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   Home >  Health > Alternative Therapies > Breathing: Foundation for Good Health



This world of ours is encased in a layer of air called the atmosphere. It is believed that 78.5% of its is composed of nitrogen -so named from its chemical connection with the nitrates-particularly niter used in gunpowder. About 20.5% of the atmosphere consists of oxygen, which sustains life. the remaining one percent is composed of some rare gases such, as helium, argon, neon and griffin. Breathing in oxygen is indispensable for all form of life. If there is no oxygen in the air, life will become extinct on earth. As one goes upwards from the surface of the earth, the air become less and less dense. Consequently, the quantity of oxygen progressively decreases. The air at the top of mountain contains less oxygen. This is why one is out of breath when climbing a mountain. Those who go beyond the atmosphere in rocket-propelled spacecraft, carry oxygen with them.

Nitrogen is not useful for breathing, except that it dilutes the oxygen in the air to the right degree for living beings. It goes in with the inhalation and comes out unchanged in the exhalation. It is not combustible. Nor will it support combustion as oxygen does. However, it plays an important part in agriculture. Nitrates constitute a rich food for all vegetation. These are derived from the nitrogen in the atmosphere. The hot electric discharges accompanying thunder synthesise the oxygen and the nitrogen in the air, to form oxides of nitrogen. These are washed down on the earth by rain. On reaching the earth, they generate nitrates and become food for the vegetable kingdom.

Air has the capacity or tendency to spread i.e. diffuse. That is why we notice a difference between the inhalation and exhalation of air.

When we inhale, we suck in air from outside. Food burns in our body by a slow process of oxidation- combining chemically with oxygen- and produces energy. Wherever there is movement heat is generated by the slow burning or breaking down of body tissue. This produces carbon dioxide through a biochemical process. The blood carries this waste product into the lungs. When we breathe, the oxygen in the air enters the blood vessels through the network of fine air tubes inside the lung. The waste product Viz.:- Carbon dioxide which passes out of the blood into the lung is thrown out through the outgoing breath. Thus, the work of carrying in oxygen into the blood and eliminating carbon dioxide, from it is carried on through breathing.

One can survive for many days without food. But one cannot stay alive without breathing for more than three to four minutes. What is this due to? When there is some obstruction in breathing, the face is seen to turn blue. This change in color indicates the spreading of blood in which there is a heavy admixture of carbon dioxide. In order words, the blue color on the face is a symptom showing that the carbon dioxide produced by meta bolism has not been sent out of the body and that the tissues have not received enough oxygen. The object of our breathing is to ward off these undesirable symptoms and live in health.

The Breath
An inhalation and the exhalation following it are together denoted by the word' a breath'. During inhalation, we draw in air which goes into the lung through the nostrils. During exhalation we send this air out. This process starts from the moment of birth and goes on till death. Normally an adult breathes 17 to 20 times a minute and children 26 to 30 times. But the number of breaths per minute will go up when a person exercises or does hard work.

It has been computed that a human being breathes 50 crore times in a life-time. The traditional view is that it is ordained how many times a person shall breathe in a lifetime. If he could slow it down, his life span can be extended proportionately.

The Muscles Involved
If one analyses the breathing process, one would find it a complicated operation. The lungs are kept suspended as two separate chambers in the chest. Air enters the lungs owing to the expansion of muscle fibres connecting the ribs or by the diaphragm going down or by both these action. When these muscle fibres or the diaphragm become relaxed and assume their natural condition the in-drawn air is expelled.

The Nose
Atmospheric air is full of dust and fluff. The air passage is so constructed that this dust and fluff do not get into the lungs. The hairs inside the nostrils filter this air. Glands in this passage secrete mucous and prevent the dust and fluff from going in farther along the passage. Invisible thread-like growths called 'Cilia' move up and down and sweep the dust up towards the food tract i.e. the throat. No great harm results by this dust getting in to the digestive system. Millions of bacteria get in through the nose. These are all destroyed by the enzymes secreted in the air passage. Beside, the air attains the right temperature before it reaches the lungs. The air passage is so designed as to ensure this. Once we become aware of this, we shall understand why it is right to breathe through the nose and not through the mouth.

