Breath is something we take for granted. It’s an involuntary action by the body so we rarely pay attention. And, we definitely don’t understand the value in using breath for better health and fitness. The “power of breath” is an unknown in our culture.
The average person has 21,600 breaths every 24 hours (15 breaths per min X 60 min X 24 hours) and about 60,000 independent mental thoughts. Our breathing process is the foundation of all of our brain function and 12 energy systems of the body. Breathing is also the only physiological function that we can control, if we wish. Otherwise, it occurs from the intelligence of our autonomic nervous system on its own. Depending on how you’re breathing, the autonomic nervous system sends signals to our parasympathetic (rest and digest) or sympathetic (flight or flight) systems. The nervous system reacts to the breathing of the body every second whether we are awake or asleep. Rapid or shallow breathing strongly decreases parasympathic response.
Our respiratory system draws life force wind in and out of the body. The diaphragm and intercostal muscles make up the muscles of the inspiration and the rectus abdominal muscles contracting make up the expiration. This system feeds our cardiovascular system . . . the lungs and heart are in charge of ventilation and pumping energy into our cells. The cardiovascular system fuels our moving parts that are our neuromuscular skeletal system. These two systems respond to the commands of the brain and send movement instructions through the nervous system through our 600 or so muscles and 206 bones.
The respiratory system also supports our digestive and lymphatic systems, two systems paramount to processing the foods we ingest and in removing toxins and imbalances from the body. When the respiratory and digestive systems are working harmoniously, you’re well on your way to a good strong, healthy nervous system. Keeping our nervous system in the parasympathetic response is crucial to physical and mental health and longevity to the average life span of our cellular body.
The best “drug” we have on the planet right now is oxygen and optimal breathing. Proper breathing is the best thing we can do for ourselves to restore and revitalize the body and mind at the cellular level of life. Everyone can do it. The problem is we were never taught the optimal way to breathe when we were young. Learning something new later in life can feel awkward at first, but once we get past the initial baby steps, it’s actually quite refreshing and builds confidence and a positive attitude. Learning something new always has a mental and physical component.
There are 3 areas where breathing is most effective for overall health and well-being. First, as a tool to reduce stress and anxiety. Since how you take breath in sends signals to the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, you want to use breath to control the mind and to facilitate the relaxation response. I mentioned above that we average 15 breaths per minute in a resting state. This amount of breaths per minute generates the sympathetic response. So, even at a resting state, the average American is living in the sympathetic response. It shouldn’t be hard to imagine how heart disease, anxiety and stress disorders are plaguing our country.
Second, for all sports training. Most athletes breathe through their mouth. Remember this basic rule of thumb . . . the nose is designed to breathe and the mouth is designed to eat. The mouth is no better equipped to breathe than the nostrils are to eat food. Mouth breathing is a human emergency breathing technique to allow the body a quick burst of energy to remove the body from a life-threatening situation. Chronic shallow breathing and mouth breathing is well-documented to advance the cellular aging process not just in body, but the brain cells; it also slows digestion and the removal of body wastes as well as dehydrating the body.
The imbalances described above impact every athlete. Along with physiological interference, the athlete is always in a battle internally with their mind and their perception of what they think is happening in the present moment. Reaction is everything to an athlete. Reacting without the imprints from the past or the fear of what might occur in the future.
Proper training for an event is critical. Hope isn’t a time proven strategy. You can create so much more heat in the body training by breathing correctly. In other words, raise the heart rate and blood lactate levels through manipulating the breathing process rather than destroying muscle fibers. Training is about creating internal environments where heat builds internally and wastes are removed without destroying muscle mass.
It’s become so uncivilized for me to mouth breathe while exercising. If you breathe correctly, you will never under train or over train. You will hit your mark every time. There are times for mouth breathing in performance, but it shouldn’t be the norm . . . especially in training. Outdated and antiquated training styles teach you to use the mind to over power the body . . . no pain, no gain. Push through it at whatever cost. Those lower qualities of the ego cause so much more harm. Have you ever watched an animal? Every animal on the planet breaths through its nose unless it feels threatened. That’s why the animals on the planet are more relaxed most of time, unlike humans who are stressed out most of the time. They live in the parasympathetic state and we live in the sympathetic state. And science tells us we have the largest brain?
So, create a relationship with yourself through nasal breathing facilitating a body OVER mind approach. Watch how this challenges your athletic performance and natural gifts. The body is always honest and honesty leads to a happier, healthier you.
