For most of us it feels so natural – take a breath into your lungs and exhale the breath back out, simple. You have been doing this since you drew your first breath on the day you were born and you will be breathing until you take your last breath. The average person breathes in about sixteen to eighteen breaths a minute or over eight million breaths in a single year, yet we rarely pay much attention to our breathing even as it changes. We exercise and breathe faster, we sleep and breathe slower, it all seems to adjust automatically. We breathe this way our entire life never noticing.
As you take a breath into the body, the diaphragm tightens, contracts, and moves downwards, creating more empty space in your chest. The muscles between your ribs (called the intercostal muscles) also help the chest expand to make room for your lungs to enlarge. Your lungs expand to fill this space bringing fresh air into your body through the nose, mouth, or both. Oxygen from the air is taken up into the body and carbon dioxide is removed.
On the out breath, the diaphragm relaxes and expands, moving upwards shrinking the size of the chest. Again the intercostal muscles between your ribs also help shrink the cavity that was previously taken up with your lungs and the breath of air you took. This shrinking action causes the air, now filled with carbon dioxide, to leave the body through your nose mouth or both.
A large part of our meditation practices focus either on watching the breath or controlling the breath in some manner. Controlling or watching the breath helps keep the mind focused. It can also have health benefits such as lowering blood pressure, supporting a feeling of calmness or relax us and reduce stress in the body.
Breathing and yoga
Breathing techniques are often combined within a yoga practice both as part of the asana practice, or as a separate practice as part of meditation. You may have heard of ujjayi breath. Less familiar techniques include skull cleansing breath and the bellows breath. Keep an open mind and try adding some breath techniques to your practice. We will explore some breathing techniques as we start our meditation and yogic practices.