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November 12, 2019 7 min read

Breathing…receiving and releasing…inhale/exhale/repeat...
When was the last time you actually noticed your breath?   Breathing is something most of us take completely for granted.  We do it automatically without thinking and usually without awareness.  And yet...breathing is absolutely vital to our survival.
 
Breath is life.  It is a living energy and active force within our being.  Every single cell in our body requires the oxygen we breathe to function properly.   Our brain needs a great deal of oxygen each second to process information. Our organs need it to function efficiently. The ability to think, feel, move, eat, sleep and even talk all depend on energy generated from oxygen. And the only way to get oxygen to all those cells is by inhaling and exhaling.  The quality of our breathing has a profound effect on our physical and mental health and wellbeing.
 
We breathe 12-16 times per minute*.  That's up to 23,000 times a day, or more if we exercise.  And we can only last about 3 minutes without it.
 
Breath connects us directly to the environment that creates the oxygen we breathe, the forests and the oceans.  And it connects us to all other beings.  Think about it - we are all breathing the same air!
 
Breath is powerful.  There is a strong connection between our breath and our emotions, and we can very quickly shift our emotions, bring ourselves to a state of higher vibration, by focusing on our breath and changing the way we breathe.  We can use it to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, to feel immediately more calm and grounded.
 
Breathing is the only physiological process that we can control...or not control.  We can consciously change it and use it, or we can just let it be, let the body breathe on it's own.
 
Breath is at the heart of every form of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practice.  We move to the pace of our breath during yoga practice, using it to connect with our body and our mind.  We use our breath as a focal point during meditation, as an anchor to ground us in the present moment.  Our breath can take us to places we aspire to go, it can be a portal to higher awareness.  
 
As yogis and meditators and people concerned with well being, we owe it to ourselves to understand the workings and the bigger picture of this vital process, and how to make the most of our inhales/exhales.
 
Breathing and the science of breath is a very vast subject, but here are a few insights that I hope will give you a new appreciation and greater awareness of your breath.
 

How does our breathing process work to keep us alive and healthy?

Breathing is a very complex process of gas exchange which takes place in the lungs as well as in every cell of our body.  As we inhale through the nose and down into the lungs, we bring oxygen into the bronchial trees, where tiny air passages end in alveoli, microscopic air sacs with very thin and membranous walls.  This is where the exchange of gases takes place.  Oxygen is absorbed through the walls of the alveoli into a network of tiny capillaries where it is picked up by the blood stream and transported to the body’s individual cells.  The heart propels the oxygenated blood to each each cell, where a similar gas exchange takes place.  The cells absorb the energizing oxygen and release carbon dioxide, a byproduct of the metabolism of energy.  The blood then transports this carbon dioxide back to the alveoli in the lungs where it is exchanged with fresh oxygen and then released as we exhale.  All this is done over and over and over and over...

Efficient breathing means that you are breathing in a way that brings enough oxygen into your body to properly support the functions of all your cells and organs. 

 

What the heck is the diaphragm and why is it important?

The diaphragm is the key to efficient breathing.  To get the most benefit from your breathing cycles, the efficient solution is diaphragmatic breathing (also called abdominal breathing, belly breathing).  The diaphragm is a flat, dome shaped muscle just under your lungs that essentially divides the torso into two cavities, one stacked on top of the other: the chest cavity above, the abdominal cavity below.  The lungs are directly above the diaphragm. In its resting position, the diaphragm billows up into the the chest cavity somewhat like a parachute or dome.  When we inhale deeply we actually push the diaphragmatic floor downward, creating that sensation of filling your belly with breath.

Three phases occur in sequence when you breath to maximum capacity:  diaphragmatic breathing (into the lower lungs), thoracic breathing (into the mid lungs) and clavicular breathing (into the upper lungs - this type of breathing is only significant when the maximum amount of air is needed such as during vigorous exercise). 

Then of course there is the exhalation, the release of air in the lungs, the relaxation of the muscles.  Most often, we find a pause between the inhalation and the exhalation.

The lower portions of the lungs are where the major portion of blood circulates and where the majority of the gas exchanges take place.  Therefore  breathing into the lower lungs through diaphragmatic breathing ensures that the blood is oxygenated in the most efficient manner.   

