One of the major misconceptions of breathing is that we need to get fresh air. Many methods of relaxation teach us to breath deeply, exhaling “stale” air. The Lamaze method of breathing for women while undergoing labor has taught us to breathe deep breaths. Kundalini yoga teaches rapid deep breaths. For the most part breathing deep helps release tension in our chest muscles. In most situations it is last way you want to go about it.
When we have anxiety we often think we can’t get enough air, we’re trapped.
The truth is we always have a reserve of air in our lungs. There is always enough oxygen available to us at any time. The real secret of breathing is the availability of carbon dioxide in our blood.
We learned in basic science classes that humans breathe in oxygen and give off carbon dioxide. Plants take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. That’s why you don’t want the rain forest to be cut down, because it cuts back on the planet’s supply of oxygen.
Now another difference between humans and plants, is that humans run on red blood cells that have iron as its mineral base. The red blood cells carry the oxygen to where it is needed in the body. That’s why if you are anemic, that is have fewer functioning red blood cells, you feel run down. You aren’t getting enough oxygen.
But remember, the real secret is carbon dioxide or CO2. CO2 releases oxygen from its bond to the red blood cells. So not enough CO2 means your brain and body don’t get enough oxygen. This is not a big secret, during every surgery the anesthesiologist is constantly checking a monitor that tells them how much carbon dioxide is in the breath.
It has to be just the right amount to maintain the body’s functions.
OK, so back to your breathing. If you breathe deeply or quickly you give off more CO2. In hyperventilation situations you breathe off even more, so the body utilizes less oxygen. Think of when you have run too hard. You’re out of breath, maybe you feel dizzy or weak. Your muscles start to cramp. That means you don’t have enough CO2 to release the oxygen you need.
Remember how when someone is anxious and they were told to breath into a paper bag? What does that do? It collects the CO2 we are breathing out and increases the amount we breathe in.
So back to breathing. The body knows what to do under most circumstances. It is trying to maintain the correct balance of gases in our system at every moment. If we breathe naturally, it comes from the motion of our diaphragm, not the chest. The diaphragm is a huge set of muscles that form a hood below our lungs, covering the lower back and upper abdomen. As it moves it works our lungs like a bellows. It appears as if we are breathing from our bellies.
If you watch someone breathing you can tell if they breathe superficially from the movement of their chest, or deeply from the movement of their bellies. Any baby or cat give perfect examples of correct breathing. Most people think that expanding their chests means they are taking a deep breath.
But by breathing from a relaxed diaphragm, there is no effort. We allow the correct mixture of oxygen and carbon dioxide to occur. This belly breathing is the secret to enriching our cells with oxygen. It enhances our mental function and relaxes our anxieties. If we pay attention to the deepest part of our breath at the bottom of our expiration we can feel the natural return to inspiration. There is no effort. This is the basis for the most common forms of meditation.
We don’t have to close our eyes. In fact, the best time to pay attention to our breath is when we are in a stressful situation. Instead of becoming anxious waiting for the light to turn, breathe from your belly. In fact, don’t try to manipulate your breathing, just feel how deep it sinks. This is the secret from athletes to people who have panic attacks. It is in your control.
A basic understanding of how our bodies operate opens up doors to understanding its relationship to the mind.
Andrew Lange N.D. is a Naturopathic Physician. He served as Chair of the Department of Homeopathic Medicine and Supervising Clinical Physician at Bastyr University in Seattle. He has taught internationally, serving on the faculty of the College of Homeopathy in London. After attending Goddard College in Vermont, he received his Bachelor of Science from Evergreen State College in Washington. He graduated from Bastyr University in 1984. Dr. Lange is the author of Getting to the Root: Treating the Deepest Source of Disease (North Atlantic Books). He is a contributing author to A Textbook of Natural Medicine by Pizzorno and Murray and Panic: Origins, Insight and Treatment by Schmidt and Warner. He lives in Boulder, Colorado