There has been much written and said of the benefits of proper breathing to enhance our health. Most is centered around how deep breathing helps us to relax by lowering our blood pressure and thereby reduces stress. There are many benefits, but that reason alone is worth doing focused breath work on a daily basis – either through your meditation practice or on its own. But until recently, I didn’t fully appreciate that there are different ways to breathe which have varying levels of effectiveness. What has awakened me to the finer points of breathing is the book – The Hindu-Yogi Science Of Breath written by William Walker Atkinson in 1903 – one of the pioneers of the New Thought Movement of the late 1800’s / early 1900’s (which is a free 86 page ebook in the kindle store). It’s a wonderful book and makes explicitly clear the power of the breath and how to benefit from it.
First, let’s take a look at some background:
What the Breath Does
It is estimated that in a single day of twenty-four hours, 35,000 pints of blood traverse the capillaries of the lungs, the blood corpuscles passing in single file and being exposed to the oxygen of the air on both of their surfaces. It will be seen that unless fresh air in sufficient quantities reaches the lungs, the foul stream of venous blood cannot be purified, and consequently not only is the body thus robbed of nourishment, but the waste products which should have been destroyed are returned to the circulation and poison the system, and death ensues. Impure air acts in the same way, only in a lessened degree. It will also be seen that if one does not breathe in a sufficient quantity of air, the work of the blood cannot go on properly, and the result is that the body is insufficiently nourished and disease ensues, or a state of imperfect health is experienced. The blood of one who breathes improperly is, of course, of a bluish, dark color, lacking the rich redness of pure arterial blood. This often shows itself in a poor complexion. Proper breathing, and a consequent good circulation, results in a clear, bright complexion.
Many of us (myself included), can at times get caught in “ shallow” breathing. This arises particularly in times of stress – in fact some have pointed out that if you are not in the present moment – ie., worrying about the past or concerned about the future – you most likely have stopped breathing for significant pauses. As Atkinson shows further, this has a strong impact on the ability of the body to extract nutrition properly from the blood:
Not only is every part vitalized by the oxygen, but the act of digestion depends materially upon a certain amount of oxygenation of the food, and this can be accomplished only by the oxygen in the blood coming in contact with the food and producing a certain form of combustion. It is therefore necessary that a proper supply of oxygen be taken through the lungs. This accounts for the fact that weak lungs and poor digestion are so often found together. To grasp the full significance of this statement, one must remember that the entire body receives nourishment from the food assimilated, and that imperfect assimilation always means an imperfectly nourished body. Even the lungs themselves depend upon the same source for nourishment, and if through imperfect breathing the assimilation becomes imperfect, and the lungs in turn become weakened, they are rendered still less able to perform their work properly, and so in turn the body becomes further weakened. Every particle of food and drink must be oxygenated before it can yield us the proper nourishment, and before the waste products of the system can be reduced to the proper condition to be eliminated from the system. Lack of sufficient oxygen means imperfect nutrition, imperfect elimination and imperfect health. Verily, “breath is life”.
If you’re not getting enough nutrients from your food, then ultimately, you lower your overall energy and in turn, your immune system. So, proper breathing from the Diaphragm – the basis for Yogic Breathing – is essential to optimum health.
Proper Yogic Breathing is when you breathe from the diaphragm – which is different from breathing from the belly or from the chest. Here is a very good overview on how to identify the location of your diaphragm within the body and how it functions so that you can identify and use it to breathe correctly:
In the brief time I have been practicing diaphramic breathing, I have noticed a significant increase in my energy level. I find putting one hand on top of my diaphragm helpful in isolating it and ensuring that my breathing is being driven by my diaphragm rather than by my belly or chest. To learn more, here is a link to an article on Diaphragmatic Breathing by Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati.
Prana, the Vital Energy Force
The benefits of proper breathing don’t stop at relaxation, lower stress, and increased nutrition uptake efficiency. There is also the bonus of increasing our intake of Prana – the vital energy force that surrounds our body and which is connected to universal consciousness. Atkinson explains as follows:
Prana is merely a form of energy used by the Ego in its material manifestation. When the Ego leaves the body, the prana, being no longer under its control, responds only to the orders of the individual atoms, or groups of atoms, forming the body, and as the body disintegrates and is resolved to its original elements, each atom takes with it sufficient prana to enable it to form new combinations, the unused prana returning to the great universal storehouse from which it came. With the Ego in control, cohesion exists and the atoms are held together by the Will of the Ego.
In ordinary breathing we absorb and extract a normal supply of prana, but by controlled and regulated breathing (generally known as Yogi breathing) we are enabled to extract a greater supply, which is stored away in the brain and nerve centers, to be used when necessary.
We may store away prana, just as the storage battery stores away electricity. The many powers attributed to advanced occultists is due largely to their knowledge of this fact and their intelligent use of this stored-up energy. The Yogis know that by certain forms of breathing they establish certain relations with the supply of prana and may draw on the same for what they require. Not only do they strengthen all parts of their body in this way, but the brain itself may receive increased energy from the same source, and latent faculties be developed and psychic powers attained. One who has mastered the science of storing away prana, either consciously or unconsciously, often radiates vitality and strength which is felt by those coming in contact with him, and such a person may impart this strength to others, and give them increased vitality and health. What is called “magnetic healing” is performed in this way, although many practitioners are not aware of the source of their power.
We think of prana as being the active principle of what we call “vitality,” we will be able to form a much clearer idea of what an important part it plays in our lives. Just as is the oxygen in the blood used up by the wants of the system, so the supply of prana taken up by the nervous system is exhausted by our thinking, willing, acting, etc., and in consequence constant replenishing is necessary. Every thought, every act, every effort of the will, every motion of a muscle, uses up a certain amount of what we call nerve force, which is really a form of prana. To move a muscle the brain sends out an impulse over the nerves, and the muscle contracts, and so much prana is expended. When it is remembered that the greater portion of prana acquired by man comes to him from the air inhaled, the importance of proper breathing is readily understood.
So go ahead, take that deep breath, but do it right. The benefits are priceless.