By Megha Bajaj
Life is nothing but a series of breaths. correct breathing leads to good health, a clear mind and a vibrant spirit. learn more about this vital process of inhalation and exhalation, and enjoy the smooth rhythm of breathing, and consequently, living !
For as long as I can remember, I have had breathing problems. I would just be sitting or day dreaming and my sister would ask me why I was breathing so heavily. A few flights of stairs would make me huff and puff as though I had trekked up a steep hill. I was so scared of lifts that I would pant my way up buildings – even if there were 20 floors – but not risk getting stuck in them and dying due to lack of oxygen. Often, I would experience tightness in my chest, a constricted feeling, as if I was not getting enough air. Breathing, an automatic and effortless happening in the lives of others, seemed like an arduous task for me. Yet, for years no specialist was able to pinpoint my problem. I got my answers, not through doctors, but with the help of a counsellor and a book. Before I share my realisation and the steps that are helping me improve my breathing – let us understand the respiratory system. It is quite a wonder – all that happens within, with the simple act of inhalation and exhalation.
The Breathing Mechanism
Our body requires oxygen for everything it does. Swallowing, digesting, thinking, blinking, feeling – nothing would be possible without it. Respiration is achieved through the mouth, nose, trachea, lungs, and diaphragm. Oxygen enters the respiratory system through the mouth and the nose. The oxygen then passes through the trachea, which is a tube that enters the chest cavity. Here, the trachea splits into two smaller tubes called the bronchi. Each bronchus then branches into several bronchial tubes. These tubes lead directly into the lungs where they connect to tiny sacs called alveoli. The average adult’s lungs contain about 600 million of these spongy, air-filled sacs! These sacs are surrounded by blood capillaries, which carry the oxygen all around the body. Meanwhile, the waste-rich blood from the veins releases its carbon dioxide into the alveoli, which follows the same path out of the lungs when you exhale. The diaphragm, which is a muscle at the bottom of the chest cavity, helps pump the carbon dioxide out of the lungs and pull the oxygen into the lungs. This system was created to work in perfection – yet as many as one in every five people experiences respiratory problems at some point in life.
Common Breathing Problems
Hyperventilation: This takes place when one breathes more than necessary (more than 20 breaths per minute). All of us hyperventilate at certain times – faced with a dangerous situation when the fight or flight response of the body is activated. Those who have this disease tend to over breathe and be anxious even in normal circumstances. Emphysema: Little is known about this disease even though it is the cause of one fourth of all respiratory-related disorders. In this disease, the alveoli, the flexible tiny sacs in the lungs, lose their elasticity. The air therefore is trapped within the alveoli and is not available to the blood to transport to the body. The cause of this disease is almost always smoking – though there are rare cases of this disease being inherited as well. Bronchitis: Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchi. It is usually caused by viruses or bacteria. Sometimes it may also be caused by secondhand smoke or irritating fumes that one has been exposed to.
Asthma: During an asthmatic attack the airways (bronchial tubes and bronchioles) occasionally constrict, become inflamed, or are lined with excessive amounts of mucus, often in response to one or more triggers. The trigger could be anything – smoke, cold or warm air, perfume, pet dander, moist air, exertion, or emotional stress. Asthma is caused by a complex interaction of genetic and environmental factors that researchers do not fully understand yet.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): The lungs are damaged, making it hard to breathe in this lung disease. In COPD, either or both of the two can happen: the bronchioles may be slightly obstructed or the alveoli may lose their elasticity. Cigarette smoking is the most common cause of COPD. Breathing in other kinds of lung irritants, like pollution, dust, or chemicals, over a long period of time may also cause or contribute to COPD.
Test your breathing
Although I had none of these diseases, I still had several symptoms like shortness of breath, constant feeling of claustrophobia and chest pain. Apparently, a large number of people suffer from several life-long symptoms due to incorrect breathing. The cause could be something as trivial as bad posture or a wrong diet, or even a psychological reason as in my case – but if it affects breathing several health hazards can crop up sooner or later. If you are wondering right now, how good or bad your breathing is, the following test can help you. If any of these symptoms are true in your case, in all probability you are not breathing to the optimal level – noisy breathing – more than 18 breaths per minute – getting breathless with minimal physical activity – breathing through mouth instead of nose – chest rising while breathing (in correct breathing the belly should rise) – rising of shoulders while breathing (only when the lungs and diaphragm don’t work to their full capacity do shoulder muscles need to get involved in the respiratory process) – a feeling of constriction or tightness in the chest – exhalation being shorter than inhalation all the time (certain times when one is involved in certain activities, especially creative ones, the exhalation does tend to become shorter and this is normal). If you have one or more of these problems, worry not, there is lots you can do to breathe better. The first step would be to go to a lung specialist and rule out any of the above diseases. If it is one of the above malaises you may need to take allopathic treatment alongwith any one of the following therapies mentioned below. If not, just giving a few minutes to the therapy of your choice can do wonders to erase your symptoms and increase your sense of well-being manifold.
Mind-body relationship: We human beings are psychosomatic beings. Psycho, stands for mind and soma for body. Most diseases that we experience in the body, originate first in the mind. When my tests were negative, I knew my mind was culpable. Going to a counsellor, along with reading celebrated healer Louise Hay’s books gave me helpful insights. Louise Hay writes that most breathing problems arise when as a child one has received ‘smothering love’ or ‘over-protection’. Psychologically it gives one a feeling of suffocation or not having enough space. As a child I had crying convulsions – which meant that each time I cried loudly, I would faint. The result was that my parents never allowed me to cry. They gave me everything I asked for and more. I understood this connection in one of the sessions with my therapist. I started working upon myself and repeated the affirmations that Louise suggested, “I have a right to take up space, I have a right to live my own life. All is well.” A slow shift took place. Breathing started becoming easier, gentler, like a wave – washing upon a shore and receding – like sitting on a comfortable rocking chair – in, out, in, out – in perfect rhythm. It was such a relief, Truly.
whatever your diagnosis says – disease or no disease – if you are having breathing problems do introspect and discover what the mind cause of it could be. It will speed up the healing process, because now both the body and mind will work together to eliminate the problem.
