The Physiology of Breathing as Medicine

Our bodies do so much for us under the radar and without a dependency on our conscious control. These automatic systems do not need a single, conscious signal from us. The heart pumps 6,000 liters of blood per day; the lungs move our breath in and out 22,000 times in the same period, and the nervous system sends signals upwards of 50 meters per second. These anomalies are, in fact, quite challenging to interact with on a conscious level. We could not simply tell the heart, “Slow down, I’m trying to sleep,” or the nervous system, “Speed up! I’m falling asleep at my desk.” One of the only ways we can interact with these automatic systems is through breathing. 

The Anatomy of Breathing

To understand how we can develop conscious control of the breath, please allow me to introduce (or re-introduce, for those familiar with the inner workings of the human body) a bit about the anatomy of breathing. The lungs are the star of the show, of course, and the diaphragm is the working muscle. A domed sheet of muscle at the base of the ribcage, the diaphragm, creates a container out of the ribcage for the lungs to do their duty. As we inhale, the diaphragm dome contracts downward, expanding the space in the ribcage for the lungs to fill their balloon-like tissues with oxygen. The air we breathe includes millions of tiny oxygen molecules, one of our environment’s most life-supporting and necessary chemicals. The oxygen finds its way through intricate channels called bronchioles to yet more balloon-like structures called alveoli. These microscopic balloons at the end of the bronchiole channels are just one-cell layer thick, making gas exchange to our bloodstream a breeze. Oxygen enters our blood cells through capillary vessels that snake themselves right up against the alveoli balloon, again, easing that transition of gas particles. Blood cells inside these capillaries then load up with oxygen for delivery to our other vital organs and muscles. As we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes back to its original dome shape, the chest and belly release back toward the spine, and our blood cells, now full of oxygen from the inhale, simultaneously release toxic carbon dioxide (a by-product of many naturally occurring chemical reactions in the body) back into the alveoli, through the bronchioles, and out the mouth or nose.

Behind all this chemical exchange and muscular contraction, the body’s nervous system is taking note. Our breathing patterns play a huge role in how our brains take in and respond to different stimuli, such as the sound of a party with large groups of friends, the smell of a campfire, or the sight of a brilliant orange and pink sunset over native prairie in Iowa. If we are in a primarily stress dominant state, the sympathetic nervous system will prime the body to fight, run, or freeze, which is typically associated with fast, chest-breathing. In such a state, a party may feel uncomfortable, and the smell of fire may cause feelings of fear. If we are in a primarily relaxation dominant state, the parasympathetic nervous system will prime the body to relax, digest food, and take in its surroundings. This state is typically associated with slow belly breathing and supports the brain in taking in the beauty of the surrounding sunset or enjoying a conversation with a new friend at a party. 

A Breathwork Meditation to Both Invigorate and De-Stress

  • First, it helps to begin any breathwork practice with a brief meditation in order to unite the mind with the body (rather than with the to-do list). So, find a comfortable seat, whatever that might mean for you, whether that be sitting upright in a chair, cross-legged on a pillow, or perhaps on your shins with the legs folded up underneath you. 
  • Next, as long as it feels safe to you in this moment, remove any external visual stimuli by closing your eyes. This helps to de-stimulate the nervous system and prime the body for a few moments of inner exploration. Relax the space between your eyebrows; let your eyes and brain float in space. As long as your level of nasal congestion allows, close your mouth and lips so the tongue can rest against the roof of the mouth. This helps seal and strengthen your breath cycles, and coincidentally combats mouth-breathing. 
  • Now, as you breathe in and out through the nose, draw your attention to your own natural breath cycle and observe it. No need to change anything just yet simply pay attention on purpose to the subtle sensations that accompany the breath, perhaps the cool air entering your nose; the stretching of your chest and belly with the expansion of the inhale and release of the exhale; or even the gentle whooshing sounds the breath creates within you. Take five to ten breath cycles just like this. 
  • Once you have settled into your cycle, begin to take intentional breaths deep in the belly as if you are breathing through your belly button, keeping the chest relaxed and pointing slightly skyward. Take several rounds here. 
  • With your next exhale, you will begin the Kabalabhati cycle by taking a forceful exhale, pressing the diaphragm into the lungs for a full release of carbon dioxide. Allow the inhale to come naturally as the diaphragm contracts and the lungs fill with oxygen.
  • Keep taking deep, sharp exhales with full, natural inhales. Continue with this cycle. You can do this for a specific count of breaths; perhaps five, ten, or even one hundred rounds. You can also practice the Kapalabhati cycle for a specific amount of time for your meditation practice; start with one to three minutes and work your way up as it suits you. Kapalabhati is especially beneficial in the morning to invigorate and prepare you for the day. 
  • You may feel a slight buzzing in the head space or a wakeful pulsing throughout the body and fingertips, making the moniker “skull-shining” breath quite fitting. This flood of oxygen and potential energy to the cells helps prepare the body for action while also detoxifying it and combating excessive stress. 

These days, it seems inevitable to experience stress, so much so that it can be difficult to relax tension, or it may even cause depression symptoms. The breath is a keyway we can interact with the stress response and even balance it with intention. Ancient medicine provides us with an array of breathing techniques with specific intentions for the practitioner, such as to invigorate, relax, or even awaken the Kundalini serpent that lies coiled at the very center of the body. For example, the ancient Indian medicine of Ayurveda describes Kapalabhati breath as the “skull-shining” breath. This rapid yet disciplined style of breathing invigorates the mind, warms the body, and is a helpful tool for any depression-related symptoms, such as sluggishness, negative thought loops, or lack of motivation and inspiration. It does this by:

Breathe to Relax 

Rather than stimulate the body like Kabalabhati, some breath techniques are designed to de-stimulate. For example, simply taking the previously mentioned meditation then focusing on the exhale, will both detoxify the lungs and down regulate the nervous system. Spending time in the exhale in this way sends a parasympathetic-dominant signal through the nervous system channels to the muscles, vital organs, and even our eyes. So, even when we are filled with anxiety and find it hard to “just relax,” simply changing our breathing pattern can help us find balance and biochemically shift gears to a more relaxed yet alert state.

Discover Your Breathwork Techniques 

The range of ways to breathe has been expanding since ancient medicine introduced breathing meditations hundreds of years ago. Today, we understand the physiology that may have been quite a mystery to our ancestors, and we can use this understanding to derive specific benefits for our bodies. So, whether you need energy and strength, a sense of compassion and heart, or calming and tranquility, you can turn to and explore the medicine of the breath for the specific healing you seek.

By Emily Larson, a Licensed Massage Therapist, Private Yoga Instructor, Bachelor of Science Kinesiology & Human Performance, Instructor of Anatomy and Pathology for massage therapy students at the Bio Chi Institute, mother to Noah.

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