The Power of Breath

“When we are born the first action we take on this earth is to inhale, and when we die, the last action we take is to exhale.  Life, from beginning to end, is one immense breath.” Dennis Lewis

Breathing provides energy and healing to our body. There is an abundance of research that shows how powerful breathing is to healing and improving the quality of our health. Unfortunately, few of us breath fully and experience full health.

Breathing actually cleanses the body. Before you try to detox your body with a disgusting cleansing drink or a strict detox diet, you may want to consider simply taking a deep breath.  About 70% of the toxins in our body are removed through the lungs during exhalation, the other 30% are excreted in urine, feces, and skin. This means that when we exercise, feeling the heart pound the and the sweat start to flow,  we are detoxing our body on a deep cellular level.  I think this is why a lot of people who begin an exercise program may feel nauseous during the first few workouts. The toxins that have built up, due to inactivity and shallow breathing, are getting released, and expelled, with every breath.

Many of my beginner clients have no ‘somatic awareness’.  They are out of tune with their body and especially their breathing. Therefore, the first instruction I give a new client, before they begin exercising, is “BREATHE!”.  I don’t care when they inhale or exhale, no need to bog them down with details in the beginning, but I do warn them, “Whatever you do, just don’t hold your breath!”  We work on the fine tuning of when to inhale, and when to exhale, as the workouts progress.

Delivering oxygen to the muscle is first and foremost the most crucial step during exercise.  Holding the breath increases blood pressure and can lead to migraines, lactic acid buildup in the muscle tissue, and other deleterious effects. Getting oxygen into the cells of the body is the key to reducing that deep intense burn in the muscle during exercise, and feeding the energy pathway in the mitochondria.  Proper breathing can also help during times of stress to initiate a relaxation response in the nervous system.

Here are a few of the key ways proper breathing can improve health and performance:

1) Enables the lymphatic system to be more effective in trapping and
destroying viral and bacterial invaders

2) Increases the amount of digestive juices

3) Speeds up peristalsis which eases elimination

4) Strengthens and harmonizes almost every major system in our
body

5) Increases oxygen uptake and carbon dioxide excretion

6) Deep belly breathing lowers the heart rate making energy
expenditure more efficient

7) Learning how to breathe properly allows us to relax more in
stressful situations

8) Improves athletic performance by increasing the amount of oxygen
uptake during exercise

9) Increases lung capacity

10) Relaxes and improves the functioning of internal organs via the
massaging effect of the diaphragm

Chronic shallow breathing through the upper chest can reduce our lung capacity to ⅓ of it’s potential. It doesn’t help that the media bombards us with the idea that a flat midsection is the picture of health.  Breathing through the upper part of the chest, while holding in and constricting the abdominal wall, reduces the efficiency of the lungs.  The  breath becomes shallow and faster in an attempt to get enough oxygen.  This increases the heart rate, the tension in our bodies, and decreases the venous blood flow…you know, the blood that that carries all the metabolic waste to our kidneys and lungs so it can be excreted before it can harm us.  Breathing is truly the body’s natural detoxification system.

Deep natural breathing literally massages the internal organs and relaxes all of the muscles involved in breathing. A truly deep breath uses three areas of the torso: the diaphragm, chest, and clavicle area.  In yoga this is referred to as belly breathing.  The diaphragm is the most important of the three.  If we are stressed, nervous, or uptight our body  resists the downward movement of the diaphragm resulting in shallow breathing. To experience deep breathing the belly extends outward, the diaphragm lowers down, allowing more space for the lungs to expand, while it massages all the internal organs.  This deep belly breathing can be used during intense exercise to vastly increase the lung capacity, and therefore performance.  It can also be used to manipulate the nervous system during times of stress to calm the nerves.

Self sensing, or becoming aware of our breathing, is the first step in engaging deep breathing techniques.  As you sit there, without changing your breathing in any way, count how many times you inhale.  Most of us inhale 12-14 times per minute while we are awake, and 6-8 times per minute while we sleep.  Optimum deep breathing, the type that allows for all 5 lobes of the lungs to engage, is 6 breaths per minute.  By practicing diaphragmatic breathing, and other types of deep breathing exercises, we can increase the capacity of the lungs, plus improve our health, vitality, and well being.

It isn’t the sugar filled carb drink, or specially formulated protein powder, that will give us the ultimate power boost, most important is the one ‘supplement’ we can’t live without: oxygen. Breathing properly during exercise will add reps to our set, speed to our sprints, and power to our performance.  Also, breathing properly during rest, or in stressful situations, will add clarity to our thoughts, relaxation to our muscles, and detoxification to our body. We can turn somatic amnesia into somatic awareness by turning on the power of breathing.

For more information on deep breathing I recommend listening to Natural Breathing, or reading Breathe Well, Be Well: A Program to Relieve Stress, Anxiety, Asthma, Hypertension, Migraine, and Other Disorders for Better Health.