Just Breathe

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Just Breathe

Deep inhalation AND full exhalation. Ahhhh…How many times have I heard it said?

Each inhalation and exhalation is one of an estimated average of 20,000 breaths that you will take today.

From the first breath we take when we are born until we reach our expiration date. Our days and our breaths are numbered; finite.   It is the one habit we can’t live without, yet it is one that very few people ever give much attention to. Although I think most of us go through a stage as children of experimenting with how long we can hold their breath. I can remember passing out in the school library aged ten.  My own kids had a game where they would hold their breath anytime we crossed a bridge. I would intentionally slow down to stretch out the rare moments of peace in the back seat.

These experiments should tell us something important-  that breathing is a unique physiological function. It lies midway between our internal organs and our musculature in terms of the degree of voluntary control we have over their function.  Most people have no conscious control of the operation of their organs. However we are all quite familiar with the experience of choosing to activate or relax the muscles of our bodies to varying degrees. From the experience of holding our breathe we can observe that we have a degree of control until at some point an involuntary reflex  kicks in , (essential as soon as the nervous system registers that there is a threat to our continued survival , because we must never forget breath IS life)

Similarly some reflection on the quality of breath during various emotional states can make clear the relationship between emotion, the body and breath. Indeed it’s relatively straight forward to demonstrate that our emotional and physical state can be altered by consciously altering the breath.

A personal example is that there’s a lot of shoulder and clavicle ( collar-bone) action involved in me taking a deep breath, so to a certain extent  when I take a deep breath in its working hard to pull up the rib cage rather than the intercostals muscles expanding to create space for the lungs to expand.

This not only less efficient it also leads to holding tension around the shoulders and neck. But even worse it tends to take me out of being centred and grounded because the energy is being pulled up; not in.

But what does all that mean?

Deep inhalation AND full exhalation…Clearly some understanding of the dynamics of breathing would be useful

I was surprised to learn that humans are the only animal on the planet possessed of an external nose, while many possess a proboscis, most of our closest mammalian relatives have nostrils but not a nose. We are used to our sense of smell being compared unfavourably to other animals but in fact our nose does far more than simply house the receptors for our olfactory system, which incidentally we still don’t understand. The nose is also a significant part of the respiratory system. Among over thirty distinct physiological functions the nose filters the air we breathe, regulates the temperature and the moisture content.  Surprisingly, without these functions humans could not have adapted to the many various ecological niches we find them:  from the arctic circle to the tropics, from salt laden coastal regions  to the rarefied air of the high mountain plateaux, from jungles to deserts, all because of the remarkable protuberance on our faces.  In fact may of the racial differences that people are fond of judging others by are the result of evolutionary adaptation and refinement of the nasal cavity to address the type of climate, in diverse habitats.

When you breath in through the nostrils, air is accelerated, filtered, warmed, moistened and directed through the trachea into a two branching tubes supplying the lobes of the lungs, these are called bronchi and they branch off like limbs on a tree getting smaller and smaller fifteen times until they form microscopic tubes terminating in bronchioles. These are comprised of a series of tiny air sacs with very thin walls only one cell thick called alveoli which are surrounded by the blood vessels suppled by the heart and the circulatory system.  It is here that the gas exchange occurs; oxygen for carbon dioxide carried by venous blood.

For this process to operate at maximum efficiency it is fairly obvious that the full capacity of the lungs would be engaged, however that is precisely the problem for most of us our breathing is not operating at optimal levels.  For most people develop habits of breathing that restrict the operation of the lungs. As some self reflection can show us different emotional states impact the pattern of our breathing.

Of some concern too is the impact of air pollution and our exposure to air borne toxins that breaks down the delicate surface of the alveoli can damage large sections of the lung.  Even worse, there are pollutants in our environment that bind to the gas exchange molecules and limit the amount of oxygen our blood can carry to power our metabolism. For instance haemoglobin preferentially binds to carbon monoxide thus smokers are decreasing their oxygen intact by anywhere from 5% to 15% even when they’re not actually puffing on a cigarette.

If we are following our breathe the journey doesn’t stop at the alveoli, once the oxygen is picked up by molecules of haemoglobin or to some minor extent dissolved in the blood, it is then carried by the arteries throughout the entire body, red blood cells squeeze through capillaries in our muscles nerves and organs and there gas exchange similar to that that occurred in the lungs alveoli except this time the cells of the body exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen, and this venous blood then returns through the veins to the lungs to start the process all over again.

Deep inhalation AND full exhalation…The finely tuned co-ordination of the anatomical mechanism of breathing  is extraordinary.

When you breathe in, or inhale, your can notice how diaphragm contracts (tightens) and moves downward into the abdominal cavity. This increases the space in your chest cavity, into which your lungs expand. The inter-costal muscles between your ribs can also help enlarge the chest cavity. The external inter-costal muscles pull the ribs up and outward, expanding the rib cage, further increasing this chest volume. This increase of volume lowers the air pressure in the lungs as compared to atmospheric air. Because air always flows from a region of high pressure to an area of lower pressure, air is sucked in through the body’s conducting airway (nostrils, throat, larynx and trachea) into the alveoli of the lungs.

