Breathing is something we often take for granted. But it's an area of our health we can affect profoundly with simple movements and breath practices.
Essentially, breathing is a continual tidal rhythm, drawing oxygen into the body with the inhalation and releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) out on the exhalation. This happens on a large scale through the lungs, but also via each and every one of the cells throughout the entire body in cellular respiration.
It's the respiratory system that provides the means for vital oxygen to enter your body via your primary breathing organ, the lungs, into the bloodstream and ultimately through your whole body.
Healthy lungs working optimally take in about half a liter of air roughly 12-15 times each minute. They then deliver oxygen to the cardiovascular system, with all the blood in the body passed through the lungs every minute.
You may imagine the lungs as bags that fill with air, but they are more like porous, elastic sea sponges in texture, and their movement is often equated with the pulsing motion of a jellyfish. The right and left lungs are different: the left is smaller, with the heart nestling up into it, and has only two lobes (sections), while the right has three.
The lungs are not muscles; they rely on the movement of the diaphragm (the upside-down bowl-shaped muscle at the bottom of the ribs), which contracts and moves downward toward the belly to increase the volume of the chest cavity. This creates a partial vacuum, which draws air into the lungs.
This action is supported by muscles between the ribs (external intercostals) contracting to allow the inside space to expand.
The exhalation is the diaphragm releasing in an elastic recoil and drawing back up into the chest to push CO2 back out. The internal intercostals only get involved and contract when the exhalation is forced, such as during exertion, panic or in specific breathing practices. In a relaxed-state out-breath, there is no action required; a full exhalation is the result of allowing a complete inhalation to come to its full conclusion.
The four stages of breathing
Healthy breathing involves four stages:
1) Inhalation: the process of drawing in air; ideally, this should be smooth and continuous.
2) Pause after inhalation: a cessation of the flow of air, leading to retention of the air in the lungs and movement there suspended.
3) Exhalation: like inhalation, it should be smooth and continuous; avoid forcing the exhale.
4) Pause after exhalation: this completes the cycle, which finishes as the pause ends and a new inhalation begins. In yogic breathing practices (pranayama), this moment is known as the "perfectly peaceful pause."
The pause after exhalation is commonly interrupted in stressed breathing patterns, where there's a tendency to draw in the next inhalation before the previous exhale can come to completion. This can be helpful when there's a need to stay motivated or ready to deal with danger, as it can keep you in an alert state, but it can be wearing as it uses up so much energy.
The rate of stress-response breathing is typically around 18-25 breaths per minute, up from 8-12 breaths per minute while at rest.
This speed-up is referred to as "over-breathing" and is a low-grade form of hyperventilation. It can lead to both the creation of too much oxygen and exhalation of too much carbon dioxide. We simply need to come back to slower, relaxed breathing to allow a natural balance.
The lungs are supplied by nerves of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which keeps the show running in the background without us needing to be consciously involved, regulating essential functions such as breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. The inhalation is governed by the sympathetic or activating part of the ANS (which creates the fight-or-flight response) and the exhalation by the calming (rest-and-digest) parasympathetic system.
When the breath is relaxed, there is a balanced rhythm between the energizing arousal of the inhale and the releasing, soothing exhale. But when you are on constant alert, as is the case with trauma or continual stress, you can become "sympathetic dominant" and gasp more at the inhalation, even pushing the head forward to take in air through the mouth rather than the nose.
The brain demands up to 25 percent of the oxygen you breathe in, so concentration, focus and mental cognition can suffer with the reduced breathing efficiency of chronic stress.
The respiratory system also filters out dust, bacteria and other microbes that might have a negative effect on our health. It has a protective mucous lining, and if this senses pollution, the nervous system is signaled to produce more shallow breaths for protection, which results in less oxygen to the cells.
Cultivating breath consciousness
Many years ago, it was believed the ANS could not be influenced by any other part of the nervous system. But research on yogis in India beginning in the 1930s showed that through meditation and conscious attention and manipulation of the breath, they could slow their heart rate.1
It is now well-accepted that breathing is the easiest and most direct way to affect the nervous system.2 Cultivating a smooth and steady calming exhalation is a crucial part of mindful breathing practices within meditation.
A recent review of the research found a strong correlation between slow breathing and "psycho-physiological flexibility"—how adaptable and resilient we are. This links parasympathetic activity to emotional stability and psychological wellbeing.3
Breath is most functional when we both inhale and exhale through the nose, but the inhalation is particularly important. Cold air coming into the nose cools down the frontal lobe of the brain, which calms its activity. The air is then warmed upon entering the lungs and body, preventing tissues from contracting in response to cold, rather than opening to allow full oxygen absorption.
