The Breath of Life
By George Mera
Breathing is the most magical thing that is happening in our lives, we breathe 25,000 thousand times a day. Breathing never stops, from the beginning of our lives until we die. There is no difference between our breath and the waves of the ocean. It has a distinctive and particular rhythm that changes, like the ocean, from peaceful to tormented and back again. In essence, the breath captures the experience of the moment we are going through; it’s the reflection of our subtle body. The physical body is how our bodies are seen by other people, the subtle body is how you feel about yourself.
A baby breathes better than we do and it only interchanges 10% of the capacity of the lungs; a whale interchanges 90%. As we age the interchange percentage decreases, the sitting and standing muscles deteriorate, and the respiratory system fails to properly expel carbon dioxide. We are in effect poisoning our own bodies through insufficient breathing technique.
What regulates our breathing is not the amount of oxygen that the body needs, as many people think, but rather the amount of carbon dioxide that we have in our body. The air we inhale contains 21% oxygen. The air we exhale has 18% oxygen, meaning that we extracted only 3% of oxygen into our body. On the other hand the air we inhale has 0.04% carbon dioxide; we exhale 3.5%. So what really regulates how many breaths we take per minute is the amount of carbon dioxide that we need to eliminate.
Consequently the more volume we inhale the more we exhale and also the fewer breaths we take per minute. The key point in breathing is the exhalation. It is like a glass full of water; it needs to be empty in order to fill up again. It is the same with the lungs. Many people never completely empty the lungs, and the bottom of the lungs is a rich environment for bacteria growth.
The art of breathing in the Vedic tradition is called Pranayama. Prana is the life force or air. Yama mean manipulation, control or enhancement of the breath. There are hundreds of different techniques, but the correct practice of any form of Pranayama conducts a person to a deeper state of consciousness. All the physical aspects of Yoga, Tai Chi or Chi Kung are designed to facilitate your meditation, to transcend your physical body.
Chinese tradition also focuses on the intricacies of the manipulation of the breath. Taoist masters were commanded by their emperors to look for immortality not only in the spiritual plane but in the physical as well. So they experimented with animal products, plants and minerals. This was the beginning of alchemy. Taoists, using breath as internal alchemy in a vehicle of transformation, created sophisticated and complicated breathing drills. These experiments of internal alchemy were compiled in the 13th century in a compendium called The Taoist Canon, which collected hundred of exercises created principally between the first to third centuries A.D.
Breathing is vital for our existence. All organisms are composed of a multitude of cells and they are dependent on a continuous flow of energy. The food we eat is supplying us with the source of energy in terms of carbohydrates, protein and fat. But unless these nutrients can be absorbed by the cells they are useless.
The actual process of respiration occurs within the cell where nutrient fuel is burned with oxygen to release energy. The nose, trachea, lungs, circulatory system, and muscles involved in the respiratory system all contribute to transform or conduct inhaled oxygen to make it available to the cells. So any change to the pattern or deficiency of any part of the respiratory system can affect the energy field.
As air is inhaled through the filters of the nose, it encounters the trachea, which is the main passageway to the lungs. The smooth, tubular-shaped trachea splits into two smaller tubes called bronchi, or bronchial tubes, one for each lung. The bronchi subdivide like branches of a tree, becoming smaller and smaller until they reach a microscopic size. The terminations are called bronchioles and each of them finishes in tiny sacs of air called alveoli, from there oxygen is absorbed into the bloodstream moving from the capillaries of the alveoli.
As in any other thing in life, there should be a balance between the amount of blood flowing in the alveoli’s capillaries and the amount of oxygen brought by the respiratory system to the alveoli. Studies show that the blood is not evenly distributed through the entire lung. Gravity is an important factor to move the blood to the bottom of the alveoli. Posture my affect this distribution of blood. The most efficient interchange of gases in and out of the alveoli occurs in the upper sections of the lungs. Nevertheless, breathing with only the upper sections is not necessarily efficient or desirable.
Serious problems appear when the alveoli are injured from smoking or other reasons. The multiple little chambers break down, and areas appear like a hole in the lung tissue. When a large count of alveoli is reduced, the condition is called emphysema. The destruction of the delicate tissues of the alveoli happens silently over a period of time. All smokers have emphysema to some degree, but since the condition develops slowly and there are so many areas for diffusion of oxygen, many people do not become debilitated by this condition. Normally we have 300 million alveoli; if the total volume contained in one human were flattened the resulting surface area would be as big as a one bedroom apartment. When the decrease in alveoli becomes significant there follows a noticeable shortness of breath during periods of activity.
When oxygen reaches the capillaries it is transported in two ways. It can either be bound to the hemoglobin molecule within the red blood cells or it can be dissolved directly into the blood. Most oxygen is carried by the hemoglobin. The molecule has four protein chains attached to one atom of iron. It is the iron atom which attracts the oxygen and facilitates the transportation of oxygen throughout the body. When oxygen is bound to the iron atom it is oxygenated blood, and it’s red. Hemoglobin can also carry carbon dioxide, a waste product.
Normally, oxygen and carbon dioxide should be the only molecules which bond with hemoglobin. However some other gases present in the environment can penetrate the bloodstream through the lungs and basically crowd the hemoglobin, displacing the oxygen. A common substance is carbon monoxide, which appears in great concentration in cigarettes and car exhaust. Having an affinity for hemoglobin that is 240 times greater than oxygen, carbon monoxide attaches to the hemoglobin molecule, decreasing its availability for the oxygen transport system. The reduction of hemoglobin running in the oxygenated blood can cause anemia to result. People who smoke will have from 5 to15% of their hemoglobin tied up with carbon monoxide and this can contribute to hardening of the arteries or arteriosclerosis.
Once the hemoglobin is oxygenated, it still has to travel throughout the body delivering oxygen to individual cells. The force to impulse it is the heart. This organ is divided in two separated sections. The right side takes the blood with poor oxygen full of carbon dioxide (venous), and pumps it to the capillaries surroundings the lung’s alveoli, where the gas interchange occurs.
Then the newly oxygenated blood (arterial) is redistributed to the left side of the heart. The oxygenated blood has to squeeze through thin capillaries that are the same size as the alveoli surrounding the lungs. This time the capillaries surrounding the cells in other parts of the body (muscles, nerves, etc.) interchange gases similar to the way it occurs with the hemoglobin in the lungs. Here, waste carbon dioxide from the cell is exchanged for oxygen from the red blood cell hemoglobin, depleting the blood oxygen and turning it blue. This blood will travel to successive larger veins, eventually going to the right side of the heart, and back to the lungs to complete the cycle.
The process of breathing occurs in the abdominal and thoracic (chest) cavities. The torso could be divided into three cavities: the chest, abdomen and pelvis. The chest is where the heart and lungs are located, the abdomen contains the other internal organs, and the pelvis is where the reproductive and excretory organs are located. Dividing the thoracic and abdominal cavities is a muscular membrane known as the diaphragm. Located just under the lower extremity of the ribcage and shaped somewhat like an umbrella or dome, it is the most important part of the respiratory process.
During the inhalation the diaphragm contracts, enlarging the thoracic cavity and creating suction which draws air into the lungs. When the diaphragm relaxes, air is exhaled by elastic recoil of the lungs and the tissues lining the thoracic cavity in conjunction with the abdominal muscles. The clear concept of how the mechanics of the diaphragm work is essential to enhance the respiratory system. It’s useful to visualize the diaphragm being attracted by gravity, dropping like a weight, so the abdomen can expand, and the weight flows up when you exhale.