How many times have you gone for a run, and, a mile in, you reach your prime, and you feel unstoppable, your legs like automatic machines pumping, arms swinging by your sides, only to feel a pain in your chest, a heavy feeling in your lungs, sharp, managing just short breaths? Or what about getting ready to present in front of an audience, all their eyes on you, expectations hanging above you like the sword of Damocles, your reputation on the line, and you find yourself pacing nervously, breathing in and out shallowly? Or when you try to hold your breath for as long as you can underwater, cheeks puffed out, pressure building up, rising, inside your mouth and lungs, till it is enough to make you burst so that you pop up to the surface fighting for air, gasping, thankful for each time you get to swallow? In each of the common and everyday above instances, there runs a common theme: The importance of the breath. Just as these occasions are average, so breathing is something we do daily, although we never give attention to it. Constant, unchanging, it remains with us throughout the day, even if we do not heed it, dependable, vital. Despite being something we do around 20,000 times a day, breathing is, for the most part, subconscious, an effort produced by the brain because it has to be done, rather than because we will it. It is only after a workout, for example, when we push ourselves, that we find we have power over it, and really feel a need for it. However, the breath is much more important than we believe. For thousands of years, the breath has remained an essential part of our cultures, West and East, ranging from Vedic writings from India to Ancient Greek philosophy to modern day Buddhism and mindfulness practices, which have tried to bring back an ancient appreciation of the breath. In this blog, I will discuss the physiology of breathing, its philosophical and meditative significance, and how it can help in daily life.
Beginning with the physiology is essential because sometimes, one appreciates something more when they know how it works; and also because, once one understands how something operates, they are more aware of how to improve it. The process of breathing, although covered it in school, is not always covered in detail. Respiration, or ventilation, is the act of inhaling fresh air and exhaling stale air. It is an exchange. The purpose of respiration is to exchange carbon dioxide (CO2) for oxygen (O2), the former being poisonous, the latter good for us, hence the need to get rid of CO2 and get more O2 in the body. While you can go weeks without food and days without water or sleep, you cannot go a single day, let alone a minute, without air—that is how vital it is. Beneath the surface, the process of inhalation goes like this: Together, the diaphragm, located between the abdomen and thorax, or chest, and the intercostals, which are muscles between the ribs on either side of the lungs, contract, allowing the lungs to expand. A dome-shaped muscle, the diaphragm flattens out, and the intercostals move up and outward, expanding the total area in the chest. Near the neck and shoulders, the sternocleidomastoid (a real mouthful!) moves the clavicle—the collarbone—and sternum, in harmony with the scalenes, all of which contract upward, opening up the chest farther. Put together, both actions make room for the lungs to expand. The chest, increases, as do the lungs, whose inner pressure is exceeded by external pressure, causing a suction effect so that air is sucked in. Exhalation is the opposite: The diaphragm relaxes, and the interior intercostals go down and in with the abdominals and obliques, shrinking and thereby increasing the volume of the lungs, causing a reverse suction, where the higher concentration of air within the lungs is diffused outside, to the lower concentration. Like a rubber band, the lungs remain passive throughout respiration. Instead of thinking of the lungs as actively sucking in air, it is better to think of them as passive bands that are either stretched or released. Lungs are big pink sponges, colored so because they are full of blood vessels, inflated so because full of pneumatic branches ending in alveoli, where air is stored. Extending from the collarbone to the diaphragm, they are both divided into lobes. The right has three lobes, the left only two since it leaves room for the heart. Pleural