Why is breathing so important for the body? Life begins and ends with breathing. About 5 minutes without breathing and we are dead. All cells in the body need oxygen to live. Oxygen is necessary for the cell’s energy supply, to ensure its metabolism. Low levels of oxygen will have a direct impact on the functioning of the cell. Breathing is also vital to remove waste products during exhalation, such as CO2 from cellular respiration.
Breathing impacts all the major body’s systems:
- cardiovascular system: slow, deep breaths will cause the heart rate to slow; inhalation is linked to vasoconstriction and exhalation to vasodilation; blood homeostasis (pH / pO2 and pCO2 to avoid acidosis)
- nervous system: breathing volumes and rate will either activate or relax the body; the brain consumes a lot of oxygen (20%) and optimal breathing will support intellectual activities and concentration
- endocrine system: the variation in blood parameters (pO2, pCO2, pH) modulated by breathing will regulate the hormonal activity aimed at restoring homeostasis. For example, a deep inhale and a full exhalation will decrease the production of noradrenaline and if this is done over a few hours, the cortisol level will also decrease.
- muscular system: as mentioned above breathing is fundamental for metabolism and energy supply (aerobic). A well oxygenated muscle will increase its power and tone. A good exhalation will eliminate the CO2 produced by muscle activity.
- digestive system: the mechanical movement of the diaphragm during inhalation and exhalation massages digestive organs and stimulates peristalsis so that digestion and transit are improved.
- immune system: Shortness of breath increases, over time, the level of cortisol which kills lymphocytes (key cells of our immune system).
Breathing is an “automatic” function governed by the autonomic nervous system, but consciously, we can control our breath e.g. modify the amplitude, the frequency, choose to breathe through the nose or the mouth.
When we discussed about the respiratory system during the Yoga Teacher Training and I went on checking the various pulmonary volumes, I was quite amazed at what I discovered. Our lungs have a volume of around 5 L. But the “automatic” breathing, also called “tidal volume”, is only of 0.5 L, so only 10% of our lung capacity! By consciously inhaling fully we can add another 1.5 to 2.5 L (also called “inspiratory reserve volume”) so increasing the air coming in (and out) fourfold to 2L! And by consciously exhaling fully and then inhaling fully we can add an extra 1.2 to 1.5 L (also called “expiratory reserve volume”), so overall increasing the air coming in (and out) sevenfold to 3.5L! And now we use 70-75% of our lung capacity…so much more powerful! So much more oxygen we can provide to our cells, so much more toxins we can get rid of.
Unfortunately, many people don’t have optimal breathing, leading to both physical and psychological consequences. People are now advised to “learn to breathe” and many techniques have emerged for various indications such as stress management, depression, ENT ailments, nasal structure defects, snoring, concentration…Yoga, and Pranayama specifically, have a great role to play there.
Practicing pranayama is a great way to learn to control our breath and leverage its impressive power. Research shows that regular practice of pranayama significantly improves numerous pulmonary parameters: it increases vital lung capacity, tidal volume, expiratory reserve volume, breath holding time, diffusion capacity, resting respiratory rate…And those indicators are important for both prevention and treatment of all respiratory dysfunctions and illnesses.
So, yogis, don’t forget to practice your pranayama and…breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out….