“Every breath you take…” Sting wrote the lyrics of this unforgettable number by The Police, an English rock band, three decades ago, but the words are relevant even today. Every breath we take should indeed be monitored, and with good reason.
In June, Apple Inc. announced the launch of Breathe, an app on its Apple Watch, to help users alleviate stress and ailments through timed breathing sessions. This is not the first-of-its-kind app. The Spire app (available on iOS and Android), launched in 2014, measures your breathing patterns throughout the day and points out red flags, including the fact that you might not have inhaled and exhaled deeply in the last 2 hours.
Why is something as natural—and inevitable—as breathing coming under the scanner?
The reason, health experts say, is that we are being driven increasingly to breathe incorrectly. “Atmospheric and vehicular pollution, stress, and the resultant emotions of anger, frustration and anxiety—and sometimes, even unmindful vigorous aerobic exercises—are responsible,” says Samir Garde, consultant pulmonologist at the Lokmanya Tilak Municipal General Hospital in Mumbai. These conditions induce us to breathe in short and shallow breaths.
Dr Garde says the right method of breathing involves the diaphragm, perched at the end of our rib cage. The Harvard Health Publications, published by the Harvard Medical School, makes an important point about breathing correctly: “Shallow breathing limits the diaphragm’s range of motion and as a result, the lowest part of the lungs doesn’t get a full share of oxygenated air.” The toxic air that should have been exhaled isn’t, and builds up in the body. On the other hand, “deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange—that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide”, the Harvard publication says.
Breathing in a slow, mindful manner helps on three key counts: It aids the optimal working of our organs at the cellular level, flushes out toxins from the body, and brings about mind-body harmony.
“Contrary to what we think, only a nominal amount of toxins in the human body is released through sweat or excretion, while approximately 70% of it is released through breathing. So, if you are not breathing well, you are bound to, among other things, have a system ridden with toxins,” says Dr Garde.
The nervous system too benefits by correct breathing. “The nervous system comprises the autonomic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. While the autonomic nervous system is responsible for providing us the impetus to ‘fight’ in response to stress, the parasympathetic system works in the opposite way, by conserving energy.... The parasympathetic system is served by things that relax us, like deep breathing exercises,” says Aparajita Jamval, who teaches the Sivananda style of yoga at the Yoga House in Mumbai.
Adopt the right technique
Most medical experts recommend breathing exercises as part of managing asthma and related chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Vivek Nangia, director at the Fortis Flt Lt Rajan Dhall Hospital, says, “Asthma is a disease of the airways where they go into a state of spasm (narrowing) that results in a reduction of air flow into the lungs, causing breathlessness.” As the disease progresses, air gets trapped further in the lungs. This is where pranayam can work. “While in the initial stages deep inhalations help, in the later stages, forceful and prolonged exhalation helps in removing the trapped air,” says Dr Nangia, adding, “It may not be possible to perform these when the symptoms (of asthma) are more pronounced, but they should definitely be performed regularly during the stable phase.”
Most doctors recommend that patients take up yoga. “Think about the pranayam aspect to yoga that specially caters to stretching each breath to its maximum capacity,” says Amisha Shah, yoga instructor and proprietor of Namaste Yoga in Mumbai. Shah includes breathing exercises as a concluding, mandatory component of every class, and even after most sets of exercises. “Breathing in and out slowly for a count of three (when we actually want to breathe faster owing to aerobic activity) helps in training the body to breathe correctly,” says Shah.
Therapists and medical practitioners agree that learning to breathe correctly can be a life-changer. “Initially, the scepticism used to be over the sometimes exaggerated claims of naturopathic efficacy. Today, we can say that breathing exercises form a supportive and essential part of treatment for lung ailments as well as for general well-being,” says Dr Garde.