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Breathing The Air
by Keith C. Heidorn
A human can survive several weeks without food, several days without water, but only a few minutes without air. Every cell in the body requires a continual exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide to function, and breathing is the process by which that exchange with the outside world occurs. Breathing is a constant cycle of intake and exhaust, feeding the body and cleansing it.
Breathing is energizing. When the air is clean, the lungs strong, and the body relaxed, the body can develop to its peak potential, acquiring a greater sense of power and balance, awareness and mental sharpness. Under these conditions, proper breathing bestows many benefits: stamina and energy, confidence and a zest for life, a centering of body, mind and spirit, reduced stress and heightened focus; improved skin tone, quicker healing and relief from many aches and pains.
Oxygen taken in by the lungs has been called the life force by the Hindu (prana), the Chinese (qi or chi) and the Japanese (ki). In fact, the words spirit and breath are the same or have common roots in many languages. When we breath in, we take in spirit (inspire). Breath is the essence of being, the movement of spirit in the body. How we breathe both reflects the state of our emotions and mind and influences the state of our emotions and mind.
Breathing is the function of the respiratory system (air passages, lungs and diaphragm), which acts as a bellows to take fresh air in and push waste air out. Air is drawn in when the diaphragm pulls open the bottom of the chest cavity increasing its volume. This reduces the air pressure within the lungs relative to the outside air and, as a result, air rushes into the lungs. This is inhalation.
When the diaphragm and other chest and abdominal muscles relax, the elastic properties of the lungs cause them to contract, pushing the waste air out. This is exhalation. We breathe about 11 to 16 times per minute at rest, or about 16,000 to 23,000 times per day, although during heavy exercise this rate can double for short periods of time. The process of breathing is generally performed unconsciously; however, we can easily control our breathing by conscious effort.
Breathing function can be impeded by restrictions in the air passages to and within the lungs due to illness, injury, chronic weaknesses or blockage by foreign objects such as dust or mucus. Often our breathing is restricted by tense muscles, poor posture, tight clothing or emotions. In fact, the body image of a puffed-out chest and a flat belly is the antithesis to proper breathing for both men and women.
Breathing is often classified as either chest breathing or abdominal breathing. Of course, all breath is taken in by the lungs in the chest. These designations indicate the predominant muscles used for breathing. When we breathe using mostly the upper chest muscles to open the rib cage (chest breathing), our breathing is shallow. Too little air drawn into the lungs results in oxygen-poor blood. This puts a strain on the heart which must pump more blood to feed the cells. Upper chest breathing fills only about one quarter of the lung's capacity. In an average-sized adult this is about 500 cubic centimetres or about half a pint of air. Emotional status also influences how we breathe. When we are distraught, we tend to breath by rapid, shallow chest breathing.
Abdominal breathing does not mean filling the abdomen with air, but rather using the muscles in the abdomen, sides and back of the lower torso to permit the maximum lowering of the diaphragm. With maximum chest expansion, air can enter the full lungs, filling a volume as much as eight times that filled during shallow chest breathing. This is very important because the increased volume allows air to enter the lower lungs where most of the blood circulates.
Proper posture, a relaxed body, loose-fitting clothing and a slow constant rhythm are important for efficient abdominal breathing. With proper posture, we allow the muscles to expand the chest with a minimum of effort. If we slouch and force the weight of the upper chest onto the abdomen, it takes much more energy for abdominal breathing than when the back is straight and relaxed. Similarly, when we overeat, the volume of food in our stomach hinders the proper action of the diaphragm, thus restricting our breathing. This reduces the oxygen supply, which is needed to work the digestive process. With the increased volume of food and a reduced capacity to digest it, we may feel tired and experience indigestion.
The oxygen taken into the lungs is vitally important for both physical health and emotional health. Well oxygenated blood stimulates healing within the body and improves skin tone. It may also relieve aches and pains. Indeed, breathing can be used to relieve pain, especially where muscle tension is involved, by relaxing muscles. Often during bouts of pain, we involuntarily contract our muscles in response. This leads to more pain, either by squeezing the affected area or by overworking muscles. In such instances, we can use our conscious control over breathing to help relax those muscles which will result in an immediate reduction of pain.
The use of breathing to relax the muscles of the body is a major component of many techniques for stress reduction and relaxation. All of the major exercise/relaxation techniques -- such as yoga and tai chi -- and many forms of meditation utilize breathing as part of the regime. Breathing can also be used to improve mental function and emotional health.
Even if our breathing process is working at high efficiency, we need a good supply of fresh air to reap the full benefits of breathing. Breathing polluted air brings harmful chemicals into the lungs and blood stream. These may directly affect lung function by blocking air passages (dust), damaging lung tissue (acid aerosols or ozone) or by displacing oxygen in the blood (carbon monoxide). For example, carbon monoxide combines more rapidly and forms a much stronger bond with blood hemoglobin than does oxygen, thus robbing the body of its needed oxygen supply.
We may also experience breathing difficulties when the oxygen content in the air is low. This is common at higher altitudes where the air pressure is diminished. Those living at altitude generally adapt to these conditions after a time. Indoors, overcrowding of a room can lower the oxygen content, especially if the ventilation is poor.
All life breathes; in fact, the whole planet breathes in a continual exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. When the rhythm is right, all is in harmony. Deep and rhythmic breathing will assist our bodies to heal, promote relaxation and improve mental and emotional functioning.For a simple exercise, see the companion article Watching The Breath.
Breathing The Air by Keith C. Heidorn, PhD . ©2001, All Rights Reserved.
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