Nothing is quite as calming or rejuvenating as a nice big, deep breath. We can all remember a time when our parent or loved one directed us to take a deep breath when it seemed that we were spinning out of control. Drawing in a conscious breath always seems to affect our state of mind and well-being almost instantly, but have you ever considered that breathing deeply could also help you prevent illness?
According to yogic philosophy and modern scientific wisdom, the breath and how we breath affects so many facets of our person from the nervous system to our emotional response to things. How deep of a breath we take and whether we breathe largely through our mouth or through our nostrils can be major factors in how well we are and how well we stay. Yogic philosophers teach that there is breath and there is something more which rides on the breath, which they refer to as prana. It is this prana, or life-force, which animates the body, without which, even in the presence of oxygen, we would die.
To first look at it from a more esoteric standpoint, we will use the words of Yogi Ramacharaka in the book Science of Breath. He states that this prana, which in Sanskrit, means “absolute energy” is found to be the active principle of life – or the vital force. He explains that prana is found everywhere and in everything and is used by our ego self in manifesting material form. “When the Ego leaves the body, the prana, being no longer under its control, responds only to the orders of the body, and as the body disintegrates and is resolved to its original elements, each atom takes with it sufficient prana to enable it to form new combinations, the unused prana returning to the great universal storehouse from which it came.”
According to Ramacharaka, western scientists are aware of this principle called prana, “with which the air is charged”, though because they cannot measure it or find chemical traces of it, they largely dismiss it. They do, however, recognize that there is something more to air which, when found in greater quantities in certain locations, ill patients may become well again. Therefore, those who are sick are often encouraged to find such places in order to be with their disease, in hopes of regaining a measure of health.
Western medicine does accredit the benefits of breathing to the intake of oxygen into the body. What is not taken into consideration, however, is that though one may breathe deeply and receive a great influx of oxygen, one may not store oxygen in the body. It is on a use and release basis. Prana, however, can be stored in the body to be used when needed at later times.
Most people tend to breathe off the top portion of their lungs, called by the yogis – clavicular, or high breathing. This is the most ineffective form of breath and requires the “greatest expenditure of energy with the smallest amount of benefit.” Diseases of the throat, vocal chords and respiratory system may be related to this high breathing habit due to strain of the delicate organs and high volume of unfiltered air passing through these channels. High breathers might also be mouth breathers, taking in air largely through the mouth rather than the nostrils, another habit which westerners have adapted leading to greater respiratory troubles and ill health.
The best form of breathing is named by the yogis ‘complete breathing’ through the nostrils, due to the fact that it incorporates the full capacity of the lungs, not just one portion in isolation and is taken in through the nose alone. Nostril breathing is key because it forces air through the delicate hairs in the nose which filter the air and prevent bacteria and other molds from entering the lungs. The nose also warms the air and keeps out contagious diseases by stopping them in the mucous linings of the nose and nasal passageways.
Deep yogic breath takes oxygen and prana all the way into the lungs and fills up the body’s reserve of vital life force energy. Nostril breathing taken to this depth must be consciously practiced in order to become a regular habit, but can be easily adapted and pleasantly found to bring greater energy, health and vitality to one who will continue with the practice.
Breathing deeply, especially through the nose, utilizing the full capacity of the lungs can prevent a myriad of illnesses in both young and old alike. Yogic practices help train people to breathe in this way and therefore produce deeper breathers and healthier subjects. In deep breathing, all of the respiratory muscles come fully into play. This is simply not so in the case of high breathing or even middle breathing, where one uses the top and middle portion of the lungs only, neglecting the belly. As said in the words of Yogi Ramacharaka:
Any method which will fill the entire lung space must be of the greatest value to Man in the way of allowing him to absorb the greatest quantity of oxygen and to store away the greatest amount of prana.
According to Harvard Health Publications, deep breathing “allows you to tap one of your body’s strongest self-healing mechanisms” and “Shallow breathing hobbles the diaphragm’s range of motion.” Taoist sage Chuang Tzu says that though most of us breathe from our throats “real human beings breathe from their heels.” This suggests that the deeper the breath, the more we are embodying our true potential as humans.
The Lancet published an article recently regarding a study with cadiac patients taking only 12-14 shallow breaths per minute and reporting that these shallow breathers were “more likely to have low levels of blood oxygen, which ‘may impair skeletal muscle and metabolic function, and lead to muscle atrophy and exercise intolerance’.”
Deep breathing is a beautiful and simple way to prevent illness in the body and encourage a relaxed, stress-free state of mind. Anyone can deep breathe, anywhere, anytime. What better way to take health into your own hands for the price of patience and awareness alone?
Written by: Stasia Bliss