Respiration is the most important function of the body. Without it all other functions stop. The air we breathe supplies all the cells of the body with oxygen, which in turn maintains the body’s energy production. Breath is life. Oxygen is the most vital nutrient of all, yet most breathe very shallowly, only using 1/3 of their lung capacity. By consciously participating in breathing and movement you can increase your health awareness and create a strong communication between your body and mind. According to Swami Rama from the book Path of Fire and Light, “Control of the breath leads to health, an increase in strength and energy, good complexion, increased vitality, the growth of knowledge and the extension of the life span“ (1996, p. 66). These are all desirable effects which can come about by making a small change in something you do more than 20,000 times a day – breathing.
Do you know how you breathe? A simple way to check is to place one hand on your chest and one hand on your abdomen. Inhale deeply several times and note which hand moves the most. This is much more easily done when in a horizontal position. The average person uses his chest muscles to breathe yet we were all born breathing diaphragmatically. Watch an infant or small child; they use their diaphragms exclusively for breathing. Chest breathing cannot occur until considerably after birth, after the body and chest matures.
Chest breathing is not the most efficient for the body. Because of the reciprocity between the breath and mind, chest breathing gives rise to the tension and anxiety associated with the fight or flight syndrome. While chest breathing, the breath is shallow, jerky, and unsteady, resulting in similar unsteadiness of the mind. All techniques aimed at providing relaxation of the body, nerves, and mind will be ineffective unless chest breathing is replaced by even and steady diaphragmatic breathing. Chest breathing also relates to one’s conception of body image. Normal diaphragmatic breathing pushes the abdomen forward during inhalation which may not be considered a fashionable look in our society. One may be holding in and tensing the abdomen, thereby limiting diaphragmatic mobility and leading to an increased reliance upon chest breathing to supply the body’s oxygen requirements. This also leads to chronic muscle tension in the chest and abdomen.
Chest breathing requires more work to accomplish the same blood/gas mixing than does slow, deep diaphragmatic breathing. There is far more blood in the lower part of the lungs than the upper part. Air is not mixed as thoroughly with blood if breathing is done by expanding the ribs as in chest breathing. More work is required; more oxygen is needed, resulting in one taking more frequent breaths. As more blood needs to circulate through the lungs, more work is required from the heart. How much work the cardiovascular system must do is directly related to how efficiently one breathes. Since one of the purposes of breathing is to expose the blood in the capillaries to air, diaphragmatic breathing in the upright position is very efficient. There is evidence to suggest that diaphragmatic breathing is beneficial because it increases the suction pressure created in the thoracic cavity and improves the venous return of blood, thereby reducing the load on the heart and enhancing the circulatory function. High blood pressure of an unknown cause has been shown to respond favorably to a daily regimen of diaphragmatic breathing.
By making one’s breath a conscious habit, one becomes more aware of what is going on within one’s body. This creates better feedback loops for understanding the right foods for you and feeling the benefits and desires of physical activity, as well as a greater awareness of one’s emotional state and inner messages or self-talk. Here are a few exercises to bring one’s awareness to the breath and therefore the body:
Intestinals: These are good to do in bed upon waking (while still in bed) and again before going to sleep. Often one will fall asleep while doing intestinals.
- Lie on your back and place your hands on your abdomen. Breathe slowly in through your nose bringing the breath into the belly. Feel as though your belly is a balloon filling with air. Initially press your hands up with your abdomen to emphasize the inhalation.
- Let the hands drop naturally with each exhale. Pull the navel in and up to release the full breath. Feel your inner organs getting a massage, which can stimulate peristalsis and increase oxygen exchange.
Once you are comfortable sitting upright or standing and doing intestinals, it is good to do them while standing in line or driving. Start with 200 conscious breathes a day and once this is mastered aim for 500 to 1,000 conscious breaths per day. The more you bring this type of breathing to the conscious level, over time it will become an unconscious act.
Conscious Breathing by Gay Hendricks, Ph.D.
Science of Breath by Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine, M.D., and Alan Hymes, M.D.