By Aaron Hoopes
Breathing is essential to Yoga practice, yet it is often the most neglected aspect of our training as we work to perfect our posture, stance and alignment. The simple fact is that breathing is the fundamental aspect of our physical body. It is a continuous rhythm that runs throughout our whole life. The body can go for days, even weeks without food. It is able to survive two or three days without water. But it is virtually impossible to go without breathing for more than a few minutes. Without fresh oxygen to the brain the bodily systems quickly shut down and we die.
Breathing is natural, and automatic, something we rarely take the time to notice, unless we are winded from a burst of exercise or emotional stimulation. This is fine for most people for much of their lives, since the body was created to work efficiently without having to pay attention to breathing. This normal, everyday breathing can be defined as subsistence breathing. The amount of oxygen taken in during subsistence breathing is sufficient for everyday life. It brings just enough oxygen into the body to keep it functioning. Imagine a subsistence farmer who works the land and scrapes just enough food together to feed his family. Quite possibly he can continue this way for many years. His existence, though meager, seems sufficient. But, what if there is an unforseen disaster, which affects his ability to continue, such as a prolonged drought, flooding, or an early frost? If the farmer has not stored up his reserves, then simple survival may be almost impossible. The same goes for breathing. Subsistence breathing, though meager, is adequate as long as the body is healthy and active. But what happens if there is an accident, sickness, or trauma? Without an excess of stored energy, there are no reserves to tap into when needed. It becomes difficult for the body to repair itself.
Conscious breathing is the process of becoming aware of the body’s inhalation and exhalation of air. Nearly four thousand years ago in ancient China and India people understood that becoming conscious of the body as it is breathing is the key to a long, healthy life. Just the action of noticing the breath brings our awareness to it and increases its quality. One of the most common themes in the teachings offered by spiritual leaders is the principle of internal cleansing, getting rid of that which is old, worn out, and stale, and exchanging it for what is new, fresh, and energised. That, of course, is the central principle of dynamic breathing as well. During inhalation we are bringing in fresh oxygen, nutrients, and vital energy. During exhalation we are expelling carbon dioxide and other toxins and poisons that we produce or collect in our daily living.
Conscious breathing has many other physical benefits as well. Most people know that humans, on the whole, rarely use more than 25-30 percent of their brain potential. The longer one practices conscious breathing exercises, however, the more oxygen is taken in. Eventually some of this is directed to the brain. The electroencephalogram of a person doing breathing exercises shows a distinct synchronization of alpha waves in different parts of the brain, especially in the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex. This is the corresponding center of the central nervous system and is responsible for consciousness. The oxygen increases brain activity. The longer conscious breathing is practiced, the smoother and wider the synchronization of alpha waves becomes. This has the result of improving overall brain function. In addition, metabolism and energy consumption slow during conscious breathing exercises, which is an excellent defense against disease.
The deep rhythmic respiration of the abdominal cavity during breathing exercises brings another, more hidden benefit. The expansion and contraction of the diaphragm can be up to four times normal, and this movement inside the body acts as an internal massage of the stomach, liver, kidneys, spleen, and intestines. This passive massage strengthens and energizes them, making them less susceptible to disease and degeneration.
Sympathetic vs. Parasympathetic
As breathing becomes uniform and regulated, the volume and capacity of the lungs increase. This stimulates the whole autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system controls many organs and muscles within the body including the heart, stomach, and intestines. This nervous system is always working to maintain normal internal functions. Actually it is made up of two systems: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is concerned with “fight or flight” responses to stimulus. When we are startled or surprised, the sympathetic nervous system is called into action – blood pressure increases, the heart beats faster, and the digestive process slows down. Conversely the parasympathetic nervous system is concerned with resting and digesting. When we are relaxed, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over – blood pressure decreases, the heart beat slows and the digestive process starts.
The main problem in today’s society is that the sympathetic nervous system is often overstimulated while the parasympathetic nervous system is understimulated. The fast pace of our lives and the frenetic energy modern society calls forth keeps us in a state of constant stimulation. Both systems are equally important so we need to find a way to balance them. Conscious breathing is the method for doing this.
The first step is simple: to become more aware of the capacity of the lungs. To start, imagine the lungs are two balloons inside the chest. As you breathe normally, the top third of these balloons is filled and emptied. All day, every day, the top third of your lungs is being used to keep you alive while the bottom two thirds remains unused unless you are doing exercise or something which makes you breathe faster. Conscious breathing teaches you how to breathe from the bottom of the lungs up, expanding them to their full capacity. With expanded use of your lungs, the intake of oxygen is increased dramatically and more oxygen-rich blood circulates within the body.
Lung Capacity Exercise: Exhale completely then close your eyes and breathe in slowly through the nose. Imagine filling the balloons up from the bottom, relaxing the ribcage and stomach muscles. Concentrate on maximizing the expansion of the lungs. Come to a full stop, then open your mouth and inhale some more. Top off your lungs with a quick intake of breath. Hold for a moment and then exhale completely, forcing out as much air as possible by contracting the muscles of the ribcage and stomach. Repeat this three times, observing how the balloons fill and expand in size each time. Take note of any changes in feeling in your chest or elsewhere in your body.
The change from subsistence to conscious breathing is accomplished by brining your attention to your breathing and becoming aware of the feelings within your own body. Most of our behavior is unconscious. We walk around in our bodies rarely noticing how they feel, unless, there is pain. Seldom do we consciously think of the body as feeling good. Feeling good shouldn’t be an absence of pain. It should be an invigorated, energetic state where we are comfortable and happy in our bodies. Becoming aware of our breath is a way to reach that feeling. Expanding our breathing ability is a way of extending that feeling.
Try to become more aware of your breathing. At any time of the day, anywhere, stop and notice your breathing. Take a deeper breath. No matter what you are doing, breathe. Make conscious breathing a regular part of your life.
This article has been reproduced with the permission of Aaron Hoopes and was first published in of Spirit Magazine, 2004.
Aaron Hoopes is a native of Vermont and the founder of Zen Yoga. He is the author of: Zen Yoga: A Path to Enlightenment through Breathing, Movement and Meditation, Breathe Smart, and Perfecting Ourselves: Coordinating Body, Mind and Spirit. He has studied the martial arts, Eastern philosophy, and alternative medicine in the United States, Australia, and Japan for over twenty-five years. He has a degree in Asian History and Japanese Culture from Tulane University and spent a number of years in Japan studying under Masatoshi Nakayama, the chief instructor at the headquarters of the Japan Karate Association, until his death in 1987. He holds a third degree black belt in Japanese Shotokan Karate and is a certified instructor and one of the Hoitsugan Instructors. He is also certified as an instructor of Shanti Yoga and Meditation as well as Tamashii Tai Chi. He is trained in Chinese Qigong (Chi Kung) Energy Healing and studied Shiatsu Finger Pressure Therapy under Hitoshi Koeda in Japan. In addition, he has extensive knowledge of Iyengar Yoga, White Crane Qigong, Okinawan Karate, Shorinji Kenpo, Wing Chun Kung Fu and Zen Meditation.