Breathing is essential to life. There isn’t any debate on that. In the modern west we tend to take for granted what’s all but assumed. The little things are often overlooked. Some of us smoke while forgetting to breath until one day breathing isn’t so easy. We ignore details in rout to the large and overlook the heartache in the journey. Growth is in hardship and the beauty is not just artistic but in the mundane as well.
We choose the path of least resistance and idealize a life of ease like as if life is a task that must be completed. We focus on gaining new skills to better our lives without thinking about it. Why fix what’s not broken? Right? We overlook the small stuff, like breathing.
I bet many of you think you’ve got that whole breathing thing down. You probably do. It’s simple, just let your body do what it does. Breath in, breath out. Despite the wide practice of cardio exercise, most of us have no distinct practice or intentional patterns that we develop around breathing. There’s no technique. This is something we do every second of the day yet practice isn’t common. Yoga ironically, is increasingly popular because it improves the muscles used in your day to day routine making anything from sitting to running more comfortable but breathing is still sometimes overlooked within even it’s practice. Yoga is popular because it tangibly improves the quality of your life. We all know that lunges make your thighs stronger (and firmer) but what makes your lungs stronger? What impact will this even have besides improving your cardio endurance? Nobody can see your lungs…
When we practice sports, we breath heavily and often pant without ever realizing that the way we breath is directly correlated with our ability to endure, our strength and our level of energy. It oxygenates our blood that feeds everyone of our individual cells which in turn powers our muscles. It’s the fuel injectors to our meat engine and directly affects our horsepower. Not only is it key to our physical energy but our entire life force. This is not just our ability to objectively perform but also our auto immune response and even our brain function. Our breathing is our bodily butterfly effect where one act turns to habit that eventually turns to rain or sunshine. The way you breath directly affects your physical, mental and spiritual health. It’s the habit that either makes you stronger or weaker, age faster or slower and so on. Your breathing charges and effects your life force.
Ancient Vedic tradition has a practice centred fully around breathing. It doesn’t focus on quantity like we do today but quality. This tradition is Pranayama. Prana meaning life force and Yama meaning mastery. The practice is not designed to achieve mastery of breathing or to master your life force through breathing but to simply practice mastery of breathing. We can all breath like yogis but it takes practice and perseverance to habitually do it. Changing your regular pattern of breath is not the goal, but Pranayama is simply to practice strong new ones.
The practice of Pranayama is often integrated and presented within a holistic yoga practice. Yoga is not simply stretching, meditation, breathing or a philosophy, it’s all of the above. They all work in uni-sense to bring you closer to your core being. It is the universal you, who is also me and all of us. Yoga helps shape a deeper relationship with existence. Despite the physical focus of modern commercial yoga, much of the traditional practice was centred around the mind and universal exploration. Yoga poses were practised to develop the physical mastery and discipline as to be able to let go but also for energetic harmony allowing for the body not to get in the way of universal exploration. Breathing and meditation were the real punch to achieving altered states of conciousness. Simply breathing methodically has shown to produced altered states of conciousness and changes to physiology. Simply learning to breath more methodically can not only improve your short term health and alter your mind state but can literally add years to your life.
Without any breathing related training, people tend to develop shallower breathing patterns which eventually becomes habitual. Smaller and smaller lung capacity is used and underused portions of our lungs become dormant and stop adequately functioning. Not only does this reduce lung capacity affecting cardio performance but it goes as far as adversely affecting the amount oxygen that is in your blood. Your individual cells across your body eventually receives less oxygen and themselves decline in both productivity and performance. It’s like as if your meat engine slowly stops getting the oil it needs to not rust. The performance decline and wear develops.
Famous Dutch stuntman Wim Hof comes to mind when discussing the science behind Pranayama because his methods are based off philosophies of yoga and particularly Pranayama. If you are unaware of Wim Hof, he’s famous for climbing Mt. Everest in nothing but shorts with no oxygen mask. In a 2011 study perform by the Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Center, Wim Hof demonstrated that he was able to alter and influence his auto immune and nervous system response to an administered endotoxin using techniques of yoga, particularly meditation and Pranayama. All uninitiated volunteer subjects developed flu like symptoms while Wim managed avoid them. The level of inflammatory mediators in his blood were much lower than subject volunteers during this test. The main argument disputing the research results were than Wim Hof is only one single abnormality so in response he gathered a group of uninitiated individuals and successfully trained them to beat the test. He now offers training on his techniques in a course called the “The Wim Hof Method” where initiates are trained in meditation, breathing and cold submersion to eventually be able to perform what from the outside look like super human or stupid and reckless feats (you decide). To date, none of his students has suffered any adverse health affects in his care. It gets me thinking that maybe the feats aren’t as reckless as they look. Maybe with the right techniques we can adjust our bodies to thrive in any natural environment.
Breathing techniques don’t have to go as far as Wim Hof to positively affect your life. It’s actually a fairly simple things to do; take 5 minutes out of your day to breath methodically. You don’t even have to learn a technique. It’s said that methodically taking deep breaths can help disengage your fight of flight mechanism lowering blood pressure. I could sit here and give you all the reasons in the world to breath but I won’t. I’m going to take a breather because because every breath we take is a gift. I’ll cherish mine without smoking from now on. It seems hard to justify smoking when you habitually meditate.