The Lungs
After getting beyond the nose through the trachea (wind -pipe), the air enters the two lungs through the two bronchial tubes branching form the trachea. The brachial tubes become subdivided still further into smaller tubes till they end in little air cells or air pockets, resembling bunches of grapes. It has been computed that there are seventy-five crores of these air pockets called 'alveoli in a person's lungs. If these pockets are spread out they will cover an area of four hundred and fifty square feet!.

The Capillaries
The breathing tube-trachea-which forks away into two inside the chest cavity and ends in tiny air pockets, meets a set of two other tubes. These are the blood vessels which get subdivided and become thousand of fine tubes carrying blood. The blood in these capillaries are pure or impure according as they spring from arteries carrying pure blood or veins carrying impure blood. These capillaries run round the little air pockets or alveoli inside the lungs and are in close contact with them.

The exchange of Gases
The darker, colored, impure blood goes through the blood vessels and fills their capillaries. The carbon dioxide dissolved in it enters the air in the air pockets and life-giving oxygen in the air enters the blood in these capillaries. Thus, an exchange of gases takes place here. This is one of marvels of the body. Through this exchange, the impure blood becomes pure, red blood and is collected by the capillaries of the artery in the lungs and carried through a pure-blood-carrying vessel called the Pulmonary vein to the heart. (Incidentally, it is called a "vein" because blood in it travels towards the heart, even though it is blood purified in the lungs). It takes three minutes for blood to go round the entire body.

The work of carrying oxygen to the millions of cells in the body is performed through the circulation of blood.

Blood Corpuscles
What carries the oxygen throughout the body is the red corpuscle in the blood. There are 25 crores of red blood corpuscle in every drop of blood. A corpuscle stays alive or active only for a period of thirty days. 1,20,000 red blood corpuscles have to be generated per second in order to replace those that are being destroyed and lost in the normal course.

The exchanges of gases between the 'tree of the blood and the tree of the breath' goes on uninterrupted, day and night. Normally, we breathe 16 to 20 times a minute exhaling and inhaling as many times. With every inhalation, we draw in a print of air. The capacity of the lung at red is 5 pints of air. Thus only a sixth of the air is changed in an inhalation. However, in the full or the deep breath, it is possible to draw in 10 times as much air.

The lungs are never empty. Even after breathing out, about 200 of air are left behind in the lung-in the trachea, the breathing tube- and the alveoli. The exchanges of gases can take place only between the air in the tiny alveoli and the capillaries. As the walls of the trachea and its subdivisions are thick, exchange of gases does not take place at those points.

Fresh air enters the lungs with oxygen in it. This would travel right up to the air pockets called the alveoli. We have already seen that air is 70 percent nitrogen, 20.95 percent oxygen and 0.04 percent carbon dioxide and other rare gases. This stream of fresh air will go in like a spear, making its way through the gases already present in the lungs. Air already in the lungs will be in contact with the walls of the alveoli. There will be a higher concentration of carbon dioxide in this stale, old air. In the fresh air entering, the oxygen contents is proportionately higher. We have already seen that it is in the nature of air to diffuse or spread. Even so, it takes some time for the air to diffuse. That is why Yogis are of the opinion that air should be retained or held inside the lungs for some length of time. The air that is exhaled after retention thus will be 78.5 parts nitrogen 16.5 parts oxygen 4 parts carbon dioxide and nearly 1 part rare gases. If the air breathed in and air breathed out are compared, it will be found that the air which is breathed out is less by 4.5 parts of oxygen and higher by 4 parts of carbon dioxide than the normal air breathed in.

