The Respiratory System

Anatomy of Lungs and Respiration

Get ready to be blown away by something you have done every moment of your conscious life. Humans have two lungs and five lobes, two on the left and three on the right (the right is bigger), each of which can be from 70-100 square meters in surface area, about the same surface area as a tennis court. The lungs have 2,400 kilometers of airways and 300 to 500 million alveoli which are gas exchange points for the bloodstream. These are powerful organs of exchange with the environment, with power and functioning that should not be taken for granted.

The respiratory system is a series of organs responsible for intaking oxygen from the atmosphere and expelling carbon dioxide back into the air. This basic gas exchange between the body and the atmosphere is completely dependent upon the respiratory system and almost every vertebrate animal has one. This exchange affects every other system, as they oxygenation of blood is necessary in every organ. The nervous system also seems to draw energy from the respiratory system, and the cardiovascular system takes cues from the respiratory system (both cue off brain activity) to determine how much blood it should be pumping based on breath rate. When the sympathetic nervous system becomes active (the flight or fight mechanism), heart rate is increased, respiratory rate is increased, the sensitivity of the nervous system is heightened to allow for survival, but this comes at a cost.

Yoga focuses primarily on the respiratory system’s functioning to move the muscular-skeletal system in the opposite way. In our modern world full of non-environmental stress and high levels of adrenaline in non-life threatening situations, the sympathetic nervous system is overactive and is probably the biggest contributor to the high fatality rates from cardiovascular disease (nutrition would be the other competing contributor). The respiratory system is vital to the functioning of every mammal on the planet and is one of the most intricate and powerful tools for surviving, prospering, and thriving on planet Earth.

I honestly think the vast majority of people take breathing for granted. Most Americans are in such a rush that they don’t even notice their superpower of consciousness. We don’t learn about breathing in school, or in early sports, which is really a shame because breathing concentration allow for intense amounts of focus. Every athlete should learn breath control techniques from young ages; I can remember when I learned to run with proper form at 15 and I think that learning about breathing should happen even younger. This is what keeps us all alive, after all, and we really should learn how to keep our nervous systems functioning optimally through breathing exercises.

To really understand how intricately related the nervous system and respiratory systems are, we need to go back in time to when you were born. At birth, a babies lungs are full of fluid, but once the child is released from the birth canal, the central nervous system trigger a huge change in reaction to the environment, which then triggers the first breath, about 10 seconds later. From there, the lungs develop rapidly until at about 2, the alveoli are fully developed, then the lungs begin to grow normally until full adult muscular maturity is reached. The lungs are muscular and most mammals use their musculoskeletal systems to support their breathing, as humans do. This is why yoga can alleviate many hampering disabilities having to do with lung functioning, because strengthening the accessory muscles to the diaphragm strengthens the overall functionality of the respiratory system.

The muscles of the respiratory system are the following:
  • the diaphragm (primary)
  • the external intercostals
  • the internal intercostals (intercostals interlace on the inside and outside of the ribs).
The accessory muscles are:

As you can see, there are a tremendous amount of accessory muscles involved in breathing. I interpret this a particular way, that there is an enormous spectrum between thriving and breathing with ease and freedom contrasted to breathing for survival, or breathing only with the diaphragm and ribs, which puts extreme amounts of stress on those muscles. I think the idea of balance between the primary and accessory muscles is the right idea, and the stronger the accessory muscles, the more powerful breathing will follow. This takes time, muscles build strength in increments, and this is probably the biggest reason why yoga is so difficult for many Americans. Because we need it the most!

What kinds of breathing exercises do you practice for optimal health? What kinds of breathing exercises would you like to learn about?

 

 

The Power of Breath

breath power

The Key Benefit of Yoga

Yoga’s greatest benefit is increased awareness of your breath, or respiratory system. It is the reason why the yoga ab exercises are so difficult, why every pose eventually feels like an different kind of abdominal stretch, and why you feel so amazing at the end of the class. Your lungs fuel every other organ in your body by revitalizing the bloodstream with new oxygen in combination with the heart, fueling your nervous and muscular-skeletal systems. The lungs also have enormous effect upon the metabolism. I’ve read before that metabolisms aren’t naturally faster or slower, but rather result from lifestyle habits and diet. The lungs pass by all of the lower organs and descend down near the base of the spine, towards the lowest organs. You can contract your perineal, or pelvic floor and sex muscles by bringing awareness to your breath. This is definitely good for your digestion and your sex life! (the muscles group is called mula bandha, or pelvic floor in yoga)

The Lungs

In a way, the lungs lead the body as it moves through space and breathing has an enormous effect on brainwaves and heart rate. It is possible to enter into alpha and possibly beta brainwaves while awake and practicing yoga, even Delta and Theta waves can be found in deeper Savasanas. These represent the different stages of restorative brainwaves that occur during sleep that ultimately provide the deepest rest for the nervous system and therefore the body as a whole. So control over your breath is essentially increasing the amount of  control you have over your consciousness.

