducive to the more positive forms of experience – wisdom and inspiration, healing and movement along the spiritual path - and would be classified as suppression activities.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of the observations which include the use of breathing techniques, do not specify which specific technique is being used, as such there is little point in separating them into ‘overload controlled breathing’ and ‘suppression controlled breathing’, for example, which is why we only have one activity on the site.

Common misunderstandings

The word ‘breath’ is symbolic.  The terms ‘in-breathing’ and ‘out-breathing’, or 'inhalation' and 'exhalation' refer in much older literature to either the art of controlling Ida and Pingala during a kundalini experience, or the balancing of spirit input and spirit output needed during the later stages of the spiritual path.   

They have absolutely nothing to do with physical breathing. 

The vast majority of the older texts – often the most reliable when it comes to effective methods, - are referring solely to these two symbolic meanings.  The plethora of methods which have sprung up around a symbolic description would be comical, if it was not so tragic.

Much of this misunderstanding stems from the literal translation of the older Hindu texts. 

There are two fundamental concepts used within the Hindu cosmology – the Akasa and the Prana

It is the literalisation of the symbolic term Prana and the associated word Pranayama, which is probably the root cause of these problems. 

Prana is spirit.  Pranayama actually means control of spirit – spirit input, spirit output and functions – all functions, those of the body and those of the universe. 

Raja Yoga – Swami Vivekanda
Pranayama is not, as many think, something about the breath; breath, indeed, has very little to do with it, if anything.  Breathing is only one of the many exercises through which we get to the real Pranayama. 
Pranayama  means the control of Prana.

Pranayama, in reality, is more closely aligned to manipulation of the trigger points - whether this is via sexual means or via simple stimulation of trigger points in general, of which more in a moment.


From what we have just explained you can see that controlled breathing actually covers two methods:

Manipulation of the oxygen supply


Some of the techniques are intended to work via the manipulation of the supply of gases to the body - notably oxygen.

The three classifications of breathing technique are then:

  • Decreasing the Breathing rate - deliberately decrease the breathing rate so that  less oxygen and other gases enter the lungs
  • Increasing the breathing rate  - speed up the breathing rate or make the breaths much much deeper so that we get more oxygen and other gases into the lungs.
  • Holding the breath - deliberately hold the breath so that  less oxygen and other gases enter the lungs

 Quite clearly the effects are going to be different for each approach.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
'You might just as well say,' added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, 'that "I breathe when I sleep" is the same thing as "I sleep when I breathe"!'


Trigger point stimulation

Although some techniques of controlled breathing work via the manipulation of the oxygen supply, the vast majority do not.  This vast majority includes a very large number of the Eastern systems.

Trigger points are physical points on the body which are capable of affecting the spiritual flows of energy [meridians etc].  If we imagine the rivers of spirit to be flowing around our body, trigger points can be pressed to redirect flows or dam up a flow or open up a flow more. It may be helpful to think of it like a sort of hydro scheme over which we have control via all these points.

One of the key nerves in the body is the Vagus nerve, which controls the parasympathetic nervous system.  The vagus nerve largely controls the relaxation process.  In contrast the various plexuses of the sympathetic nervous system control the excitation process.  All our nerves and organs have mirrored spirit flows.

Many of the controlled breathing exercises, particularly those that involve some form of breath holding where the muscles are tensed in key areas of the body where there are clusters of nerve endings, are actually manipulating the nervous system and thus spirit flows.

Diagram of the autonomic system according to western anatomy
showing the six plexuses of the sympathetic nervous system and the
course of the vagus nerve from Mysterious Kundalini by Dr Rele

Vagus Nerve Stimulation [VNS] has been shown medically to be possible using what are called the vagal manoeuvers.   But as we can see from the diagram at left there are quite a number of points in the body suited to vagus nerve stimulation.

Many of the controlled breathing exercises make use of vagal manoeuvres.  Using these it becomes possible to not only completely relax but also alter one's metabolism and heart rate. 

In addition the same control of muscles via breathing also alters the workings of the six plexuses [chakras] of the sympathetic nervous system. 

