12 SURPRISING FACTS ABOUT BREATHING
Updated: Feb 10, 2019
You should worry about your breath more than about your diet!
Every being breathes – that’s why we yogis believe the breath to be the main source of prana, the life force. You can survive without food for up to about 40 days, as long as you have access to water. Without water, you may survive 3-4 days. But without a breath you’ll be gone within only 3 minutes!
Interestingly, we are more worried about our diet than our breathing. When was the last time you really focused on your breath? The “problem” is, breathing just happens. We don’t have to think about it. We don’t have to make an active choice to breathe. However, if we become aware of our breathing and learn to control our breath consciously, we can significantly boost our health and performance in many areas of life.
Breathing is more than the intake of oxygen!
To better understand the importance of good breathing, here are some interesting facts:
Did you know that if the lungs were spread out flat, they would cover the size of a tennis court? There are many, many folds and sacks in your lungs to maximise their internal surface and allow for maximum intake of oxygen, which is needed to grow and nourish the cells that make our body and keep our organism alive, in exchange for CO2 and other waste gases.
When breathing well, about 70% of waste is eliminated through the lungs just by breathing! Just think of the bad breath after having too much alcohol or spicy food, or when being ill.
The natural rhythm of inhalation and exhalation promotes rhythmic micro movement in the body which helps release tension, promotes blood circulation, stimulates the flow of spinal fluid (an important factor in the communication between body and brain) and makes all sorts of body movements more efficient.
The breath is the first of the bodily systems to change when experiencing excitement, fear, joy, sadness etc., or at the onset of illness. In traditional healing arts, eg. Chinese Medicine, practitioners often check the breath pattern, breath rate and quality to estimate the patient’s health status.
How do we breathe?
Breathing is a matter of muscular activity. Thus, you can - and should - train your breathing muscles.
Most of the time we mainly use the diaphragm and the chest wall muscles. For breathing in, these muscles contract, which widens the chest cavity and creates a pressure drop inside the lungs. Thus, air streams in through the nose or mouth. On the out-breath these “inspiratory” muscles relax, which reduces the space for the lungs and the air is pushed out. The abdominal muscles assist the exhalation, especially when more air/oxygen is needed, for example when exercising or climbing up a long flight of stairs.
In yoga, some breathing practices encourage the increased intake of oxygen by actively pumping the navel, like Kapalabhati Breath in Hatha Yoga or Breath of Fire in Kundalini Yoga.
At rest you breathe around 12 litres of air per minute, but during heavy exercise this can rise to over 150 litres per minute, and in elite athletes, this can be as high as 220 litres.
Just like other muscles in the body, the inspiratory muscles can weaken with age. Or when underused or used in the wrong way. And this is more common than you might think!
More than 1/3 of the public have a breathing problem - and may not even know about it!
In an article published by the Woman’s Running Magazine UK, physiotherapist Robin McNelis states that
40 % of the public breathe incorrectly at rest and
85 % of people in a doctor’s waiting room have a breathing problem and not all of them will return to a normal pattern once their illness passes. Many of these people (and their doctors) will be unaware they have a Breathing Pattern Disorder.
Breathing Pattern Disorders fall into two categories – Hyperventilation for example is a biochemical problem caused by over breathing; Dysfunctional Breathing Pattern is using the wrong muscles to breathe and is also a biomechanical problem.
An inefficient breathing pattern causes both central and specific fatigue, making you feel generally tried all the time and working muscle groups “feel the burn” a lot quicker than they should. Both of these make people perform poorly physically and mentally.
Breathing Pattern Disorders are triggered by a number of different causes, and usually it needs more than one to develop a BPD. These can be habitual patterns, such as tucking the tummy in to fit into these cool tight jeans, or puffing up the chest to look bigger and stronger, but oftentimes the BPD is caused by traumatic experiences which promoted restricted breathing or holding the breath, for example in an attempt to avoid further pain or injury.
Master your breath - master your life!
Whether you have a Breathing Pattern Disorder or not, all of us can greatly benefit from conscious breathing. Although breathing is an autonomic system within the human body, we can still change our breathing at will. And this makes it an invaluable tool to achieve better health & wellbeing: Just as the breath reacts to anything that happens to us, good or bad, we can actively reverse this effect.
Imagine, you feel under pressure during an exam. The heart rate goes up and the breath flattens. The body switches to “fight-of-flight” mode, tenses up, and the blood is more likely to flow to the activated muscles (be prepared to run!) than into the head. Ergo, you can’t think clearly and are unable to solve the tasks.
If you now just sit back for a moment, take some deep breaths – just as you would do in a relaxed, comfortable state – the tension will ease and the ability to think returns, and you realise that the exam is not as difficult as you though it was.
Conscious breathing has always played an important role in yoga. For all the reasons mentioned above. Most yoga practices start with breath awareness and include one or more specific breathing exercises (pranayama). Sadly, in many modern, mainly physically oriented branches of yoga breath work comes a bit short. Therefore, I prefer the less-fancy but a lot more holistic practices of traditional Hatha yoga and Kundalini yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan.
Both emphasise that bringing awareness to the breath is the first step to expand your awareness further – to the body, the mind as well as the immediate and greater environment. Once you become aware of yourself and your surroundings, you are ultimately in a position to make conscious, mindful decisions in all areas of life.
So, why not include some regular breath work into your daily routine? It’s easy and only takes 3-5 minutes:
BREATH AWARENESS EXERCISE
Come into a comfortable position that allows you to breath freely – standing, sitting or lying on the back, whatever works best for you.
Breathe, and feel the movements in your body.
Notice your breath rate and quality, and try to feel where you breathe (shoulders, chest, sides of the body, abdomen?). Is the emphasis on the inhalation or exhalation?
Now place your hands on the chest and abdomen and deepen your breath so that you can feel the wall of the tummy and the breast bone rising on the inhalation and falling on the exhalation. Let the breath flow, don’t hold the breath. If possible, let the inhalation become as long as the exhalation. Continue for about 2-3 minutes.
To finish, take a deep breath and breathe out, with a sigh if you like. Begin to move your body and bring your attention outwards again. Take a moment to focus, before you continue your day.
How did you go? How do you feel now? If you have been practising this technique regularly for a while, did you notice any changes in your health & wellbeing?
I would love to hear from you – email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and share your experiences!
For more info and tips about healthy breathing please read our next article – it’s coming soon!