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Column: It's My Health!

Gerald Lopez

Breathing for Health

by Gerald Lopez, LLB; Dip.Ayurvedic Medicine

Most people are not aware of their breath - until they have to go up a flight of stairs or run to catch a train!

By becoming aware of your breath, and learning to control it, you can soon learn to take charge of your own body, energy, mind and emotions.

Breathing for Health

Controlled Breathing Lets You
Take Charge of Your Body,
Energy, Mind & Emotions

Controlled breathing, called Pranayama in Yoga, has been used for thousands of years to:

  • Balance oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood.
  • Increase the body's access to energy — Prana, explained in the last issue.
  • Moderate the emotions.
  • Calm the nervous system and the mind.
  • Improve digestion and health.
  • Balance the body's internal temperature control.
  • Energise the brain to optimise meditation and deep relaxation.

The Oxygen Myth

A common idea is that deep breathing helps the body absorb more oxygen. However, oxygen transfer in the lungs is very rapid, and amply sufficient in most cases except suffocation or serious lung disease.

In fact, the opposite may be true. Many people unknowingly breathe too quickly - this is hyperventilation - causing a carbon dioxide deficit in the body. It is only recently that we are realising the importance of carbon dioxide in balancing oxygen absorption in the body. Carbon dioxide deficiency is thought to cause a multitude of problems including asthma (Stark, J & R: The Carbon Dioxide Syndrome).

Escaping the Emotions

Have you noticed how a person's breathing patterns change when they experience strong emotions? Well, just as strong emotions disturb breathing, calm breathing soothes and moderates the emotions.

Breathe Your Way to Relaxation

Next time you are angry or upset, take a few long breaths, and feel the "Fight or Flight" chemicals dissipating in the body, leaving you much calmer and able to make correct decisions.

The Relaxation Response

When we are normally active and dealing with life, work, family, etc., our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is engaged and stress chemicals are released. The body is prepared for "Fight or Flight" - even in imagined threats such as during anxiety - and the heart rate, blood sugar and blood pressure go up. The digestive, immune and reproductive systems are shut down, as they are "lower priority".

What happens if we are constantly stressed? Chronic stress is a real problem for most of us, and it wreaks havoc with our health. According to many authorities, stress is responsible for at least 60% of illness today.

When we consciously slow the breath down, the SNS is deactivated, and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) activates, lowering the heart rate and blood pressure, and stimulating the digestive, immune and reproductive systems — This is the Relaxation Response, known to yogis for aeons and medically validated by Dr. Herbert Benson in the 1960's (Benson, H: The Relaxation Response).

Using the breath for inducing relaxation is probably the most important health tool we have today.

Yoga for the Brain

Breathing techniques are Yoga for the mind — They help relax and energise the brain.

The ancient yogis realised breathing was important for concentration – and meditation. They understood that meditation was not possible – or at least much more difficult – without proper preparation of physical and mental energy.

Before study, meetings or other activities needing mental clarity, do some slow and deep breathing – and feel how the mind is more alert, more still.

Alternate Nostril Breath

Alternate Nostril Breath This is a classic Yoga technique, which is calming and balancing. Research has found that it activates both sides of the brain, enabling us to access all our mental facilities and modes of thinking – including analysis and "lateral thinking".

  1. Sit comfortably with the spine straight.
  2. Close the eyes and mouth, and place the forefinger and middle finger tips on the space between the eyebrows.
  3. Close the right nostril with the thumb, and draw a gentle breath through the left nostril. Pause.
  4. Close the left nostril and release the right and exhale, making the outbreath longer than the inbreath.
  5. Breath in through the right, pause, and breath out through the left.

This is one round. Practise for 5-10 rounds.

You can use this when needed, or better still, do it regularly every morning after some exercise. Regular practice will create changes on a more profound level.

You can also use awareness of your gentle natural breath when going to sleep. Feel the wave of breath entering and leaving the body, just like the tide moving in and out. This helps clear and relax the mind, allowing you to enter deeper levels of restorative sleep.

Have A Health Question?

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Next time:
In the next issue I will talk about breast health and how women can reduce the risk of breast cancer.

* Alternate Nostril Breath illustration is from the book Prana Pranayama Prana Vidya by Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, available at

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