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The Physiology of Breathing, simply Beautiful

By Viola Edward and Michael de Glanville

The function of breathing is to supply our body and the brain with the energy it requires to exist, to grow, to observe, to learn, to reason, to understand, to create, to procreate and to love.

From the magic moment of the first breath taken during our birth experience, we have been breathing continuously, twenty-four hours a day, throughout our whole life. The vital importance of this instinctive action becomes clear when compared with our other bodily needs. We can survive for weeks on end without eating and even manage to go without drinking for many days, but if our breathing is interrupted for much longer than three minutes, we cease to live.

Breathing is popularly considered to be one of those natural automatic bodily functions. It is always there, going on in the background of our lives and we are not really conscious of its broad ranging influence. Night or day, we breathe, we manage what our lives bring us. We deal with the habitual, with the contentment, the joy and the pleasure, the pain and the stress.

In contrast, the conscious practice of Breathwork focuses on developing a detailed knowledge and understanding of this fascinating function in order to make the best use of its powerful healing properties for mind, body and spirit.

When free from conscious intervention, human breathing patterns are selected autonomously, depending on our perception of safety or danger and on the emotions we are feeling or the stress we are coping with. Once we perceive that the cause for alarm has passed, other autonomous processes return our breathing to normal and this capability of fluid, easy variation of heartbeat and breathing tempo is an excellent indicator of our body health.

However, problems arise when we find ourselves continuously exposed to stress, danger or pain or when we are in a state of perpetual alarm. Our nervous system then finds itself locked onto crisis mode. We trade reflection and clarity for instinctive reaction, loosing our capability to relax, to reason, wind down and recover. In chronic examples, this body state leads invariably to poor health.

Fortunately, with relevant knowledge, our brains can choose to reverse this autonomous command chain through the application of specific breathing patterns and break free from damaging habitual behaviour patterns. Our brains learn to recognise the symptoms of dysfunctional breathing and how to override our body's autonomous control through conscious intervention in our respiratory process. The brain's selection of a relevant corrective breathing rhythm will take us to a clearer mind mood and a healthy relaxed body state.

What then is the physiological process of breathing?

Our bodies are capable of many amazing functions and this is definitely one of them.

The muscles carrying out physical body actions are powered by energy provided from burning oxygen at a cellular level. This life giving energy transfer, from the atmosphere surrounding us into the cells of our muscles, is the result of amazing teamwork between the heart, the lungs and the brain, using the body's arterial and venal networks.

Our beloved hearts are strong muscular pumps in communication with our brains. They circulate blood between the lungs and the body's organs. The lungs are composed of a soft tissue assembly of microscopic hollow spongy orbs, called alveoli, where circulating blood can come into direct contact with oxygen molecules brought there by the breathing inhale.

Oxygen is present in the atmospheric mixture of the ‘air’ that is inhaled into the lungs during breathing. In the alveoli, the oxygen is absorbed into the haemoglobin cells of the blood and then carried along the vessels of the arterial network, by the pumping heart, to supply the brain, the organs, the muscles and the soft body tissues.

At this cellular level, the chemical transformation of the oxygen molecule produces the required energy for the organs and muscles and also creates a by-product called carbon dioxide. This molecule is then dissolved in the blood plasma and returned to the lungs along the venal network by the pumping of the heart. The carbon dioxide molecules then dissociate from the returning blood flow in the alveoli of the lungs and, in gas form, are breathed out of the body during the exhalation.

To resume the physiology of breathing; we inhale oxygen into our lungs with the air mixture we breathe. It is absorbed by the blood and pumped by the heart to cellular level. There it is burned and transformed. The required energy is delivered to and used by the body cells and the by-product of carbon dioxide is carried back to the lungs by the blood stream, transformed into a gas and exhaled from the lungs.

So what mind-set changes can be stimulated by different styles and techniques of breathing? To understand how breathing actions can influence our mind set, we should look in detail at the communication connection between the heart, the lungs and the brain.

Measuring heart beat frequency while simultaneously monitoring the breathing cycle of inhale/exhale, we find that the during the inhale period the heart rate speeds up slightly and then slows down during the exhale. Known as Heart Rate Variability (HRV), this is an example of how the different parts of our body communicate with each other to synchronise facing up to a threat or standing down to relaxation. The character of the inhale section of a breathing cycle can communicate "alert to danger", (heart beat speeds up), the character of the exhale section can communicate "return to safety", (heart beat slows down). Our body system prepares itself for action or relaxation in synergy with signals from the breath.

When we perceive the onset of danger, (visible incoming attack, loud noise, sharp body pain, etc.) an instinctive reaction will be to take a sudden, very rapid, inhale. This in turn triggers a faster heartbeat. These two actions happening together provide instant extra oxygen supply to our muscles and brain. The same 'gasping' inhale also triggers a release of adrenaline into the blood stream from the pituitary gland, which rapidly communicates the signal of "alert" to the rest of the body. Tensing of various muscle groups follows (raising of shoulders, closing of eyes, holding the breath, contraction of abdomen, etc.)

This alert warning of danger is known as the sympathetic process and, once the danger is perceived to have passed, the relaxing stand down from alert, the return to normal function is called the parasympathetic process. Knowing how different breathing signals trigger corresponding responses in body state, we can trigger a physical state of body alert and excitation by consciously choosing to inhale faster. (As in a preparation to face perceived danger).

Similarly, by choosing to focus on extending the length of our exhale, we signal the body to relax, calm down and open up safely to our surroundings again, thus avoiding the toxic effects of prolonged periods of stress on our organisms. (shallow breathing, headaches, lack of sleep, recourse to stimulants and addictive substances etc.)

The examples of "perceived danger" in this description of the physiology of breathing have been kept simple to help the understanding of the process. In our city lives, we do not instantly have to decide whether to "fight or fly" when faced with a hungry tiger. Today, the perceived danger will rather be manifested in physical and psychological bullying in the work place or at school, through shouting, or in verbal and sexual assault or domestic violence.

When confronted with these threats, learning awareness of the powerful influence of conscious breathing on body state and mind mood, combined with regular practice, gives us a trusted vehicle with which to create positive changes in our lives. Conscious Connected Breathing is a powerful technique for releasing habitual or addictive behaviour patterns that disrupt healthy relationships in family, at work or in play.

Please let us know if you have any other questions regarding Breath Awareness, Breath Regulation and Breath Transformation.

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