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For your Physical, Mental, and Spiritual Health & Well-being - February 2003

Breath is Life

Annette Kearl
MA Psychology/Behavioral Medicine
BS Music Therapy


Breathing is our first affirmation when we enter the world.

How do you breathe? Do you experience shortness of breath, tightness, pressure or pain in your chest, heart palpitations, hypertension, emotionality, impulse control, phobias, migraine headache, attention disorders, asthma, panic attacks or generalized anxiety, sleep disturbance, jaw clenching, irritable bowel, chronic fatigue . . .

It may be as simple as the breath. . . Breathing is both involuntary (quiet, shallow and from the belly) AND voluntary. Many factors cause us to breathe more or less, including stress, panic, emotion, exercise and habit. Most of us breathe incorrectly out of habit. We are trained to overbreathe. In times of stress, deliberation or motion, we are encouraged to “take a deep breath.” We have been taught that with every breathing motion, we inhale healthy oxygen and exhale a toxic gas called carbon dioxide (CO2). That big breath of oxygen is the ‘gas of life,’ while CO2 is the ‘waste gas.’ Therein lies the confusion.


The Carbon Dioxide Myth… CO2 is not a waste gas. It is one of the most important chemical regulators of the human body, and it is essential for the activity of our hearts, blood vessels and respiratory systems. It enables oxygen to do its job and, in reality, we need far more CO2 than we do oxygen. When we overbreathe we are actually getting less oxygen, not more. Overbreathing upsets the balance between CO2 and oxygen in the bloodstream and the chemical bond between the oxygen and hemoglobin (which carries oxygen through our blood) increases. This means that the hemoglobin will not let go of the oxygen it is carrying. As a result, the cells of our brains, hearts, kidneys, and other organs have difficulty getting oxygen.

Myths and Misunderstandings about “Good” Breathing. . . Good breathing means relaxation. No. Good breathing is important is all circumstances, whether relaxed or not. Nor is relaxation required to learn good breathing. Good respiration is all about the mechanics of breathing. No. Good breathing means ventilating in accordance with metabolic requirements. Diaphragmatic, deep, slow breathing means better distribution of oxygen and is synonymous with good breathing. No. Mechanics may look perfect, but oxygen distribution may be poor and in many instances one may begin to overbreathe as a result of switching from chest to diaphragm.

The Breathing Heart Wave . . . Heart rate changes in cycles. These cycles comprise what is known as “heart rate variability.” One of these cycles tracks the breathing pattern: “breathing in” increases heart rate, and “breathing out” decreases heart rate (also known as the respiratory sinus arrthymia or RSA) This pattern of heart rate change (variability) increases in amplitude as one relaxes, decreases in amplitude as one becomes tense and disappears altogether when one becomes highly anxious, stressed, or fearful. Monitoring this heart rate cycle, “the breathing heart wave, provides for direct observation of parasympathetic nervous system activity.

Respiration: Chemistry and Mechanics. . . “Respiration” is behavioral-physiologic balance, a form of self-regulatory actions that moves and delivers oxygen to and removes CO2 from each and every cell based on its specific metabolic needs. Breathing mechanics refers to the rhythm of our breathing (holding, gasping, sighing), how fast or deep we beathe, whether we use the chest, diaphragm or other muscles and whether there is breathing resistance in the nose or mouth. Breathing chemistry refers to the ventilation of CO2 through our breathing mechanics to promote our best respiratory chemistry. Overbreathing has detrimental effects on cognition, emotions and performance and can lead to chronic vasoconstriction (hyperventilation).

Infinite Health—The Bridge invites you to actively participate, learn and “see physiology as mindful.” This means accessing the mind: intuition, images, feelings, archetypes and meaning itself. Accessing the mind through body sensitivity training is fundamental to what has come to be known as BIOFEEDBACK and is the basis for breathing evaluation and training. Biofeedback monitors CO2 levels and heart rate variability and provides training both in breathing chemistry and breathing mechanics. Breathing evaluation and training bring together differing western schools of thought and tradition, including physiology, psychology, healthcare, and human performance with the promise of weaving them together with Eastern thinking, traditions and practice into an active, personal and mindful participation in behavioral-physiologic self-regulation for health and performance.

Mindful Respiratory Training. What will you learn? The objective of training while “at rest” is to restore proper breathing chemistry (CO2 levels), establish breathing rhythm, lower breathing rate, increase breathing depth, shift the locus of breathing from chest to diaphragm, encourage nasal breathing, relax musculature during exhalation, reduce collateral muscle activity, and establish stable presence of high amplitude heart wave activity (parasympathetic tone, RSA). Training for good breathing chemistry involves learning: 1) to evaluate breathing both at rest and in the context of multiple kinds of challenge; 2) about the physiology and psychology of respiration; 3) to identify the sensations of overbreathing, and reinstate the basic brain stem breathing reflex; 3) interpret physiological experience, e.g., deregulated vs. regulated breathing; 4) proper breathing mechanics: rhythm, volume, rate, resistance and locus of control; 5) to instate techniques for consciously disengaging or preventing overbreathing; 6) to generalize new patterns of breathing that normalize chemistry in diverse life circumstances, and 7) to establish “embracement physiology” and posturing by establishing new chemistry and is associated “physiologic mindfulness.”

Examples of performance training applications include: improving memory, enhancing thinking and problem solving, improving concentration (playing an instrument), attention training (attention deficit), reducing anxiety (public speaking, test taking), managing stress and anger, decreasing fatigue, reducing muscle tension, diminishing physical pain, facilitating relaxation and disciplines of inner directedness (meditation), natural child birth preparation, peak performance training (athletes and coaches), and evaluating and improving physical condition.

Good respiratory chemistry and mechanics set the stage for “embracement,” rather than defensiveness, as a “life” posture. Wellness is ultimately about embracing, about the heart, about bringing together the mindfulness of physiology with the personal consciousness. Health is about seeking, presence, and availability, not about ego and defensiveness. When egoless – open and embracing all of life, don’t overbreathe, JUST BE.

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