When you breathe out, or exhale, your diaphragm relaxes and moves upward into the chest cavity. The inter-costal muscles between the ribs also relax to reduce the space in the chest cavity.

As the space in the chest cavity gets smaller, air rich in carbon dioxide is forced out of your lungs and windpipe, and then out of your nose or mouth.

Breathing out requires no effort from your body unless you have a lung disease or are doing physical activity. When you’re physically active, your abdominal muscles contract and push your diaphragm against your lungs even more than usual. This rapidly pushes air out of your lungs.

The respiratory centre in the brainstem is responsible for controlling a person’s breathing rate. It sends a message to the respiratory muscles telling them when to breathe. The medulla, located nearest the spinal cord, directs the spinal cord to maintain breathing, and the pons, a part of the brain very near the medulla, provides further smoothing of the respiration pattern. This control is automatic, involuntary and continuous. You do not have to consciously think about it.

The behavioural or voluntary control of breathing is located in the cortex of the brain and acts whenever we choose such as a self-initiated change in breathing before a vigorous exertion or effort. Speaking, singing and playing some musical instruments (e.g. clarinet, flute, saxophone, trumpet, etc.) are good examples of the behavioural control of breathing. As well, the behavioural control of breathing encompasses accommodating changes in breathing such as those changes from stress and emotional stimuli, these changes however can become habitual and therefore below our everyday consciousness. This characteristic makes focussing (bringing awareness to) the breath in yoga practice so powerful a tool for releasing habitual emotional and energetic patterns that inhibit the amount of energy available to our systems.

So, essentially as we bring our attention to the breath during our yoga practice, we are literally more likely to be able to release the habits and patterns that restrict the flow of energy through our bodies.

(As a side point here did you know what happens to the excess weight (fat) when you lose weight? You breathe it out!  More efficient breathing, particularly the exhalation, leads to more lean muscle mass! )

Breath and spirit 

The Sanskrit word pranayama is regularly mentioned by many yoga teachers though rarely comprehensively explained. Obviously every word can’t be explained in every class as time permits and regulars would eventually tune out. So, if you are new to yoga or just need a re-cap here is a quick background to pranayama. (If you’d like to know more about the practice why not ask Mysan, Nadia,  Sally or one of the other teachers for some guidance into the practice)

Prana means energy, life force and/or vitality. Other countries recognise this energy and in China call it chi, Korea qi, and Egyptians refer to it as ka. Yama means to control, therefore the practice of pranayama is to control or influence the vital energy and life force that is within each and every breath.

Our whole body structure is in constant rhythmical breath motion. Each breath stimulates an electromagnetic field across the upper body, which modulates the transfer of signals that continually communicate up and down the intricate spinal column. The central nervous system and the body’s cellular structure are sensitive to internally-generated and external electromagnetic signals. The living cells are themselves detectors of these periodic electric fields.

When you bring awareness to your breath the mind is redirected away from the inner dialogue to a calming influence, one that naturally slows us down and creates space throughout the body and mind. Once we have space and are highly alert due to conscious breathing it is as though we have come to an intersection where we can choose which path to follow; a path to growth, freedom, and/or peace instead of mindlessly driving along occasionally being nudged to quickly react to what unfolds.

In the world’s spiritual traditions the same word is used for both breath and spirit, underscoring that in essence they are the same, though we naturally think of spirit as being the cause of breath(ing).

The word used for both breath and spirit is: in Judaism: Ruach, in Eastern Christianity (and ancient Greek religion): Pneuma, in Western Christianity (and ancient Roman religion): Spiritus (which comes from spiro: “I breathe”). In Hinduism and Buddhism: Atma (from the root word at which means “to breathe”), and Prana.

Meditation on the breath is meditation on spirit, on consciousness itself. Consciousness is the root of breath–is innate in breath. Breath, then, is the direct means to return our awareness to the inmost level of our being and put us into touch with consciousness itself. At the same time, breath (prana) rules all the levels of our being and has the ability to infuse all those levels with the highest spiritual consciousness, to spiritualize every bit of us. For the essence, the root, of breath is both energy and consciousness. Awareness of the breath right away centres our awareness in the highest, etheric level of our being. It returns our awareness to its source, gathers up and centres every other aspect of our being in spiritual consciousness.

Breath, Prana, pervades our bodies, corrects, directs, and empowers us to perfectly and fully manifest all our potential–which is the purpose of our existence. Through Breath meditation particularly,  what Mysan calls Yin breath, bringing awareness to our breath as we engage in action  (ie our yin practice) all the aspects of our being are brought into perfect alignment and enable us to merge or connect back into our Source.

Yoga means “union” or “connection.” In Sanskrit, the word “yoga” is used to signify any form of connection, in yoga philosophy or in the metaphysical sense, however, yoga means the conscious connection of the little egoic self with the greater Self. Conscious connection to something allows us to feel and experience that thing, person, or experience. Humans seek connection because it is ultimately fulfilling. To not be connected is to be disconnected, and this disconnection is the source of our pain. Our yoga practice leads us initially to connect with our selves and through the experience of sensation in our body to connect with life.  Yoga is a means that allows us to wake up to who we really are and to what life is all about.

Take a deep inhalation AND full exhalation… Ahhhh!