'Breath is life; hence the better we breathe the better we live.' Of course we all know this, but we don't think of it and apply it as often as necessary!
To breathe slowly is to prolong one's youth and one's life.' So say the yogic texts which caution us to breathe as if, at birth, only a fixed and immutable number of breaths had been allotted to us. If this is so, then each slow breath we take preserves our precious respiratory credit balance and prolongs our existence. It can even be considered as an obligation, because if we are pre-programmed in this way, it is because we have a task to accomplish, a destiny to fulfil, in that limited span of time.
In the matter of respiration, simple arithmetic breaks down. A sedentary person breathes about 18 times a minute, and with each inhalation, he takes in half a litre of air. Now, compare him to a yogi who slows down his breath, either temporarily or permanently, so that he breathes only twice a minute, but inhales 4½ litres of air with each breath (4½ litres is not exceptional; rowers, among others, reach a capacity of 6 litres). In both cases, the quantity of air reaching the lungs per minute will be the same - 9 litres. The question then arises: what is the use of breathing slowly, if the total volume of air remains the same?
In fact, the yogi obtains a greater quantity of oxygen and expels more gaseous toxins, especially carbon dioxide, than the sedentary person who breathes superficially 18 times a minute. This is because it is not the volume of air which matters, but the quantity of oxygen which is actually absorbed and assimilated by the body. Air is a nourishment and requires time to be digested, just like any liquid or solid food in the digestive tract.
The quantity of oxygen actually absorbed by the blood depends mainly on two factors: the surface area of contact between the air and the pulmonary membrane, or alveolar wall; and the duration of contact.
Superficial breathing only involves a small part of the total alveolar surface. Our lungs contain about 70 million alveoli joined in small clusters. Scientists have estimated their total surface area, when unfolded, to be anywhere from 100 to 150sq.m.
If, in the space of 1 minute, 9 litres of air come into contact with 100 sq. m. of alveolar wall, instead of only 4 or 5 sq. m., a larger quantity of venous blood is able to absorb the oxygen- not to mention the prana! In a person who breathes superficially, therefore, a significant proportion of the blood which is filtered through the lungs does not meet fresh air, and is directed back towards the heart without having been purified and re-oxygenated. When it is prolonged, this situation is disastrous, and in most people it is a usual way of life. Only exceptionally, during physical exercise (and our modern life tends to spare us from this more and more), does the breath become deeper.
There is a second essential condition for the optimal utilization of the inhaled air: the time factor. The exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide takes place only under very precise conditions of intrapulmonary pressure and under definite time constraints. The pressure of the two gases on either side of the alveolar walls must equalize before this exchange can take place, and this process takes 10-20 seconds. Therefore, the surface of diffusion is greatly increased by inhaling deeply and retaining the inhaled air.
We can certainly draw some conclusions from this for our practice and our day to day life. Whenever we think about it, we can breathe slowly, deeply and with awareness, utilizing the technique of yogic breathing. One or two minutes of this practice is more beneficial than 59 minutes of shallow breathing. Most people breathe just enough to prevent death from asphyxiation. Let us not follow their example!
We should schedule frequent sessions of yogic breathing throughout the day, and above all, each time that we are outdoors, even if we are only going to fetch our car. Each minute of practice is important and increases our vitality and health. Each slow and deep breath rejuvenates us, in the sense that it revitalizes our tissues. This is not merely affectation, but a personal and even a civic duty.
The yoga session is the very opportunity to practise slow breathing. A session of asanas is not only the practice of asanas with conscious breathing included, but rather the practice of continuous controlled breathing (therefore deeper and slower) with asanas included. Just as a handful of pearls does not make a necklace unless the pearls are pierced and connected by a thread, likewise a succession of asanas becomes a series only if the breath links them together. Of course, the breath must be accompanied by mental awareness.
We have seen how pressure conditions within the lungs influence the breath and its efficiency. Everyone knows that at the time of inhalation the respiratory system opens like a bellows and the air rushes in because of the decompression. At the time of exhalation, the reverse process occurs. As well as allowing the entry and exit of air, this decompression also has a significant effect on the blood circulation. By slightly constricting the glottis, the calibre of the piping is narrowed at both ends and, in this way, the mechanical resistance to the passage of air is modified, as well as the conditions of compression and decompression in the chest, lungs and the entire system. Therefore, the yogic breath becomes even more efficient with the addition of ujjayi pranayama, which produces a slight snoring sound due to the friction of the air in the slightly narrowed glottis. Ujjayi breathing is possible in every asana, including surya namaskara. It has an extraordinary revitalizing effect.
It is true that it is quite impossible to keep conscious of the breath all day long and during our daily work. Therefore, whether we are yoga practitioners or not, for most of our life our breathing is unconscious. So the practice of yogic breathing can only be a small part of our active, waking life, let alone of our sleeping time, during which it is seemingly impossible to control the breath. But there is another aspect to remember.
If we can manage to practise slow and deep breathing several times a day, we will eventually influence our unconscious breath. After practising for only one or two minutes, even if we forget about it immediately, our body continues with a deeper and slower breathing rate than usual for a variable time. The usual rhythm of respiration, shallow and quick, does not supervene immediately. The more we prolong and repeat our practices, the more the unconscious respiration will slow down and deepen permanently, even during sleep. It is worthwhile to persevere.
Deep and slow breathing increases the vitality of our organism and therefore is the ideal means to develop the body's natural resistance against outside aggressors. Amongst these is the common cold. Colds can have many serious consequences, such as influenza, bronchitis, tonsillitis, pharyngitis, pneumonia, etc., which are brought about by a decrease in the temperature of the respiratory system.
Shallow and quick breathing is the best way to catch a cold. When we inhale, the nostrils play the role of radiators, warming up the incoming air. This air then goes into the respiratory system at the right temperature. The opposite takes place during exhalation, when the air coming from the depths of the respiratory system warms up the nostrils; in this way there is recuperation of heat. This is why we not only have to inhale through the nose, but also to exhale the same way. When we inhale through the nose but exhale through the mouth, the nose cannot recover the heat. It becomes colder and colder and is not able to warm up the inhaled air. Then a progressive cooling down of all the air ducts occurs which weakens the body's defences.
The speed of the breath also has a role to play. If I breathe too quickly, the inhaled air does not have time to be warmed up to the right temperature and the nose does not get warmed up enough by the exhaled air. This brings about a lowering of temperature with all its unpleasant consequences. To absorb the same amount of oxygen, a person who breathes more slowly and deeply needs to warm up a smaller total volume of air than someone else who breathes too quickly. Therefore less heat will be lost. But also, if the breath is slower and deeper, the body will improve its internal combustion and will quickly and efficiently liberate the heat necessary to maintain the right internal temperature. Therefore, the best means to protect oneself against the hazard of a chill, when going out of a warm room into the cold, is to breathe slowly and deeply. All of this goes to show that the yogic saying which tells us to breathe as if we only have a fixed number of breaths allocated to us, contains a deep wisdom and intuitive knowledge of physiology. Therefore let us breathe slowly and deeply, each time we think of it. And let's hope that it is often.