A number of magicians use vagal nerve stimulation to stop their pulse or apparently stop their heart, though occasionally it is via pressure on the nerves in the neck or the roof of the mouth. 

If we put this another way, the true mechanism by which this is working is stimulation via trigger points, but the appearance is given of a breathing exercise.  It is usually the tensing of the muscles as the breath is held, that results in the invocation of the parasympathetic nervous system or the pressure on the plexuses and their inactivation [or activation].



Breathing techniques are incorporated in a number of systems of spiritual experience.  The Sufis, some of the systems of Japanese mysticism, Chinese Qigong, Buddhism and so on, principally Eastern systems.

All these systems urge moderation in the area of manipulation of the breath, with teachers recommending that breathing techniques be practiced with care, and that all advanced techniques should be practiced under the guidance of a teacher. 

And the reason is that manipulation of the breath and the trigger points is not inherently safe unless you know what you are doing. 

Dorothy Walters using deep breathing techniques, for example, accidentally provoked a kundalini experience.  And she was not well as a result, because she was totally unprepared for the consequences.

Altering your breathing rate has very obvious physiological consequences.  And physiological consequences can do harm.

For this reason, I have provided very little practical detail on each of these methods, just enough to give you some idea what is done and how it works, but not enough to enable you to actually practise them by yourself.  

 Manipulation of trigger points

As explained, there are a very large number of eastern breath control methods that in reality are trigger point manipulation methods.  Some, however, are interesting hybrids that combine increases or decreases of oxygen with trigger point manipulation.


Examples of breathing methods that actually work this way include:

Increasing the oxygen supply by more rapid breathing

breath of fire?

Increasing the breathing rate by taking very rapid shallow breaths is termed medically  Tachypnea (or "tachypnoea") from the Greek: "rapid breathing". 

This supplies the body with more oxygen than it needs.  This rapid shallow form of breathing can result naturally from a psychological state such as a panic attack, thus these methods are simulating a panic attack.  Hyperventilating can give you hallucinations, visions and out of body experiences.  It can also give you brain damage.  Examples here include:

  • Riding the rocket - which is the name given to hyperventilating by children aiming for a ‘legal high’.  It is also called, Airplaning, America Dream Game, , California Headrush, California High, Cloud Nine, Elevator, Flatline Game, Flat Liner, Flatliner Game, Harvey Wallbanger, Hyperventilation Game, Indian Headrush,  Natural High,  Space Cowboy, Space Monkey,  Tingling Game, Trip to Heaven, Rocket Ride, Speed Dreaming, and Wall-Hit.
  • Holotropic Breathwork is a trademarked name.  It is a controlled breathing exercise which uses rapid breathing. It was invented by Dr Stanislav Grof and Christina Grof to help patients obtain a spiritual experience in which they could undertake “self-exploration and healing”.
  • ‘Breath of fire’ -  is a technique described in western books on yoga, using rapid - very rapid - breathing.

Increasing the oxygen supply via deeper breathing

These methods encourage a person to take slower deeper breaths, which supply the body's need for oxygen but which are regulated to ensure one does not suffer from the effects of hyperventilating.  The objective is to increase the supply of oxygen to the cells without causing vasoconstriction.  As one can see, the timing and monitoring thus has to be very precise.  The aim is to heal and improve energy supply to cells -  'invigorate' the body a bit.  If done properly one should feel more active and have a clearer head for thinking. 


Some of the methods shown above under the heading of trigger point activation and manipulation also involve an increase in oxygen supply.

The scientific community appear to be doing some good work here to make this a safer option.  I found a number of papers where this method is used with biofeedback equipment. 

I urge you to read the section on Increased breathing, as it shows how finely tuned this process is and thus how carefully it must be used.

Decreasing the breathing rate

Decreased breathing techniques are used extensively in healing and have a record for being efficacious in treating many lung diseases.  This may seem wholly irrational until one realises that those with lung diseases spend a great deal of their lives doing the equivalent of hyperventilating - gasping for air in a form of panic attack. 