membranes surround the exterior of the lungs, coating them with a fluid to help them contract effortlessly and smoothly, accounting for friction during inhalation and exhalation. How does the air get from your mouth and nose to your lungs? Air passes from the nasal cavity and mouth to the pharynx, which is pretty much the throat, whereupon it goes down the larynx, better known as the voicebox—where your voice is produced—before moving down the trachea. Here, it comes to a fork, two bronchi, left and right, each extending into secondary bronchi, then tertiary bronchi, and finally into bronchioles, at the ends of which are small sacs called alveoli. This section takes place in the lungs, and because they physically branch downward, resembling an upside-down tree, it is referred to as the “bronchial tree.” A flap of cartilage lies between the pharynx and larynx. It is the epiglottis, and when relaxed, it lies up against the throat, opening up the passage of air; however, when it contracts, such as when swallowing, it acts like a drawbridge, moving down over the larynx, blocking anything unwanted. The job of the epiglottis is to let only air pass. All of these muscles are involved in subconscious breathing. More muscles are activated during exercise, as extra help is needed to speed up the process. At the bottom of the brain, the respiratory center stimulates the diaphragm and intercostals based on CO2, O2, and muscle stretch receptors. Chemoreceptors in the brain test blood in the body, and if there is a lack of blood, they alert the medulla oblongata, which will tell the body to produce oxygen faster. As we know, much of breathing is subconsciously controlled, its rate and depth preset by the brain, and altered when necessary, but we also have voluntary control over it. At rest, we breathe about 12-15 times per minute, and twice or more that amount during exercise. About 17 fl. oz. (0.5L) of air are displaced by the diaphragm; when forced, 70 fl. oz. (2L), totaling 150 fl. oz. (4.5L) added up. The air we breathe is 78.6% nitrogen, 20.9% oxygen, 0.4% water, 0.04% carbon dioxide, and 0.06% other elements. Accordingly, a lot of nitrogen is taken in, more than is needed, yet a lot of it is safe for us, only posing a threat when we are underwater, because then it remains in bubble form, at which time it can get into our blood. Luckily, our system is made to take in the right amount of oxygen we need. Of our total lung capacity, only 10% is used subconsciously. We always have at least 35 fl. oz. (0.1L) of air leftover despite having a total capacity of 204 fl. oz. (5.8L), meaning we never exhale all the air in our lungs, even if we try our hardest. The average flow air in the breath is 18fl. oz. (0.5L), but we have a reserved capacity of extra air in case we need it.
Meditation and running are a great combination because the two complement each other. Both value the breath and call for relaxation, which in turn strengthens oneself. To practice the two together, it is advised that you run at “conversational pace,” which is a pace at which you can comfortably sustain a conversation with someone else and not feel out of breath. When breathing during this, you should breathe from the bottom up, not the top down as we instinctively do, for there are no alveoli in the upper lungs. Shallow breaths from the chest deprive you of oxygen since there is not sufficient gas exchange involved. Slow breaths from the diaphragm, at the bottom of the chest, near the stomach, will help you stay energized, prevent cramps, and focus you. Another important tip is to make your exhale longer than your inhale. Inhalation leaves residue oxygen in the lungs, mind you, such that, every now and then, the leftover oxygen will interfere with your respiratory system, resulting in a cramp because the oxygen got in. This way, by exhaling longer than you inhale, you not only reduce the chance of getting a cramp, but you also get a deeper, rhythmic breathing cycle. In the traditional philosophy of Yoga—not modern day Yoga, with the stretches—the regulation of breath is called prāna vritti. Central to its teachings is prānāyāma, or expansion of the vital force, prāna being Sanskrit for breath or vital force, āyama vertical or horizontal expansion. Yoga training in prānāyāma requires that you first master āsana, posture, before moving onto breathing, to the extent that