Third, breath is a powerful tool for weight management programs. Because of how closely linked the respiratory system is to the digestive and lymphatic systems, proper breathing is essential in counteracting the imbalances of these two systems for folks employing weight management.
For weight loss, breathing the warm air through the nostrils rather than the cooling effects from mouth breathing is the most effective place to start changing patterns. When the diaphragm muscle thickens and strengthens from the breathing exercises, the brain sends signals to the body to burn fat rather than our precious sugar reserves. When our breath changes, it allows for growth against habitual behaviors creating suffering in our lives. Food is just energy to stay alive. It’s not something to use to process emotional peaks and valleys. Learn to slow down your nasal breathing when the body asks for more fuel. The body will make suggestions to what it craves and the portion size. The mind accepts, rejects or says, “I don’t have data to make the proper food selection right now.” Take a few more slow breaths and wait for the next suggestion from the body with patience; please.
So, how do you breathe? We’re going to cover 3 basic breathing techniques for you to introduce into your daily life. Let’s begin with learning the 3-part breath. You can try this even as you’re reading this article. Begin with some long, deep, nasal breaths. Start by slowing down the inhale and notice how the mind reacts to the slower paced inhalation. Next, slow and lengthen the exhalation for the body. Now, imagine that your torso is a glass. When you pour water into a glass, it goes to the bottom and makes its way to the rim. Well, imagine your breath doing the same thing. Breathe down into your abdomen, fill your ribs and up under your collar bone. Exhale completely, drawing your navel back to remove all the carbon dioxide. Just breathing like this for a few minutes slows down the brain waves and relaxes the body where there is unhealthy tension creating the space for disease to form.
Another tool in harnessing the “power of the breath” is to make a soft resonant sound in the throat when breathing. In yoga, it’s called “ocean sounding” breath. Practice this by contracting the upper muscles in the back of the throat, constricting the windpipe. It’s a sound that draws the mind inward and creates concentration on the present moment. The sound of the friction of the gases moving through the throat allows built up fats, phlegm and mucus to be removed from the warm heat emanating from a contracted throat. With an open ventilation system to the lungs, more energy is available for the digestive system to remove and assimilate wastes from the food and fluids we eat and drink.
The third breathing technique is alternate nostril breathing, also a yogic breathing tool to balance the left and right cortex of the frontal lobes of our brain. We basically have two independent brains in one skull. The left side of the brain is imbued with motor skills, cognition, linear thoughts. The right side of the brain is creative, spacious, relaxed. The left side is masculine, the right side feminine. Left side is solar and warm. Right side is lunar and cool. Every three hours, one nostril becomes more dominant than the other. This means that more air will pass through the most open nasal channel. This function of switching dominant nostrils is the foundation of the body’s heating and cooling system. It’s how we maintain our body temperature of 98.6. Left nostrils fuel the right brain and right nostril the left brain. This forms an X pattern across the forehead.
Every 24 hours, there is roughly 10 minutes where the left and right nostril are in balance and are both open organically. With alternate nostril breathing, we can circulate the air across the respiratory glands of the brain and stimulate both cortexes to align as one. This is called “the zone”. You’ve heard this term used with athletes or musicians. Accessing the finest qualities of each cortex is essential to a more joyful, happy human life.
Oxygen is the most abundant gas on earth for life. The more oxygen you can handle without raising your heart-rate, the less chance your cells have of getting sick and diseased. The more oxygen you can handle, the stronger fire you’ll have in the belly to get things done during the day and go beyond the imprints from the past that have frozen folks in fear and inadequacy. Life’s tough, but you’re tougher. Take action today. This is your life. It’s not a dress rehearsal. Time is ticking. Your story is the best story ever written.
Edward Harrold is a studio owner of Comfort Zone Center for Whole Self Health in Delaware, a Director of Yoga & Sports Training for The Kripalu Institute For Extraordinary Living and originator of the Flexibility For Athletes ® program. He has released a series of instructional DVD’s and Video Podcast workouts. He trains with sports teams teaching the Flexibility For Athletes ® program to enhance athletic performance and endurance.
To learn more about pranayama and alternate nostril breathing, please watch our YouTube Video on Nadi Suddhi for Beginners.
(by Edward Harrold, from the February, 2011 IYTA Newsletter)