Breathing correctly is the key to better fitness, muscle strength, stamina, and athletic endurance.
— Dr. Michael Yessis, President, Sports Training Institute
Have you ever watched a baby while he or she is asleep? They sleep so soundly and seem so totally relaxed, most adults can’t help but envy them a bit. As they sleep, the whole abdomen and chest rises and falls with each breath.
Really, that’s how we all should be breathing — deeply into our abdomen. Unfortunately, the stresses and tensions of life cause most of us to breathe much more shallowly, often only using a fraction of our lung capacity. This leaves us in a state of perpetual oxygen deprivation. We breathe enough to live, but not really enough to thrive as we could.
Scientists agree that oxygen plays a primary role in our overall health and well-being. Dr. Otto Warburg, president of the Institute of Cell Physiology and the only person to ever win the Nobel Prize in medicine twice, says, “Deep breathing techniques that increase oxygen to the cells are the most important factors in living a disease-free and energetic life… Remember: where cells get enough oxygen, cancer will not, cannot occur.” In his book Antioxidant Adaptation, biochemist Stephen Levine writes: “Oxygen plays a pivotal role in the proper functioning of the immune system. We can look at oxygen deficiency as the single greatest cause of all diseases.”
Oxygen is the most important nutrient to the cells in your body, and it plays an integral role in almost every body function. It is responsible for producing up to 90 percent of your body’s energy, and it makes up approximately 96 percent of your body’s nutritional needs. You can live without food for forty days, without water for about seven days, but without oxygen you will die in just a few minutes.
Although water makes up 65 to 75 percent of the human body, oxygen makes up 90 percent of the water molecule. Our brains, the most oxygen-hungry part of our bodies, make up two percent of our total mass, yet requires 20 percent of the body’s oxygen needs.
In our bodies, 80 percent of all our metabolic energy production is created by oxygen. Our metabolic processes work to rid our bodies of waste and toxins. Even our abilities to think, feel, and act require oxygen-related energy production. Oxygen also plays a vital role in metabolic functions such as blood circulation, digestion, the absorption of nutrients and the elimination of wastes. Sufficient oxygen helps the body in its ability to rebuild itself and maintain a strong and healthy immune system.
During exercise oxygen is moved through the body by two of the vital organs — the heart and the lungs. The lungs bring oxygen into the body, which provides energy and removes carbon dioxide, while the heart pumps the oxygen to the muscles that are doing the exercise.
Traditional Asian medical practitioners understood this long before it was understood by Western scientists. The Chinese character chi, which is commonly understood to mean “energy,” more literally means “breath.” The greatest benefits of chi gong, tai chi, and other energy cultivation methods comes through the focused breathing exercises that combine the power of the mind with the power of the breath. In Bo Yoga, breath, combined with stretching and movement, acts like a pump that circulates the energy through the body.
Bo Yoga facilitates proper breathing in three major ways. First, the physical structures responsible for breathing are all enhanced through regular practice. The lungs, diaphragm, and intercostal muscles are all stretched and strengthened through Bo Yoga, which develops a larger and more stable lung capacity to bring more oxygen in and to move more carbon dioxide out.
Proper breathing is also dependent on proper posture. As you are reading this, check your posture for a moment, especially your spinal position. As you notice your posture, do you naturally straighten your spine and inhale? If you are like most people, your posture is mildly suffocating you and restricting the flow of oxygen to your body, brain, and to all of your cells. Bo Yoga helps alleviate skeletal problems caused by poor posture by opening joints and realigning the spine, which in turn allows for better, more complete breaths.
Also, the dynamic nature of the Bo Yoga class cultivates better breathing habits. The moderately strenuous, fast-paced warm-ups increase your heart rate and stimulate your muscles, which in turn increase your breathing rate and move oxygen rich blood to your whole body. The deep stretches and relaxation at the end of classes allow the heart and lungs to relax and fully absorb the oxygen into the cells.
Finally, the Bo Yoga class is filled with conscious reminders to breathe deeply and to be aware of your breath, which brings mindfulness and self-modification to your breathing patterns. You will develop better breathing habits naturally as you practice Bo Yoga, but to begin, try improving your breathing capacity through exercises that open your chest and lengthen your spine. Work on increasing your oxygen circulation to all the cells of your body through moderate exercise, stretching, and movement. Give your heart and lungs a break by learning how to slow down your nervous system with meditation and relaxation. You will learn more about this in chapter 7 of Bo Yoga : Taking Yoga Further, which is about stress relief.
Breathing is a critical element in all meditation and mindfulness practices because the breath is one of the few vital functions of the body that can be managed consciously. Unlike your heartbeat, your digestion, and other vital functions, your breath can be improved and developed immediately. Simply taking deeper breaths will instantaneously improve your blood pressure, heart rate, and nervous system. There is no question that lack of oxygen due to improper breathing is one of the most important problems to address when seeking to improve your energy and health.
Finally, breathing is critical for the expansion of your awareness of self as an energy being. Ilchi Lee, founder of Dahn Yoga and author of Change: Realizing Your Greatest Potential, writes: “If you close your eyes and begin to feel your breath, it will instantly become deeper and slower, and your mind will become calmer. Then gradually you’ll become aware of your body, or more precisely the subtle sense of energy inside and around your body. At that moment, you exist as Energy-Consciousness, not as names, jobs, duties, roles, desires, and so on.”
In other words, as you breathe in, you breathe in the energy of the universe and become one with the entire universe. As you breathe out, you return what you don’t need, and you ready yourself for the next breath. In this way, you become one with the constant ebb and flow that is high and low tide, night and day, waking and sleeping… the give and take that is the cycle of life itself.