Some of the greatest things, the greatest discoveries, have come about by serendipity. Let’s explore its magic here.
Few years back while working with a colleague in his cubicle, I noticed that a reminder would pop up on his screen every 10 minutes with just one word written on it – Breathe. I tried ignoring it initially but after some time I had to ask him, “Dude! Do you really need to remind yourself to breathe?”
“It’s not just about breathing!” he replied with a smile.
“Care to throw some light?” I asked him.
He started explaining, “Of course, I don’t need to remind myself to breathe. Nobody needs to. Everyone knows how to breathe. It is something that occurs to us automatically, spontaneously, and naturally. We are breathing even when we are not aware of it.
“However, I do need to remind myself to breathe properly,” he continued, “You might find it foolish that there is a proper and improper way of breathing. I mean how hard is it? Just breathe in, and breathe out. Right?”
“Yeah, right.” I said.
“Wrong! The truth is that most people don’t realize the power of breath. If done properly it can increase your energy and productivity manifolds,” he said.
I was intrigued with his statement, but before he could tell me more about it he had to leave for a meeting. But I couldn’t wait so I went ahead and started reading and researching on my own on this and what I found was remarkably profound and life changing.
Control Switch for Physiology
I guess you would agree with me that our behavior influences our performance and the results we produce.
Now what defines our behaviour? Our thoughts. Isn’t it?
And thoughts are governed by feelings which in turn are controlled by our emotions. Our emotions take shape based on our physiology – health, general state of well-being, breathing, heart-rate, etc. Now this isn’t something new and you probably know about this already.
Most of our physiology is largely seen as an effect rather than cause. A common belief is that our physiology can’t be controlled or changed immediately. But there is one thing which is in our control that can control a lot of other involuntary activities like heart rate, body temperature, etc. And that control button is how you breathe.
Let me share some interesting trivia about where else breathing is a well-known tool for performance.
Tennis players use a certain pattern of bouncing the ball or a breathing pattern to put them in an optimum state of mind also referred as ‘the zone’. Right breathing is an effective tool for not just every sportsperson but for many actors and stage artists also.
Ask any accomplished actor and he will tell you that dialogue delivery is all about breathing in a certain way. I remember Aamir Khan talking about how he can induce an emotion in his body just by changing his breathing patterns. That’s what separates him from others – he doesn’t just act but actually lives the character.
But that’s for professionals and world class performers. How about ordinary people like me? How can right breathing help me?
Well, in today’s world, the first and most basic requirement for almost anybody is a sound mind and a healthy body.
Secret of Brilliance
To be able to deal with the stress of modern day living, you need to have a straight head and clear thinking. And one thing that is of utmost importance for doing that is to have a constant, uninterrupted and rhythmic blood supply to the brain.
Did you know that a human brain requires more oxygen than any other organ in the body? I didn’t know that until recently.
And what brings oxygen to the brain? No point for guessing this one. It’s the bloodstream.
An uninterrupted supply of oxygen to brain required a rhythmic heart rate. Don’t get confused with an average heart-rate (AHR). AHR is not a very good indicator of heart rhythm and should not be relied upon. Two people with same average heart rate may have totally different heartbeat pattern. You need sophisticated machines and software to measure the heart rhythm.
An erratic heartbeat is a typical symptom as well as cause of stress. Rhythmic breathing brings the heartbeat to a consistent coherent pattern, which instantly improves the brain performance. Somebody with a coherent heart beat with AHR 100 is more clearheaded than a relaxed person with erratic heartbeat with AHR 50.
So how do you bring an erratic heart rate to a rhythmic one? Here is a clue – When people are stressed, their breathing becomes shallow and erratic.
By forcing our breath to follow a rhythmic pattern, we can induce a rhythmic heart rate. And that’s the secret of brilliance.
I’ll come back to ‘how to do the rhythmic breathing’, but before that let’s look at another reason why proper breathing is supercritical.
Nectar of Vitality
Of course it’s not just the brain that needs oxygen. Did you know we breathe approximately 9,400 liters of air, every single day, in order to supply our tissues with oxygen? Where does all this oxygen go? It spreads to almost every single cell in our body. Without it, cells become weak and die.
Here is another ‘did you know?’ – There are about 75 trillion cells in your body. These cells provide you with adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the basic energy for everything that your body does, whether it’s breathing, dreaming, eating, or exercising. In order to survive, cells must have oxygen in order to burn glucose and create ATP for continued growth.