Beside these, there are some other differences too. The air breathed out contains more water vapor. About 10 ounces of water are sent out of the body by way of water vapor. The air breathed out is warmer than the air breathed in.

Breathing fully constitutes the foundation of good health. Yogis take advantage of this fundamental character of the breathing process to raise the level of human existence in all planes. There is a subtle connection between the min and the breath.

That serene and blessed mood, In which the affections gently lead us on, Until, the breath of this corporeal frame And even the motion of our human blood Almost suspended, we are laid asleep In body, and become a living soul:

When you are angry and agitated, you breathe fast in and out. When you are in a state of panic, the breathing becomes fast. But you can reach a peaceful state of mind on taking in a leisurely manner a few long and steady breaths. You fail to get sleep when in deep thought. If you taken a few deep breath, sleep readily comes to you. Yogic practices utilized this connection between the breath and the mind for bringing under control man's thought processes, his desires and imagination through some systematic exercises in breathing.

Regulated Breathing
Most people do not put their lung to the best and fullest use possible. Many breathe superficially, keeping their bodies in undesirable postures. Many people who work at desks have pointed out this as one of the attendant defects and hazards of their profession. Even peasants who have many chances of moving about in the open are found to be victims of such diseases as Asthma. Sportsmen are found to be victims of chest diseases. These troubles are the result of people not putting their lungs to the fullest use.

To understand how air from outside enters the lungs and how it comes out of them, it is necessary to know the structure of the chest cavity, inside which the lungs are placed. The chest (Thoracic) cavity is topped by the neck and its muscles. It is bounded below by the muscular partition called the diaphragm. This is attached to the ribs at its edge or periphery. There are fibrous muscles between the ribs. When these muscles stretch and contract alternately the chest cavity expands and contracts i.e. its capacity increases and decreases. Consequently, changes in air pressure occur inside the lungs. When the air pressure is lowered external air enter the lungs. When the air pressure in the lungs increases, air is sent out. With some people, the breathing act is confined to the chest cavity only. Some people use their diaphragms also in breathing. Yet others breathe by bringing the abdominal muscles also into play. These are called respectively, chest breathing, diaphragmatic breathing and stomach breathing. Each has its particular effect on the person accustomed to it. A person in normal health ought to take deep and full breaths. This is called deep breathing or the complete breath. Deep breathing is indispensable for supplying the requisite oxygen to the body and eliminating the poisonous gases that accumulate in the blood stream. This should be supplemented by breathing in air, slowly through the nose, retaining it for a short while and breathing out through the nose in the same slow manner. We have seen already that retaining the air a little longer helps in the transfer of air and gases inside the alveoli. Thus the blood becomes purified and enough oxygen becomes available to the tissues. Incidentally, the body cells are nourished better.

The natural way to breathe is through the nose. That is the right way too. Yet some people are found to breathe through their mouths. This is a wrong practice. As the mouth cavity also opens out into the through passage (pharynx), it would be possible to breathe in through the mouth also. When there is an attack of cold one is compelled to breathe through the mouth. It should be clear from the structure of the mouth and the nose that the latter is the organ meant for breathing and not the former. There are fine 'cilla' in the mucous membrane lining the nasal passage. There are many blood capillaries too there. In the anterior part of the nasal passage there are hairs which filter away the dust from the inhaled air. The tonsils in the anterior part of the pharynx (throat cavity) are capable of killing bacteria. Besides these, when the air passes through the constricted passages of the nasal chamber where there are innumerable capillaries, the air is warmed so as to reach the body temperature before actually gaining access into the lung. When one breathes through the mouth none of these can take place.

Breathing through the mouth brings about irritation and ulceration of the tonsils. Those who breathe through their mouths are liable to be attacked by Adenoids. Pains in the joints and diseases of the kidneys have been noticed in such people. Cold will inevitably be a chronic complaint with them. To obviate these harms and ills, children breathing through the mouth should be systematically discouraged and corrected and they should be trained to breathe through the nose instead.

