Probably the most common breath instruction that we hear in modern postural yoga and among general health practitioners is to “take a deep breath.” In gyms and yoga classes worldwide an audibly strong, deep breath is encouraged to fill up the lungs as much as possible to gain more oxygen and to eliminate unhealthy carbon dioxide. Taking a big breath can enliven us in the moment and help us clear a layer of inner tension that we have accumulated during our stressful day. Certainly, deep breathing might feel good and have short-term benefits, but is it truly the healthiest and most natural way for us to breathe over the long-term?
To analyze this question, we must look at the two key factors of breathing technique – volume and frequency. Volume relates to the total amount of air breathed in and out within a period of time, and frequency is the breathing rate within that time period. Advanced yogis, martial art masters, and highly trained athletes including Wim Hof, the “Ice Man”, all naturally breathe only a few times per minute (3 – 5 breaths / min.) with low total volume of air (2 L / min).
In stark contrast, distressed, sickly, aged and dying people breathe rapidly (20 – 30 breaths per minute) while sucking a huge volume of air (~20 L / minute). Although someone might be moving a lot of air in and out of their lungs, their tissues can become hypoxic, literally suffocating without enough oxygen. This seeming paradox of increased volume of air to lower oxygenation will be explained physiologically shortly. On the other hand, when we are in a state of relaxed focus or meditation, or in a state without psycho-emotional inhibition, i.e. no distress, our breath is naturally very light with a low volume of air being moved in and out of our lungs per minute.
Another interesting fact regarding breath rate is the correlation among animals to their longevity. For example, the breath rate of a giant tortoise is about 4 cycles per minute and they can live over 150 years! A whale breathes about 6 rounds per minute and they typically live over 100 years, while a mouse breathes over 100 rounds per minute and they usually live no longer than 3 years. The average breathing rate for a human is 15 - 18 / min, and our life expectancy is normally around 80 years. Yet, it is typical for Qigong masters who breath imperceptibly only a couple times per minute to live well over 100 years.
So, how can breathing slower with less volume be healthier than deep breathing over the course of our life? A central key to vibrant health and longevity is high oxygenation of our tissues, vital organs and brain. Yet, a healthy level of oxygen in our cells can only occur if there is a healthy concentration of carbon dioxide present in both our lungs and blood. Carbon dioxide is not a worthless, toxic by-product of cellular respiration as many people believe. It is actually a primary factor in the process of releasing of oxygen from the blood to our cells and in the regulation of our blood pH. As carbon dioxide builds up in the lungs, it then increases in the blood, which leads to a release of oxygen to our tissues and organs. This is called the Bohr effect, which describes the process of how hemoglobin releases oxygen to tissue based on carbon dioxide levels in the blood. Levels of carbon dioxide in the lungs and consequent levels of oxygen in our cells are directly related to our daily breathing patterns.