I’m fascinated by breathing.
It’s one of a few activities that allow us to directly and immediately alter our physical, mental, and emotional states.
For instance, breathe faster or slower and feel how that changes your physical state.
Most people don’t really notice the effect breathing can have until after some sort of relaxing or traumatic event, or until it is pointed out to them.
When you get tense your breathing speeds up and gets more shallow. This leads to other physiological responses – tension in the body in general – which tends to have a snowball effect.
When you relax, breathing tends to slow down and deepen. General muscle-tone throughout the body follows suit.
In his book: Multidisciplinary approaches to breathing pattern disorders, Leon Chaitow and co-authors cover some of the physiological mechanisms that underlie breathing (or vice versa, depending on how you look at it).
With metabolism relatively constant (i.e. insignificant variance from moment to moment), an increase in ventilation (the volume of air breathed from respiratory cycle to respiratory cycle) will increase the rate of flow of CO2 from tissue cells to the point of diffusion of CO2 from the pulmonary artery to the alveoli of the lungs. If this rate of flow is too fast, the concentration of CO2 in blood will be too lean, acid level of blood will drop, the crucial ratio of base to acid will increase, and the unbalanced pH will be alkalotic. If the rate of flow of CO2 is too slow, its concentration in blood will be too rich, acid level will rise, the crucial ratio of base to acid will decrease, and the unbalanced pH will be acidic. In healthy individuals under non-stressful conditions, the self-regulatory mechanisms of breathing will automatically calculate the amount of O2 needed for metabolism and increase or decrease the volume of air breathed per unit of time so that the rate of flow of CO2 from cells to lungs will be just right, neither too fast nor too slow, and a stable level of balanced pH will be maintained. And what a delicate balance it is. From Ronald Ley’s introduction to the book
Chaitow stresses the structure/function relationship in the body, and particularly in the lungs – and that long-term functional use leads to change in structure, and therefore, long-term change in functional ability.
Pausing the Breath (pg. 199)
1. Pausing after the inhale, holding the lungs filled, creates tension and strain in the muscles of inhalation
2. Pausing after the inhale creates temporary hyperinflation, which works against relaxation and proper emptying of the lungs
3. Pausing after the exhale is more natural. The breathing system reduces volume by slowing the frequency, reducing the depth, and lengthening the post-exhalation pause. A post-inhale pause does not seem to occur naturally except when accompanying a state of suspense.
Yoga Breathing (pp. 238-239)
In a study by Nagarathna & Nagendra (1985), 106 individuals with asthma were divided into a treatment and control group, matched for age, sex, and severity of the condition. There were significantly greater improvements in the yoga group in weekly number of asthmatic attacks and in scores for drug usage as well as peak flow rates, which were still evident at 4-year follow-up.
• Cappo & Holmes (1984) used a pranayama breathing pattern (inhale quickly / exhale slowly) in their study, which compared the effects on arousal of that pattern with patterns of slow inhalation/rapid exhalation, as well as inhalation and exhalation at the same rate, and also with control groups (distraction control, and no treatment control). All three breathing pattern groups reduced their overall rate to six cycles per minute for a period of 5 minutes during the evaluations. The results showed that ‘inhaling quickly and exhaling slowly [the pranayama pattern] was consistently effective for reducing physiological (skin resistance) and psychological (subjective cognitive arousal) during anticipation and con frontation periods.’
• This result is consistent with yoga teaching about the value of slow exhalation. Van Lysebeth (1971) points out: ‘Every other point in the breath ing cycle involves muscle tension; so absolute relaxation can occur only when the exhale is complete: The point of equilibrium, the rest point between exhale and inhale, is a moment when the yoga therapy or traditional yoga methods is scanty; however, some verification exists: breathing apparatus is motionless. Cutting short the end of the exhale means that the exhale is incomplete and that the breathing muscles never quite relax between breaths. This may result in retention of more ‘used’ air than normal, and also can promote chronic hyperinflation and hyper tonic neck and shoulder muscles.
• A study of patients with congestive heart failure attempted to produce improvements by teaching the yoga ‘complete breath: This is a 3-stage breath that fills, in sequence, the abdomen, lower chest and upper chest, then reverses the order with the exhale. Breathing this way produces a natural breathing rate of about six breaths per minute. The chronic heart conditions led to subnormal O2 saturation, limited exercise tolerance, and dyspnea; these all improved significantly with continued practice of the yoga breathing, and sensations of dyspnea diminished. By improving the ventilation-perfusion ratios as well as alveolar ventilation, this style of breathing optimized breathing and made the most of available function. Respiratory efficiency improved and irregularity was reduced (instability in O2 saturation was associated with instability in breathing frequency and amplitude). The ‘spontaneous’ breathing rate (the rate at which subjects breathed when they thought they were unobserved) dropped from 13 to less than 8 (Bernardi et aI 1993). The heart and lungs operate in many ways as a cardiorespiratory unit. Breathing and heart action are closely related, and their synchronization stabilizes the autonomic nervous system (see Ch. 8).
Yoga breathing emphasizes full use of the diaphragm in breathing (Fig. 9.4). The diaphragm is attached by fascia to the heart’s pericardium in such a way that diaphragmatic movement provides a massaging action to the heart. Also, the vena cava, which carries freshly oxygenated blood from the lungs to the heart, passes through the diaphragm and is alternately squeezed and released during breathing. This action promotes a periodic acceleration of blood flow toward the heart. As Andrew Thomas (1993) states: ‘The fully and correctly operating diaphragm is thus a second heart.’
Yogic alternate nostril breathing (pg. 239)
(Box 9.4; Fig. 9.5)
In health one nostril is more dominant than the other at any given time in terms of the volume of air flow. There is an alternation every 1 t to 3 hours throughout the 24-hour cycle, with one nostril being more open than the other (Gilbert 1999). Evidence suggests that whichever nostril is more open, the opposite hemisphere of the brain is slightly more active, and in yoga this is utilized to enhance different activities related to particular hemispheric functions. These traditional yogic intuitions and observations have been confirmed by modern research in which EEG readings from the brain have been found to correlate with increased hemispheric activity with the currently dominant nostril (Rossi 1991, Shannahoff-Khalsa 1991, Block et al 1989). Some yoga breathing exercises alternate between the two nostrils, breath by breath, with the intent of regulating the balance between the two hemispheres. This is thought to promote proper alternation between sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system functions.
The point here is that you can directly alter BRAIN/MENTAL and PHYSIOLOGILCAL/PHYSICAL (and their intermediary…EMOTIONAL) states simply through the use of breath.
How do you practice this?
1. PAY ATTENTION.
When you’re going through your day, occasionally check in – are you holding your breath?
Especially when you’re going into a situation you know to be stressful for you – regulate your breathing to remain relaxed.
Track the relative amount of tension in your muscles and the tension in your breathing. If you’re holding your breath or breathing shallowly, you’re most likely gripping in your body someplace (check the hands (fists), and glutes).
Practice some sort of relaxation technique that exploits and explores the connection between breathing and body-states.
Two great places to start:
LET EVERY BREATH: Secrets of the Russian Breath Masters
This book is GREAT. It does not go into the ridiculous level of scientific depth covered in Chaitow’s book (or this post). It simply presents practices to help you connect breathing to your body state.
Breathing: The Master Key to Self Healing
I like Andrew Weil’s approach, especially a lot of his earlier works.
This is a listen-along program that leads you through some breathing exercises.
The point of all of this is for you to be able to access the power that resides deep inside your body.
It is, to borrow the words of Frank Forencich – “primal, practical, and playful.”
The only way to tap into it and harness this power is to USE IT.
So get to work.