Take a Breath
May 14, 2009
Spring is here! What could be better than birdsong, longer daylight hours and fresh air to lift our spirits? If you've felt cooped up all winter, the urge to be outside and inhaling the spring air might be stronger than your list of "to-dos". If so, follow your instincts and step outside to enjoy the gift of life that so many of us take for granted: a deep, easy breath.
Every time we take a full breath, drawing air into our nose and letting our lungs fill, we are breathing with every cell in our body. The air we breathe is less than 20% oxygen. Plants release oxygen as a by-product of photosynthesis - in fact the biggest producer of oxygen on the planet is sea kelp! The precious oxygen provided with each intake of air is used by the mitochondria in our cells, little ancient lungs themselves, to produce ATP (Adenine triphosphate) - tiny packages of energy that is fuel for our life force. It is this energy produced from each breath that keeps all our cells humming and able to do their work. When we breathe deeply and fully, we produce the energy to live. If we breathe small, shallow breaths (which can easily happen when you are sitting at the computer) than energy levels drop and fatigue sets in.
Our lungs have several lobes with plenty of capacity to expand. The exchange of old carbon dioxide that we breathe out for the fresh oxygen we breathe in takes place in capillary beds that cover the surface of our lung sacs - an total area that equals the surface of one tennis court! When we are engaged in aerobic exercise and breathing deeply, we are using full lung capacity. No wonder aerobic exercise is so energizing!
In Hatha yoga, we learn to breathe consciously into our muscles and limbs as we move into various poses or asanas. We learn that each movement we make is a coordinated effort between the lungs and limbs and that when we are moving with our breath, we have more power and more intention behind each movement. We can also focus our breath by "breathing into" an area of the body that is in pain and requires more oxygen for healing. Breath will actually follow our awareness and enliven places of low energy.
Singing is also an activity that expands the lungs and vibrates the sinus cavities. It loosens stagnant mucus and helps us to expel phlegm. Singing loudly demands the pumping of our diaphragm, which moves our lymphatic fluid and helps move waste out of the body.
Deep breathing of any kind is perhaps the most important health habit a person can have. It oxygenates all your tissues, keeps respiratory passages clear, feeds the heart, stimulates circulation which helps with everything from injury recovery to arthritis, it nourishes and strengthens your muscles and skin, removes wastes while moving fluids, relaxes the nervous system, lowers blood pressure and people who exercise aerobically everyday, actually have more lasting energy, clearer thinking and sleep more soundly than those who do not.
You don't have to run around the block to get these benefits. Even as you sit in your chair reading this, you can take a slow, full breath into your lower belly and let the air continue fill your entire chest cavity. Feel how it this raises the shoulders, opens the chest and lifts the spine. Hold your breath for a moment at the top. Holding a full breath for a few seconds helps to build lung capacity, then slowly and steadily release your breath while keeping your expanded posture; chest open, shoulders relaxed and spine long. Taking a long breath like this 3-5 times for every 30 minutes you are sitting at your desk, to infuse you with clarity and energy. As you are breathing let your breath expand your awareness so that you are breathing the world around you, remembering that breathing is something that all life on the planet shares - it is a reminder of our unity.
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