So the foundation of health is a healthy bloodstream, the system that transports oxygen and nutrients to all the cells. If you have a healthy circulation system, you’re going to live a healthy life. One of the major secrets of vitality and rejuvenation is a purified blood stream. The most effective way to purify the blood stream is by taking in extra supplies of oxygen from the air we breathe.
So as I explained in the previous section, the control button for the circulation system lies with breathing. It’s by deep breathing that you fully saturate the body with oxygen and thus facilitate the cell metabolic activities at their optimum level.
Breathing not only controls the oxygenation of the cells but many medical studies have shown that there is another important part of our body that relies heavily on breathing. What’s that part?
Your lymph system.
“Am I sitting in a biology class or what?” You might want to say at this point.
Don’t worry, I am not going to bore you with too many complex scientific terminology. But it helps to know a little bit about your own body or how else will you be able take any positive action? Mind you, this is not a stock tip that you just blindly follow. This is pretty serious matter. Literally of life and death.
So what is a lymph system? The process of cell metabolism produces lot of toxic material including dead cells and blood proteins. Where do these toxins go? It is removed by the lymph system. You can think of it as body’s sewage system. Every cell in your body is surrounded by lymph. You would be surprised to know that the amount of lymph fluid in your body is four times the amount of blood.
How important is the lymph system? Well, if it stopped working, you would be dead in just 24 hours. If it’s such a critical department then I am sure we want it to run without any glitches.
The only way lymph moves is through deep breathing and muscular movement. So in order to have a healthy bloodstream with effective lymph and immune systems, you need to breathe deeply. And not just breathe but a deep diaphragmatic breath is the most effective way to accomplish this. Deep breathing creates something like a vacuum that sucks the lymph through the bloodstream.
All right! So now that we are convinced about importance of breathing properly, let’s look at how to do it.
How to Breath
Unawareness and ignorance are the primary reasons for developing unhealthy habits, which is true about breathing also. We tend to assume positions (slouched positions) that diminishes lung capacities and take shortened breaths. We need to break those habits.
Here are few ideas to breathe in a way which maximizes the oxygenation in our cells.
You should breathe in this ratio: inhale four counts, hold four counts, exhale six counts, hold two counts. So if you inhaled for four seconds, you would hold for four seconds, and exhale for six seconds, etc. When you hold, you allow the oxygen to be fully absorbed in your blood, when you exhale for 6 seconds, you eliminate the toxins via the lymphatic system. I call it 4-4-6-2 breathing pattern.
Notice, we are not only breathing deeply here, we also following a pattern which will bring your heart rate to a rhythm.
You don’t have to breathe like this all the time. Just take out 5 minutes, three to four times a day, and practice this kind of breathing.
Please keep in mind that I am not an expert in any of the topics above. And at the end of the day it’s your body and you are the one who knows it better than anybody else. The suggestions about breathing techniques are just pointers so that you can get started and then by trial and error figure out the best way that suits your needs.
For that matter, I would suggest you to learn pranayama and breathing exercises from professional trainers. It will go a long way in ensuring not only your longevity but will increase the quality of every moment.
Experimenting with your breath is also a process of self-discovery.
Focus on your own breathing. Where are you breathing from? If you change the quality of your breaths from rapid and shallow to long and deep, how does this affect the quality of your experience? Try breathing from one nostril and then from another. By the way, have you ever noticed that you anyway breathe with only one nostril at a time? It keeps changing involuntary.
Take a moment and feel the air in your nostrils right now. Which nostril is active now?
I have found that the easiest and quickest way to bring down the anxiety and panic in a stressful situation is to start breathing in rhythmic pattern. This is what I do – Breath-in with a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, breath-out for a count of 6 and hold with count of 2. Repeat this cycle for 10 times. I call this “4-4-6-2″ breathing. Works wonders!
So we saw how learning to breathe properly is the most important avenue toward good health. You can change your physiology immediately just by changing your breathing. We also learnt how breathing triggers the flow of lymph fluid, which contains the white blood cells to protect the body.
Some of the body language experts can tell a lot about your state of mind by looking at your mode of breathing. When people are breathing high in their chest, they are thinking visually. When breathing is even, from the diaphragm of the whole chest, they’re in an auditory mode. Breathing can truly spill the beans.
In fact, some hypnotherapist use breathing as a tool to build a quick rapport with their subjects. Mimicking somebody’s body language and breathing pattern is a powerful manipulation used in hypnosis.
There is no food or medicine in the world that can do for you what healthy breathing patterns can. Understand how your body works, respect it, and take care of it, and it will take care of you.