To know life in every breath
is one of my favorite movie quotes from The Last Samurai, and its ironic that there is so much life in every breath yet sometimes we fail to recognize the importance of breathing properly. I emphasize properly because we are all breathing, that is to say that we are all inhaling and exhaling, but to actually breathe properly requires a lot more attention than you would think.
Inhalation, or the IN breath, is our bodies way of taking in oxygen. We need oxygen to survive. Our bodies can last many days without food, and a few days without water, but more than a few minutes without oxygen and we die. Exhalation, or the OUT breath, is our bodies way of getting rid of waste products and toxins such as carbon dioxide.
When it comes to breathing properly I am fortunate to have a fantastic teacher in my son Campbell. When I wrote this he was only 10 weeks old and unburdened by the stresses of modern living he has a naturally perfect breathing pattern. Watch any baby for yourselves and see how their breathe is unforced and natural. Babies breathe through their noses and have a gentle rise and fall pattern in their abdomen that shows a natural diaphragmatic breathing pattern that many of us lose as adults.
In fact there are at least three (and probably more) ways of breathing:
Shallow (or HIGH) breathing generally fills only the upper portion of the lungs. The collar bones and shoulders often rise, but there is no expansion of the rib cage or stomach. This breathing is often a lot faster than deep breathing and is how the majority of people breathe.
Deep (or LOW) breathing involves the diaphragm dropping into the abdominal cavity and expansion of the stomach when breathing. This is a slow deep breathe that many people are incapable of reproducing without deep concentration, although most people will unconsciously breathe in this manner while sleeping.
Complete breathing (perhaps also the same or Buddhist or Taoist breathing) involves inflation of the chest AND expansion of the stomach while breathing. I’ve read in some places that the chest and shoulders should remain unmoved when performing this breathe, and it sounds similar to what Army Snipers do when they are concentrating on a long range shot but in Yoga it seems that this is the deepest possible breath and that the shoulders and collar bones should rise as well as the stomach.
In fact, during the meditation phase of yoga this COMPLETE breathing is what we are trying to attain while focussing on our breath
A practical exercise you can do to try and attain a complete breath is to:
- lie on your back on the floor.
- place a piece of paper on your chest and one on your stomach
- breath IN deeply through your nostrils
- your breath should fill your chest and lungs, or thoracic cavity, first
- then you should feel your diaphragm drop and your stomach inflate
- the paper on your stomach should rise,
- and you should almost feel the air ‘touching’ your spine
- breath OUT slowly
repeat as many times as necessary, focussing on the sensations of the breath through your nostrils as you inhale, filling your lungs and stomach, touching your spine and then gently exhaling.
These slow deep breathes should also be done while exercising but instead of letting your stomach expand, gently pull in your belly button (this activates your transverse abdominus muscles) and tighten your pelvic floor muscles. This creates a strong box with the top and bottom being created by your diaphragm dropping and your clenched pelvic floor, and the sides being your abs, obliques and erector spinae / multifidus muscles.