Adult humans normally breathe at the rate of one breath every six to eight seconds and inhale an average of sixteen thousand quarts of air each day. If nothing is done to restrict breathing, it will happen naturally and fully. But people continually inhibit natural breathing in many ways—poor posture, tight or binding clothes, "speed eating," exposure to noxious substances, smoking, lack of exercise, plus habitual patterns of emotional stress.
When breathing is obstructed or suppressed, the cells in the body do not receive the full amount of oxygen necessary to carry out their assigned functions. You may feel sleepy or irritable, or develop a headache. One reason that exercise is so valuable is that it forces you to breathe more fully, literally replenishing your dwindling supply of oxygen.
Hindus call it prana—the life force carried in the breath. Many languages use the same word for both breath and spirit, or life force.
In Hebrew, the word for soul or spirit is rauch. In Greek, it is pneuma. In Latin, spiritus. Each of these words also means "breath." In English, to inhale is to "inspire"—to take in the spirit. To exhale, or expire, means to release the spirit. All of life can be observed as a taking in and a giving out, of movement and rest, of controlling and letting go. The way you breathe is an excellent metaphor for the way you live your life.
The information and exercises recommended here encourage you to start paying attention to your breathing as a form of relaxation, stress reduction, and healing.
Breath and Stress
Stress is inevitable—you need it to stand upright against the force of gravity. That’s known as eustress, or positive stress, the kind that motivates you to get a job done on time or to do something that you thought was impossible.
When endangered by something in the environment or upset by disturbing thoughts—such as frightening expectations or memories like those associated with grief or panic—the body reacts to protect itself. It triggers a set of automatic responses, including increases in heart rate, in blood flow to the muscles, and in the rate of breathing. These responses are designed to energize the body to do battle, to run away, or to freeze. When the danger is real, the alarm state is necessary and important.
But there are many less dangerous forms of stress in your life that have the potential of wearing you down and causing a variety of health problems. Many people live in a constant state of alarm. "Stress plays some role in the development of every disease," writes Hans Selye, MD, in his classic work, Stress without Distress.
If stress is balanced with relaxation or attitude-change methods, the continual surge of energy supplied by the response to stress can be modified or even channeled for creative purposes. If stress levels remain high, disease and breakdown will often result.
Take a moment to recall some of the stressful situations in your life. Are there difficult people, either adults or children? Interruptions when you’re trying to work or rest? Is there too much work, too little time? Are they driving in traffic? Smog and noise? Worries about your own health, or the health of someone in your family?
The breath is life. That is why the yogi says that you "half-live" because you "half-breathe."