Breath is Life

You would think, because breathing is so fundamental to survival, that most (if not all) of us would be born instinctually knowing how to do it effectively.

The truth is otherwise.

The good news: breathing is driven by the brain. The brain closely (and quickly) monitors data from the tissues about oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.

Without an effective exchange of these gases, we would not survive (without intervention). Cells can only withstand oxygen deprivation for a few minutes before cell death results.

Breath is autonomically controlled, expertly managed by the subconscious brain. (If breathing were totally managed by us, we would be unable to sleep because we would die the moment we fell to sleep.)

One significant cause of disparity between the blood gases (besides disease) is a result of our ability to affect the breath willfully – over-riding the autonomic control of inhalation and exhalation exerted by the brainstem. Some methods of breathing have beneficial results. Some, however, do not.

Some people barely breathe. It is apparently enough to sustain life, or perhaps subsist, albeit in a lessened state of vitality.  These people occasionally yawn, sigh or periodically take a “heaving” breath – this is the brainstem doing its job.

Some breathe into the upper chest only (constricted thoracic breathing), increasing blood pressure and creating intensely emotional reactions (e.g., anxiety, panic).

Others completely reverse the mechanics of breath by fiercely drawing in the abdomen and puffing up the upper chest on inhalation (paradoxical breathing), again, over-stimulating (i.e., agitating) the nervous system into a “fight or flight” response.

Effective breathing is very different. The chest (upper rib cage) typically remains stationery, the mid-ribs splay outwards due to contraction in the external intercostals while, below, the belly is puffed or pressed out.  The reason the belly puffs out is due to the downward press of the respiratory diaphragm, the muscle of respiration, pushing the abdominal viscera out of the lungs’ way while air is pulled into them.

Effective breathing not only keeps the two primary blood gases in check – oxygen and (its waste) carbon dioxide, so that the cells can survive – it helps us foster a state of neurological relaxedness. Relaxedness allows the systems of the body to shift towards a more optimal state of functioning (homeostasis); excitation, on the other hand, stalls many systems (immune, digestive, reproductive) due to an emergency state of mind.

One universal value of yoga asana (postures) is the immediate effect of causing one to take deeper breaths.  The postures flex, extend or rotate the spine into one or more of its six primary directions: this creates resistance for the diaphragm. This resistance can guide us to breath deeper: thus, effectively.

Think of it as “creative trickery.”  The postures move the muscles, bones and organs into positions that challenge a passive breath.

Typically, yoga asana are performed standing, prone or supine – which changes the gravitational effects on the blood and organs.

But what about yoga in a seated position, for those who are unsteady with balance or too weak or feeble to stand or prostrate themselves (then get back up)? Can the body still be moved in ways to affect the same effect on the breath?

The answer is a resounding “YES!!!”



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