Even more important than the food we eat is the air we breathe, and the way we breathe it. They can affect how we feel emotionally and physically, and how we look—even the cells of the skin are dependent for their metabolic processes on a constant supply of enough oxygen. How much energy we can call on, and even how clearly we can think—all these things depend greatly on how we breathe.
Because breathing is the only one of your body’s functions that can be either completely involuntary or voluntary, the breath even creates a bridge between how our conscious and unconscious function. This makes it possible, by becoming aware of your breathing, to discover how you’re feeling and what is taking place in your body. Even better, once you master a few simple breath practices, you can use them to raise your energy level as well as to alter your thinking and your moods.
MAGIC MIXTURE FOR LIFE
The air you breathe is not a chemical compound, but a simple mixture of gases: 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen, 95 percent inert gases, and 3 percent carbon dioxide by volume, plus a carbonic acid content that varies between .02 percent and .06 percent (when it is higher, the oxygen content is lower). In addition, it contains traces of water, a little ammonia, various mineral salts, and ozone. This curious mixture is the most necessary stuff in the world to all forms of life. You can live for several weeks without food, several days without water, but only a few minutes without air.
Throughout history the breath has been associated with energy, force, and power of both a physical and metaphysical kind. In the Bible, the word translated as “spirit” can also be translated as “air.” It is the invisible life force, the energy the Chinese call chi and manipulate in acupuncture treatments. The Sufis refer to it as barales. It plays an important role in their techniques of meditation. The Yogis call it prana. They insist that breath is responsible for the extraordinary control they are able to exert over mind and body. Prana actually means breath, respiration, life, vitality, wind, energy, and strength. The word is also used to mean soul as distinguished from body. Yogis believe that if we are able to control our breath we can also control pain, emotions, and physical health, as well as supernatural phenomena.
We tend to think that the energy we have comes from the food we eat. But as the ancient traditions teach, air, not food, is the primary fuel for driving the human engine. Without the oxygen air contains, your body would not be able to break down the nutrients you take in through your foods in order to produce energy and to nourish your cells. When air is first taken into the lungs, it fills the tiny bronchioles. Oxygen diffuses through their membranes into your bloodstream and is carried throughout your body to every cell of every organ and tissue. Your blood is capable of absorbing up to four times as much oxygen as water can, as long as there is enough iron available to produce haemoglobin, which carries the oxygen through the bloodstream. One of the most important common symptoms of iron-deficiency anaemia is the inability to catch your breath—you simply cannot get enough oxygen.
BREATH OF EMOTION
The link between the way you breathe and your emotional state is well established. Not only do your emotions affect your breathing. Remember the last time you were frightened and you gasped for breath? Or how, when you are excited, your breathing becomes shallower and faster than usual? How you breathe can bring on, or turn off, emotional states. Here’s an experiment that shows this: Start to breathe very shallowly so only the shoulders and top of your chest show any signs of movement, and pant in and out quickly for about forty-five seconds. At the end of that time your heart will be pounding and you will have all the feelings of anxiety and fear. Or try it the other way around. The next time you are in a difficult situation and you feel you might lose control, stop. Take three or four long deep breaths from the abdomen and let them out slowly. Then take another look at the challenge. You’ll find your mind and feelings a lot calmer.
The art of normal breathing is something I think every woman concerned with protecting her good looks and preserving her health should know. When your lung capacity is developed and used to the full, you will have more energy, suffer less from fatigue, and be able to think more clearly. It will also make your skin glow with health and your eyes shine. And it is not as difficult as you might imagine. It involves no more than learning a few new habits. Let’s look at four that you can start developing right now. Then we’ll go on to some specific breathing techniques for specific effects.
THE ART OF FULL BREATHING
1. When you breathe, breathe with your whole chest and abdomen too. Most of us breathe only with the top part of our body, which means we are not fully lowering the diaphragm and expanding the lungs and so are not making use of their full capacity. This kind of restricted breathing stifles emotional expression and is often linked with anxiety, depression, and worry. To check for abdominal breathing, put your hands on your tummy. Does it swell when you breathe in and sink when you breathe out? It should. Lying flat on a firm surface, practice breathing fully and gently until you get the feel of it.
2. Make sure that with each out-breath you let out all the air you take in. By exhaling more of the carbon dioxide, you will get rid of more of the cells’ waste products and you will be able to make full use of each new breath of air as it is taken down into your lungs.
3. Take up some kind of aerobic exercise—such as running, bicycling, or dancing—that demands full use of your lungs every day.
4. Use the following exercise for five minutes twice a day to increase your lung capacity, slim your middle, purify your blood, and help you learn the art of fuller breathing. You can also use it whenever you feel tense or need to clear your head:
Resting your hands on your rib cage at the sides, just above the waist, breathe out completely. Now inhale gently through the nose, letting your abdomen swell as much as it will to a slow count of five. Continue to breathe in through the nose to another count of five, this time letting your ribs expand under your hands and finally your chest too—but don’t raise your shoulders in the process. Hold your breath for a count of five; now slowly let it out through your mouth as you count slowly to ten, noticing how your rib cage shrinks beneath your hands and pulling in with your abdomen until you have released all the air. Repeat four times.
Most of us have forgotten how to breathe fully. Time taken to relearn it is time well spent. As you do there are all sorts of delicious little techniques you can add to it—from sensuous breathing that makes your whole body tingle, to quick fix breathing that banishes anxiety. They raise the whole breathing thing to a whole new level…More to come soon.