Breathing is vital to our existence. Four human body systems (respiratory, cardiovascular or circulatory, muscular and skeletal) are working in close conjunction with each other to supply the whole body with the essential oxygen that is needed and remove potentially any harmful carbon dioxide from the body. The oxygen is absorbed from the air during inhalation and is carried to the lungs where the gas exchange takes place (i.e. oxygen in, carbon dioxide out), it bonds with hemoglobin, passes into the blood and is sent to the heart. Then, the cardiovascular system distributes this freshly oxygenated, nutrient rich blood to every cell, organ and tissue of the body; any waste products of this cell function are removed with the blood as it flows. The muscular and skeletal systems are the conductors for the movements of breathing.
The human body cannot store oxygen and needs continuous provisions. The average person takes approximately 17,000-30,000 breaths a day, in motion ~ 50,000! The number of breaths throughout the day depends on various factors such as age, height, sex, physical activity etc. For example, children, women, and shorter people breathe faster. The optimal or ideal breathing rate, known as the resonant frequency, varies among individuals and ranges from 3.5 to 7.0 full breath cycles per minute (equal during inhalation and exhalation). Breathing at the resonant frequency has great psychological and physical health benefits.
Interestingly, breathing is the only automatic bodily function that we do both voluntarily and involuntarily. In both circumstances, the respiratory system sends specific messages to the brain where they take rapid and powerful effect influencing the major brain centers responsible for thought, emotion, and behavior. For example, when the breath rate is high and rapid, the brain may translate it as the body’s engagement in a physical activity (given the example of a healthy person) or when the breath is shallow it may be perceived as a stressful situation, fear, or anxiety etc. Afterwards, such messages collected in the brain are sent via our nervous system to the rest of the body. These commands are translated by each body system, which reacts immediately and accordingly to the content of the message.
Could we gain access to this inner body communication system? Is it possible to learn this language and take control over the messages we send to the brain? Apparently, voluntary and conscious breathing is the key. By controlling and changing the rate, depth, and pattern, we take an important role in our inner body conversation.
Particularly the practice of deep breathing has an immense effect on the entire body. Deep abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing encourages the full oxygen exchange (gas-exchange mentioned previously), cleanses the lungs, slows down the heartbeat and lowers or stabilizes the blood pressure. Moreover, it relaxes us, relieves us from any tension and stress as it activates our parasympathetic nervous system (the healing, calming part of our nervous system, metaphorically the brake pedal), ultimately it purifies the whole body and assures the overall greater health and longevity.
It is noteworthy that besides its biological importance, breathing has a spiritual side to it as well. It is more than just taking in the oxygen and letting out the carbon dioxide. With every breath, each cell of our body takes in this precious life-giving air.
The awareness of breath puts us in touch with the divine spirit, the universal light itself, connects us to our true self, our inner light or the divinity within.
Being mindful may even broaden our worldview; extend our understanding and appreciation of being a part of the universe. It has the power to effectively ease the mind, bring peace and great tranquility. Slow, deep, rhythmic, and steady breathing prepares us and naturally leads to meditation, contemplation, or visualization; deep breathing is essential to yoga, tai chi, qigong, and martial arts.
Specifically for deep breathing, or belly breathing, put one hand on your abdomen, just below your belly button. Feel your hand rise each time you inhale and fall each time you exhale. The chest slightly rises together with the abdomen. Remember to breathe through the nose with the mouth closed. For specific examples of deep breathing exercises, refer to the article “Deep Breathing Exercises”.