Yoga: Ravimohun Dixit, senior teacher at Kaivalyadham Yoga Centre, Mumbai, shares that yoga believes that when one is born, one is given not a fixed number of years to live but a fixed number of breaths. The slower, deeper and fuller your breathing – more the years you have to live. He explains, “Dogs and rabbits breathe 30 times per minute and live for about ten years, a turtle breathes once in four minutes and continues to survive for 300 years, we humans who breathe 16-18 times a minute have an average life span of 60 years.” So now, you know one of the most efficient ways of adding years to your life! Yes, doing pranayama, which is nothing but breath management, will help greatly. Anulom vilom, in which you inhale for five counts from one nostril and exhale for ten counts from the other – repeating the cycle by inhaling again from the same nostril that you exhaled from, is possibly one of the simplest yet most efficient ways of becoming more aware of your breathing and reducing the number of breaths per minute. (This exercise should be done sitting straight, with eyes gently closed). As far as asanas go – almost every one of them when done slowly, with complete focus on breath, can greatly help the respiratory system. For, says Dixit, the very intention of most asanas is to allow breathing to take its natural course, which means exhaling out used gases fully and creating space for fresh, invigorating oxygen.
Diet: H K Bakhru, a renowned naturopath, writes in his book, Foods That Heal, “A glassful of fresh tomato juice mixed with honey and a pinch of powdered cardamom seeds, taken after swallowing three peeled garlic cloves every night is highly beneficial in treating all types of respiratory disorders.” In fact, he vouches that this mixture can cure asthma as it reduces the congestion in bronchioles and even keeps a check on hyperactive secretion of mucus. He also suggests karela (bitter gourd), which was used since ancient times for treating colds, sinus, asthma and bronchitis. A teaspoon of its paste mixed with equal amounts of honey and tulsi juice acts as a magical tonic. Exercise: “45 minutes of cardio-vascular exercises, at least thrice a week, is a great way of making your breathing more powerful,” says Parikshit Somani, a Mumbai-based physical trainer. These high intensity workouts require the use of muscles – which to contract and expand need more oxygen. Such exercises demand that the lungs get more oxygen and the heart, more blood. In doing so, they empower these two vital muscles – lung and heart – which cannot be strengthened through physical means because they are involuntary (not in our control). However, Parikshit suggests, that if you have a respiratory disease you should stick to mild exercises like strolls, stretching and low intensity workouts after discussing it with your physician. He adds that any form of exercise should be done at least an hour after a meal – or else the oxygen required for digestion rushes to the muscles, leading to indigestion and cramps.
Reiki and Pranic Healing: Nita Eapen is the consultant at Energy Healing Systems, Apollo Hospitals, Chennai. She asserts that both these healing systems, use, enhance, stabilise, and best of all, sustain the body’s innate ability to heal itself. “This is especially true of the breath, the very unit of life. When we heal with reiki or pranic healing or any other related energy healing disciplines, we find that no matter what we are treating the patient for, a breath-related correction usually happens automatically through the sessions.” Even if you don’t have any breathing problems adopting any of these therapies will do you a world of good. If your breathing is good, strive to make it better. The benefits of optimal breathing are so great and so varied that they will surely entice you to give just 15 minutes of your day to improving your breathing.
What good breathing does for you
• It improves the immune system ensuring that you don’t fall sick easily. Moreover, even if you do fall ill, it assures speedy recovery.
• Flushes out unwanted toxins – making you feel lighter and cleaner within.
• Makes your blood pressure rock steady.
• Ensures that you sleep deeply and wake up feeling fresh and rejuvenated.
• Adds more oxygen, and therefore energy, to your body. You find that you have that extra stamina to do all that you want (and more) in a day.
• Increases your blood circulation – making all the other systems work more efficiently. And also adds that much sought-after radiance to your face.
• Increases longevity.
• Helps keep your emotions calm and thinking clear.
Good breathing is the simplest, most hassle free, inexpensive, effective way of improving your health. So breathe in all the good health which good breathing can bring to you.
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This exercise is simple, takes almost no time, can be done anywhere, and in any position (though sitting straight is preferred). Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise.
&bull Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
&bull Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
&bull Hold your breath for a count of seven.
&bull Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
&bull This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
This exercise is a natural tranquiliser for the nervous system. Unlike tranquilising drugs, which are often effective when you first take them but then lose their power over time, this exercise is subtle when you first try it but gains in power with repetition and practice. Do it at least twice a day. Do not do more than four breaths at one time for the first month of practice. Later, if you wish, you can extend it to eight breaths.
Did you know?
&bull An average person reaches peak respiratory function and lung capacity in the mid 20s. Then one begins to lose respiratory capacity: between nine and 25% for every decade of life! So, unless you are doing something to maintain or improve your breathing capacity, it will decline, and with it, your general health and life expectancy!
&bull Given an optimal diet, the respiratory system should be responsible for eliminating 70% of your metabolic waste. The remainder should be eliminated through defecation 3%, urination 8%, and perspiration 19%. So, if you think that going to the bathroom every day is important, or that working up a good sweat now and then is healthy, think again about the value of full free optimal breathing!