Saturday, May 29, 2010

Science of Breath (Part 1)

Several years a go, I attended an informal class at the University of Texas taught by my yoga instructor Charles MacInerney on the topic of A Matter of Life and Breath. The following is my attempt to summarize what I learned and practiced in that class. It has done wonders for me when I start experiencing high levels of stress and heart palpitations.

The relationship between tension and breathing:

Ideally muscles are designed to briefly tighten and relax until needed again. However, our modern culture is such that we undergo constant and repeated "red light" reflexes in which our muscles think we are threatened. Every time some one honks a car, slams a door, etc. our muscles tighten. And when we lose awareness of a tense muscle, it begins to hold onto the tension longer each time it contracts, until it holds a residual tension. It is this residual tension (Sensory Motor Amnesia) that transforms the rib cage into a straight jacket that prevents people from breathing freely. So the key to learning how to breathe (yes, we need to learn--it doesn't come naturally in a culture like ours anymore) is to reverse Sensory Motor Amnesia. How do we do that? I'll get to that in the next session but let's first look at the differences between Diaphragmatic (Abdominal) and Thoracic (Chest) breathing.

Diaphragmatic (Abdominal) Breathing:

Slow, and rhythmic breathing
Large, tidal volume
Decreased heart rate
Decreased blood sugar levels
Decreased muscle tension
Decreased fatigue
Increased blood and oxygen
Increase lymphatic flow
Increased relaxation response
Decreased cardiovascular risk
Decreased likelihood of major EEG abnormalities
Associated with normal blood pressure
Associated with absence of type A behavior

Thoracic (Chest) Breathing:

Rapid, irregular breathing
Associated with hyperventilation (O2 levels rise, CO2 levels fall)
Low tidal volume
Increased heart rate
Increased blood sugar levels
Increased muscle tension
Increased fatigue
Decreased blood and oxygen
Decreased lymphatic flow
Decreased relaxation response
Increased cardiovascular risk
Increased likelihood of major EEG abnormalities
Associated with high blood pressure
Associated with type A behavior

Okay, so which type of breathing do you think you do on a daily basis? Which type of breathing is best for you?