So the lungs are one of the primary movers of the body; indeed, breathing is a constant in having consciousness. And perhaps we can see consciousness as requiring breath; without it we can’t be conscious for long. From the time we are born, to the time we die, it is with us. Apparently the smallest organisms that breathe are spiders, so perhaps that is where consciousness truly starts; between the fly and the spider. Even trees breathe.

Ancient yoga texts say that there is a power within the breath, but how necessary the individual poses are is up for grabs. Warrior 1 and Warrior 2 are not where the power of yoga is, although aligning your body into those two postures and breathing while focusing on them is a powerful exercise in muscular stability, concentration, balance, stretching, and strengthening. The breathing is where the power of yoga lies; you can do yoga while lifting weights (it’s difficult, but you can stay with deep breathing the whole time, try it!), while running, while shopping, driving, whatever. It just means bringing awareness to your breath, and therefore your nervous system. The two are intertwined.

Feel the POWA!

There is a reason why the idea of power continues to resurface in yoga; however, I don’t think it holds true to what yoga is really about. If awareness is power, then I am wrong, but I think that awareness and power are different. When we relinquish the idea of power or control and simply focus on awareness; awareness seems to be more related to freedom; the ability to transcend individual situations and confrontations to maintain internal peace. Nobody is going to become a world leader by doing yoga. Really, yoga does not accomplish a whole lot in the world outside of your body and it can be really selfish if that is all you do! But that is just my personal opinion. Powerful people seem to be the least free and most obliged; they are always in some crisis, or fixing some problem. That’s why they make so much money, they are good at fixing problems and getting things to work. The ability to be okay with not reacting, sitting with what is occurring rather than reacting without really being aware of what is happening in the situation is type of power that yoga can offer you. True yoga is learning to take responsibility over your own happiness. Being able to laugh while someone flips you off in the lane next to you. Transcending shitty situations. I think this is what Patanjali was talking about when he/she/they talked about releasing from the fluctuations of the mind. Being free from the anxiety, reactions, and obsessions over everyday events so that we can live in gratitude and happiness for what is on a larger scale. Family, friends, and life.

You don’t know what you have until its gone…

Gratitude is true liberation and losing your breath helps to remind you that life is temporary. Maybe this is why yoga is so powerful, it tunes you into the passing of moments. The mental effects of combining your nervous and muscular-skeletal systems first thing in the morning can change the way that you live your life; imagine. Savasana brings the freedom of nothing; knowing that death will come and not caring; being free from the confines of the illusion of death and the senses. Even our eyes lie to us on accident. Letting it go is the most important part; those exhales make life worth living. Be grateful for your breath, because its easy to take it for granted. When its gone, you won’t forget it.

 

Feeling with your Breath

I have started to realize in teaching and in my own practice that the way that we truly feel in our bodies involves breathing. I think a lot of it has to do with the way that the nervous system uses oxygen and energy in general; it is pretty easy to forget that we are walking storms of electric consciousness. Literally, your brain is a massive thunderstorm that walks around. And we are not truly separated from our environment; the integration and sharing occurs with the breath. Lucky we have a bubble (the atmosphere) to share with.

Think about the power of singing; powerful emotions become accessible through simply listening to a voice not to mention using one; or about the power of a forgotten scent, able to instantly transport you somewhere else in time. These things are all inter-related with breathing and I believe that touch is too. I often find that when I practice, my body contracts and extends more easily and efficiently with coordination of my breath. There are even muscles that allow us to breath, like the diaphragm, intercostals, and abdominals that directly contract and expand with the respiratory system. Our nervous system (what allows us to feel) seems to be intricately related to our breathing apparatus.

This brings me to the point, that we use our breath to feel the world around us. In a way, it sets the mood for the rest of the body, like the atmosphere of the situation. If you are freaking out, chances are that your breath is too; if you are calm, your breathing is probably slow and deep; I would bet that each emotion has a range of breathing that can determine what the emotion was. Gasping for surprise, yelping, snorting when you laugh (it has happened to everyone once!), sighing with relief, pouting when you are unhappy are all examples and I’m sure there are a lot more.

Someday, the breath will be far more of an indicator for health than it is today. It is so subtle, think about how much time people spend learning and studying heart rate fluctuations and spikes. Measuring breath will probably be more complicated than that, but think about what it could indicate about the central and peripheral nervous systems. Control of the breath will lead to liberation, which bring me to the next article on Pranayama, the fourth limb of yoga. Stay tuned for more