We can live without food for around four to six weeks, maybe without water for a whole seven days, but without air for only a few minutes. Your breathing is the biggest giver of life, and yet for most of us, we give it absolutely no thought at all!
Take a deep breath.
Wasn’t that nice? Do you realize that it’s probably been an hour since you last took a nice, deep breath?
On top of this, the epidemic of poor posture for most of us who spend time sitting in front of screens doesn’t even allow for the proper filling of those wonderful air-gathering sacks we call lungs. Oddly enough, the first thing that most of us do when we go to finally take a deep breath is stand/sit up straight. While that’s a good start, taking a minute to actually examine how we breathe will help most of us get centered in our body, and provide the raw materials to the body that we need.
It’s even been posited that breathing is actually how we lose weight. We quite literally breathe our fat out! (1) So while all that exercise is great, it could simply be the fact that you’re breathing harder that helps those pounds come off. Why not breathe a little better all the time, and in addition to mental clarity, maybe lose a pound or two?
Let’s inch down the rabbit hole that is metabolism, and learn why this air we’re constantly surrounded by is so important to us.
First off, air is mostly the inert gas nitrogen (about 78 percent) followed by about 20 percent oxygen. That last two percent gets taken up mostly by argon, then carbon dioxide, and a few drops of other gases. Most of what we would call “air” occurs from sea level to about seven miles up, where it gets harder to breathe, and things start to become less earthy and more spacey, though technically, the Earth vs space Kamran line happens at about 62 miles up.
Breathing is the fastest way to get oxygen into our bloodstream, and oxygen is the fastest way for all of our body’s cells to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the real energy currency of the body.
I’ll save you the long version and let you know that the whole process is called the Krebs cycle, and it’s your body’s way of turning protein, carbohydrates, and/or fat into energy. Without oxygen in the blood and in your cells, the whole thing shuts down pretty darn quickly, and we start to ferment. So more oxygen means a more efficient, less taxed metabolism. That stuff you’re breathing—it’s important!
As a fitness guy, it’s obvious that our sedentary lifestyle has led to a slew of issues in our modern day. People can barely squat down and touch the ground, or even touch their toes. It’s not surprising that addressing someone’s breathing patterns may have an effect on how they look and feel.
“Take a deep breath” is universally known as a way to calm nerves and get you centered back into your body and become present with the goings on around you. We’ve seen it over and over in movies, and have probably even used it on our friends.
Slouched over phones and computers and sliding down the couch while watching TV are only a few examples of how bad positioning can affect your breathing. When you’re slouched, your ribcage is pushing down on your organs, and stifles the expansion of the diaphragm. By sitting up nice and straight you can draw more air into your belly, chest, and lungs.
Sitting is not incredibly taxing on the body. Since you’re not using your biggest muscle group—your legs—your immediate perceived need for oxygen is low. Back in the caveman days, if you were doing something, you were probably actively up and moving to do so.
These days, you can be immersed in work and yet not actively doing anything expect clicking a mouse. Clicking a mouse and chasing down a mouse are two different things. Finding a good position, and bringing your breath back online while you’re sitting, will enable you to still feel energized, even while doing technology-based tasks.
The diaphragm is the body’s favorite muscle when it comes to breathing. While your ribcage and intercostal muscles are, indeed, involved in the expansion of your chest, proper deep diaphragmatic breathing happens when that band of muscles in your body contracts, allowing your belly to push out a bit, creating a vacuum that brings air into the lungs. Singers breathe this way, as do yogis. You actually breathe this way too, though usually when you’re lying down or asleep.
If you’ve seen pictures of lungs, you know that the base of the lungs seem to be the biggest part. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing like I’m describing helps to fill those babies all the way to the bottom. Often people are only breathing in the top one-third of their lungs, and they’re actually air starved!
There are many, many different practices for how to hack your breathing work. Depending on what tradition you align with, there are a few options.
Qi breathing is where you focus on moving energies through the body. As you breathe in, you picture energy coming up your spine, and as you exhale, you breathe it down the front of your body.
Yogic pranayama breathing has you breathing for equal time in and out through your nose for a little added resistance. Another yogic breathing practice, known as one nostril breathing or nadi shodhana, has you use your hand to block first your left nostril for the inhale, and the right nostril for the exhale.
One of the easiest ways I’ve used to control and become more conscious of my breathing is something called “box breathing.” It’s called that because you can think of it like the structure of a box. You breathe in for four counts, then hold for four counts. Repeat. It’s amazingly simple.
I find that doing a few minutes of box breathing in the morning really helps to center my day and my mind. I’ve found this box breathing technique very handy for calming my nerves or for simply settling in and pausing my brain from going off the rails. Box breathing is effective for things like:
Now, have you ever had such an easy “workout” assignment? Just breathing? No equipment necessary!
Tonight, when you lay down to sleep, spend a few extra minutes on your back and really feel your diaphragm working, the air filling your lungs, and the energy that this lovely atmosphere gives us day in and day out. Your breath is really, truly the only thing that you have control over in your life, so make a conscious decision to appreciate it from time to time!
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