Breathing most certainly does matter.
Without breath we die.
When we come into this world our first breath is an inhale, and when we leave this world our last breath is an exhale.
Breath is what animates and inspires the body. It contains Qi, Prana, life force, energy and more specifically the oxygen that is needed by every cell in the body in order for it to function and stay alive.
Oxygen is used to break down the food we eat (carbohydrates) into an energy molecule called ATP (adenosine triphosphate). It’s this energy molecule that allows the cells to perform their function.
It’s easy to assume that bringing oxygen into the body is therefore the main reason why we breathe. However, breathing is actually more to do with maintaining just the right level of carbon dioxide in the body so that the oxygen is delivered to the cells. Without the maintenance of carbon dioxide (C02) at a level that keeps the blood slightly alkaline (7.35-7.45), the oxygen will not be delivered to the cells and it does not matter how much more we breathe.
This is where breathing, and in particular breathing in a way that maintains C02 at just the right level becomes important. Many of us are breathing too fast or too much disrupting this delicate balance resulting in symptoms like fatigue, lethargy, poor performance, digestive issues, sleep issues, anxiety, tingling in the limbs and dizziness.
Breathing also affects the cardiovascular system, heart rate, blood pressure and heart rate variability. This is because breathing is actually about pressure differentials and the way we move blood and gasses through the body is via this mechanism. Gasses and liquids always travel from high pressure to low pressure. Drawing the air into the body is essentially about creating a good shape and volume change in the thoracic cavity (where your ribs attach) in order to lower the pressure in the intra pleural cavity (lungs) which draws the air in. It’s this same mechanism that also helps to draw the blood and lymph back to the heart.
Therefore the slower we breathe and the better the thoracic cage expands three dimensionally the more positive effect this has on the cardiovascular system leading to a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure and improving heart rate variability.
Studies have shown that a breathing rate of 6 breaths per minute has the most positive effect on our cardiovascular system as well as our nervous system. Slower breathing allows us to switch to the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest, digest, healing phase) which enables us to digest our food better, decrease muscular tension in the body, be less reactive and decrease anxiety symptoms.
Breathing is both autonomic, meaning we do not have to think about it, as well as something we can have conscious control over. Pranayama (breathing practices) enable us to bring more conscious awareness to the breath and by doing so we can directly influence the nervous system. Breathing practices can also help to increase our awareness of how we breathe and the muscles that are used for breathing.
One muscle in particular is the diaphragm. This is a dome shaped muscle that attaches to your ribs as well as the lumbar spine. It is the main muscle of respiration. When we breathe in, the diaphragm moves down along with the pelvic floor creating a good shape and volume change in the thoracic cage as it draws the ribs down and out.
When we breathe out the diaphragm relaxes back up along with the pelvic floor lifting up.
Constantly pulling the belly in, or the pelvic floor up, can affect the movement of the diaphragm and the ability to create a good shape change. We then rely on accessory muscles, the breathing becomes more shallow and faster leading to more sympathetic nervous system activation (this is the flight fight freeze response). When this happens we then can alter the pH of the blood resulting in less 02 being delivered to the cells. This can then lead us into a spiral of thinking we need to get more air in, we breathe faster or try to take in more air and the condition worsens, this can then lead to a panic attack or asthma as the air hunger creates more desire to breathe more.
However, we actually mostly need to breathe less. We already have enough 02 in the body, our 02 saturation in the blood is around 97-99% in a healthy person. What we need to be better at is conserving the levels of C02 through breathing less, pausing between breaths, so we are more efficient at delivering the 02 to the cells.
One simple thing you can do every day is simply bring mindfulness to your breath. Breathe through your nose not your mouth and observe your breath rhythm. Try to send more awareness into the back rib space so that the diaphragm descends down in the front, sides and back body as you breathe. This will help to slow down your breath, improve the shape and volume change which will also have a positive effect on the cardiovascular system as well as the delivery of 02 to the cells.
If you are wanting to explore breathing more and which breathing techniques might be right for you, then check out Yogawithkylie’s Online Course Breathing Matters. It’s a self paced course exploring the physiology of how and why we breathe. It also delves into core stability, pranayama practices and their influence on the nervous system, bandhas, and the top 7 practices you can do to improve your vagal tone and heart rate variability.
Here’s what people have been saying about this course:-
“I am absolutely loving this course! I have put to use these amazing techniques already and continue to learn from each new section. Many gems of wisdom”