We think of breath as having two parts. Inhale. Exhale. But there are three parts. Inhale. Pause. Exhale. Pause. When we are paying attention to our breath (and by that I mean that we are purposefully affecting the breath, because, let's face it, can we pay attention to the breath without trying to manipulate it?), unless we have been given some other instruction, we inhale, exhale. As soon as we've finished one, we are on to the next. But what about the pause? Did you know you pause when you breathe? If you could watch your breath without affecting it (you might be able to, with a lot of conscious effort) you would notice that there are pauses, particularly after the exhale. It takes longer than an exhale (I'm talking about breathing at rest here) to use up all of the available oxygen, and for the body to feel the need to change the balance of O2 (oxygen) and CO2 (carbon dioxide).
When we inhale, our O2 level increases, which means the CO2 percentage decreases (the overall percentage of CO2 in the gasses in our body). If we pause after the inhale, the CO2 level will increase (as the body takes the O2 and changes it into CO2) and at some point we will feel a need to exhale, to bring the percentage of CO2 down in the body. Another pause after the exhale will allow CO2 levels to rise again, as the body continues to use the O2 from the last breath and create CO2. Are you with me so far?
Wait! Isn't CO2 bad for the body, you may ask? Well, no. It's not. CO2 is more than just a waste gas. We make CO2 so that we can use it in the body. In fact, one of its functions is to help move O2 around. I would love to explain to you all the ways that the body uses CO2. However, I am not a biochemist. In fact, I'm so lacking in the chemistry end of this that when I try to read about it, I get lost immediately, and start wondering if I should go take a chemistry course. Not something I'm proud of. So, I'm going on some faith here that this is true: we need CO2 in our bodies. We can't have too much CO2 in the body — that would be bad for us. CO2 in the right amount in the body is not only good, it is necessary.
As your body is inhaling and exhaling (and hopefully pausing some, too), your brain is keeping track of the balance of the O2 and CO2 in your body. That's why sometimes you'll find you are suddenly and spontaneously taking in a slightly larger inhale, or maybe sighing out a bigger exhale. If you are paying really close attention (again, without interfering), you might be able to tell that you are pausing for quite a while after you've exhaled.
There are studies that show us that we, as a modern society overall, are increasingly over-breathing. In a similar way to our over-eating, we are over-breathing. More is better, right? Well, no. Balance is what we need. Because we have thought of CO2 as purely waste, we haven't had to consider the problems of over-breathing. If we inhale too big, O2 goes up. If we exhale too big, CO2 goes down. (See how in both the inhale and the exhale the percentage of O2 in the body increased and the CO2 decreased?) And if we don't pause between the breaths, CO2 doesn't have a chance to recover. We often feel as though we need more O2, and that's true, but sometimes part of the trouble is that the CO2 has been depleted, and there isn't enough CO2 to move the O2 around. Instead of inhaling again (or faster, or bigger, or deeper), what we need is to wait a couple of moments for the CO2 levels to increase.
A problem that we have is that there is a kind of thermostat in your brain (in the medulla oblongata) telling us what to do. Because we've been over-breathing for so long, it gets a little out of whack, thinking that the CO2 levels should be lower that what is really optimal. You can re-train your brain, though. How to do it is a whole other conversation, and one I'm not qualified to have with you (yet!). If you'd like to know more, find a Buteyko teacher near you (if you want to know of one, send me a note and I can give you a name). You could also read the book The Oxygen Advantage, which is based on some of this same research. The one instruction I would give is to breathe through your nose only, at all times, as much as is humanly possible.
Buteyko? A book? Science? What about yoga? Ah, yes, yoga. That thing that I do and love and teach. If you talk to a yoga teacher, they might tell you something other than what I've said here. It's not their fault, it's what they've been taught, too. Let's all take a deep breath! And another deep breath! Keep taking deep breaths! A hardcore Butyeko teacher would say that that is all bad, that we should never take a deep breath. I'm a little bit more moderate, and would say that an occasional deep breath isn't going to destroy your good breathing. But generally, what do we do about breath in yoga? If we're talking about breathing during an active practice of asana (poses), I would suggest that you breathe as you need to. Inhale and exhale with the movement as you are instructed (or have been taught), and allow the breath to become deeper to support your movement. Breathe as much as you need to. If we're talking about pranayama, I think we need to be careful that we are not over-breathing. I'm still in the process of bringing together these ideas of the science of the breath and pranayama, so maybe I won't say more on this yet, but I'm sure I'll be saying more in the future. Right now I would suggest attention and caution. I still practice pranayama daily, so I'm not suggesting we ditch it. Don't worry.
A definition here before I go on. Pranayama: pranayama is a word that you may have heard to describe a breathing exercise in a yoga class. The word itself has a couple of meanings. It's a compound Sanskrit word, combining prana and yama. However, in the Sanskrit way, if you combine two words where the last letter of the first word and the first letter of the second word are the same, you drop one of the doubled letter. So, this means that pranayama is also a combination of prana and ayama. But what are prana, yama and ayama? Prana is the life force within us. It can be the sound an instrument makes. It can also be your breath. In this case, it's used to describe specifically your breath. Yama means restraint. If you are familiar with yoga and the eight-limbed path, it's one of them. The Yamas are 5 ethical rules for living. Here, it means to restrain or control the breath. When you put the letter A in front of a word in Sanskrit, you get the opposite. So ayama means expanding the dimension. So, pranayama means the restraint and expansion of the breath. It's learning to control it, and to free it.
In Prana and Pranayama by Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, he says, "The process of respiration has three components: pooraka, inspiration; rechaka, expiration; and kumbhaka, retention. In the classical yogic texts it is said that kumbhaka is pranayama and pranayama is kumbhaka; not pooraka and rechaka which are natural processes." If this is true, then the learning to control the breath and freeing the breath are found in the pauses.
This is a very long post, a very long way of saying, that by freeing and restraining my breath on my walk today, I was able to leave difficult things behind. I was able to find my centre by moving my breath, and by suspending my breath. Today my practice carried me home, both literally and metaphorically, and I am grateful.