We do it hundreds of times each hour and many thousands per day—breathing. It’s the process of movements of our chest and diaphragm to cause air to move into and out of our lungs. Yes AIR, not oxygen; oxygen is just one bit of air. Air generally consists of about 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen and much smaller amounts of carbon dioxide, methane and a couple of other gases. And depending upon where you are air also includes some water, various pollutant gases, particles of dust, pollens and even microorganisms. Complex stuff. We need to keep moving it into and out of our lungs to refresh the amount of oxygen deep down in the lungs in the alveoli where exchange with our blood takes place. It also flushes carbon dioxide out. Carbon dioxide from our metabolism is released from tiny blood vessels into the alveoli of the lungs—if it builds up too much its bad news so we need to breathe.
We breathe when asleep and when preoccupied with the business of daily living. It just happens, and mostly it happens at the right rate and depth of breathing to keep supplying oxygen to the alveoli and removing carbon dioxide just nicely. There are sensors (chemoreceptors) in the brain and located in certain arteries that detect the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood (and the acidity of the blood—pH) and send messages via nerves to the brain centres that regulate breathing. Messages come back from these brain centres, the medulla and the pons, to the breathing apparatus. The breathing apparatus includes the diaphragm muscle, just below the lungs and the many intercostal muscles connecting to ribs. The messages from the brain to these muscles are delivered by a number of nerves particularly the phrenic nerves, branches of the vagus nerves and some thoracic nerves. The messages can direct the muscles of breathing in such a way as to increase or decrease the depth of breathing and the rate of breathing. If you run hard or exert yourself carbon dioxide will build up in your blood quickly; messages carry this information to your brain, brain sends messages back to the muscles of the breathing apparatus and before you know it, like it or not you will be panting—breathing both deeper and much faster.
However, isn’t this amazing, you can also voluntarily choose to breath deeper or shallower, faster or slower, or not at all (for a short period of time)? There are not a lot of body functions like this that are equally under the control of voluntary and involuntary decision making. Breathing is a function right on that edge of being both, a sort of gateway between our conscious and unconscious life. And what it means in terms of the nervous system is that some of those nerves that control the muscles of the breathing apparatus are part of the autonomic system (automatic) and others are part of the voluntary nervous system. Anyway, TRY IT RIGHT NOW. Just stop breathing—you can stop with the breath in, or out, or halfway between, whatever you wish. I bet you can keep it stopped for 10 or 15 seconds without trouble. Some people can’t do much more. You might do 30 to 60 seconds without distress. Soon after that you will feel all kinds of distress and your autonomic nervous system will just force your breathing muscles to kick in and make you breathe again. However, some people train themselves and can hold for many minutes. The world record is about 24 minutes, done in water—for various reasons it is easier in cold water. Out of water I believe the record is about 12 minutes. Wild, isn’t it?
We won’t be doing that (holding breath for 10 or 20 minutes) in my Term 4 class series. We will be doing some interesting voluntary practices with breathing though. The six-week course is called: ‘Meditation, Breathing & Wellbeing’. It is based on all that I have learnt in Yoga, and some from Tai Chi and Qigong and various meditation disciplines, over the last 48 years. Plus what I have learnt from many students and clients. Yes, I started practising in about 1971. In 1973 I adopted my first serious (in-depth) yoga teacher. Every morning for two years, up at the crack of dawn he would have us performing all kinds of Yogic breathing practices, pranayama. Plus he would talk to us at great length about the effects of breathing in meditation and also in everyday living. He was a super-enthusiast for the power, value and importance of good and skillful breathing. Around seventy at that time he had a bunch of mostly young people living in his centre on the outskirts of Auckland. There were a couple of old Austin A30 motor cars, often not running well and I remember many cold mornings when neither would start. He would ask a few of us to give a push, but if we weren’t pushing hard enough he would jump out, show us how to really push, and jump back in to do the start up. He did have boundless energy, which he attributed largely to breathing practices, and the rest to good food and the other elements of yoga practice.
Without getting complex or complicated, here is what I have found most people will benefit hugely from learning:
- Experimenting, playing and familiarising with the mechanics of their breathing, deep diaghragm breathing, chest expansion breathing, combining both (some people need lots of training to activate some of those muscles that haven’t been active for a long time, due to poor, tense posture, stress and the like).
- Certain energetic breathing exercises, ie. strong, rhythmic OUTbreathing. For many people this is very new and unfamiliar, a little difficult at first, but then very rewarding.
- Learning certain techniques to slow down breathing. This starts with deep breathing and also progresses to more soft (less deep) breathing rhythms that are an entry to meditation.
- Deep physical relaxation, which facilitates the light, easy, minimal breathing that can sometimes accompany meditation practice.
- Meditation practice that utilises breathing as a point of awareness—and then contrasting this with other approaches to meditation that do not focus upon breathing. In short, opening up options, possibilities, not being limited, expanding your horizons.
The course will introduce and practise all of the above. If there is enough interest we will provide follow up practice sessions. The possibilities that conscious breathing and breathing awareness open up are enormous: energy and vitality, better sleep, easing and overcoming problems with breathing disorders like asthma, better meditation practice that in turn brings about awareness in your emotional, psychological and spiritual dimensions. There’s nothing like it. Don’t go through life half breathing or hoping that it is just looking after itself, if it is not.
The course is at Kangaroo Flat, Bendigo, Monday evenings, commencing October 21st.
Full information here