 

What happens if we are not breathing efficiently?

Poor breathing habits can create unnecessary stress for our body, if we can't get enough oxygen to our organs they won't function as well as they should.  Poor habits include shallow breathing, mouth breathing, holding your breath, and chest breathing.  If we are only breathing into the mid and upper parts of the lungs by expanding the chest (thoracic breathing), the oxygen we inhale is not mixed as thoroughly with blood and more work is required to do the job, resulting in us having to take more frequent breaths.   It means more oxygen is needed, more blood needs to flow through the lungs, and the heart needs to work harder.  So give your heart a break!  Breath more efficiently.

 

What are the effects of efficient breathing?

Getting enough oxygen into your body through your respiratory system is vital to your health.  Here are 10 effects of efficient breathing:

  1. strengthens the immune system
  2. improves stamina in both disease and physical activity
  3. activates the calming, restorative parasympathetic nervous system
  4. improves sleep
  5. slows the heart rate
  6. lowers blood pressure
  7. reduces anger, anxiety, frustration
  8. improves concentration and focus 
  9. relieves muscle tension
  10. stimulates relaxation and an overall sense of well being

 

3 Tips to breath more efficiently

  1. Breathe through your nose: Your nose is a very important part of your respiratory system and should not be taken for granted.  Much more than just a passageway for air flow, the nose performs approximately 30 different functions including filtering dust particles, viruses, bacteria and other nasties before they can get into the lungs.
  2. Belly breathing:  As we've seen, the most efficient breathing is diaphragmatic breathing - breathing into your belly, with that nice ballooning sensation.  It's also a great opportunity to release and relax your stomach muscles. Many of us have a tendancy to suck in our stomachs, which surely constricts efficient breathing.  Try the three-part yogic breath - LEARN MORE HERE.
  3. Breathe awareness:  Develop a better awareness and understanding of your breath and breathing habits.  This will help you to harness the powers of your breath: to use it to stay grounded in the present moment, to shift your emotions if necessary, to access the personal qualities you need to face your day.  See below for tips on how to practice breath awareness.

 

PRACTICE:  How does your breath feel today?

You can be more aware of the quality of your breath by focusing on the way that you inhale and exhale, on how you receive and release your breath.  Take a few moments to observe it, to notice how it feels today.

  • Do you sense your belly filling up (diaphragmatic breathing) or your rib cage expanding (thoracic breathing)? (It helps to place your hands on either side of your torso; or one hand on your abdomen and one on your chest)  If you breathe deeply enough, can you feel the slight movement of your collar bones (clavicular breathing)?
  • Does your breath feel smooth and flowing? 
  • Is it irregular, jerky, choppy, noisy?
  • Is the right or left nostril predominant? (Did you know that the dominance, or clearest path for the breath, is alternated from one nostril to the other every 90 minutes?)
  • Is the inhale longer or shorter than the exhale? (Counting the length of the inhale and exhale helps to explore?)
  • Is the breathing continuous or is there a pause, and if so where is the pause in the breath cycle?
  • If you adjust your posture, sit/stand up slightly taller, can you change the amount of oxygen you breathe in?

Just breathe.  Just notice.  Inhale naturally, exhale, enjoy the pause at the bottom, then repeat.  And be sure to give thanks to your body for breathing so beautifully.


GO DEEPER: BOOK LIST

Science of Breath, A Practical Guide - Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine, MD, Alan Hymes, MD

This is a wonderful little book, very interesting and easy to read, that will give you a whole new understanding and appreciation of your breath, how it relates to your life, to your wellness, and in particular how it can relate to your yoga and meditation practices.  It explores the Western science and the Eastern insights that support the idea that the breath is the link between mind and body. A must-read for anyone practicing yoga and meditation.

 

The Yoga of Breath - A Step by Step Guide to Pranayama - Richard Rosen

Pranayama is a vitally important part of the Hatha Yoga tradition. The “yoga of breath”, pranayama, is a powerful practice to maximize “prana”, our life force, in order to rejuvenate the body, and as a means of self-study and self-transformation. This breathing practice may look easy, but to do it correctly and get the full benefits requires a really good teacher. This book is the place to start. 

 

*For resting adults, according to John Hopkins Medicine.

 


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