Updated: Aug 23, 2022
You might have heard your teacher saying that the cool air enters your nostrils, passes the back of the throat and goes into your lungs and reverse with the warm air exiting the nostrils (and maybe warming the tip of your upper lip, which I loved and I think it was quite cute).
Having caught COVID and unable to do much more as I'm under room arrest, I took a lot of my time to do Pranayama, our vitality exercises in which we use our breath as a vehicle.
Certainly blessed - to use a very yogic word, lucky for you and me - having learned about these kept me breathing confidently. I was optimistic that I could keep my oxygen levels up throughout my very first days.
The simplicity of Yoga in bringing education to all, including the ones who are not that inclined to know the flow of air, makes this "university on living" something we should pay attention to.
Therefore, in this article, I'll take you through the ABC of breathing and explain the anatomy and pathology of the respiratory system and your lungs.
In a time when there were no oxygen machines, they had to do their best, and we will show you here in a few simple examples you can take, some of the exercises they have been using for centuries. If you are unsure, contact your GP and show them what we are doing. Tell them we will be very happy if the NHS gives us some funds for our good work! 😆
Go through the videos and take some ideas of what you can do or recommend, or just have a giggle at my silly self! 😆
Though not a doctor or specialist, I'm... interested, as a good yogi is. I praise all the effort and passed wisdom from my teachers - and underline the luck of having at the very top of the organisation a Dr (of western medicine) who is also a defender of the classical values of Yoga, therefore bridging the old wisdom and new research and making Yoga this living, evolving art and science. Thank you to Yogachariya Gurumaharishi Dr Ananda from IYCER, my loved teacher Yogachariya Jnandev & Yogacharini Deepika from the Gurukula, Sanatan Yoga and Yoga Satsanga Ashram.
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Respiratory System & the Journey of Air
You might not give much attention to the airflow to your lungs and out again. This happens automatically, therefore is governed by your autonomic nervous system and out of your normal thought process.
In Yoga, we bring consciousness to these automatic movements of our body. We walk, but are we walking properly? We think, but are we thinking healthily? We breathe, but are we breathing deeply? - as some of the examples.
The respiratory system comprises all the organs that help us exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide, the former gas we need for our metabolism - being alive, for you and me - and the latter gas we need to expel from our body.
The air journey from the nose to our lungs provides us with a line of defence against harmful pathogens and particles we inhale and warms the air to our body's preferred 36 degrees.
In Yoga, you might have come across the terms pitta, vatta, kapha, and ayurvedic Doshas, with kapha often being associated with phlegm. Well, this phlegm is part of our line of defence, blocking the flow of stranger things to our bodies. And then we have anti-bodies and cells from our immune system ingesting these particles in a process called phagocytosis - fancy stuff happening inside our bodies, ah? Larger particles are pushed away by the lining of our cells, which have tiny cilia or hair-like structures that are flowing in a rhythm - push it all away; away you go! That is why sometimes you have to "clear your throat". Your cilia are pushing all that bad stuff out of your lungs which you end up swallowing or spitting. Yuck!
Let us start right at the tip of the nose.
In Yoga, we say that you breathe through your nose, not just because we prefer it that way. You breathe through the nose because you have important areas inside that cavity - also because we always knew that this makes you smarter (!), honestly! - don't take my word for it; there is research done that seems to show some correlation! I know! Just read this article in the New York Times.
This area inside the nose is the Nasal Conchae or Turbinates.
With your inhale, you are creating a vacuum in your lungs, which forces air to come in from the outside - or the universe, as we love to say in Yoga! The air enters your nose and is forced to split because of the three prominent protrusions inside the Conchae.
Just like a jet engine, this speeds up the air, forces all those bad stuff right to the mucus-covered walls of the turbinates and warms and humidifiers the air, ready to be utilised by your body. Fabulous stuff, we are!
