Pranayama: Breathing

Breathing is a process that we rarely give any thought to. It occurs automatically without our awareness, yet at the same time it is something that most people do incorrectly. If breathing is a spontaneous function of the body, how is it possible to do it incorrectly? The answer is that our respiratory muscles become lazy and cease to give optimum inhalation and exhalation.

Our whole life is entirely dependent on breathing. If we stop breathing then life itself ceases in the body. Life and breath are intimately connected. Remember, when a person dies we say that he expires, the same word used for breathing out, or for breath leaving the lungs. We can survive for a few days without drinking water, a few months without taking food, but how long can the average person survive without drawing air into the lungs? In most cases no more than a few minutes. It is written in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the ancient text on yoga: “Life is the period between one breath and the next; a person who only half breathes, only half lives. He who breathes correctly, acquires control of the whole being.” The ancient yogis were fully aware of the importance of breath; no breath no life; breath is life.

In yoga it is said that each person has a fixed number of breaths allocated to him. If one breathes slowly then one will live longer, for the number of breaths is allocated for the lifetime; if one breathes rapidly the given number of breaths are used up more quickly resulting in a shorter life span. Whether you accept this idea or not, there is nevertheless a great deal of truth in it. A fast breathing rate is associated with tension, fear, worry, etc., which tends to lead to bad health, unhappiness and of course a shorter life. A person who breathes slowly is relaxed, calm and happy, which is conducive to longevity. A person who breathes quickly tends to inhale small volumes of air and exhale the same small volumes; this tends to allow germs to accumulate in the lower areas of the lungs. Conversely, a person who breathes slowly tends to also breathe deeply and thereby fill the lungs to a greater depth. This helps to remove stagnant air from the lower reaches of the lungs and to destroy the breeding ground of germs and the germs themselves. There are other reasons that relate longevity to slow and deep breathing. For example, deep breathing imparts a good massage to the abdominal organs via the diaphragm. This is a natural and essential subsidiary function of the breathing process, which is often overlooked. The massage of the liver, stomach, etc. keeps them in good working order by expelling old, impure blood and allowing pure, oxygenated blood to replace it. Shallow breathing connected with fast breathing does not give the internal organs the massage they require. This can lead to various diseases. It, in itself, does not cause them, but tends to encourage the onset in conjunction with other body factors.

Shallow breathing also leads to insufficient oxygen in the body. This causes functional disturbances and illnesses concerned with circulatory, digestive and nervous systems, since the efficiency of these systems is entirely dependent on healthy, well-nourished nerves and organs, which depend completely on oxygen for survival.

These are a few examples of how insufficient breathing can have negative repercussions in our lives, yet most people in the world do not breathe properly. The modern way of life has put us out of touch with the natural life rhythm. Our lives, our body functions, our way of living is intended normally to be guided by rhythms in our internal and external surroundings. Our heartbeat and breathing rate harmonize with each other to give perfect cooperation under normal situations. Our lives are determined by the rhythms of the daily sunrise and sunset together with the rhythm of the moon and stars in more subtle ways. Consider animals. Their whole life is, or seems to be determined by rhythms of nature. Birds migrate according to the seasons. Animals mate and sometimes change their fur or feathers in accordance with seasonal changes. Certain species of fish and eels travel thousands of miles at a certain time of the year to spawn in a particular locality. Science has not yet been able to tell us what causes this, but it seems more than likely that some rhythm of life stimulates or triggers a brain function which automatically makes them follow mixed patterns of behaviour.

What is it that causes thousands of ants to work in harmony with each other for the benefit of the ant community? There seems to be some rhythm in their actions which leads to an integrated whole. What this rhythm is no one knows, yet we can see it when we study the activities of ants, or bees, or termites, etc. Without this uniformity there would be complete chaos.

It is the same with humans. Our activities should be determined by the natural rhythms around us. We should be in harmony with our surroundings. It is this that is conducive to a happy life. Yet modern, industrialized, materialistic life has cut us from the influence of these natural cycles. For these reasons we suffer disease and feel alienated from our surroundings. This is a common feeling among modern people – they cannot relate to life or the things around them.