There are several PubMed papers - some of which we have included, that describe the use of these techniques in TB, asthma, COPD, emphesema and in those with damaged lungs. The techniques appear to benefit from being paired with biofeedback methods.  Decreased breathing has also been shown to help with anxiety and stress, panic attacks and tension.

It appears to do this by retraining the autonomic system into breathing at a paced rate and by triggering the parasympathetic nervous system. Examples here include:

    The Buteyko Breathing system -  is a form of therapy that uses controlled breathing  to treat asthma and other respiratory problems.  The method uses various forms of monitored controlled breathing to retrain the breathing pattern of people who are suffering from respiratory and other problems. This method is based on the assumption that numerous medical conditions, including asthma, are caused by hyperventilation – ‘wrong’ breathing, but it results in relaxation and stress reduction.
  • Kaki mudra - Kaki mudra also known as Crow’s beak or Pursed lip breathing is a form of decreased breathing.  It is used by doctors and health therapists which is where the name  Pursed lip breathing comes from, and is commonly used for people with ‘advanced COPD’ - chronic obstructive pulmonary disease  - who have a tendency to hyper-inflate their lungs during attacks of bronchospasm, panic or exercise.  It is also used to help people who suffer from panic attacks, and patients undergoing respiratory rehabilitation or muscle training. 
  • Paced respiration -is used principally as a medical technique and has been shown to help with anxiety and stress, panic attacks and tension. The objective is to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system.  The therapists use instruments or metronomes or similar  to cue the ‘patients’ rather than the breathing being self-pacing.
  • Negative pressure therapy  - is a very unique form of controlled breathing.  It is mechanically assisted breathing and in tests appears to have very marked effects on healing of lung diseases as well as promoting relaxation.  Note that this form of healing is not connected with 'ventilation'.

Breath holding

It is essential in any discussion of 'breath holding' that we understand the use of the term in context.  Breath holding in the vast majority of eastern systems is symbolic and refers to the state reached when the two energy flows - spirit input and spirit output - ida and pingala have reached a balance and a still point is reached.  This still point - a kind of 'death' figuratively speaking - can be achieved via trigger point manipulation as well as mind exercises.  It is thus NOT categorically NOT the physical holding of one's breath.

If physical breath holding is used in any eastern system it tends to be for a short period and designed to press on the vagus nerve around the diaphragm.  In effect, it too would be classified as trigger point manipulation with the objective of managing energy flows.

There are western systems that have taken the breath holding literally and actually teach how to hold the breath.  This is very very dangerous for obvious reasons.  The Fainting Game evolved from these methods, a practise which has caused quite a few deaths.  No reputable system teaches literal breath holding. 

Dr. M. Hajirnis
the practice [of Laya yoga] must be undertaken with the guidance of an experienced teacher. The practice of pranayama has fallen into disrepute in the eyes of the public, mainly because of the malpractice of breath retention.”

Miscellaneous methods

    Breathing awareness - a multi-purpose method whose aim is to both teach awareness of how to breathe, but which also has a slight calming effect in its own right It is a lead in method to a number of other methods as it teaches the person how to be aware of how they breath.
  • Rhythmic breathing -  is a general term used in numerous commercial meditation books, that combines controlled breathing with forms of learning suppression in a similar way to counting over and over again. At a more specific level it uses a variety of Tedious repetitive tasks.  Many claims are made for this method - few are true.

How it works

The way that each method works has been partly described in this section.  If we now summarise:

Manipulation of the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system


The vast majority of the Eastern techniques work this way, although some benefits and effects may be derived by oxygen intake changes.  Ultimately the majority of the effects are via stimulation via trigger points, but the appearance is given of a breathing exercise. 

Note that some of these trigger points are connected to the reproductive system, as such sexual stimulation may also be involved.

The body in this sense is almost being treated like a musical instrument, with various trigger points that are 'played' via muscle tension and pressure.  It is why one of the symbolic meanings of a musical instrument is the body.  You can, in effect, play the body to derive various forms of experience - one of which is the kundalini experience.  This is why you need to know what you are doing or need help.

A yogi is thus usually simply using multiple mechanisms to stimulate various trigger points.  For example, he or she might press their heel on the perineum trigger point, perhaps press the roof of their mouth using their tongue, and then hold their breath with their stomach held tightly in, which stimulated the bunch of vagus nerves near the solar plexus

The diagram below shows the main trigger points [not all of them]

Rapid breathing

This supplies the body with more oxygen than it needs.  Despite what is said in meditation books, all these techniques rely on ‘hyperventilation’ or ‘overbreathing’ - breathing more than the respiratory drive from carbon dioxide needs us to. Physiologically it is not safe.   There is another more sinister side to this too:

Hyperventilation has been incorporated into many esoteric practices, and is used by cults to create a receptive and compliant state, within which to receive indoctrination.


Contrary to what one may think, rapid breathing does not increase the amount of oxygen to your brain or cells.   Hyperventilation and dysfunctional breathing result in too little carbon dioxide (hypocapnia) in the blood and other tissues. Rapid breathing reduces effective delivery of that oxygen to vital organs due to this low-CO2-induced vasoconstriction and the suppressed Bohr effect.  Rapid breathing thus causes carbon dioxide levels to fall below healthy levels, and respiratory alkalosis (high blood pH) develops.  The respiratory alkalosis leads to changes in the way the nervous system fires and leads to the paraesthesia, dizziness, and perceptual changes.  

The vasoconstriction can result in ischemic damage.  Any activity that deprives the brain of oxygen [which through vasoconstriction it could do] has the potential to cause moderate to severe brain cell damage.  This can lead to permanent loss of neurological function ranging from difficulty in concentration to loss of short term memory and loss of the reasoning function. Not that you would know, because your brain is damaged.

If this is not enough, these techniques have also caused other problems:

Chest. 2004 May;125(5):1951-2.  Breath of fire .. cause of pneumothorax? A case report.   Johnson DB1, Tierney MJ, Sadighi PJ.
We report a case of a 29-year-old healthy woman who presented to the emergency department with a spontaneous pneumothorax caused by a yoga breathing technique called  breath of fire.   PMID:  15136413

A pneumothorax is an abnormal collection of air or gas in the pleural space that causes an uncoupling of the lung from the chest wall. It is often called collapsed lung.

Decreasing the Breathing rate

If one deliberately decreases the breathing rate so that  less oxygen and other gases enter the lungs, one effect is to reduce the metabolism.  It is this effect which is used by the yogis when they are 'buried alive'.  But they also combine the lowering of the metabolism with surreptitious manipulation of the trigger points - those on the neck and the roof of the mouth for example, as such they are also putting themselves into a trance like condition.


Aside from any health benefits that may accrue to those who are ill from lung diseases, decreasing the breathing rate if you are well works simply via hypoxia - oxygen deprivation.  In order to understand this section from a physical point of view it may also be helpful to first refer to the science section on Hypoxia side-effects.

Thus the mechanism  by which this works if you are well or ill, is entirely  physical and you need to understand the physical implications of using them.  You can get brain damage from hypoxia, for example, so one has to use this activity with great care.

Increasing the breathing rate

The chain of effects here is complex and as a consequence a description has been provided in the Science section which shows each stage in the process and its effects.
Follow this Link - Increasing the Breathing rate.

Breath holding

If you come across any methods which advocate the use of literal breath holding they are working initially via  hypoxia - oxygen deprivation, leading on to  asphyxiation.

References and further reading

  • Int J Yoga. 2010 Jul;3(2):70. doi: 10.4103/0973-6131.72633. Effect of Pranayama (voluntary regulated breathing) and Yogasana (yoga postures) on lipid profile in normal healthy junior footballers.   - Acharya B1, Upadhyay A, Upadhyay RT, Kumar - A.Department of Research and Development, Divya Yog Mandir Trust (SIRO), Patanjali Yog Peeth, Haridwar, India.  PMID:  21170233
  • For more details on the respiratory system follow the link to Respiratory system
  • For more details on hyperventilation - increased rapid breathing - follow the link to Hyperventilation

Related observations