by: Anasuya Krishnaswamy |
Breathe, baby, breathe. I was taught the importance of breathing well early in my life with my participation in team sports and other athletic training. When I wasn’t feeling well, my mother taught me to breathe and to focus my awareness on my body and imagine it healing itself. If you don’t learn how to breathe under various situations, then you’re sunk, so to speak. But how many of us concentrate on our breath during the day? It’s in our lexicon. I have heard the constitution of the United States of America described as a living and breathing entity: I’m holding my breath, got to catch my breath, waiting to exhale, I didn’t inhale. You get the picture. And here I’d like to say that it’s okay to inhale. Inhaling deeply is encouraged. That is, if what you’re inhaling is mostly oxygen, with some nitrogen and various benevolent gases thrown in.
Every ancient tradition of health and spiritual well-being deals with the breath. In the Yoga Sutras, there is a passage on pranayama, or the expansion of the breath. Patañjali, the sage who composed the sutras, says that after practicing the conscious and controlled inhalation and exhalation of the breath, a fourth way emerges in which “… the cover of the light of truth dissolves and the mind is fit for concentration.”
When I practiced qigong with my tai chi teacher, we directed chi, or energy, through and around the body by using the breath combined with the gentle movement of the body. In both pranayama and qigong practice, on the energetic level, we break up and release heavy energy or energy that doesn’t serve us and bring in light energy, or energy that can fuel us. These practices are thousands of years old. And yet the process described by the ancient sages, the ancient shamans, is similar to the process that we observe through the lens of the biochemist.
When we breathe air into our lungs, the oxygen binds to a protein in our red blood cells called hemoglobin, and it binds in such a way that when one oxygen molecule binds, it is energetically favorable for others to bind, until all the possible sites on the hemoglobin protein are bound. Then the hemoglobin is carried to the cells of the body, and it becomes energetically favorable for one of the oxygen molecules on the hemoglobin to pass through a cell membrane and into the cell where it can participate in metabolism. Once one oxygen atom is released from the hemoglobin, it becomes more energetically favorable for the others to release, freeing the hemoglobin to bind to the waste products of carbon dioxide and hydrogen ions. We inhale and send the oxygen to our tissues, and then we exhale releasing the carbon dioxide and hydrogen ions. The whole process is assisted (in fact made possible) by the energetic inclinations of the protein molecules and cells, by the molecular vibrations of subunits of the protein molecule sliding and rotating, sliding and rotating, in a complex sequence of movement and rhythm.
When we pay attention to our breath and learn to breathe well, to breathe deeply, our digestion improves, our brain function improves, and our disposition improves. The better we breathe, the better we become.
Before us came photosynthetic bacteria that produced our oxygen rich environment. When they breathed, then we were able to breathe. As we breathe, so breathe the other animals and the plants, in slightly different movements and rhythms, and thus the earth breathes. When the Pomo and the Paiute, when the Massachuset and the Mapuche, when the Q’ero and the Cahuilla speak of all our relations, they know our breath is one essential chord, one essential rhythm, in the song and in the dance with our relations. So, breathe, and breathe well.
Albert Lehninger, David L. Nelson, and Michael M. Cox, Lehninger Principles of Biochemistry, 3rd Edition (New York: Worth Publishers, 2000).
Barbara Stoler Miller, Yoga: Discipline of Freedom. The Yoga Sutra Attributed to Patanjali (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1995)
B.K.S Iyengar, Light on Yoga (New York: Schocken Books Inc., 1979)
Mark Hyman M.D., The UltraMind Solution: Fix Your Broken Brain by Healing Your Body First (New York: Scribner, 2009)