How does all this relate to respiration? During bygone days man was more receptive to the rhythms of nature. Perhaps he was not aware of many of them, but he nevertheless flowed with them and allowed them to influence him in the way that was intended. This includes even the process of breathing. There was absolutely no need for him to consider whether he was breathing correctly or not his very way of life was in tune with nature and sufficient to ensure that breathing was correct. His active way of life encouraged the lungs to work at optimum efficiency. His relaxed way of life encouraged correct breathing instead of imposing an almost continual inhibition and unnatural load on the respiratory system as modern man does. Modern man through fear, competition and hatred does not allow the respiratory system to work as it should. We take quick shallow breaths which in a way is in accordance with the fast, superficial modern way of life. Compare this with the life of a farmer, who generally has a good breathing rhythm and consequently good health. His active way of life is conducive to good, deep and slow respiration. He has the time and inclination to see himself in relationship to nature. He relaxes and tunes in with his surroundings.

There are a large number of factors that influence our breathing. For example, if we take a cold shower, automatically we must breathe deeply; it is a conditioned response. Yet most modern people rarely have a cold shower; instead they take a hot bath. Ancient man had no choice. A cold brisk atmosphere encourages deep breathing, yet modern man spends as little time as possible in the open, preferring to hibernate in air-conditioned and heated apartments. As such he loses touch with a natural stimulator of rhythmic breathing. Primitive man did not need to be taught how to breathe properly; it happened as an automatic response to his surroundings.

In comparison, the surroundings and way of life of modern man does not encourage correct breathing. It is for this reason that today most people have to learn how to breathe properly. They have to relearn what in fact is natural for them. They have to reactivate their nervous reflexes so that their breathing becomes normal and harmonious to life and health.

Those people who are very active by nature will probably already breathe correctly. The people we are mainly talking about, regarding bad breathing, are those persons who spend their lives cooped up in an office during the day and in their homes watching television or listening to the radio at night. It is these people who need to be educated to breathe properly. It is the people who develop so much mental tension during their workday that they have absolutely no energy or inclination to do anything active when they return home. Think of how many diseases are caused or at least aggravated by faulty breathing. These include asthma, bronchitis, pulmonary tuberculosis and large numbers of other ailments indirectly caused by starving our body of the oxygen nourishment that it needs as a result of shallow respiration.

Breathing capacities

A person who is reasonably relaxed and sitting inhales and exhales approximately half a litre of air (this is called tidal volume in physiology) at a time. Now if that same person expanded his chest and abdomen to the maximum that is possible and thereby drew more air into the lungs, it would be possible for him to draw in approximately an extra two litres. This is over and above the normal half litre that can be inhaled. This extra volume of air that can be inhaled is known as the inspiratoiy reserve volume in physiology. If after normal expiration the chest and abdomen are contracted as much as is comfortably possible, then it is possible to expel an extra one and a half litres of air from the lungs, over and above the half liter that is exhaled during normal respiration. This is referred to as expiratory reserve volume.

There is also some air that will remain in the lungs even after the deepest exhalation. This is due to the fact that the lungs can never be fully deflated; the lungs can never be squeezed sufficiently by the chest and the diaphragm to remove all the air. This is known as the residual volume. It is generally in the order of one and a half litres.

Let us compare the normal volume of respiration with the maximum that can be respired: 1/2 litre (tidal volume) + 2 litres (inspiratory reserve volume) + 1 1/2 litres (expiratory reserve volume) = 4 litres. This gives a total of four litres, which is eight times the normal volume of inhalation and exhalation.

Most people while sitting breathe less than half a litre of air and so their lung usage is actually less than one-eighth their capacity. It is for this reason that learning to breathe properly is so important.

Why slow breathing?

By now the advantages of deep breathing should be obvious, but what about slow breathing? Why not breathe deeply and quickly? The reason is simple. Time is required to transfer oxygen from the lungs to the blood and for carbon dioxide in the blood to be transferred into the lungs for expulsion into the air. If one breathes rapidly, then the optimum oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange is not reached in the lungs. If the respiration is slow then the optimum transfer can be achieved. This is why depth and speed of breathing are so important in relation to each other. The deep breathing allows maximum intake for each respiration and slow breathing allows optimum exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Continue reading – The mechanics of breathing

One thought on “Pranayama: Breathing”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *