Importance of Healthy Breathing

We know how to breathe. It is something that occurs to us automatically, spontaneously, naturally. We are breathing even when we are not aware of it. So it seems foolish to think that one can be told how to breathe. Yet, one's breathing becomes modified and restricted in various ways, not just momentarily, but habitually. We develop unhealthy habits without being aware of it. We tend to assume positions (slouched positions) that diminishes lung capacities and take shortened breaths. We also live in social conditions that is not good for the health of our respiratory system.

As discussed above, scientists have known for a long time that there exists a strong connection between respiration and mental states. Improper breathing produces diminished mental ability. The corollary is true also. It is known that mental tensions produce restricted breathing.

A normally sedentary person, when confronted with a perplexing problem, tends to lean forward, draw his arms together, and bend his head down. All these body postures results in reduced lung capacity. The more intense the concentration, the more tense the muscles become. The muscles in the arms, neck and chest contract. The muscles that move the thorax and control inhalation and muscular tenseness clamp down and restrict the exhalation. The breaths become shorter and shorter. After an extended period of intense focusing, the whole system seems to be frozen in a certain posture.

We become fatigued from the decreased circulation of the blood and from the decreased availability of oxygen for the blood because we have almost stopped breathing. As our duties, responsibilities and their attendant problems become more demanding, we develop habits of forgetting to breathe.

Try an experiment suggested by Swami Vishnudevananda. Focus attention upon the ticks of a clock placed at a distance of about twelve feet. If you get distracted, try concentrating harder until you experience the ticking with undivided attention. If you fail at first, you should try again and again until you succeed in keeping the ticking clearly in mind for at least a few seconds. What happened? The majority of persons who took part in this experiment reported that they have completely suspended the breath. The others, who had less concentration, reported that they experienced very slow breathing. This experiment shows clearly that where there is concentration of the mind, the breathing becomes very slow or even get suspended temporarily.

What's Wrong With The Way We Breathe?

Our breathing is too shallow and too quick. We are not taking in sufficient oxygen and we are not eliminating sufficient carbon dioxide. , As a result, our bodies are oxygen starved, and a toxic build-up occurs. Every cell in the body requires oxygen and our level of vitality is just a product of the health of all the cells.

Shallow breathing does not exercise the lungs enough, so they lose some of their function, causing a further reduction in vitality.

Animals which breathe slowly live the longest; the elephant is a good example.

We need to breathe more slowly and deeply. Quick shallow breathing results in oxygen starvation which leads to reduced vitality, premature ageing, poor immune system and a myriad of other factors.

Why Is Our Breath Fast and Shallow?

There are several reasons for this. The major reasons are:

  1. We are in a hurry most of the time. Our movements and breathing follow this pattern.
  2. The increasing stress of modern living makes us breathe more quickly and less deeply.
  3. We get too emotional too easily. We get excited easily, angry easily, and most of the rest of the time we suffer from anxiety due to worry. These negative emotional states affect the rate of breathing, causing it to be fast and shallow.
  4. Modern technology and automation reduces our need for physical activity. There is less need to breathe deeply, so we develop the shallow breathing habit.
  5. We are working indoors more and more. This increases our exposure to pollution. As a result, the body instinctively inhales less air to protect itself from pollution. The body just takes in enough air to tick over.

As we go through life, these bad breathing habits we picked up become part of our life. Unless we do something to reverse these habits, we can suffer permanent problems. The good news is that these are reversible. The bad news is that before we can change these habits, we should recognize and accept that our behavior needs to be changed. This means that we see for ourselves the benefits of good breathing techniques.

Certainly, yoga is not the only way to cope up with the stress and the resultant drop in oxygen supply to the brain brought on by the constricted breathing. A smoke, a coffee break, a trip to the restroom or a good laugh may all result in some readjustment of constricted breathing patterns. These can be thought of as "mini-yogas". We can benefit by taking or seeking more smokes, breaks, trips or jokes. But for those whose occupations continue to be highly stressful, something more will be needed. Deep breathing exercises and stretching of muscles, especially those primarily concerned with controlling inhaling and exhaling, should be sought. Participation in active sports also will be useful. Going for a walk is very good. For those experiencing restricted breathing at night, morning exercises should be actively pursued.

The Effects of Shallow Breathing

  1. Reduced vitality, since oxygen is essential for the production of energy in the body.
  2. Increased disease. Our resistance to disease is reduced, since oxygen is essential for healthy cells. This means we catch more colds and develop other ailments more easily. Lack of sufficient oxygen to the cells is a major contributing factor in cancer, heart disease and strokes.

With our 'normal' sedentary way of living, we only use about one tenth of our total lung capacity. This is sufficient to survive and just tick over, but not sufficient for a high vitality level, long life and high resistance to disease.

The ancient yogis knew the importance of correct breathing and developed techniques not only to increase health and life span, but also to attain superconscious states.

The Medical Viewpoint on Fast, Shallow Breathing

Modem science agrees with the ancient yogis on the subject of shallow breathing. An editorial in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine suggested that fast, shallow breathing can cause fatigue, sleep disorders, anxiety, stomach upsets, heart bum, gas, muscle cramps, dizziness, visual problems, chest pain and heart palpitations.

Scientists have also found that a lot of people who believe they have heart disease are really suffering from improper breathing.

Importance of Breathing Through The Nose

The first rule for correct breathing is that we should breathe through the nose. This may seem obvious, but many people breathe principally through the mouth. Mouth breathing can adversely affect the development of the thyroid gland. It can retard the mental development of children.

The nose has various defense mechanisms to prevent impurities and excessively cold air entering the body. At the entrance to the nose, a screen of hairs traps dust, tiny insects and other particles that may injure the lungs if you breathe through the mouth. After the entrance of the nose, there is a long winding passage lined with mucus membranes, where excessively cool air is warmed and very fine dust particles that escaped the hair screen are caught. Next, in the inner nose are glands which fight off any bacilli which have slipped through the other defenses. The inner nose also contains the olfactory organ-our sense of smell. This detects any poisonous gases around that may injure our health.

The yogis believe that the olfactory organ has another function: the absorption of prana from the air. If you breathe through the mouth all the time, as many people do, you are cheating yourself of all this free energy (prana). The yogis say this is a major factor in lowered resistance to disease and impairs the functioning of your vital glands and nervous system. Add to this the fact that pathogens can enter the lungs via mouth breathing, and you can see that it's impossible to be healthy, not to mention vital, if you breathe through the mouth.

It is easy to break the habit of breathing through the mouth. Just keep your mouth closed and you will automatically breathe through your nose!

Summary: Benefits of Deep Breathing

We will now summarize the benefits of deep breathing. Deep breathing produces the following benefits:

  1. Improvement in the quality of the blood due to its increased oxygenation in the lungs. This aids in the elimination of toxins from the system.
  2. Increase in the digestion and assimilation of food. The digestive organs such as the stomach receive more oxygen, and hence operates more efficiently. The digestion is further enhanced by the fact that the food is oxygenated more.
  3. Improvement in the health of the nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord, nerve centers and nerves. This is due again to the increased oxygenation and hence nourishment of the nervous system. This improves the health of the whole body, since the nervous system communicates to all parts of the body.
  4. Rejuvenation of the glands, especially the pituitary and pineal glands. The brain has a special affinity for oxygen, requiring three times more oxygen than does the rest of the body. This has far-reaching effects on our well being.
  5. Rejuvenation of the skin. The skin becomes smoother and a reduction of facial wrinkles occurs.
  6. The movements of the diaphragm during the deep breathing exercise massage the abdominal organs - the stomach, small intestine, liver and pancreas. The upper movement of the diaphragm also massages the heart. This stimulates the blood circulation in these organs.
  7. The lungs become healthy and powerful, a good insurance against respiratory problems.
  8. Deep, slow, yoga breathing reduces the work load for the heart. The result is a more efficient, stronger heart that operates better and lasts longer. It also mean reduced blood pressure and less heart disease.

  9. The yoga breathing exercises reduce the work load on the heart in two ways. Firstly, deep breathing leads to more efficient lungs, which means more oxygen is brought into contact with blood sent to the lungs by the heart. So, the heart doesn't have to work as hard to deliver oxygen to the tissues. Secondly, deep breathing leads to a greater pressure differential in the lungs, which leads to an increase in the circulation, thus resting the heart a little.
  10. Deep, slow breathing assists in weight control. If you are overweight, the extra oxygen burns up the excess fat more efficiently. If you are underweight, the extra oxygen feeds the starving tissues and glands. In other words, yoga tends to produce the ideal weight for you.
  11. Relaxation of the mind and body. Slow, deep, rhythmic breathing causes a reflex stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which results in a reduction in the heart rate and relaxation of the muscles. These two factors cause a reflex relaxation of the mind, since the mind and body are very interdependent. In addition, oxygenation of the brain tends to normalize brain function, reducing excessive anxiety levels.

The breathing exercises cause an increase in the elasticity of the lungs and rib cage. This creates an increased breathing capacity all day, not just during the actual exercise period. This means all the above benefits also occur all day.

Traditional Breathing Techniques

We will look at some traditional breathing techniques. The purpose is not to suggest rigid techniques that needed to be followed blindly. Knowledge of these methods may be more important than the explicit directions themselves. The methods are subject to some variations. These helps you to establish and practice healthful rhythms. You may also gain additional insights into the nature of the breathing processes, and how to attain additional relaxation through them.

The Complete Breath

Most of us use three or four kinds of breathing. These may be called high, low and middle breathing and complete breathing. The complete breath is a combination of high breathing, mid breathing and low breathing.

1.High breathing refers to what takes place primarily in the upper part of the chest and lungs. This has been called "clavicular breathing" or "collarbone breathing" and involves raising the ribs, collarbone and shoulders. Persons with asthma, a tight belt, a full stomach or who otherwise become short of breath tend to resort to high breathing. One may deliberately draw in his abdomen and force its contents upward against the diaphragm and into the chest cavity in order to cause high breathing. High breathing is naturally shallow and a larger percentage of it fails to reach the alveoli and enter into useable gaseous exchange.

This is the least desirable form of breathing since the upper lobes of the lungs are used and these have only a small air capacity. Also the upper rib cage is fairly rigid, so not much expansion of the ribs can take place. A great deal of muscular energy is expended in pressing against the diaphragm and in keeping the ribs and shoulders raised abnormally high. This form of breathing is quite common, especially among women, probably because they often wear tight clothes around the waist which prevents the far superior abdominal breathing. It's a common cause of digestive, stomach, constipation and gynecological problems.

2.Low breathing refers to what takes place primarily in the lower part of the chest and lungs. It is far more effective than high or mid breathing. It consists mainly in moving the abdomen in and out and in changing the position of the diaphragm through such movements. Because of this, it is sometimes called "abdominal breathing" and "diaphragmic breathing." Sedentary persons who habitually bend forward while they read or write tend to slump into low breathing. Whenever one slouches or slackens his shoulder and chest muscles, he normally adopts low breathing. We often use low breathing when sleeping. But whenever we become physically active, as in walking, running or lifting, we are likely to find abdominal breathing inadequate for our needs.

To do low breathing, when you inhale you push the stomach gently forwards with no strain. When exhaling you allow the stomach to return to its normal position.

This type of breathing is far superior to high or mid breathing for four reasons:

  1. More air is taken in when inhaling, due to greater movement of the lungs and the fact that the lower lobes of the lungs have a larger capacity than the upper lobes.
  2. The diaphragm acts like a second heart. Its piston-like movements expand the base of the lungs, allowing them to suck in more venous blood. The increase in the venous circulation improves the general circulation.
  3. The abdominal organs are massaged by the up and down movements of the diaphragm.
  4. Low breathing has a beneficial effect on the solar plexus, a very important nerve center.


    3.Middle breathing is a little harder to describe since the limits of variability are more indefinite. Yet it is breathing in which mainly the middle parts of the lungs are filled with air. It exhibits some of the characteristics of both high breathing, since the ribs rise and the chest expands somewhat, and low breathing, since the diaphragm moves up and down and the abdomen in and out a little. It has been called thoracic or intercostal or rib breathing. But too often it also remains a shallow type of breathing. With this form of breathing, the ribs and chest are expanded sideways.

    This is better than high breathing, but far inferior to low breathing and the yoga complete breath technique.

    4.The complete breath, as defined by yoga, involves the entire respiratory system and not only includes the portions of the lungs used in high, low and middle breathing, but expands the lungs so as to take in more air than the amounts inhaled by all of these three kinds of breathing together when they are employed in shallow breathing. The complete breath is not just deep breathing; it is the deepest possible breathing. Not only does one raise his shoulders, collarbone and ribs, as in high breathing, and also extend his abdomen and lower his diaphragm, as in low breathing, but he does both as much as is needed to expand his lungs to their fullest capacity.

