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.

Benefits of Ujaya Breathing on Respiration

Ujaya breathing, or “whisper breath” is a fundamental part of asana practice.  This type of breathing is achieved by partially closing the epiglottis upon both inhalation and exhalation, resulting in a whisper or snoring sound. 
Ujaya breathing accomplishes several things:  Slows the breath, evens the length of inhalation and exhalation, warms the air entering the body/creates heat, and the sound creates an auditory focal point during asana practice.  This makes it particularly helpful for beginners who often hold their breath in challenging poses and tend to lose focus easily.  By breathing in this way, we can also “measure” the length of time to hold an asana—counting the number of ujaya breaths. 
When the inhalation occurs slowly and deeply, the ribs will expand in all directions as the lower lobes of the lungs are filled.  This is accomplished through the action of the external intercostals (lifting and expanding ribcage), the diaphragm relaxing down into the abdominal cavity, and the internal intercostals relaxing and stretching.  The Ujaya breath is particularly helpful to increase lung expansion upon inhalation—by simply conditioning (strengthening/stretching) the muscles involved.  Upon exhalation, the diaphragm contracts, forcing the air out of the lungs from the bottom.  Internal intercostals engage and contract to “shrink” the ribcage and the externals must stretch/relax. 
Practicing controlled Ujaya breathing will create balance in the muscles used for respiration.  This is done through the lengthening and evening of the breathing process, so that all muscles involved are both engaged and stretched equally.  By training our bodies to take deeper breaths, more oxygen is forced into the lower lobes of the lungs, which is where more alveoli are present.  This makes the breath more efficient and more oxygen can be absorbed.