Religion & Culture | The health benefits of breath control
The immortal's breathing reaches down to the heels and the normal person's breathing to the throat."
- Zhuang Zi, third century philosopher
Humans can survive three weeks without food. Surviving without water proves more Herculean, no more than eight to 10 days say the experts. Without air, though, our chances of survival are drastically reduced to a mere three minutes.
Air is life. Breathing is living.
Over the years, we have lost the ability to breathe naturally. We sometimes inhale and exhale through our mouth or breathe in a scattered disjointed manner. I have always held that hazardous environmental conditions have conditioned us to breathe in patterns that are hardly healthy.
Our brain prompts the respiratory system to breathe in shallow rhythms. When there is pervasive pollution, how can we breathe naturally, meaning with full, deep breaths? There is an autonomic, inbuilt protection that prohibits the natural intake of air.
It is advised, therefore, to practise 'healing breaths' amid nature.
Many yoga practitioners have studied Pranayama, an ancient form of breathing that was first introduced to the West by yogis from India. Prana or breath is the vital life force, the very essence of life.
There is much to gain physically, emotionally, and physiologically from proper breathing methods. The following benefits of breathing are taken from Jessica Levine's article, Learning to Breathe Right and are featured in my book, The Mystical Qigong Handbook for Good Health.
1) Happiness and emotional stability: Manipulating the breath can alter how we feel, for as much as a 40 per cent variance in feelings of anger, fear, joy, and sadness, according to the journal Cognition & Emotion.
2) Weight loss: Yogic breathing practices increase levels of leptin, a hormone produced by fat tissue that signals the brain to inhibit hunger, according to research from Shirley Telles, PhD, director of the Patanjali Research Foundation in Haridwar, India.
3) Better exercise stamina: A cardiologist at the University of Pavia, Italy, compared a group of mountaineers who practised slow breathing an hour a day for two years before attempting to climb Mount Everest to members of a group who didn't. The breathing group reached the summit without needing the supplemental oxygen the other group did, and their blood and exhalation samples showed they were using 70 per cent of the surface area of their lungs, an amount that maximises the oxygen taken in.
4) Longer life: Just one session of relaxing practices like qigong, meditation, yoga, and chanting influenced the expression of genes in both short-term and long-term practitioners, according to a Harvard study.
Blood samples taken before and after the breathing practices indicated a post-practice increase in genetic material involved in improving metabolism and a suppression of genetic pathways linked with inflammation. Since chronic inflammation has also been associated with such deadly diseases as Alzheimer's, depression, cancer, and heart disease, it's probably fair to say that better breathing may not only change your life, but may also save it.
There are several breathing methods geared towards good health. The most popular and easy to perform are the following:
- Abdominal breathing or belly breathing (also called eupnea):
It is the most natural method for relaxation. It is marked by the expansion of the abdomen while breathing. One takes in more breaths while optimising the flow of oxygen into the bloodstream. A natural state of relaxation follows.
- Kumbhaka Pranayama:
The practitioner holds her breath after inhalation (antara) and after exhalation (bahya). This is commonly practised by Hatha yogis.
- Alternate nostril breathing or (Nadi Shodhan Pranayama):
The benefits are tremendous. It centres the mind, fights respiratory problems, harmonises the right and left hemispheres of the brain, maintains body temperature and purifies the nadirs or energy channels referred to as meridians in traditional Chinese medicine.
- Alternate breathing instructions:
With your right hand, bring your pointer finger and middle finger to rest between your eyebrows. These are your anchor. Only the thumb and ring fingers are used in this exercise. Close your eyes and inhale and exhale through your nose.
Close your right nostril with your thumb and inhale through the left nostril slowly.
Close the left nostril with your ring finger so both nostrils are held closed. Hold for a couple of seconds before releasing the breath through the right side; hold for a couple of seconds; inhale through the right side; hold both nostrils closed with the ring finger and proceed to open the left nostril and release breath through the left side. Now inhale through the left nostril. Hold for a couple of seconds and repeat the process for 3-5 minutes.
- Pursed breathing:
This is a great method for relieving shortness of breath.
Begin by relaxing your muscles. Inhale for two seconds through your nostrils and exhale for four seconds through pursed lips.
As we breathe to induce mental clarity, tranquillity, and overall wellness, the words of Eve Ensler's ring true: "I wake up every day and I think, I am breathing. It's a good day."
- Dr Glenville Ashby is the author of The Mystical Qigong Handbook for Good Health, available at
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