    The yoga complete breath is the basic technique of all the different types of yoga breathing, and therefore should be mastered before you learn the specific breathing exercises. It brings the whole lung capacity into play and is the basis of the three specific breathing exercises.

    Keep in mind that this type of breathing is only done when you do the breathing exercises. The rest of the time you should be doing low breathing by pushing the stomach out slightly when you inhale, and then just letting the stomach fall back to its original position when you exhale. Also, make sure you are breathing through your nose and not your mouth.

    Learning to Breathe Correctly

    We do deep breathing while asleep. Hence a simple way to learn how to breath properly is to simulate sleep. Lie down, close your eyes, relax the whole body, drop the chin and imagine that you are asleep, thus letting your breathing become deeper and deeper.

    In Yoga deep breathing, you start filling the lower part of the lungs first, then you fill the middle and upper part. When exhaling you first empty the upper part of the lungs, then the middle, and last of all the lower part.

    This process, however, is not divided into three separate actions. Inhalation is done in one smooth continuous flow just as one might pour water in filling a glass. First the bottom is filled, then the middle, and finally the upper portion. But the process itself is an uninterrupted one. Inhalation should be done in one continuous operation both the inhalation and the exhalation. Do it slowly and in a most relaxed manner. No effort or strain should ever be exerted. This is very important. Keep mouth closed.

    You then become aware of the function of your own diaphragm. You expand the flanks when inhaling and contract them when exhaling. The lower part of the rib cage naturally expands first when you breathe in and is compressed last when you let the air out. This too should be done gently, without any force or strain. The chest remains motionless and passive during the entire process of respiration. Only the ribs expand during inhalation and contract during exhalation, accordion-fashion. To use force during inhalation is completely wrong. One should do it with ease, without any tension or strain whatever. In deep breathing, exhalation is as important as inhalation because it eliminates poisonous matter. The lower part of our lungs seldom are sufficiently emptied, and tend to accumulate air saturated with waste products, for with ordinary breathing we never expel enough of the carbon dioxide our system throws off even if we do inhale enough oxygen. If, on the other hand, the lower part of the lungs are properly expanded and contracted, the circulation in the liver and spleen, which are thus "massaged" by the diaphragm, are greatly benefited.


    First, push the stomach forwards as you breathe in.

    Second, push the ribs sideways while still breathing in. The stomach will automatically go inwards slightly.

    Third, lift the chest and collar bone up while still breathing in.

    Even though this is described as three separate processes, it should be done in a smooth, continuous rhythm with each part following smoothly on from the previous part. Try to avoid any jerky movements.


    First, just allow the collar bone, chest and ribs to relax-the air will go out automatically.

    Second, when all the air seems to be out, push the stomach in slightly to expel any remaining air in the lungs.

    Exhaling is a more passive affair, except for the second stage when the stomach is pushed in slightly.

    Basic Instructions For The Breathing Exercises

  7. Find a quiet place where you won't be distracted. If doing the exercises inside, make sure the window is open to allow plenty of fresh air into the room.
  8. Sit on a chair or if you prefer, cross-legged on the floor. Sit straight. Unless your spine is erect, some of the benefits of the breathing exercises will be lost. Don't sit straight and relaxed.
  9. Breathe deeply and slowly, without strain. Breathe smoothly and quietly.
  10. You should do the exercises on an empty stomach. Wait at least three hours after a heavy meal, and about one and a half hours after a light snack, such as fruit. This is for two reasons. Firstly, a heavy meal will reduce your concentration. Secondly, food in the stomach causes some of your blood and oxygen supply to be diverted to the stomach for digestion. This will reduce the blood and oxygen available for directing to the brain while you are doing the breathing exercises.
  11. To gain maximum benefit, do the exercises twice a day, in the early morning before breakfast, and in the early evening. It's best not to eat for about fifteen minutes after the exercises.


    While doing deep breathing the spine should be kept straight, so as not to impair the free flow of the life-force, or prana. This also helps to develop correct posture. The yogis attach such great importance to correct posture that they have devised several different positions for their various advanced breathing practices as well as for meditation and concentration. One very popular pose for deep breathing is lotus posture or cross legged posture.