Alright! So we passed the nasal cavities, and our air is now safer, warmer and more humid, just like our body likes it, and is passing through the pharynx where both openings of the nose and mouth join and direct the right substance to the right place. Air to the larynx and food and water to the oesophagus. Note that the tonsils reside in this area and are an important defence mechanism. Certainly, I thought something was wrong because I noticed my throat was getting sore (biggest panic for a professional singer), an inflammation of the tonsils - which were working a bit harder to stop the COVID bug! NOOOOOO! And I have three concerts in two weeks! 😱
The air flows through the larynx - where you find your vocal cords - to the trachea.
The trachea comprises 16 to 20 incomplete C-shaped rings of hyaline cartilage and decides into bronchi - branch-like, which splits the trachea into left and right; further lobular or secondary, which subdivides into
the three lobes on the right and two on the left; segmental or tertiary,
which further subdivides into the nine different areas of the lungs (lower, mid and upper lobes, front, side and back) - anatomy shows that yogis were not that off with this subdivision being just a bit up, especially if you consider that we used to have another set of lobes.
We are very close to where the magic happens! The tertiary bronchi are subdivided into bronchioles, and there you will have the Alveoli - like the leaves in a tree!
The Alveoli and the Process of Gas Exchange
The Alveoli - sources say there are about 500 million of them on a surface bigger than your body, if you flatten it all out - are each around 0.2mm, tiny indeed!
The surface, known as the respiratory membrane, is, in many places, one cell thick, so thin that the oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules pass passively by diffusion to and from the capillaries! Can you imagine how small that is? Just amazing!
Your lungs have so much surface that you can have close to one litre (900 ml quoting sources) of blood around. Here, the red blood cells pick up oxygen molecules due to the presence of haemoglobin and then go off on their journey around the body. Most of the carbon dioxide is dissolved in the plasma and is not necessarily attached to the red blood cells.
Mechanisms of Breathing
All this remarkable stuff only happens if you are doing the right thing, allowing your body to take air in to keep your vitality or prana.
This is where Yoga comes in handy! Yoga will help you keep your spine straight so you can breathe properly and will work with the muscles responsible for the breathing mechanism. So, get on with it before is too late!
Opposite to what you might think, your lungs don't push air in and inflate your ribcage. Quite the contraire, my cher! Your lungs are quite relaxed.
Your body is sucking the air in by creating a vacuum in the lungs or negative pressure between your lungs and the atmosphere. This vacuum is produced by the movement of muscles that relax after inhaling, resulting in your exhalation. The elastic recoil in your muscles shortens the fibres reducing the chest cavity.
The muscles responsible for your breathing are the diaphragm, which, in our classes, we work on when emphasising the lower lobes of the lungs; the intercostals, which we work on when emphasising the mid area of the ribcage, and the pectoral minor and sternocleidomastoid and scalenes - muscles "glued" to your clavicle bone - which we emphasise when breathing towards the upper lobes.
Apart from that, all other muscles will hopefully interfere positively after your constant Yoga training, like the directly involved obliques, muscles in the back, to others you might never have considered, like the gluteals! So, live by the maximum of doing all Yoga and not just meditation or breathing. You need it all.
Here is a tiny video of our tradition's Hathenas - or the sequence to work on breathing and expand our lung capacity- modified to help you if you are in bed. And yes, my sheets are black!
What was most fascinating to me was when I joined the dots and realised that breathing in Yoga was very much like training in altitude or free diving - something I might just leave for another life to experience! You prolong the breath and make your body more efficient and resilient.
I realised that many times, I thought I was running out of oxygen and started panicking and breathing faster (and more shallow). I was actually wrong, and my body had no reason to trigger such response. Great if you like to run. I can just see you finishing your marathon in the first place by doing our breathing exercises!
Yoga helped me learn about the respiratory drive - when your oxygen is low, and carbon dioxide is high in your plasma -which is picked up by specialised brain cells - the chemoreceptors send a message to your medulla oblongata (kind of your very primitive brain, which function is to keep you alive) to trigger (emergency, emergency) the respiratory muscles to contract - like when you give a big breath after sustaining your air out!
