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 it 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. We can survive for a few days without drinking water, a few months without taking food, but the average person cannot survive without drawing air into the lungs, for more than a few minutes.
The ancient Yogis were fully aware of the importance of breath – no breath, no life; breath is life.
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 and calm, which is conducive to longevity. 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 to fast breathing does not give the internal organs the massage they require.
Shallow breathing also leads to insufficient oxygen in the body. This causes functional disturbance 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.
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 harmonise with each other to give perfect co-operation under normal situations.
During bygone days, man was more receptive to the rhythms of nature. 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 the 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.
There are a large number of factors that influence our breathing. For example, if we take a cold shower, automatically we must breath 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 they lose touch with a natural stimulator of rhythmic breathing. Primitive man did not need to be taught how to breath properly; it happened as an automatic response to his surroundings.
The surrounds and way of life of modern man do not encourage correct breathing. It is for this reason that today most people have to learn how to breath properly. They have to relearn what in fact is natural for them. They have to reactivate their nervous reflexes so that their breathing become 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 to, 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.
A person who is reasonably relaxed and sitting, inhales and exhales approximately half a litre of air at a time. Now if that person expanded his chest and abdomen to the maximum that is possible and thereby drew more air into his 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. 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 litre that is exhaled during normal respiration.
This gives a total of 4 litres, which is four times the normal volume of inhalation and exhalation. It is for this reason that learning to breath properly is so important.
By now the advantages of deep breathing should be obvious, but what about slow breathing? Why not breath deeply and quickly? The reason is simple. Time is required to transfer oxygen from the lungs to 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 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.
We can split the process of breathing into two parts: abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing, inter-costal or chest breathing. Let us consider these in turn.
1. Abdominal breathing
This type of breathing is associated with the movement of the diaphragm and the outer wall of the abdomen. When relaxed this muscle arches upward towards the chest. During inhalation it is flattened as it moves downwards, which compressess the abdominal organs and eventually pushes the front wall, the belly, of the abdomen outwards.
This movement enlarges the chest cavity, downwards, allowing the lungs to expand and thereby draw in air from the surroundings. Relaxation of the muscles which push the diaphragm downwards allows the diaphragm to move upwards again to reduce the volume in the chest cavity and thereby cause exhalation.
This form of breathing draws in the greatest amount of air for the least muscular effort. It is often hampered however, by tight belts and clothing which prevents movement of the belly outwards.
2. Chest breathing
This form of breathing is achieved by movement of the ribs. During expansion of the ribcage outwards and upwards by muscular contraction, the lungs are allowed to to expand, this results in air being drawn into the lungs from the front side and inhalation taking place. When the muscles which control the movement of the ribs (the intercostals) are relaxed, then the ribs move downwards and inwards. This compresses the lungs and exhalation takes place.
3. Yogic breathing
Yogic, or deep breathing combines these modes of breathing, abdominal and chest into one harmonious movement. It is this type of breathing that we are interested in developing, since only yogic breathing can give the maximum inhalation and exhalation of breath.