Inhale Versus Exhale

Most of us have been mispronouncing these two words: breathe and breath.

Breathe is a verb we use for the process of inhaling and exhaling.

Breath is a noun that refers to a full cycle of breathing. It can also refer to the air that is inhaled or exhaled.

Inhale. Exhale. Breathe! Take a breath!

So ubiquitous is the phrase, “take a breath”, we take for granted what an incredibly complex system our body undertakes by the involuntary action of the cardiac muscle and the external/internal respiratory system. But we have been told innumerable times in all forms of media to simply take a breath. If only it was that easy. For each inhale (whether voluntarily or involuntarily) we carry oxygen into the body through the lungs where an intensive amount of work is done, most importantly this is where ‘diffusion’ happens. Diffusion is a gas exchange within the alveoli whereby oxygen diffuses through the walls of the alveoli and enters the bloodstream, carried by red blood cells. When we are not purposely controlling our breathing, we can thank our medulla oblongata, a.k.a. the brainstem which automatically regulates the rate and depth of breathing. Then the carbon dioxide levels increase within the blood, reacts with the water in the blood which produces carbonic acid. Once the blood becomes acidic, we breathe out.

The true trigger to “take a breath” is not our need for oxygen. That’s a close second place. We are carbon-based creatures and we gather carbon molecules in food. These molecules are broken down and we extract the energy that holds the molecules together and it becomes our metabolic energy source. Within this process of breathing our body makes the carbon dioxide that is expelled in the breath from our mouth as a waste product. Our bodies must rid ourselves of the increasing carbon dioxide levels within the bloodstream and that is the primary trigger to keep us “taking a breath”.

Consider this physiological instinct the next time you have an underwater swimming race or who can hold their breath the longest contest. It usually begins with the contestant hyperventilating in order to empty the lungs/body of fresh oxygen and through this belief of priming the lung capacity. Then, the would-be contestant sucks in their largest breath and expands their lungs with oxygen. We have seen news reports and cases of athletic and youthful people dying at the bottom of pools while trying these innocent fun games. Possibly, through hyperventilation, these young people ridded their bodies of carbon dioxide and thereby stunted the essential trigger needed for breathing. Without the need to expel carbon dioxide, the instinct for taking a breath is no longer there and they pass out beneath the water.

The world will remind us all to breathe deeply and inhale, it’s equally, if not more important to purposefully exhale.

Breathe

This has been a period of ‘firsts’: I gave my first yoga lesson, and my friend had her first ever yoga lesson from me. She said afterwards: “I realized I don’t really know how to breathe.” Such a simple, yet profound statement, made me think about why breathing is so important.

One of the 8 limbs of ashtanga yoga is Pranayama, which is sometimes translated as ‘extension of prana’ (breath / life force) or ‘breath control’. Different Pranayama and breathing techniques can be used for different reasons, and with different benefits.

Some benefits are immediately felt, for example with sheetali / sheetkari breathing – sucking air through the tongue or teeth to help cool the body. You can immediately feel the cooling effect of evaporation, as air passes over your tongue.

Other benefits can be observed over time. For example, a study has shown that daily Pranayama practice resulted in statistically significant reduction of both systolic and diastolic blood pressure over a period of 6 weeks.

Other benefits may be even more subtle. A recent study has shown that breathing has a direct effect on the levels of noradrenaline in the brain, a natural chemical messenger, which “If produced at the right levels, helps the brain grow new connections, like a brain fertiliser. The way we breathe, in other words, directly affects the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health.”

Some people – swimmers, singers, actors – train specifically in how to control their breathing, in order to get the most out of their performance. The physiological benefits of Pranayama on the body are already well understood. But when considered as one of the limbs of yoga, it could be said that Pranayama helps us to get the most out of our lives.

I was grateful that I could help my friend become more aware of her breathing. And I hope she will not only learn ‘how to breathe’, but also reap the benefits.