proper breathing is only enacted after achieving proper posture. Āsana involves straightening the spine so you are erect, a straight line able to be drawn from head to hips; opening up the chest, allowing the lungs to expand naturally; pulling the shoulders back between the scapula, or shoulder blades, thus enlarging the chest activity; and relaxing the whole body, releasing all tension from the muscles. The spine represents Earth, the empty space in the torso Ether, respiration Air, and Water and Fire, being diametrically opposed, represent life force (prāna). Therefore, all of nature is manifest in the body as a sacred unity, a gathering of the Elements. Once āsana is practiced sufficiently, one can move onto prānāyāma, where one is instructed to apply attention to the breath. Sahita prānāyāma is one specific technique that involves inhaling (pūruka), retaining (kumbhaka), then exhaling (recaka), each of which is equally prolonged. As such, each stage should last as long as the others, usually held for a few seconds, lengthening by a second. You should sit either on a chair or on the ground in a comfortable position, get into āsana, properly aligned, erect, and breathe in a few seconds, retain it for the same length, then exhale for the same time, and repeat. It is similar to “box breathing,” a technique used by Navy Seals, who inhale for four seconds, hold it for four, exhale for four, and wait before inhaling for four—perhaps it was based on the ancient practice of sahita prānāyāma. By thus controlling the breath, you give it a regular rhythm. According to Yogic texts, there are five breaths: 1.) Prāna, which extends from the toe to the heart to the nose 2.) Apāna, which extends from the throat to the ribs 3.) Samāna, which extends from the digestion system to the joints to the navel 4.) Udāna, which is in the skull and eyebrows and 5.) Vyāna, which occupies the circulation of the breath, distributing the life force throughout the body. The aim hereof is to slow the breath as though you are asleep, when your mind goes adrift, wavering, and you can see into the absolute state of consciousness, “continued consciousness.” Just as we instinctively, subconsciously take shallow breaths as a habit, so we must learn to turn controlled, rhythmic breathing into a subconscious, instinctive habit. Through our days, we should be able to notice that we are breathing deeply and steadily by habit and therefore by instinct, rather than as we normally do it, subconsciously.
Other traditions, too, outside of Indian philosophy, practice extension of the breath. The Chinese philosophy of Taoism, in T’ai Chi, has a practice called “embryonic respiration,” whereby the breath is sustained for the goal of a longer life, ch’ang shen. It was thought that the breath gave the power of the immortality; if one could hold one’s breath for 1,000 seconds, they would become immortal. Obviously, the breath was taken very seriously, and it was trained rigorously. Other benefits of the breath were believed to be the ability to walk on fire, to not drown, and to cure sickness by expelling bad humors and airs. Islam and Hesychasm in the East also have breathing practices. Sufis say Dhikr, a kind of devotional prayer that is immensely private and isolated, always involving the breath. Ancient Greek philosophy held air to be vital as well. One of the first philosophers, the pre-Socratic Anaximenes, held that the arche (αρχἠ) of the world, the single element from which the Cosmos and everything in it was made, was Air. A monist, he like Thales and Anaximander believed a single element was the basis of reality. Air, he taught, was concentrated in the breath, which functioned as man’s psyche (ψυχἠ), or soul/spirit, whence came “psychology.” Although its origin is widely debated, the saying of “Bless you” has been proposed to have come from an Anaximenes-influenced Ancient Greece: A sneeze was thought to expel the breath, which was synonymous with the soul, so people would say “Bless you” to keep the soul inside the body. A couple centuries later, the Stoics posited the existence of two principles in Nature, one passive, the other active. Pneuma (πνεῦμα), translated as breath, was conceived to be the active principle, a sort of fiery air immixed in the breath that pervaded reality. From it, we get words like “pneumatic” and “pneumonia,” all relating to the breath.
