Learning from an early age how to breathe well is very important. Air is nutrient number one for us to survive. You can start exercising at any age, as it is better later than never. You will need some effort and concentration in the beginning, but once the right connections on your brain and the right breathing movements turn into routine, you will do it in a reflex manner.
Breathe Well to Function Properly
The respiratory system works like a power plant integrated in the whole network of factories and plants which form the body. Without energy, no organ would be able to live, let alone function properly. The more energy it gets, the better it will work. So breathe well to function at your best capacity.
Remember how you feel when you fill your lungs with pure fresh air: invigorated, more energetic, more confident and optimistic. It is that sensation of lust for life, as you are ready to set yourself in motion. You have just got charged with fuel. Physiologically speaking, the human body needs three different fuels: air, water, and food, in this exact order of importance. In case of lack of vitality, you need them in this order of urgency.
Of the air we take in through inhalation, it is the oxygen our body needs. It is the fuel which burns the nutrients resulted from digestion, basically glucose, to release energy. This reaction takes place at the level of each cell in the body, once a new charge of oxygen is transported to it from the lungs, by means of our blood. The waste product of this chemical reaction is carbon dioxide, which travels with the blood cells back to the lungs. The gas exchange occurs at the level of the tiny vessels called capilaries which surround each alveolus in the lungs. These vessels are connected to the heart and the whole circulatory system. Thus the oxygen-rich blood is carried to all the cells in the body, while the deoxygenated blood is carried back to the alveoli in the lungs. The carbon dioxide passes from the capilaries into the air in the alveoli, so we eliminate air laden with carbon dioxide through exhalation. The air we breathe in is about 20-percent oxygen, and the air that we breathe out is about 15-percent oxygen, the rest of 5-percent being the waste product, carbon dioxide.
Breathe Well to Detox
Since carbon dioxide is a waste product, toxic for the organism in above-normal quantities, it must perforce be immediately taken out of our system. We do that when we breathe out. Otherwise, it will poison our cells. Consequently, breathing out correctly will help eliminate these residues.
On the other hand, research has shown that breathing can impact the pH of the blood, which should be slightly more alkaline than acidic. Over-acidity is highly detrimental to all the organs in the body, leading to numerous health issues and premature aging. It is toxic, so balancing your body pH is a form of detoxification.
Because carbon dioxide is a weak acid, when it is released in the blood as waste, it raises its level of acidity. In order to keep the pH value in balance, the body needs to remove the excess carbon dioxide, and this can be done by deeper breathing or, depending on the circumstances, by faster breathing.
Breathe to Boost Energy Levels
Andrew Weil, MD, founder of the Arizona Centre for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, has studied the effects of controled, conscious breathing on the human mind and body and proposes some breathing techniques, most of which are based on an ancient Indian practice called pranayama. Pranayama literally means regulation of breath, and is widely used in yoga.
The Stimulating Breath technique, for example, is aimed at increasing vital energy and alertness. Dr. Weil recommends it as a substitute for coffee whenever you need an energy boost. If you do it right, he claims you may feel as alert and invigorated as after a good workout, although this exercise only lasts between 15 and 60 seconds at the longest.
Here is Andrew Weil’s procedure:
Inhale and exhale rapidly through your nose, keeping your mouth closed but relaxed. Your breaths in and out should be equal in duration, but as short as possible. This is a noisy breathing exercise.
Try for three in-and-out breath cycles per second. This produces a quick movement of the diaphragm, suggesting a bellows. Breathe normally after each cycle.
Do not do the exercise for more than 15 seconds on your first try. Each time you practice the Stimulating Breath, you can increase your time by five seconds or so, until you reach a full minute.
You should feel the effort at the back of the neck, the diaphragm, the chest and the abdomen.
This exercise involves the diaphragm a lot. Of all the muscles that help our lungs to expand and contract, the diaphragm is the most important one. When we inhale, it contracts to increase the space in the chest cavity, so the lungs can expand and receive more air. When we exhale, it relaxes and moves upward into the chest cavity, contracting the lungs to eliminate the carbon dioxide-laden air. The intercostal muscles between our ribs and abdominal muscles also bring a contribution to the process of breathing.
Breathe Well to Reduce Stress Levels
When our body reacts unconsciously, there is still control from the nervous system, namely from what is called the autonomous nervous system. Its sympathetic and parasympathetic components are complementary. While the former typically regulates activities requiring quick, ‘fight-or-flight’ responses, the latter is responsible with the body’s actions when it is at rest, like digestion, for instance.
