Breathing seems so natural, so easy, so taken for granted in many cases as an automatic activity our body must do in order to stay alive. In western civilization breathing is recognized primarily as a physical function of the respiratory system that takes vital oxygen into the body on the inhale and processes carbon dioxide and other waste out of the body through the exhale. We know that we can go without food for days, and without water for hours, however, we can survive without oxygen for only a few minutes. All bodily processes such as circulation, digestion and elimination depend on oxygen. Oxygen helps the body to produce energy, balance metabolism, purify the body of wastes, and fight infection. Since anaerobic bacteria, viruses and fungi cannot live in an aerobic (oxygen-rich) environment, high blood oxygen levels are important for a strong immune system. In fact, some studies show that 70% of all toxic waste is eliminated through the breath.

Today oxygen intake is even more critical than ever before. Two hundred years ago our ancestors breathed air with a 36% oxygen content. Today we breathe air with only 19% oxygen due to deforestation and pollution. In humid conditions or high altitudes there is even less available oxygen, and for those of us that spend most of our time indoors, stale or recirculated air is even more oxygen-depleted. It is no wonder that so many oxygen therapies have sprung up in holistic circles in an attempt to “breathe” into the body what it so desperately needs for vitality. Food grade hydrogen peroxide and ozone therapy are just a few examples.

We are now only just beginning to understand what Eastern civilizations have known for centuries – that the simple act of conscious breathing can restore vitality and stimulate healing on all levels of the body, mind, emotions and spirit. It is interesting to note that the word “spirit” comes from the Latin “spiritus” which means breath. In yogic philosophy, breath provides the prana, or life force to the organism which feeds every cell in the body through a system of energy channels. The Chinese call this life force chi and the energy channels meridians. In Japan this force is known as ki. Prana emanates from the “source” and in nature is found in negative ions, oxygen, ozone, and solar radiation. When we breathe we inhale nourishing prana from the atmosphere and exhale apana which flows back to the source.

In Swara Yoga, a discipline of yoga dedicated to specific breathing practices known as pranayama, the life span of a human is measured not in years, but in number of breaths. It is said that a healthy human life is comprised of 946,080,000 breaths, the equivalency of 120 years. Through concentration on controlling the breath rate and prescribed nasal breathing, one can live to their full potential. It is their understanding that during certain times of the day and lunar cycles, the body naturally breathes through a dominant nostril. Breath taken in through the right nostril regulates the left hemisphere of the brain that is concerned with solar or masculine action-oriented activities, and the left nostril regulates the right hemisphere of the brain, determining more lunar or feminine, intuitive activities. Physical and emotional imbalances can be corrected by consciously altering the breathing pattern of the nostrils, by purposely closing off one nostril and breathing through the other. In yoga, alternate nostril breathing is a common technique for centering and finding inner peace. The “fire breath”, a technique where a deep inhalation through the nose is followed by a series of forceful diaphragmatic exhalations, is utilized to activate the Kundalini energy at the base of spine and revitalize the entire body.

More recently, breath therapy has been successfully employed for resolving emotional issues that are stored in the body. Have you ever noticed that when under stress, we often hold our breath? By doing so we cut off the flow of oxygen and prana to the body which can then manifest physically in various ways. Sinus congestion, constriction of the larynx, bronchitis, asthma, tightening of the diaphragm, and poor posture. are symptomatic of suppression of feelings that create breathing inhibitions in various parts of the body. It has been observed that most people demonstrate restricted breathing patterns. Shallow breathing has been linked to numerous emotional and physical disorders. One study in a Minnesota hospital of 153 heart patients showed them all to be shallow breathers.

Suppression of painful feelings can begin at birth when we learn how to perceive the world outside the safe haven of the womb. For many of us the birth experience was quite traumatic. Exposure to bright lights and cold air, having our umbilical cord (our supply of oxygen from our mother) cut before we took our first breath, going unconscious from anesthesia, and being separated from our mother taught many of us that this world was a painful, unloving place to be feared. Patterns learned from birth, childhood trauma, and even past life experiences are often stored in the body and can determine how we relate to the world around us for years to come. Though counseling and psychotherapy can be very helpful in understanding why we feel and act the way we do, since these suppressed feelings are literally held in our bodies, we may need a more kinesthetic approach to integrate and change these patterns.

Holotropic Breathing, Rebirthing, Vivation, and Transformational Breath are forms of breath therapy that offer techniques for accessing and integrating emotional patterns that may be blocking us from achieving our full potential as human beings. Under the guidance of a trained practitioner in a relaxed atmosphere, one learns specific breathing patterns that bring oxygen to constricted areas where past trauma is stored. One such technique is continuous circular breathing through the mouth, where the inhale and exhale are connected without pause. This creates complete circuits of energy in the body that balance the prana and apana. In this way we can activate and integrate suppressed feelings, learning to replace fear, anger and judgment with acceptance and joy. While breathing this way will reveal our blocks, conscious breathing in this manner can also bring us into ecstasy and oneness with all that is. Spiritual teachers and avatars have been teaching this for thousands of years. Physical pain and dis-ease simply show us where we are blocked and in dis-illusionment. Often when breath therapy is added to any natural healing program, the results are dramatic, both emotionally and physically. With guidance and practice, conscious breathing can later be done alone to further release self-created doubts and fears that hold us back from blissful living.

So, the next time you find yourself out of your comfort zone, become aware of where your body is holding the tension and breathe into it. See this as an opportunity to become more conscious by breathing in the life force energy that is your gift from source. Breath is free, but you must remember to BREATHE!