One positive outcome from the menacing cloud of Covid-19 is the current focus on breath and lungs and how we take breathing for granted; it is a sad fact that only when gasping for air do we realise how important breathing is to our lives. As Andi Puddicombe reassuringly puts it in BBC4’s Mindful Escapes: Breathe, Release, Restore: “Like individual droplets of water in an ocean, it is easy to let life pass by without knowing the subtleties of each breath, not until it is taken away do we become aware of its fragility”.
Knowledge about the breath is nothing new; prana or qi/chi means breath, life force or energy – a whirling dance of atoms, discovered over 3000 years ago. The more of it you have the more alive you are; proper breathing expands our life force. Qi gong – meditative breathing with movement – is breath work. Breathing through the mouth is considered harmful and called ni chi. From around 400 BC in ancient China volumes of Tao books were carefully calligraphed exclusively about the breath or qi and its powers to heal or harm.
Indian Yogis train to decrease the amount of air they need; less is more. The late yoga master BKS Iyengar explained that a yogi’s life is not measured by the number of days but by his number of breaths; following the proper rhythmic patterns of slow, deep breathing the respiratory system is strengthened and the nervous system soothed. Tibetan Buddhist monks practise the age-old heavy breathing technique called Tummo or Inner Fire Meditation to keep themselves cosy wearing thin cotton robes and sandals high up in the Himalayas. More recently master breathers such as free divers have trained to expand their lungs to such an extent that they can hold their breath for 10 minutes, dive down to 300 feet and swim sinuously with the fish unencumbered by clumsy tanks.
Journalist James Nestor lives and breathes the subject, and after many years of exploration has demonstrated in his book Breath that the way we breathe truly matters. In the west not only are we overeaters but also over-breathers; we breathe too much, and too often through the mouth instead of the nose. The latest research points the way to new thinking and breathing, with the consequence of health benefits instead of problems. Inhaling the right way is as vital to the body as the quality of food we eat. Breathing is the most basic thing in the world but if done badly and not as we were designed to do it, all the running, gym work and dieting won’t count for much. Nasal obstruction from a stuffy nose to full-blown polyps or asthma is a common complaint and so it’s easier to become a habitual mouth breather – airflow is constricted, bacteria thrive and surprisingly as Japanese scientists discovered by testing rats, fewer brain brain cells get formed. Aside from Covid-19 that is something none of us want.