Author: Marj Murray (Breathwork Practitioner)
Most of us live our lives without ever noticing our breathing. This is not unusual as it is part of the body’s autonomic system, meaning that it happens without us thinking about it. This is a wonderful design of the body, but it also means that we often ignore our breathing patterns which can become locked and dysfunctional over the years due to trauma, posture, and bad habits. Breathing is also the only function in the body which we can consciously override, enabling us to improve our breathing, correct breathing patterns which are not optimal, and adjust our breath to whatever situation we are in.
We take about 22 000 breaths a day, but how many of these are we conscious of? We often only notice our breath when we find it difficult to take a breath – during a panic attack, asthma, lung disease or COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). Becoming aware of your breath will already make a huge difference to how you breathe, and the impact breathing has on your daily life.
Your lungs are amazing and incredibly hard-working organs. But they are not immune to the passage of time. As you age, so do your lungs – they have been around and helping you to breathe since before birth even! The great news is that no matter how old you are, you can improve your lung and breathing capacity with a few simple breathing techniques, which we will teach you below.
Your lungs are part of your respiratory system, a group of organs and tissues that work together to help you breathe. They are filled with millions of air sacs, called alveoli, where gasses pass between the bloodstream and the airways. Did you know that your lungs have no muscles? They expand to draw in air and contract to expel air with the help of your diaphragm, a strong wall of muscle that separates your chest cavity from the abdominal cavity.
The diaphragm is what helps you take a breath, not your lungs! Your ribs are bones that support and protect your chest cavity. They move slightly to help your lungs expand and contract. So, your lungs, muscles and bones work together as you breathe. Although we have a respiratory system for mechanical breathing, the act of breathing is an entire body experience which releases specific chemicals in each cell to activate energy – so we are really breathing with our whole body!
Breathing as you age
As you age, changes affect your lung tissue, muscles and bones, which all impact your breathing. The maximum amount of air your lungs can hold – your total lung capacity – is about six litres. Your lungs mature by the time you are about 20-25 years old. After about 35, their function declines as you age and as a result, breathing can slowly become more difficult over time. In a person without lung disease, most of these changes are due to cardiovascular and muscle changes, not changes to the lungs themselves. There are several body changes that happen as you get older that may cause a decline in lung capacity:
- Alveoli can lose their shape and become baggy.
- The diaphragm can, over time, become weaker, decreasing the ability to inhale and exhale. This change will only be significant when exercising.
- Ribcage bones become thinner and change shape, altering the ribcage so that it is less able to expand and contract with breathing.
- Nerves in airways that trigger coughing become less sensitive to foreign particles. When particles build up in the lungs, they can damage the lung tissue.
These changes can result in symptoms such as tiredness and shortness of breath at and at an increased risk of respiratory infections like pneumonia.
There are several simple ways to help protect your lungs and maintain better lung function throughout your life.
- Don’t smoke
- Avoid air pollution
- Watch your weight
- Don’t lie down too much
- Practice breathing exercises
An easy and effective breathing practice to support your respiratory system is a technique called 3-6-5.
- 3 – do this technique 3 times a day
- 6 – take 6 breaths a minute
- 5 – practice for 5 minutes at a time.
The technique is simply breathing in through your nose for a count of 5 and then out through your nose for a count of 5. Make sure you are breathing right from your belly and not your chest.
Another relaxing technique is breathing in through the nose for a count of 4 and then out through the mouth for a count of 8. This is s great technique to use before bed.
So as you go through the rest of your day today, think about your breathing and how you can use this powerful tool to impact your life.
About Breathwork Africa
Breathwork Africa is dedicated to sharing the art and science of conscious breathing with anyone who is committed to or curious about health, energy management, self-awareness, personal growth and making the world a better place in which to live. Our work takes us from grassroots communities to classrooms, health and fitness institutions, boardrooms and health facilities where we offer one-on-one sessions, talks, workshops, group sessions, retreats and practitioner training.
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