The Anatomy of Breathing

BreathAnatomyBreath equals life. But do you ever bother to ask: why do we need breath that much?

Since we have been unconsciously doing it since the first day we came into this world, the breathing process has been taken for granted by almost all of us. All we know is that we need to take in oxygen in order to keep our bodies running. But very few of us have taken the time to really understand the breathing process. The following article will explore the mechanics of breathing, particularly the:

o  different stages of the breathing process;
o  different kinds of breathing;
o  organs used in breathing; and
o  process of breathing

Stages of Breathing

Basically, breathing has four stages:

1.   Inhalation, or the taking in of air
2.   A pause before exhaling
3.   Exhaling, or the pushing out of gas
4.  A pause before inhaling again

These four stages comprise the cycle of respiration. In pranayama, yogis prolong the pauses in a way that will benefit their health and state of mind. However, the two pause stages may not exactly be restful since the whole respiratory system, along with its muscular and nervous components, goes through a reversal of direction and many small adaptations whenever such a reversal occurs.

Kinds of Breathing

The following are the 11 kinds of breathing:

1.   Noisy and quiet breathing
2.   Fast and slow breathing
3.   Regular and irregular breathing
4.   Jerky and smooth breathing
5.   Deep and shallow breathing
6.   Forced and effortless breathing
7.   Voluntary and involuntary breathing
8.   Mouth and nose breathing
9.   High, middle, and low breathing, and the combination of the three in complete Yogic breathing
10. Mere passage of the air in and out of the lungs, and experiencing breathing as an affair of the whole body, the whole self, and the whole universe as explored in pranayama
11.  Nervous and relaxed breathing, compared to anxious and peaceful breathing

As seen here, it can be concluded that breathing is a very intricate and complicated process.

Organs Used in Breathing

The respiratory system is composed of the nose and mouth, pharynx and larynx, trachea and bronchi, as well as the lungs and thorax.

Nose and Mouth: The nose is what we normally use to inhale and exhale. It has two holes called nostrils through which air passes. The skin lining both nostrils is embedded with tiny hairs called cilia, which act like a filter to catch dust and other small particles in the air we breathe. The mouth is what we use to breathe when we need more air than what can be taken in through the nostrils, as when we pant or puff when we are exhausted.

Pharynx and Larynx : The pharynx is the opening just behind the nose and mouth and is part of both the respiratory and digestive systems. Since both food and air pass through the pharynx, it is lined with tissues called tonsils which can partially obstruct the passage of either of the two. Like when swallowing, respiration is interrupted. The pharynx ends in the esophagus and the larynx, which is also known as the “voice box” because it houses the vocal chords and the different muscles used in producing sounds. The epiglottis, a cartilage found at the top of the larynx, aids in closing it tightly to prevent the passage of food or liquids.

Trachea and Bronchi : The trachea, also referred to as the windpipe, is a tube through which respiratory gas transport takes place. It is lined with ciliated cells to push particles out, and cartilage rings to guard it against pressure when breathing. The end of the trachea is split into two tubes called the bronchi, which also have several thin-walled branches called bronchioles. These bronchioles lead to air sacs called alveoli, where most of the gas exchange happens.

Lungs and Thorax : The lungs are the most essential organ for respiration. They consist of a cluster of bronchioles and alveoli, blood vessels and capillaries, and elastic tissue. Their main function is to transfer oxygen into the bloodstream, and to excrete carbon dioxide into the air. 

The thorax is the region of the body that extends from the neck to the back. The thoracic cavity is the area that contains the heart and the lungs, and is protected by the rib cage and the sternum.

The Breathing process

There are three components of the breathing process:

1.    Respiration: There is a common tendency to refer to breathing and respiration as the same thing. This is wrong. Breathing is a mechanical process, while respiration is a chemical process. Respiration refers to the process of carrying the inhaled oxygen to each cell of the body that needs it. Its by-product is carbon dioxide. 

On average, an adult at rest inhales and exhales about 16 times every minute. Each time, about 500-700 ml of air is taken in, and about the same amount is exhaled. However, not the whole of the amount we inhale is oxygen. In fact, only about 20% of it is oxygen. About 79% of it is nitrogen, while the rest is a mixture of carbon dioxide, helium, argon, and other gases. Almost as much nitrogen is exhaled as is inhaled each time. The only difference is that exhaled air contains only 16% oxygen and 4% carbon dioxide, which means that about one-fifth of the oxygen we take in is changed to carbon dioxide during respiration. Part of the aim of deep breathing exercises and posture movements in Yoga is to increase the amount of oxygen compared to that of carbon dioxide in the blood, which will circulate all over the body.

2.    Oxygenation: 
Oxygenation refers to the injection or addition of oxygen into any organism, and this includes the human body. In our case, oxygenation occurs in the blood cells, which in turn carries the oxygen throughout the body. 

Now why is oxygen important? All living tissues and cells need energy in order to live. For us humans, we get this energy from the food we eat. After digestion, the energy is stored in the molecules of glucose, fructose, amino acids, and other substances. But it cannot just stay there; that energy must be released in order to be used. Energy can be released from those molecules through a chemical process that requires oxygen for it to take place. This is why oxygen, and eventually breath, is of paramount importance to our lives.

3.    Regulation: 
The nervous system is responsible for the regulation of breathing. It controls the contractions of muscles used in breathing. This starts from a cluster of cells in the brain stem called the respiratory center. These cells send impulses to the different muscles involved in inhalation, which in turn takes in air. As for exhalation, it simply happens once inhalation stops. No force is necessary for exhalation; simply stop inhaling and exhalation will follow, thus completing the breathing cycle. That is why the cells of the respiratory center can be compared to the pacemaker tissue of the heart, which acts without outside help.

However, like the heartbeat, some outside factors can influence the regularity of breathing. These can either be voluntary or involuntary. A few examples of voluntary factors are the control you exert over breathing when you are talking, singing, whistling, or when holding your breath when a certain smell offends you. Involuntary factors, on the other hand, are emotions such as fear, anger and excitement, as well as sudden changes in temperature.

The knowledge of regularity of breathing, particularly the voluntary and involuntary factors that affect it, is important in Yoga. This is because Yogic breathing exercises aim at changing unhealthy involuntary breathing habits voluntarily, then developing healthier habits afterwards.

Written by: ljpasion for ABC-of-Yoga.com

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