Today, the breath is becoming the center of attention again in modern mindfulness practices. It is well known that oxygenation has tons of health benefits, such as lowering stress, improving one’s clarity and moods, removing negative thoughts, and grounding oneself in the present. Buddhist writers often identify the breath as an “anchor,” something to which to return when distracted, to shift to in order to be present, to consult when invaded by thoughts. Some of the thinking is: If you can notice, appreciate, and love something so small, precious, and minute as the breath, then you can surely extend that attention and love to everything else in life, big or small. In other words, if you can appreciate the simplicity of the breath, then you can also appreciate, for example, the simplicity of a tree, or the smell of the coffee you make every morning, adding a depth to everyday life, an added layer of meaning. Both Buddhists’ and Zen Buddhists’ central teaching regarding the breath is to notice. You just have to acknowledge at any moment, “I am breathing”—nothing else. To stop in the middle of the day, halting whatever you are doing, and notice the breath, to just know and be conscious of the breath is to appreciate it, considering we move through our days like automatons without ever giving notice to our unsung breaths, without which we could not live. During mindfulness meditation, the goal is to feel the breath, passively, observantly, unobtrusively. The feeling of the breath as you inhale and exhale, as it comes in through your nose, down your throat, down the bronchial tree, and out the mouth—this is to what we must pay attention. A particular Zen practice calls for beginning practitioners to count the breath, by counting the in’s and out’s, only the in’s, or only the out’s. Whichever you choose, it is advised that you count up to a number like 10 before restarting; and eventually, once the count is ingrained enough, having been trained multiple times, you will not have to say it out loud or mentally voice it—your breath will naturally fall into rhythm. Conclusively, what can be said is this: That while both Yoga and Buddhism attribute great importance to the breath, they differ in their approaches to it, Yoga’s being to control the breath, to apply rhythm, to attune the breath voluntarily; Buddhism’s being to notice the breath, to watch it, to fully and intentionally be present with it; one is active, the other passive in its method. Nature is the perfect place to be mindful of the breath. Simply stand, the sun shining down on you, leaves blowing around, and be mindful of the fact that as you exchange CO2 and O2, you are actively engaging with the trees around in a mutual exchange, symbiotic, one giving life to the other, perpetuating, giving existence to one another. You, the trees, and the animals and wildlife are all interconnected, sharing the eternal breath.
Personally, when I do mindfulness meditation, despite having read about the importance of the breath, I never feel anything special, never get what they mean by “appreciating the breath,” no matter how much I try, always trying to “feel” the breath as I inhale, then losing it as it moves past the nasal cavity, wondering where it went, then exhaling through my mouth, monotonous, uninteresting, without any specific feeling. Hence, I usually focus on using my senses rather than focusing on the breath. However, recently I discovered that an appreciation of the breath through mindfulness can be achieved in another way, one more suited to my subjective tastes, when I can truly be alone with it and feel its benefits:
It was 78ºF on a Saturday morning, unbearably hot for a weekend in January, and I was with my fellow runners at track practice. We were all exhausted. We had only just warmed up, yet we were already sweating, all of us taking off our jackets and sweats and putting them on the turf. Our coach gathered us, back to the sun, and announced fatalistically, “You will be doing 5×300’s, Varsity at a 48-second pace. This is going to be the hardest workout all season, and they will only get easier after this.” As soon as he said 5×300’s, my heart sank, my eyes widened, and my jaw nearly dropped, and I could feel my teammates collectively doing the same. Anyone who is a short-distance sprinter specializing in the 100m will know how dreadful 300’s are—how they strike fear into your soul, unforgiving, excruciating, unfeeling, merciless. Only 100 meters less than the 400m and 100 meters more than the 200m, they are a terrible, formidable middle state, a Purgatory between two Hells. This said, the senior and freshman runners alike were mortally terrified. Having no choice in the matter, though, we approached the track, with heads down and a shuffling gait, unwilling—or was it unable?