All of us have grown up hearing the conventional wisdom about breathing — the more oxygen, the better. We are ingrained with the notion that oxygen is life and carbon dioxide is our body’s waste. It’s counterintuitive, to say the least, to hear that, for healthy breathing, it’s the exact opposite that’s true – the more carbon dioxide, the better.
How can that possibly be? We need to take a step back and think about our respiratory system and its triggers. Our body uses carbon dioxide levels to determine our oxygen needs. So, when we reduce our breathing and take in less oxygen, we increase the level of carbon dioxide level in the lungs, which then triggers our body to deliver MORE oxygen to our cells and organs, including the brain. Similarly, over-breathing (hyperventilation) reduces the level of carbon dioxide in the lungs, which reduces the amount of oxygen delivered to the cells. Carbon dioxide – what many think of as a waste product – is actually a precious commodity. It is one our body’s key regulators for our most indispensable function for life – breathing!
The benefits of reduced breathing is not a recent phenomenon. It is an integral part of traditional meditation practices that have been practiced in many cultures for time immemorial. Meditation, often accompanied by chanting, helps its practitioners achieve a calm, tranquil state. The Buteyko Breathing Normalization Method encourages and promotes this relaxing, meditative state of breathing all of the time, day and night.
Deep, noisy, exaggerated breathing, which has taken hold in recent yoga and meditation practice, is actually counter-productive. Big deep, heavy breaths, by reducing carbon dioxide levels, take oxygen away from our brain and other organs. To be sure, deep breathing is sometimes necessary for our very survival, such as when we are in “fight or flight” mode and forced to run away from danger. So, when our mouth-breathing ancestors were being chased by a big hungry tiger, they had plenty of oxygen to keep their muscles pumped. Even though their deep breathing was reducing their carbon dioxide levels, their intense physical activity was building up carbon dioxide levels through metabolism, which more than made up for it.
Modern-day stress no longer involves running away from wild animals. Today’s stress is brought about by hectic lifestyles and routine day-to-day situations that are inherently stressful Nevertheless, our stress response in our “primitive” bodies remains unchanged.
Let’s take a common example. Most students find testing to be stressful, and they often exhibit our hard-wired physiological responses to stress, such as breathing more heavily. Students can have a psychological response to stress even though they are staying perfectly seated and haven’t moved a muscle. In this case, unlike our ancestors’ encounters with tigers, there is no associated physical activity that increases the carbon dioxide levels in our lungs. Instead, this stress causes a major deficit of carbon dioxide, which reduces the amount of oxygen to the brain at the precise moment when we need more of it to optimize its higher-level functions. Deep breathing from stress hijacks the brain. It impairs recall and memory, and causes students to underperform. One simple way students can improve their exam performance by controlling their breathing. Breathe less, and you’ll remember more!
The same stress response holds true for adults. Adults may not be taking any more formal tests, but life itself can seem like one giant test from all of our work and family demands. Today, too many of us live in a constant state of unhealthy stress, breathing unhealthily with constant hyperventilation. Unhealthy breathing adversely affects one’s physical and mental health, and for those with pre-existing respiratory conditions, this just compounds and exacerbates the issues.
What’s the solution? For starters, we need to adjust our lifestyle and outlook on life in a way that supports healthy breathing. From my own experience, I can tell you that this journey, although sometimes difficult, is well worth it. Changes may be slow and incremental. It doesn’t happen in a day. I make use of positive affirmations, always reminding myself that I have plenty of time, that everything is okay, and that real emergencies are far and few between. Also, I schedule my day more realistically; move more slowly, and take time to calm down when things get hectic, as they inevitably do. My lifestyle adjustments has facilitated relaxed, reduced breathing. The best news of all is that breathing and lifestyle adjustments are a positive loop. Each encourages and promotes the other.