Breathing: Essential to Life and Health

weWellcare Exercise, Meditation, Relaxation

By Steven Edwards, M.S., P.E.S.

Essential to Life

Breathing is essential to life. It is part of the necessary process of getting oxygen to the tissues in your body and is also a means of eliminating waste products and toxins.

Breathing is also important to the flow of lymph fluid. The lymphatic system is composed of circulatory vessels which carry lymph fluid. Lymph bathes the cells of the body, removes toxic substances and dead cells, transports digested fat from the intestine to the bloodstream and is involved in helping the body resist spread of disease. Breathing and muscle movement circulates lymph fluid.

A person can alter breathing or stop for a brief time but it is impossible to permanently stop breathing because like the heart beat it is controlled involuntarily by nerve centers in the lower part of the brain, the brain stem. These nerve centers connect with the muscles around the rib cage that control breathing and increase or decrease breath rate based on the body’s needs.

Breathing Mechanics

The process of breathing includes “inspiration”, drawing in air, and “expiration”, expelling air. The lungs themselves have no muscle tissue, so, lung movement is controlled by the diaphragm and muscles around the rib cage.

During inspiration, muscles around the rib cage contract, lifting the ribs outward and upward. The diaphragm is a domed shaped muscle at the base of the lungs which flattens in a downward direction as it contracts, allowing expansion room for the lungs to fill with air. Because the lungs are attached to the inside of your chest cavity, they expand with the ribs. In expiration, the diaphragm and other muscles around the rib cage relax and air is forced out of the lungs.

Impaired Breathing

Most of us breathe with only a small portion of our capacity. We generally use perhaps a tenth of our lung capacity.

Body posture impacts the amount of air we can comfortably draw in through breath. Slouching posture in which the head is drawn forward results in shortened breaths, diminished lung capacity, and decreased tissue oxygenation in the body.

Breathing patterns are strongly tied to mental states. Mental tension associated with stress results in a shorter, diminished inflow of air and essential oxygen to the lungs. The duties and responsibilities of our lives and their attendant problems tend to decrease our breath awareness.

Managing mental state facilitates effective breathing.

Effective Breathing

Observe how children and animals breathe. If you look closely you’ll generally notice a deeper, fuller pattern.

We need to train ourselves to breathe more deeply and slowly. Most of us are in a hurry, and breathing tends to follow this hurried psychological pattern. Increased life stress makes us breathe more quickly and less deeply. When we get emotional easily (excited or angry), and live in anxiety from worry, the negative emotional state causes faster, shallower breath. Modern automated technology further reduces our need to breathe deeply, so we adopt a shallow breathing habit. An editorial in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine has suggested that shallow, fast breathing can cause sleep disorders, anxiety, heart burn and stomach upsets, fatigue, gas, muscle cramping, dizziness, visual problems and chest and heart palpitations.

Deep, slow breathing reduces the heart’s workload and makes the lungs more efficient- more oxygen is brought in contact with blood sent to the lungs so the heart doesn’t have to work as hard to deliver oxygen to the rest of the body. Deep breathing can even help with weight control by encouraging more muscle activity and greater efficiency in the body’s ability to burn fat.

Deep breathing also reflexively stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, the relaxation response in the body, resulting in decreased heart rate and improved muscle relaxation. This parasympathetic response enhances our ability to effectively manage emotional energy and reduce stress.

To breathe more effectively, develop the habit of consistently noticing how you breathe. Noticing your breathing will encourage higher level conscious awareness to your breathing patterns, and will ultimately help you cultivate deeper, more effective breath.

Below are a few ideas for improving your breathing:

  1. Make a routine out of deep breathing. Take ten minutes a day to focus on breath. To help you obtain an effective breathing posture, notice the position of your head. Feel the back tip crown of your head drawn slightly up and back. Feel your shoulders in a relaxed, open position. Inhale calmly, keeping shoulders and face relaxed. At what feels like a full inhale, draw in just a little more breath. Exhale slowly and easily. Continue the pattern of full inhales and relaxed, easy exhales for five to ten minutes. Notice how body posture enables a deeper breath. Adjust posture to accommodate greater depth. One of our goals here is to gain a sense of the postural position that enables you to effortlessly draw in a full breath. This breathing regimen can be done any time. The morning is a great time for such a routine to help clear your mind, energize you, and prepare you for the day. Evening is also an excellent time to use your deep breathing routine to relax and prepare for sleep. Any time you feel stressed, return to this relaxed, effortless breath pattern. This exercise will help improve breath and body awareness. Another deep breathing pattern you might experiment with is to inhale deeply for one count, hold for four counts and exhale for two counts.
  2. Inflation Breath: start by focusing on relaxing your body completely. Extend awareness down to your toes, feet and legs by slightly contracting muscles in those areas. Then completely relax feet and legs. Slightly contract muscles around your hips, then relax them. Do the same for your abdominal region, chest, shoulders, arms, hands, neck, face and head. Allow your entire body to relax. Next, take a several breaths and simply observe how you breathe without attempting to control or manipulate breathing- observe how your body moves and flows with a natural breath pattern. Next, notice as you inhale that your entire body is expanding away from center, like a ball or balloon that is being inflated. Feel every square inch of surface area on your body opening outward. As you exhale, feel your mind and body relaxing deeply. Inhale, feel your body expand outward quietly, softly, and exhale, feel body and mind quiet and calm. This exercise is great for creating a relaxed, peaceful state of mind, helping you develop greater body awareness, and focusing your mind to accomplish tasks.
  3. Exercise regularly: exercise improves your cardiovascular system and has many other great benefits. When you exercise there is a process of adaptation occurring in your body. To become more efficient in blood circulation the body responds by expanding the capillary network (microscopic blood vessels) which improves the ease with which blood is circulated and oxygen distributed. Improved circulation also enhances mental alertness and clarity.
  4. Practice yoga: Ancient yogis knew the importance of correct breathing and developed techniques to improve breath quality. Yoga encourages nose breathing because the nose has various defense mechanisms to prevent impurities from entering the body. Nose hairs trap dust, small insects and particles that would injure the lungs. The nasal passages are lined with mucous membranes where air is warmed and very fine dust particles are caught. In the inner nose are glands which fight bacteria. Practicing yoga will help in flexibility, balance and strength development, and promote a conscious awareness for how breath relates to movement and how stabilizing muscles support breath and movement.

With consistent focus and practice, you will develop muscles like the diaphragm and intercostals, which will enhance the depth and ease in breathing.