—to face the track, to look it head on. We were divided into groups of about six to 10 runners, and I was placed in the first heat, with the seniors and juniors, who had to run them at a 48 second pace, which cheered me up a bit seeing as it was the time one got on a regular 400m, but it also meant I had to run 48 seconds, too. Staggering on the track, we got into our lines, bent our legs, got low, surveyed the track, taking in the great distance we had to traverse, contemplated the suffering we would endure, and hoped for the best, forcing out a final breath of repose. Coach said “Go,” stopwatch in hand, and we were off. I followed closely behind the juniors, like a dog does its owner, careful not to lose them, not to fall back with the others who were behind, as I wanted to push myself. The sun was beating down on us, and my body was pushing to keep up with them as we turned the bend, straightening out, until it was me and three other runners leading the pack, behind us a few others. When we finished our first rep, I was relieved. It was not too bad; we were running at a pace I likened to a fast jog, the kind of pace at which you go for a casual mile, but with more haste. Those who came up the rear were breathing hard. That morning, before coming to practice, I had completed a 20-minute meditation in which I tried to focus on my breath and my breath alone. As I confessed, it did not work so well, and I could not for the life of me stay with my breath. There and then, though, standing arms akimbo on the grass, sweat across my forehead, legs heavy, I found solace in my breath. In contrast to the rapid, shallow breathing of my teammates, I walked around calmly, breathing slowly and intentionally, in and out, not from the top of my lungs, but the bottom, from the diaphragm, which made all the difference. Because of this, there was a noticeable difference. I was much more collected. With this in mind, I headed over to the starting line again, ready for rep two, eager to try a new strategy: When I ran, I would focus only on the breath, like I was supposed to during meditation. This next ran, I told myself, was not a run at all, but another meditation session, a practice of mindfulness—mindful sprinting. My thinking instilled within me a kind of vitalization, a readiness for pain, whereas the other runners came up sluggishly, not looking forward to this next rep. Instead of viewing the track as a stumbling block, I viewed it as a hurdle (no pun intended), something to overcome, over which to jump, and thus from which to grow. The sprint was an opportunity, not a punishment. We lined up again after the last heat finished. Once more staggered, we heard “Go,” and we went. Familiar with the pacing, I set myself behind the juniors and kept close to them, careful not to speed up at the bend, but to relax. I breathed as though I were not running, but sitting still, meditating, still breathing from the diaphragm and exhaling through my mouth. The first 100m was not hard, nor was the second. It was always the third which was hardest. My friend, who had up until then been running at my hip, had fallen behind on the second leg, his legs too tired, his breath too short, to keep up. This was the final straightaway. Lactic acid had built up in my legs, making them heavy, so that just raising my leg took most of my effort. I thought of what my Coach had told me, namely that I needed to keep my knees high, especially at the end; so I turned my attention to my breath. Unlike pain, unlike tiredness, the breath is not transitory, but is permanent, constant, unchanging, eternal, a dependable cycle of air, of vitality, which coursed through my body, an unending cycle, infinite, and it entered into the foreground, while the rest of my attention faded into the background, even the track, even my periphery, even the pain I felt in my legs, even the pressure in my chest, even the sweat dripping as I ran—it all went away, impermanent, mere sensations, perceptions, which could easily have been illusory, as opposed to the breath, whereof I was most certain at that time—Respiro, ergo sum—the only certainty, the only object of which I was conscious, to which I was willing to devote my attention, and so it felt as if my mind and breath were alone, two objects painted into an empty canvas, my thoughts and my breath, both transcendent and immortal, real, unlike pain, which felt unreal at the time, and the track was the dependent variable, my breath the independent variable, the distance equal to the pace and the infinite Now, the passing away of time into seconds as my legs carried me forward, knees high, arms pumping cheek-to-cheek, my breath still constant, till I was nearing the end, feeling great, triumphant, and suddenly all the sensations dawned on me, but they did not matter, not the pain, not the feeling in my lungs as I watched my running shadow on the track, so I did not feel alone with my breath, whereupon I saw the finish line, and, pushing one last time, made it to the finish line. As I peeled off to the side to make room for the others, I interlaced my fingers and put my arms over my head, opening my chest to make my breathing easier, more controlled, while the others were out of breath.
For further reading:
Running with the Mind of Meditation by Sakyong Mipham (2012)
Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali by B.K.S. Iyengar (1996)
Mindfulness & the Natural World by Claire Thompson (2013)
Encyclopedia of the Human Body by Richard Walker (2002)
Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn (2005)
Yoga: Immortality and Freedom by Mircea Eliade (1958)
The Complete Human Body by Dr. Alice Roberts (2010)
The Greek Thinkers Vol. 1 by Theodor Gomperz (1964)
Philosophies of India by Heinrich Zimmer (1951)
Coming to Our Senses by Jon Kabat-Zinn (2005)
The Human Body Book by Steve Parker (2007)
Mindfulness by Joseph Goldstein (2016)
Zen Training by Katsuki Sekida (1985)
Chi Running by Danny Dreyer (2004)