In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell explains that the way to achieve excellence in any area is to practice conscientiously for around 10,000 hours, equivalent to 10 years.
I have been three times and a little more than that time on this planet, and I do not consider myself an expert in breathing. And could you consider yourself one?
We can live without food for about 3 weeks, without water for 3 days, but without breathing… maximum for 3 minutes.
We count the number of slices of pizza we can
swallow eat for dinner, but we don’t count the number of breaths we take in a given minute. Why?
It’s correct to consider “information” everything that enters our body, since our body will assimilate the substance or data entered and process it. In this way, not only the news we see, the posts on social media, or the books are information. If you feed your body organic and healthy food, you are sending it a very powerful message: that you want it to function optimally.
But why are we not aware of the way we “inhale” information?
You may not be able to control the quality of oxygen you are consuming, but you can certainly improve the way you consume it. For that, first we are going to understand the basics of this vital process.
What is Breathing?
Physiologically, it is the exchange of O2 (Oxygen) for CO2 (carbon dioxide), with the outside, carried out by the respiratory system of living beings. (1)
Spiritually, breathing is the link between our mind and our body. And, if you wonder why we need such a bond, then it’s enough to realize how many times our mind is in any other place than here; or, it’s in the future or the past, and not in the present.
How does breathing work?
This is an extreme simplification of a fascinating process, and I invite you to investigate the mechanics of breathing. But now, let’s go with this:
The air enters through the nostrils, passes through the trachea, reaches the lungs, to the bronchi and bronchioles, and it is the latter that house air sacs called alveoli.
These alveoli are key because, thanks to a process called Simple Diffusion, they allow O2 to reach the blood. To be more precise, the alveoli make it easier for O2 to saturate the hemoglobin in the blood.
Hemoglobin is a protein inside red blood cells that works similarly to a public transport bus, carrying O2 throughout our body, discharging it, and on its return to the lungs, collecting CO2 for future exhalation.
Pretty simple, right?
Well, the little problem is this: it is estimated that 80% of people inhale only about 0.5 liters of O2 with each breath, out of the 6 liters of lung capacity we have. That is to say that we have a capacity similar to three large soda bottles, and we use something the size of a small bottle.
And no, this is not due to an austere O2 consumption policy. It is simply because we unlearned to breathe properly.
Yes, you read correctly. We unlearned something that’s optimal for our body and this became a sub-optimal habit.
Virtually every culture in history has some breathing technique, ranging from those that help you warm up your body for intense physical training, blow out a birthday candle, relax, acclimatize to high altitudes, prepare for battle, fall asleep quickly, etc.
Thanks to some of these techniques, today we can optimize and re-learn something that we forgot a long time ago. That’s why in this post we will focus on some techniques to relax the body when we feel psychological pressure, be it real or imaginary (such as the anxiety I feel when publishing articles 😅), and another specific technique, to help us sleep better.
Improving Our Breathing in 5 minutes
Deep Inhalation (x3)
For this exercise, I want you to place your right hand on your chest and your left hand a little above your navel.
What we will do is inhale deeply through the nose. And, to verify that it’s a deep breath, it’s your left hand that has to rise with the force of the air entering your belly.
Close your eyes, take three deep breaths, and come back when you’re done.
Well, how did it feel to fill your body with “Vitamin O” 😉 ?
This is just the warm up, and it is also one of the simplest Breathing Techniques to practice. You basically just need to be alive to do it right :).
Now, let’s get to something more interesting.
Reverse Count (x5)
We already know how it feels to take a deep breath. Now you can lower your arms if you are standing or place them on your legs if you are sitting.
For this second exercise, we’ll do exactly what we did before, but here’s the catch; I bet in the first exercise, you most likely started counting on your first breath, right? Well, now what I’m asking you to do is start counting on your first exhalation.
So, the count will be as follows:
“Exhalation -> Inhalation”. That’s One Breath.
In this case, we will take 5 breaths. And remember: you will finish the last of these with your fifth inhalation.
Good. Close your eyes and let’s go with those five.
How was it? It feels different to start counting with an exhalation, right?
The reason for this change is to help us become more aware of breathing. With practice, you will be able to more easily anchor your mind on the breath during the exercise, that is, you will be more present in the now, while synchronizing mind and body.
Now we come to the final exercise.
Goodbye CO2 (x7)
In this last exercise we will do exactly the same as we did previously, and we will help our body to get rid of CO2 that may have remained in the bottom of our lungs.
For this, what we will do is contract the belly inward when exhaling, as if you wanted to touch the spine with the navel. So, it is the muscles of the abdomen that will help expel the air out.
You don’t need to apply a lot of pressure. When you notice that your exhalation volume is greater than usual, you know that you are on the right track.
In this case, we will take 7 breaths, counting from the exhalation.
Close your eyes, and come on…
How was it?
The goal of exhaling more CO2 than we usually let go and concentrating on getting air in and out of our body is that we begin to activate the Parasympathetic System, also known as the “rest and digest” (or “rest”) system. and digest” in English). This is ideal since the rhythm of modern life takes us to an opposite state where the Sympathetic System, “fight or flight”, is the one that is activated most frequently, taking us to levels of stress that are difficult to sustain.
The Sympathetic System doesn’t seem so nice to me after all.
If you are interested in learning more about both systems, I suggest watching this explanatory video by David Vargas, Dr. Professor.
Fall asleep in 4:7:8
To finish, we are going to learn a foolproof breathing technique at bedtime called 4:7:8.
Dr. Andrew Weil is the one who popularized it (and to whom I owe a giant thank you for helping me sleep through sleepless nights due to a racing mind!)
Well, the technique is as follows:
- When you’re lying in bed, ready to enter the world of Morpheus 😴, relax your lips, exhale the air through them with a subtle blow.
- Now inhale through your nose counting 4 counts
- Hold your breath counting 7 beats
- Exhale the air through the mouth as at the beginning of the exercise counting 8 counts.
- We’ll perform this cycle for 4 to 8 repetitions.
If your lung capacity is lower and you can’t get to 8 beats, that’s fine. You can reduce the count by maintaining a ratio where the exhalation is always twice the inhalation. For example: 3:5:6. With time and practice, you will have improved your lung capacity and will be able to extend the exercise even beyond the 4:7:8 ratio.
He Who Half Breathes, Half Lives
Ancient Eastern Proverb
It was enough to hear this proverb (and a pandemic related to respiratory problems), to make me aware that if I’m not breathing properly, then I am not reaching my potential.
The techniques that we cover in this post are the basic ones to help us get drunk, in a good way, with our own Oxygen reserve.
I hope that these techniques help to expand your lungs and your mind to discover that you can receive and give more than you imagined.
Now I ask you: are you really living or just breathing?
Keep on Learning and Breathing…