Nasal hairs help block impurities from entering the body, and glands in the inner nose destroy bacteria.
Also, it is only when we breathe in through the nose that a substance called nitric oxide (NO) is produced. This opens up the cells in the lungs to receive oxygen and supports bronchial tone—how well the airways in the respiratory tract contract and relax with breath.
NO also works body-wide to relax the inner muscles of the blood vessels, increasing blood flow and lowering blood pressure. When breath is regulated, it has a protective effect on the immune system.4
Movement for lung and respiratory health
For many with stressed breathing patterns, it can be challenging to even identify when the inhale and exhale are happening. Movement synchronized with the breath can help you become aware of your breathing and how you can improve it to prompt parasympathetic action that increases oxygenation, spares vital nutrients, reduces heart rate, relaxes muscles and eases anxious states.
Better breathing means healthier lungs—a good insurance against respiratory problems. This fosters naturally deeper regular breathing through an increase in the elasticity of the lungs and rib cage and by supporting the protective lung microbiome (beneficial immune-supporting bacteria).
Increased oxygenation in the lungs may lead to improved elimination of toxins, sleep, recovery and immune function. As we age, lung cells contract and take in less oxygen, so we need to maximize this capacity where we can.
Exercises for lung health
The exercises that follow are designed improve breathing by:
• Supporting easeful oxygenation with full exhalations that allow full release of CO2
• Supporting healthy posture to encourage nasal rather than mouth-breathing (countering modern tendencies to push the head forward from the shoulders)
• Supporting full movement of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles for ease of breathing motions
• Loosening the shoulders and jaw, which also releases tension through the ribs and diaphragm.
Space into the shoulders out from the chest
It's helpful to start opening the shoulders and chest lying on the ground, where you don't have the effort of lifting up from gravity.
1) Lying with your head supported on one side, knees bent, settle into the shoulders here and reach the top arm forward.
2) Inhale to reach the top arm directly above the top shoulder, lifting up through the shoulder and keeping the gaze on the hand.
3) Exhale to reach the arm back. Focusing continually on the moving hand means the shoulder and neck can move together, as designed.
4) Inhale to reach back up to the ceiling and exhale back to the beginning.
5) Continue the movement, letting the breath guide the rhythm and pace for full-body release.
Spine undulation to twist
This twist incorporates moving the spine with the rhythm of the breath—opening the front body on the energizing inhalation and the back body on the soothing exhalation.
1) Sitting on the floor, place your hands behind you, at least as wide apart as the shoulders.
2) On an inhalation, lift up through the chest to arch the back and lift up through the shoulders. Lift the heart and feel a squeeze between the shoulder blades.
3) Exhale to round the back and continue with the breath leading the movement, inhaling to arch, exhaling to round the back.
4) As you next inhale to arch the back, let the knees drop to the right to twist. Exhale to center and inhale knees to the left, alternating sides with each in-breath.
5) Rest sitting to hug the knees, head dropping.
1) Start on all fours to draw that belly area into the spine, rounding the back to drop the head and draw the weight off the hands as soon as you can.
2) Continue drawing the belly back and up to raise up onto your knees, up through the inner legs, spine and neck, taking the arms out and up.
3) Continue lifting to roll up the front body, until you are reaching upward.
4) Bend at the hips and drop the bottom back, spine lengthened to engage the belly, and bring the hands back down to all fours, with control and ease.
5) Continue the sequence at the pace that feels right, inhaling up and exhaling back down.
Reaching movement through the ribs and diaphragm
Starting from a "z-legs" seated position, with your left leg bent inward and right bent outward, lean toward the left and take the right arm out to the side, focusing your gaze on it. Then sweep the arm down and past your body to create full circles, reaching up and over, then back through the starting point. Allow the motion to reach from the belly through to the chest, shoulders, neck and head. Repeat on the other side.
Moving bridge pose with "angel wings"
This movement actively opens the chest and ribs to strengthen the muscles there.
1) From lying with feet on the ground, inhale and sweep the arms around from the hips to wherever is comfortable, like wings lifting up.
2) On the exhale, peel the spine back down again, arms sweeping back down.
3) Lift up and down as long as your breath can stay long, face and jaw soft, eventually holding the pose up for as long as you feel no strain.
Viparita Karani (waterfall practice) sequence
In this supported inversion sequence, placing your legs (with a bolster or folded towels) above your hips, heart and head allows for full blood flow down from the lower body back to the heart via gravity, meaning the heart can rest and you can easily drop into calmer states with the chest lifted for full, easy breathing.