    When you sit down on the floor with your legs crossed, visualize a stream running through you in a straight line, starting at the top of your head and continuing into the ground. Imagine, too, that this is the axis around which your body has been molded. This will help you learn to sit up straight without being stiff and tense. You should, in fact, feel comfortable and relaxed as you sit this way.

    Your First Deep Breath

    Deep breathing can be accomplished sitting down in a meditative posture such as lotus posture, sitting down on a chair with your spine straght or standing up with your spine held straight. If you haven't done so, read the section on learning to breath correctly.

    First check your posture. The spine should be straight, the head erect, hands on knees, mouth closed. Now concentrate on the pharyngeal space at the back wall of your mouth and, slightly contracting its muscles, begin to draw in the air through that space as if you were using a suction pump. Do it slowly and steadily, letting the pumping sound be clearly heard. Don't use the nostrils; remember that they remain inactive during the entire respiration process. When inhaling let your ribs expand sideways like an accordion-beginning with the lower ones, of course. Remember the chest and shoulders should remain motionless. The entire inhalation should be done gently and effortlessly. When it has been completed pause for a second or two, holding the breath. Then slowly begin breathing out. The exhalation is usually not as passive as the inhalation. You use a slight, a very slight, pressure to push the air out-although it feels as though you pressed it against the throat like a hydraulic press. The upper ribs are now contracted first, the nostrils remain inactive and the chest and shoulders motionless. At the end of the exhalation, pull in the stomach a little so as to push out all the air.

    Congratulations! You have just taken your first deep breath.

    Do not try to take too full a breath at once. Start by breathing to the count of four. Then hold the breath, counting to two, and start slowly exhaling, again to the count of four. Breathing in and out to an equal number of beats is called rhythmic breathing. You allow four beats to fill your lungs, two to retain the breath, and four to breathe out. The respiration should be timed in such a way that at the end of the four beats you have completed the exhalation. Don't just stop at the end of the count when there is still air to be expelled. You should adjust your breathing to the timing. Repeat, but do not take more than 5 or 6 deep breaths at one time during the first week. You shouldn't do more even if you are enjoying it.

    Be careful not to overdo the breathing, especially inhalation, as this may lead to unpleasant results such as dizziness, nausea, headaches, even fainting spells due to hyperventilation caused by a sudden, excessive intake of oxygen. By practicing complete breathing, you will be able to enlarge the lung capacity so that, after practice, you can inhale more air than you did before. But this increased capacity should come gradually rather than by force. By repeating such a complete breathing too often or too rapidly in succession, you may absorb too much oxygen and become dizzy. You may continue to employ all of the muscles and all portions of the lungs in breathing without expanding the lungs to their maximum extent each time you inhale.

    Proper yogic breathing employs all of the muscles and all or most of the lungs. But the extent of expansion and the rate of breathing may be progressively reduced to suit the body's needs for oxygen consumption under the conditions of exercise or rest which prevail. As your cycle of breathing involves an increasingly larger lung area, your respiration may be decreased correspondingly while the amount of oxygen available for use remains the same-or even increases. Slower, deeper breathing not only stimulates the lungs into healthier action, and brings more of the body muscles into play, but it has the effect of calming the nerves. Although other factors must be taken into consideration, the slower your respiration rate the calmer you feel. You can deliberately reduce this rate for beneficial effect. However, you can maintain this only if you breathe more deeply.

    A complete breath involves the following steps:

  14. Inhale slowly until your lungs are filled to capacity. Some recommend that you begin with abdominal breathing, gradually move into middle breathing, and finish filling the lungs with high breathing.
  15. A pause, short or long, should occur at the end of inhalation. This, too, should not be forced at first, though deliberate experiments with extending this pause play an important part in successful yogic practice.
  16. Exhale, also slowly, smoothly and completely. Again, some recommend beginning exhalation with high breathing, proceeding gradually to middle breathing, and ending with abdominal breathing and use of abdominal muscles to expel all air from the lungs.
  17. Another pause, short or long, should occur at the end of exhalation. This too should not be forced at first, though this pause may prove to be even more significant than the first as a stage in which to seek and find a kind of spiritual quiescence that can be most powerful in its relaxing effects.