"Don’t use a lot where a little will do.”
- Conventional Wisdom
How does it make you feel when you consciously think about your breath? Breathing is after all just normal stuff which works automatically without a person’s conscious effort.
A few years ago, my breath awareness was limited to a few situations - for example when in a stressful situation I would take a few deep breaths and get on with my work again. Other moments I was reminded of my breathing was in high altitude (upwards of 3000 meters), when each step becomes a sort of a rhythmic play of breath & steps. One step after the other, you learn to take it in your stride.
Since my own practice of Pranayama (yogic-breathing), which has brought long term improvements to my respiratory system including lung capacity, strengthening of the breathing muscles and improvement in efficiency of breathing, I have rediscovered my rhythmic play of breath & steps.
So we will see how that works, and set some ground first.
Let us take a short peek into some studies on breathing. A healthy person in normal conditions (without chronic ailments) breathes in from 6-7 liters of air per minute.
DID YOU KNOW: A normal person breathes in almost 11000 liters of air every day
The air that is inhaled has about 20-percent oxygen, and the air that is exhaled is about 15-percent oxygen, so about 5-percent of the volume of air is consumed in each breath and converted to carbon dioxide. Therefore, a human being uses about 550 liters of pure oxygen (19 cubic feet) per day.
People with chronic ailments ‘breathe in more air’
Below is a chart that shows persons with some sort of chronic ailments tending to breathe in more air per minute a.k.a. minute ventilation.
DID YOU KNOW: Carbon dioxide (CO2) is good for you
"Normal ventilation leads to high (or normal) CO2 in the arterial blood and body cells. As a result, O2 transport is normal and a healthy person has normal oxygen values in the brain, heart and other body organs and cells."
Prolonged or excessive hyperventilation can cause adverse effects including bronchoconstriction; dizziness, fainting and headaches due to vasoconstriction and unsteadiness, skin rashes, excessive appetite and emotional instability due to increased nervous sensitivity. (Simon-Borg Oliver in Applied Anatomy & Physiology of Yoga).
DID YOU KNOW: Healthy individuals today are breathing in more than a few decades ago
Studies have also shown that in the modern day, due to our lifestyles and environment the normal person is also hyperventilating as clear from this chart below.
In Yogic breathing (Pranayama), periods of Hyperventilation are managed to a certain advantage in a way that mild alkalosis increases mobility (flexibility) of joints, muscles and nerves because of fluid surrounding these structures becomes less vicious in alkaline conditions.
SO WHAT IS THE FUSS ABOUT BREATHING LESS?
Short periods of Hyperventilation can assist in internal cleansing, help strength, flexibility and fitness and prepare a yoga practitioner for a meditative lifestyle which mainly involves Hypoventilation (reduced minute ventilation).
Let us look at how yogic breathing works. Yogic breathing is synonymous with Diaphragmatic breathing - which sends the Diaphragm ‘down and out’ with the inhale and ‘in and up’ with the exhale. More can be found in our other blog piece here
So how can breathing exercises increase CO2 levels?
According to Hatha Yoga Pradipika, an experienced Yoga practitioner can achieve this by using Hypoventilation in the form of:
- respiratory suspension (breath-holding)
- long slow deep breathing
- minimal breathing to “still the fluctuations in breath”
Hypoventilation causes physiological acidosis (acidic blood), hypoxia (reduced oxygen in blood) and hypercapnia (increased CO2 in blood).
Let us look at a few yogic breathing exercises that can cause us to Hypoventilate in a regulated way.
BHRAMARI PRANAYAMA (Humming bee breath)
Bhramari is the type of pranayama that involves audible humming of the exhalation through the mouth. This causes nitric oxide formation in the sinuses. Humming has been shown to cause fifteen times (15x) the normal production of nitric oxide (NO) gas in the sinuses of the skull (Weitzberg & Lundberg; 2002).
NO has been shown to have several beneficial effects on the body. NO has also shown to regulate physiological processes such as vasodilation, thus enabling opening of the blood vessels allowing blood to reach vital organs such as the heart, brain, kidneys, liver etc). NO is also implicated in smooth muscle relaxation, pregnancy and blood vessel formation.
Due to the central anti-stress effect that Nitric Oxide has, yogic texts have always regarded bhramari pranayama with high esteem.
NAADHI SODHANA PRANAYAMA (Alternative nostril breathing)
Nadhi = Channels
Sodhana = Cleansing
As the name suggests, breathing in Nadhi Sodhana involves breathing in from one nostril and breathing out through the other. There are various rhythms and ratios of inhale to exhale including combinations of holding breath inside and holding the breath outside after the exhale, which are introduced over time with more practice.
Typical benefits from Nadhi Sodhana pranayama include a slightly tonic effect on the mind, relaxing effect on the body as a whole (muscle relaxation, lower respiration rate, lower blood pressure), vasodilation and improved internal regulation (digestion, elimination, hormones, detoxification, sleep quality, circadian rhythms).
Along with breathing exercises, it is very important to address lifestyle changes which impact chronic overbreathing. Below for a partial list of important factors to this lifestyle change:
1) Understanding that breathing less at rest delivers more oxygen to body cells
2) Constant commitment to breathing normalization since the purpose of training is to change one's automatic breathing pattern
3) Adopting Dietary changes to introduce more alkaline foods & lifestyle
4) Understanding that even short episodes of hyperventilation (e.g., heavy breathing for 1-2 hours during sleep, overeating, or stress) produce serious enough damage
5) Creating a daily ritual to practice Pranayama and some basic cleansing exercises
These are some of the changes, which along with our regular yoga practice can help us achieve a state of homeostasis with our breath.
And remember again, Breathe…but not too much!