Breathe for Life

Adult humans normally breathe at the rate of one breath every six to eight seconds and inhale an average of sixteen thousand quarts of air each day. If nothing is done to restrict breathing, it will happen naturally and fully. But people continually inhibit natural breathing in many ways—poor posture, tight or binding clothes, “speed eating,” exposure to noxious substances, smoking, lack of exercise, plus habitual patterns of emotional stress.

When breathing is obstructed or suppressed, the cells in the body do not receive the full amount of oxygen necessary to carry out their assigned functions. You may feel sleepy or irritable, or develop a headache. One reason that exercise is so valuable is that it forces you to breathe more fully, literally replenishing your dwindling supply of oxygen.

Hindus call it prana—the life force carried in the breath. Many languages use the same word for both breath and spirit, or life force.

In Hebrew, the word for soul or spirit is rauch. In Greek, it is pneuma. In Latin, spiritus. Each of these words also means “breath.” In English, to inhale is to “inspire”—to take in the spirit. To exhale, or expire, means to release the spirit. All of life can be observed as a taking in and a giving out, of movement and rest, of controlling and letting go. The way you breathe is an excellent metaphor for the way you live your life.

The information and exercises recommended here encourage you to start paying attention to your breathing as a form of relaxation, stress reduction, and healing.

Breath and Stress
Stress is inevitable—you need it to stand upright against the force of gravity. That’s known as eustress, or positive stress, the kind that motivates you to get a job done on time or to do something that you thought was impossible.

When endangered by something in the environment or upset by disturbing thoughts—such as frightening expectations or memories like those associated with grief or panic—the body reacts to protect itself. It triggers a set of automatic responses, including increases in heart rate, in blood flow to the muscles, and in the rate of breathing. These responses are designed to energize the body to do battle, to run away, or to freeze. When the danger is real, the alarm state is necessary and important.

But there are many less dangerous forms of stress in your life that have the potential of wearing you down and causing a variety of health problems. Many people live in a constant state of alarm. “Stress plays some role in the development of every disease,” writes Hans Selye, MD, in his classic work, Stress without Distress.

If stress is balanced with relaxation or attitude-change methods, the continual surge of energy supplied by the response to stress can be modified or even channeled for creative purposes. If stress levels remain high, disease and breakdown will often result.

Take a moment to recall some of the stressful situations in your life. Are there difficult people, either adults or children? Interruptions when you’re trying to work or rest? Is there too much work, too little time? Are they driving in traffic? Smog and noise? Worries about your own health, or the health of someone in your family?

The breath is life. That is why the yogi says that you “half-live” because you “half-breathe.”

You may not be aware of it, but every tense situation, or even memories of tense situations, will cause a change in your breathing. Generally, the more stressed you feel, the more shallow your breathing will become. People who are under the strain of a serious loss frequently report that their chest feels locked, like they can’t take a full breath. Almost every approach to relaxation and stress management focuses on attention to breathing.

Breathe to Relax
Here’s an exercise that only takes a few minutes to complete, and you can do it imperceptibly almost anywhere, at any time.

  1. If you can safely close your eyes, do that first. Otherwise, just stop talking and attend to your breathing.
  2. Inhale, and as you inhale, say to yourself: “I am …” Exhale, and as you exhale, say to yourself: “…relaxed.”
  3. Continue repeating, “I am ….” with each inhalation; “…relaxed” with each exhalation. Let the breathing gradually become a little deeper, a little slower, but don’t force it in any way. Just let it happen. As your mind begins to wander, gently bring it back to an awareness of breath and your statement, “I am…relaxed.” Be easy on yourself. Continue doing this for a minute or two, longer if possible. Notice the overall effects of relaxation throughout your body.

More about Breath
While it is not possible or necessary to fully expand your lungs with every breath, you can heighten awareness of the breathing process, by intentionally creating a complete breath. Taking a full breath periodically uses the lungs to capacity and extracts great amounts of “life force” from the air.

Experience a Full Breath
Try this next exercise sitting, standing, and lying down. With gentle practice you will find that it becomes a smooth flow. Do it no more than about ten times consecutively unless you find the feeling of lightheadedness pleasurable.

  1. Exhale deeply, contracting the belly.
  2. Inhale slowly, expanding the belly first, then the chest, and finally raising the shoulders, slightly, up toward your ears. Hold this breath for a few comfortable seconds.
  3. Exhale in the reverse pattern, slowly. Release your shoulders, relax your chest, relax your belly.
Adult human beings breathe an average of 16,000 quarts of air each day.

Breathing for Healing

Parents often sense that their child needs to breathe more fully to relieve panic or pain. The same is true for adults. Conscious breathing practices are now routinely taught in childbirth preparation classes. Anxiety intensifies pain, and the normal reaction is to tighten up when breathing. Breathing consciously not only will relieve tension and help quiet any fear, it can also relieve pain. So before you reach for the aspirins, the antacid tablets, or the telephone to call your doctor, do some breathing.

Here is a simple healing exercise:

  1. Scan your body mentally, noticing how different areas are feeling.
  2. As you inhale, imagine that you are breathing increased life into areas that feel tired, painful, tight, or “starved” in some way.
  3. As you exhale, imagine that the tiredness, pain, and tightness are leaving with the expelled air.
  4. Repeat for two or three minutes. Enjoy.

Reprinted with permission, from Simply Well by John W. Travis, MD, & Regina Sara Ryan. Copyright 2001. Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA.

The online version of Dr. Travis’ Wellness Inventory may be accessed at ( The Wellness Inventory may also be licensed by coaches, health and wellness professionals, and organizations.

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Written by John W Travis MD MPH

Explore Wellness in 2021