By doing Yoga and experiencing it, I learned... I learned about breathing patterns and where my limitations are (today - daily work people); I learned what to do to get better. I learned to simulate the reflexes which help me clear my respiratory system from all the mucus, dead cells, all the crap - pardon me - I want to get out of my system - this could be using mukha bastrika and Kapalabati, which simulates sneezes and coughs... I learned about myself. And, believe me, I prefer to know these things than knowing about the stock market and die a millionaire with poor health. Does anyone know about the stock market? I'm ready to re-open our yoga studio! ah!😆
In Yoga is important to acknowledge the advances in science and not get stuck in the past. I have to say that without paracetamol and the COVID vaccines, I would have been in a worse situation.
That said, I made sure I was breathing deeply to keep my oxygen levels up and help my body to heal.
And this is the topic of discussion here. Pathology, discomfort, disease, dis-ease, we say in Yoga, comes because something is not functioning well. This could be the natural process of ageing, or because of externalities like COVID, and many times because we do not take enough oxygen in.
Now that you know how to exercise the ribcage muscles so you can take more air in, we will look more with "western" medicine eyes and know what can happen to our respiratory system.
Not wanting to be a testament to pathology, please follow the links to the NHS website, especially if you are doing your teacher training with us and you are using this article as an introduction to your Respiratory System and Yoga. Did I mention we have the best Yoga Teacher Training?
The principle is the same. Keep healthy and in a healthy environment. Therefore, let me talk about:
Having been a social smoker myself - I thought it would make me cool but now realise this might have just ruined my chance of being the next Pavarotti! Helas! - it is not a surprise to learn that during smocking, you constantly... ingest particles which will have to deposit somewhere around in your body.
You missed the cilia - the little hairs in your nose - and the first chunk of mucus that would stop those burned particles from going into your lungs.
Now, you have an overdrive body producing mucus - you always know when a person is a smoker by their cough - you have a system trying to get rid of that mucus so you don't drown yourself, and you have particles reaching to the bronchioli, blocking the passage, or reaching the alveoli destroying the tiny respiratory membrane one cell wall. What are we doing?! Love black, but not on my lungs!
This can get so bad that we can just make our bodies gulp for air. Our skin looks dry and with a mat tan, and I don't even want to think of what the lack of oxygen might be doing to all our other organs, including our brain.
We are just speeding up what would naturally happen - we are helping our body to get tired, exhausting our defence mechanisms which die like the permanent damage to the cells cilia, we are shutting down our body which rejects these external factors, which rejects its own body when things go wrong.
Other External and Internal Factors
Let me emphasise that Prana - that vitality, life force - comes from living within a good environment free from pollution.
Most of our pathologies are caused by externalities or our bodies working too hard to save us.
This can cause Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases, excess coughing, wheezing, dyspnea - difficulty breathing, sputum - material coughed up from the respiratory tract.
We can get infectious and environmentally related diseases and disorders like Cystic Fibrosis, Hayfever, Influenza (flu), Laryngitis, Lung Cancer, MRSA (methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus, Pharyngitis, Pleurisy, Pneumonia, Pneumothorax, Pulmonary Embolism (those blood clots we are now so aware), Pulmonary Fibrosis, Rhinitis, Sarcoidosis, our famous SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) which COVID-19 is just one of the few that came and will be coming, Sinusitis, Tuberculosis (TB), Whooping Cough (Pertussis). There are more! There is always more.
So better be ready for what life will throw at us!
Certainly, I can now say that Yoga and its breathing exercises have helped me through COVID. I was prepared.
I was also vaccinated; I'm sure that helped a lot too.
During my time in bed, I moved my joints to keep my body mobile and pain-free - it is very easy to get back pain when laying in bed for hours on end.
I practised my breathing exercises - my ABC of breathing, not alternate nostril breathing, that's more advanced and, in my opinion, misused therefore with low effect if you are not aware of what is doing, even if it might well calm you - and got my oxygen high and my lungs excess mucus free.
Jattis and Kriyas to keep your joins stiffness free
Nasarga/Mukha Bastrika & Kapalabhati to expel excess mucus in your respiratory system - get some tissues; it can get messy.
My teachers' good work
Yoga Therapy Course - LearningYoga.online
Roberts, Dr Alice, The Complete Human Body the definitive visual guide, DK,
Hull, Ruth, Anatomy & Physiology for therapists and healthcare professionals, The Write Idea LTD, 2011