Breathing, with awareness and intention, sits at the heart of spiritual practice. To let one breath go, say the Sufis, without being conscious of it is a sin. A bridge between oneself and God, in Arabic ruh refers both to the breath and to the divine presence.
Breathing usually happens without us, of course. Even if we try to stop, some force overpowers our efforts. Chinese culture names qi as the vital life force flowing through all living beings. Yogis call it prana.
Our daily intake is twenty-five thousand breaths, and we may well not even notice one. Hunger, however, we notice; we can live without food for some time; we cannot live without breath.
So central to biological function, how we breathe bears directly on our physical and emotional health. Let us pause to consider this.
Take a moment to observe your breathing.
Focus on each inhalation, each exhalation. Air is entering through the nose, passing through the brain and down the spine; it reaches a sort of fullness and then ascends through the abdomen and lungs, returning to the room by exiting the nose. Again, feel the sensations as the breath makes a complete circle.
The nasal passages don’t merely take air in; they clean it, heat it, and moisten it. These actions precursor a release of chemicals that lower blood pressure and regulate the heart rate. Fasten the mind to the rhythm of breathing, and it tends to become absorbed and calm.
Now, inflate your belly with each inhalation and swell your chest. Feel your ribs expand to the front, sides, and back.
Hold your breath but don’t force it. The position allows for the smoother passage of vital fluid through the spine. The Sufis may tell you that breath retention purifies the heart.
As you exhale, first empty your stomach, then your chest. This is the way your body wants to take in and expel air.
Understand this: weakness of breath underpins weakness of mind and body. Strength in breathing carries strength to both. Know that breath must be exercised.
We are ever breathing through either our right or left nostril; temporarily, one or the other is somewhat blocked. This is known as nostril dominance. Responsibilities shift between nostrils about every two hours.
Yogis tell us that breathing through the left allows for a more active right brain and therefore an open connection to ida nadi, our more tranquil and feminine aspect. Breathing through the right, our left brain takes charge, activating our fierce and masculine aspect, pingala-nadi. Yogis employ alternate nostril breathing to balance the nervous system.
As oxygen molecules from the air attach themselves to red blood cells for transport to wherever they’re needed, they’re exchanged for carbon dioxide molecules, which travel back to the lungs and are exhaled. Carbon dioxide is not, however, simply a waste product. Its eases the timely separation of oxygen from the blood cells and it boosts the dilation of our blood vessels, widening them for the free flow of blood.
When we breathe heavily, we expel carbon dioxide, reducing blood flow. Fast, shallow breaths reduce the carbon dioxide in our circulatory system and slow oxygen circulation. That’s why exercise or panic can cause headaches and light-headedness.
Leaving poor oxygenation unintended leads to racing or irregular heartbeats and chronic anxiety. It can leave us confused and forgetful. Breathing slowly, on the other hand, retains carbon dioxide, which means more energy and bodily efficiency.
Documented breathing irregularities sit behind illness, which means that correcting our breathing, introducing an evenness in inhaling and exhaling, can prevent ailments or reopen the airways in a manner that allows for a less obstructed healing process.
The ideal breath is 5.5 seconds in, and 5.5 seconds out—5.5 breaths per minute.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel urged us to pause and catch our breath. Even slowing our breathing for a few minutes each day can do wonders. We only need six to eight deep breaths to elicit physiological changes.
When we lose control, the breath is the first to go. When we get stressed, what changes? When we get angry, what changes? When we’re sad or happy, what changes? Our breath. Every emotional alteration goes hand in hand with changes to our breathing.
Consider this: the way we breathe is inextricably linked to the way we navigate our waking hours, and in that truth lies some very, very important wisdom.
Life exists in breath. We should get acquainted with it.