Deep breaths, as opposed to rapid breathing, stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, getting a person to calm down and relax. Because the ‘fight-or-flight’ responses are blocked, stress levels are reduced. Deep breathing has been proven to calm the mind and relax the muscles, the cardiac one included, to improve the immune system and even to affect the expression of genes.
Deep breathing techniques can be employed to train the body to cope with stressful situations, entailing a decrease in the release of stress hormones, especially cortisol. This hormone is our body’s main tool that helps us with immediate ‘fight-or-flight’ responses, whose release is triggered by the sympathetic nervous system. However, as with anything else, too often or too much is not good. Excessive or repeated release can lead to elevation of blood pressure, cardiovascular risk, increased blood sugar levels, insulin resistance, weight gain and even obesity, and can impact in a negative way the brain, our sleep and our digestion, as well as the immune system. It is also responsible for an increased appetite and our cravings for high-calorie foods. A lot of bad things.
Dr. Andrew Weil proposes the ‘4-7-8 (or Relaxing Breath) Exercise’ as a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system, to use when you feel anxious or whenever something upsets you. He recommends practicing it at least twice a day, but without doing more than four breaths at one time for the first month of practice. Only later, if you wish, you can extend it to eight breaths. If you feel a bit lightheaded when you first breathe like this, he says you should not worry, as it will pass. Well, I think it is up to you to try this exercise and see if it works for you.
Here is Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 (or Relaxing Breath) Exercise.
Need Teaches Us to Breathe Well
Although I have not yet applied any technique of Dr. Weil’s, or any yoga technique as a matter of fact, I am sure I will do that some time soon. When it comes to my body, what I primarily do is connect to it and try to see what pleases it, what makes it feel good. If my body feels good and comfortable, then my mind feels the same. The reciprocal is also valid. I am really a passionate of science and I always resort to it, but in most cases only after I have understood my body’s needs and workings on my own. I find it both challenging and fun to get scientific background and confirmation for what I experience.
It so happened that my own body was the first to teach me how to breathe well. Need is the best teacher of all. It sharpens awareness and activates all the internal resources of your brain and body.
As a child, I used to wake up so indescribably happy and optimistic each day, so in order to express these feelings I automatically filled my lungs with air as completely as I could. It felt like an intake of pure life energy. Only later did I learn about the whole respiratory system and the diaphragm, and what one should do to breathe well.
Then it was physical activity that taught me, as I enjoyed doing sport and, thank God, I always had wonderful, competent physical education teachers and coaches.
And do you know what else has taught me how to breathe well? Grief, anxiety, and difficult, demanding, or unexpected situations. My instincts pushed me to take a long deep breath first thing, even before consulting my brain for solutions.
I know from my biology teacher in the 6th grade, when we studied the physiology of the human body, that the greatest, almost unbearable physical pain any human feels is right in the moment they are born and air fills the alveoli of the lungs for the first time. That explains a newborn’ s cries when they come out of their mother’s womb. Therefore need teaches us the first lesson on how to breathe well. It is a painful first lesson, which then turns into routine.
How I Breathe Well
What I describe below is a process I use to retrain myself to breathe well. Even if with practice things turn into routine, it is advisable to refresh this routine from time to time by modeling the good practice. I also use it when I need to relax or when I need clarity of mind.
On a regular basis, I use this deep breathing technique first thing in the morning and also before and while exercising. When I need to fall asleep faster and more easily, this way of breathing always accompanies my personalized tapping process for deep sleep (EFT – Emotional Freedom Technique).
I visualize my lungs and imagine they are two flexible containers which, as I breathe in slowly, receive air starting with the bottom. Layer after layer of oxygenated gas goes up filling them until air reaches the very top of each lung concomitantly and I feel it has nowhere else to go. With my lungs full to the brim, I count to three, sometimes to two, depending on the circumstances, imagining they are so inflated their upper tips are meeting at a point at the base of my throat. During these two or three seconds I imagine oxygen rushing into the blood in the lungs. Then I start letting the air easily out, layer after layer beginning with the upper ones, until I feel the diaphragm pushes the last drop at the bottom out. I relax while I count to two, and start the whole process all over again. Depending on what I want to do, I may repeat the process a number of times. If I am nervous or stressed, for example, or when I tap into sleeping, I repeat this until I feel more or completely relaxed, usually three – five times. Remember, not even with good things should you exaggerate.
As a conclusion, I would like to remind you that there are a number of factors that enable and sustain proper breathing, among which: a healthy respiratory system, purity of the air in the surrounding atmosphere, a correct body posture while walking, exercising, or sitting, regular physical exercise, a good understanding of how your body works and what it needs.
To live your life to the full, breathe well.