By Karla Becker (Sat Bachan Kaur), published in “Branches Magazine” July –August 2004
Each cell of your body is a complete living entity with its own metabolism – it needs a constant supply of oxygen and sufficient nourishment…” – Dr. Paavo Airola, in Are You Confused?
I was in the delivery room at Methodist hospital after 36 hours of labor, awaiting the birth of my son. Finally, he was making his way into the world. Exhausted and relieved, I listened for the wail of his first breath. Silence -- many seconds later, still no sound. The nurse started an oxygen mask and paged the critical unit. It took them only 45 seconds to arrive, but in that time, I lay there sobbing, imagining the worst. Within seconds, he was breathing with the help of a ventilator, and I heard a faint sound from him as they whisked him away to intensive care. He was born with a collapsed lung, and nothing since then has frightened me as much as hearing that minute of silence before his first breath.
Your first inhale, your life begins. Your last exhale, your life ends. In between is your walk on Earth. The quality of your walk depends to a large extent on the quality of your breath. Illnesses such as heart disease and cancer have been attributed by many scientists to an insufficient supply of oxygen to the body. When the heart is deprived of oxygen, a heart attack is the result. When the brain is deprived of oxygen-rich blood, a stroke is the result. In his 1986 book, Unlimited Power, Tony Robbins describes a study in which Dr. Otto Warburg, a Nobel Prize winner, studied the effect of oxygen on cells. He turned healthy cells into cancerous cells simply by lowering the amount of oxygen available to them. As Robbins says, “It doesn’t take too much common sense to realize that of all the elements necessary for good health, oxygen is the most critical.”
Breathing is the source of nourishing your body. You breathe oxygen into your lungs, where it is carried into the bloodstream to nourish all of your cells. The oxygenated blood feeds all parts of your body, including the vital organs, such as your brain. When oxygen to the vital organs is reduced, they cannot work properly, and you feel tired and become prone to illness.. When your body is nourished with the oxygen it needs, you perform at your peak level and feel full of energy and vitality.
Have you noticed that when you are suddenly faced with a stressful situation, you take a deep breath? What you are doing is supplying your brain with the nourishment it needs to react to the stress. Have you noticed the way that someone who seems alert and confident carries herself? Does she slump and slouch? No. Her head is held high, her shoulders are relaxed and her chest expanded because she is breathing well. Breathing well allows you to function at your physical and mental best.
But most people do not take enough oxygen into their bodies during the normal course of a day to adequately fuel their cells. One reason may be that you were taught as a young person to suck in your stomach. What this does, however, is make you a “reverse breather.” On the inhale, a reverse breather sucks in his stomach, causing the breath to be shallow because the lungs can’t fully inflate. Rather than being held tightly, the stomach needs to be relaxed so that oxygen can be drawn into the bottom-most part of the lungs. The lungs are somewhat pear-shaped, with the largest part of the lung at the bottom of the chest. When a person breathes in only at the top part of his chest, his lungs are used at minimal capacity, and shallow breathing is the result.
When you take a full breath, your rib cage expands, and the air flows in and fills your lungs to their full capacity. The diaphragm, the muscle that assists in breathing and separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity, can then descend. This downward movement automatically pushes out the abdomen, creating a natural rounding of the belly. This means that in order to breathe well, you may need to loosen your belt!
You may think you are breathing adequately now, especially if you engage in regular aerobic exercise. Exercise is an excellent way to get oxygen into the lungs. Within a short time after your workout, however, you unconsciously return to a shallow breathing pattern that has been a lifelong habit — that is, unless you have been trained to breathe correctly. If not, train yourself by breathing in and out through your nose. The nose acts as a filter and offers a means of slowing down the breath, allowing the lungs time to inflate and bring oxygen more fully into the body. By breathing in through the nose, your breath is slowed down, which has a calming effect.
You can practice long deep breathing at your desk in the middle of the workday. Sit up straight, or at home you can lie down on your back, so that your spine is straight. Inhale through your nose as if you are pouring water into a glass. Keep inhaling until your lungs have taken in all they can hold. You will feel your chest rise as your belly rounds. Inhale deeply, feeling the breath going all the way down to your navel. When you exhale, empty your lungs completely. Use your total lung capacity by making every inhale and every exhale as long and full and complete as you can. Continue breathing this way for three minutes. You can increase the time gradually as deep breathing becomes second nature to you. See how peaceful and mentally clear you feel — and energized at the same time.
Getting out into nature and taking long walks where oxygen is in great abundance is also a good way to practice breathing. In his “Get the Edge” motivational program, Tony Robbins describes a breathing technique used while walking outdoors, called “Breathwalk.” Breathwalk was developed by Gurucharan Singh Khalsa, Ph.D. and Yogi Bhajan, Ph.D. They are co-authors of the book describing this technique, Breathwalk: Breathing Your Way to a Revitalized Body, Mind and Spirit. Khalsa once taught at Robbins’ Life Mastery seminars and is working with Harvard Medical School on two long-term studies on breathing and meditation, which are the basis of Breathwalk. Yogi Bhajan is the living master of Kundalini Yoga, a yoga style characterized by intensive breath practices.
Nourish yourself by taking time to breathe. When you’re standing in line at the grocery store, sitting at your desk, or stuck in your car at a traffic jam, take that moment for yourself to breathe fully and deeply. Oxygen is free! Give generously to yourself.
Karla Becker is a student and teacher of Kundalini Yoga in Indianapolis. She is a 200-hour certified Hatha Yoga teacher as recognized by the Yoga Alliance and recently completed a second 200 hour teacher certification in Kundalini Yoga with her teacher, Gurmukh in Los Angeles. Karla can be emailed from karlayoga.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org.