HEALTH: Never Take Breathing for Granted Ever Again
The body undergoes multiple activities that we take for granted, though they are quite literally life and death processes. Breathing tops the list.
The human body requires two mass pounds of fresh air per day to survive. By fresh, we don’t necessarily mean “outdoors” (though that’s a good idea), but relatively clean and healthy air. We use the term “air” and not merely oxygen because what we take into our lungs on Planet Earth is less than 25% element O. Nitrogen is the boss gas in our atmosphere, making up more than 70% of what you’re inhaling right now.
Our exhalation is mostly carbon dioxide and, when we combine that humble effort with the outward sighs of 7+ billion humans and several more billion mammals on our big blue marble, we team up to feed the ecosystem’s vegetation and algae. So, no breath (or spoken words, for that matter) are ever entirely wasted.
If we read through the educational texts from the British Lung Foundation or the American Lung Foundation, we discover the process of breathing is one of exchange — a very meditative process of giving and receiving in and of itself.
If we assume we’re dealing with healthy lungs and not seeking to cure a respiratory infection, abnormality or malignancy, breathing operates to rid the body of waste gasses and to replace those with fresh oxygen and nitrogen to be used and turned back to exhaled waste. This process goes on day and night as any bodily function from eating and digesting to muscular movement and brain activity uses fresh oxygen and produces exhaust carbon dioxide. It’s the primary function of the lungs to contain and conduct this exchange.
In an incredible result of millions of years of biogenetic evolution, our lung tissue is spongy and elastic, allowing them to expand and deflate with the help of the diaphragm and other muscles in our chest. Our ribcage reports for duty every day to protect all of this while keeping an eye on our heart, too.
Our brain monitors our need for oxygen whether we’re sitting and reading, sleeping, running a marathon, etc. Signals from the noggin’s respiratory center travel down the spine through the nervous system to our lungs and chest musculature.
As we inhale, air is pulled into our nose and/or mouths and into the windpipe before it’s split two ways and heads for our left and right lungs. The air isn’t done dividing as it splits off another 15 to 25 times, depending on individual lung construction. Finally, the incoming breath divides again — thousands of ways this time — into small sacs in the lungs where the carbon dioxide exchange takes place.
The process of exhalation and getting ride of the waste carbon dioxide is comparatively easy — simply a case of “everybody out” as the chest muscle work in reverse, stopping their pull in and transitioning to a push out for the lungs.
Depending on our ages and general daily activity level, we breathe between 10 and 20 times per minute, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Let’s settle on 15 for a nice, all-purpose minute by minute number. If we maintain the average figures, that’s 900 breaths per hour. Multiply that by 24 hours, and we come up to 21,600 breaths per day. Kick that up to 151,200 for a week, 604,800 in a month and 7,257,600 per year. If we throw all of those numbers together and are fortunate enough to live to the ripe, ole’ age of 80, we inhale and exhale half a billion times or, more accurately, 580,608,000.
It speaks to the indomitable ability and endurance of the human body — in this case, the respiratory system. Name a machine capable of exiting the same mechanical or chemical process nearly 600,000,000 times without replacement parts.
Of course, most of the time all of this goes on without us really thinking about it. It’s predominantly a passive process, even while exercising. It’s an activity of the autonomic nervous system (within the peripheral nervous system) that also controls heart rate, digestion, vision response, waste removal, sexual arousal and self preservation. We can thank the hypothalamus within the old bean for all of this automatic functionality.
It’s all made that much more amazing to behold when we realize autonomic functions restrain as well as stimulate. What the hypothalamus can increase, it can scale back again to keep the whole body functioning properly.
However, while breathing is mostly a passive process, we possess great control over it and can use it when we need to and how we need to throughout various life experiences.
When we exercise, our muscles require more oxygen-rich blood. The heart increases its pump rate, and the lungs ramp up the waste gas exchange to provide the blood with the mixture it needs. We naturally take bigger, deeper or more rapid breaths to fuel the system, depending on the sort and intensity of the activity.
When the body becomes active, breathing can increase up to 40 to 60 times a minute to cope with the extra demand. The delivery of oxygen to our muscles also speeds up, so they can do their job efficiently. The increase in our breathing makes sure there’s no build-up of carbon dioxide in our bloodstream.
Our brains constantly get signals from our bodies which detect the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our blood. It sends imputes to the muscles involved in breathing to adjust the rate depending on how active we are.
Although breathing is usually automatic, we can control it if we want to or need to for exercise or to calm the nerves before a good golf shot. It’s that ability to control breath that opens a world of improved and effective meditation and emotional control.
According to Dr. Claudia Ressell-Hodan, PSYD, the process of affecting the body through breath is a natural, logical concept.
“Breathing exercises help you relax because they make your body feel like it does when you are already relaxed,” she says. “When you breathe slowly and deeply, it sends a message to your nervous system that you are calm. That helps you relax. It can create a circuit.”
The brain sends a message to the body via that same autonomic nervous system. Such a message can counter the body’s response while stress, such as increased heart rate, hyperventilation and high blood pressure.
“Stressed, nervous or anxiety-driven breathing puts the gas exchange system out of balance, leaving the body without an ideal oxygen level,” Ressell-Hodan adds. “The slower, fuller and controlled breathing a practitioner engages during meditation — or just when looking to settle oneself down — must include slow, deep and steady inhalations matched with equally full exhalation.”
Strained breath can also create a circuit. A body experiencing stress is out of respiratory balance as breaths become more shallow. Carbon dioxide builds up, increasing strain on the respiratory system and adding more stress to the system.
“Deeper, focused breathing resupplies the proper balance of oxygen.”
Veteran practitioners of meditation explore breathing for many hours. However, newcomers to the concept of applied deep breathing can struggle to take those first steps to improve their technique.
An excellent first step toward learning better breathing techniques is learning diaphragm breathing.
- Sit in a comfortable position.
- Put a hand on your belly and another on your chest.
- Take a deep breath in through your nose and let your belly push your hand away.
- Your chest should remain stationary.
- Exhale through your lips slowly. Use the hand on your belly to push all the air from your lungs.
- Repeat five to 10 times.
- Take note of how you feel when finished.
Once you feel adept at belly breathing, add up 4–7–8 breathing:
- Take a similar posture and position to belly breathing.
- Put a hand on your belly and the other on your chest as before.
- Take in a long, slow breath from your belly and count to four as you inhale.
- Hold the breath and count from one to seven.
- Exhale completely and count from one to eight. Release all the air out of your lungs by the end of the count.
- Repeat five to 10 times.
- Take note of how you feel when finished.
In the end, to say that we breathe without knowledge of our breath is false. Even when we don’t consciously attempt to alter and control our breath for meditation or exercise, a part of our mind is always aware and grateful for the function of breathing. That’s why we find so many literary references to the precious, life-affirming process.
F. Scott Fitzgerald described his Gatsby as “breathing dreams like air.” William Shakespeare wrote a sonnet to a devoted love with: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see…So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”And, J.M. Barrie went a bit darker with Peter Pan: “There is a saying in the Neverland that every time we breathe, a grown-up dies.”
Still, the most beautiful passage on our collective breath might just come from poet C. Joy Bell C. and her 2015 passage:
“I am never alone wherever I am. The air itself supplies me with a century of love. When I breathe in, I am breathing in the laughter, tears, victories, passions, thoughts, memories, existence, joys, moments, and the hues of the sunlight on many tones of skin; I am breathing in the same air that was exhaled by many before me. The air that bore them life. And so how can I ever say that I am alone?”