If Rene Descartes was a ‘yoga breathing’ yogi, his motto would be “I breathe, therefore I am!” …
I once asked a group of yoga students what they thought was the most important thing for maintaining a healthy life. The immediate answer was ‘healthy food’.
Well, that is true. We do need to eat don’t we? … But you may be surprised to learn just how long a healthy person can go without food. I once read about a woman in China who had gone a year without eating!
The next answer given was ‘water’. Surely, how long could we go without fresh water? Not very long — perhaps a week — maybe even less.
… But how long can we go without taking a breath? Go ahead, give it a try. I’ll wait right here! That’s right – not more than a mere handful of seconds for most of us, and then we’re finished!
(I hope that you’re still with me…)
With that rudimentary little bit of logic, we are pointed toward a very startling reality
… Breathing is really what keeps us alive!
Ok, sure, that may sound obvious, but how often do we really think about it? How often do we put 2 and 2 together and realize that how we breathe (not to mention the quality of the air) affects our health more than anything else?
I’ve got bad news…
You, my friend, are a lousy breather! Yes, I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you, but it’s (probably) true. Don’t feel bad, and please don’t take it personally. Nearly everyone in this day and age is terribly untalented when it comes to drawing air in and pushing it back out …
… In fact, the average person today breathes scarcely into 25 percent of their lungs with each breath! Some much less even. Swami Gitananda maintained that people today use less than one-tenth of their breathing capacity!
… And if we breathe into only 25% (or even less) of our lungs’ capacity with each breath, then we are breathing in only a quarter the potential life-giving, live-sustaining, vital energy each and every moment. What’s that energy you say? It’s what the yogis call prana.
Why are we all so bad at breathing?
The problem is, first of all, that you were never taught how to breathe properly. It’s sort of a case of, “well, I seem to be breathing without giving it any thought, so I must be doing it fine” – an attitude which, unfortunately, has caused us to keep breathing poorly for a long, long time.
Over the course of a lifetime, we’ve all developed this habit of breathing into such a limited capacity of our lungs that we don’t even notice now what we’re missing. But if we want to be truly healthy, ‘energetically-infused’ beings, then that simply will not do!
This is not just a modern affliction though. There was a yogi of ancient times named Gorakhnath, who travelled all around India teaching people how to breathe and curing them of many illnesses in the process. And this famous yogi maintained that the people of his time breathed into only one-eighth of their lungs!
We were not born such feeble breathers though. In fact, newborns usually do just fine at it. But over time the stresses and strains of life slowly and insidiously alter and restrict our breathing patterns.
… Fear, anxiety, tension, passion, violent emotions, diseases and troubles of all kinds lead to a superficial, restricted and erratic breath.
Yoga Breathing Exercises
There are many yoga breathing techniques to help remedy breathing problems and to re-establish and maintain good overall health. In fact, yoga breathing is a science unto itself. That science is known as pranayama.
While many of these pranayama yoga breathing exercises require guidance from an experienced yoga teacher, there are a few deep breathing exercises that are quite simple to learn, and they also yield wonderful results.
The Breath of Life
“By slowing the rhythm of your breath, the vital energy will reach high levels; by increasing the frequency of the breath, this energy of life will diminish.”
~ Gheranda Samhita
The science of yoga breathing, as suggested in the quote above, teaches us that both ‘full breaths’ as well as slowing the rate of breathing are important factors in health, vitality and longevity. This small clue points us toward an interesting consideration…
… If we look into the various breathing patterns of creatures in nature, we see some interesting parallels between breath and behavioural characteristics. For instance, those creatures that are easily excitable (quick to jump, or edgy) breathe with higher rapidity. A mouse takes 50 breaths per minute and a monkey, a cat and chicken all around 30.
… Conversely, the docile horse takes 16 breaths, an elephant 10, and the most immovable of all creatures, the tortoise a mere 3 breaths per minute!
Now here’s the kicker…
When we consider longevity, the maximum lifespan of a mouse is but a meagre 3 to 4 years compared to the elephant which lives on average for 70 years. The lifespan of a tortoise is 193 years!
The Breath of Humans
Did you know that a healthy person breathes in and out about 21,600 times per day? That means, on average, human beings take approximately 15 breaths per minute. That number can vary from anywhere between 11 or 12, up to a distressing 20–24 breaths per minute in the most unhealthy of individuals. How about you?…
The Anatomy of Breathing
You don’t really need to know what’s going on inside your chest to benefit from a healthy regiment of yoga breathing. But it doesn’t hurt to have a little info on what your body is all about either. Don’t worry, I won’t turn this into an anatomy lesson… and there won’t be a test!
The respiratory system is truly a marvel of evolutionary engineering. Biologically speaking, the primary function of the lungs is the oxygenation of the blood and the elimination of waste products (carbonic acid) from the bloodstream. That alone places good yoga breathing at the top of the list for health and wellbeing.
I’ll assume that you know we have two lungs, situated on either side of the chest. But did you know that the interior of the lungs house over an astounding 600 million cells, which, if they were to be laid out over a flat surface, would cover an area greater than the size of a football field?
… It is this labyrinth of cells that provides the vehicle for absorption of the nutrients in the air we breathe, including that very vital energy the yogis call prana.
As well, the base of the lungs rest upon a large, membranous-like muscle called the diaphragm, which forms the entire inferior aspect, or base of the thoracic (chest) cavity. This muscle plays an integral part in the action of breathing. Ok, enough anatomy for today…
Benefits of Good Yoga Breathing
“When the breath wanders, the mind is unsteady, but when the breath is still, so also the mind of the Yogi obtains the power of stillness.”
~ Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Breathing is the ‘flywheel’ of our biological mechanism. It regulates, controls and affects many of our body functions.
Therefore, when we breathe ‘properly’ and ‘fully’ we have the opportunity to manipulate these functions (i.e., control body temperature, heart rate, etc.), and hence, greatly affect our state of health on many levels.
The breath is also the vehicle for delivery of the vital, life-giving prana energy to our being. In a nutshell, a person with regular, balanced ‘prana circulation’ evades disease.
But these are just a few points in a long list of benefits from proper, full yoga breathing. There is scarcely any aspect of health and wellbeing, be it mental, emotional, physical or otherwise, that would not stand to benefit from improved breathing.
If you want health, you simply MUST pay attention to the breath – lengthen it, slow it, expand it and control it. Go ahead, try yoga breathing and see the results for yourself…