Yogis claim that there is a third factor in breathing exercises besides the physical and the mental. There are many gases in the air. Their molecules are in a state of perpetual motion. They cell this motion "Pranashakthi". This is present in everything and everywhere. Those experienced in the field, claim that certain organs of the body can absorb and retain the 'prana' in the air. Only long practice can lead to the accomplishment of this.

No doubt, Prana has not been demonstrated yet in the laboratories to the satisfaction of scientists. But one cannot deny its truth or validity. Time was when electricity, magnetism, the radio waves, and the X-rays were unknown to scientists. But there is no denying that they have all along been there. The truth is that there are many hidden truths which have not been caught in and perceived by the laboratory equipments of scientists. Science is engaged in indefatigable research. Let us hope that science discovers Prana and demonstrated it experimentally some day.

Pranayama is the control of Prana. Prana cannot be directly got at. The manifest action of Prana in the body is the act of breathing. Only by regulating this activity we can regulate and control Prana. Once Prana comes under one's control, one can hold sway over life, steadiness of purpose, pleasure etc.

There are three steps in Pranayama 'Rachaka' , 'Pooraka' and 'Kumbhaka'. Breathing out is Rechaka. The act of breathing in is called Pooraka. The holding of the breath in the lungs in Kumbhaka. Kumbhaka itself is classified into three. Retaining the breath inside the lungs is 'Andhar Kumbhaka' - in -word retention. Keeping the air out and preventing it from entering the lung is 'Baahaya Kumbhaka' (external resistance to entry of air). Holding the breath wherever it happens to be at the time is called 'Kevala Kumbhaka'.

The method of Pranayama will vary according to the class of Pranayama that is intended to be practiced. Those who practice what is called Naadi Suthi, usually inhale through the left nostril for eight seconds (vinadis) and breathe out through the right nastril twice slowly as they had inhaled i.e. taking 16 seconds. In continuation of this air is inhaled through the right nostril now taking eight seconds and breathed out through the left nostril twice as slowly i.e. taking 16 seconds for the process. There is no retention of breath inside the lung in the method known as Naadi Suthi.

The Prana that enters through the left nostril is referred to as Ida or Idagalai and that which enters through the right nostril is referred to as Pingala and that which travels through the spinal cord is called the Sushumna. After attaining a fair degree of practice in Naadi Suthi, the air may be inhaled in 8 seconds, retained for 8 seconds and exhaled in 16 seconds. This Pranayama is in the scale of 1:1:2. It is good to practice the stopping of the breath from rushing in at the time of inhalation. Such resistance is called the external Kumbhaka. Including it, the proportion should be 1: 1: 2: 1. After acquiring full practice in this and accustoming oneself to it, the period of retention may be increased by slow and easy stage to 1: 2: 2: 1and 1: 3 : 2 : 1 till a maximum of 1: 4: 2:1 is reached. One need not go beyond this limit. If the eight second unit is found hard, one may adopt a four second unit to start with. What is of importance is the proportion between the duration of breathing in, retaining and breathing out.

If regulated breathing in and breathing out alone are practiced one would attain physical health. If retention of breath is practiced correctly under the guidance of people well-versed in it, the Kundalini or "Coiled" energy will be awakened. In this connection it would be necessary to master the Hathayoga practices called the Moola. The Jalandhara and the Uddyana 'Bundhas' (inward constrictions or 'belts') in conjunction with 'Mudras' (Psychoneural mechanism of the gestic aspect of mystical awareness). When retention of breath is practised even without these bandhas and mudras, such benefits as purification of blood, nerve vigour, longevity, freedom from illness and peace of mind will accrue.

It will be dangerous to retain the breath for too long. The duration of retention should be increased only by easy stages. If pranayama is to yield results, it is indispensable that the practitioners of it should cultivate regulated food habits.

Pranayama is classified according to the needs and objectives of the practitioners. We shall examine the more important classes of Pranayama in the next issue.

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