I was driving along a narrow country lane when a squirrel ran in front of the car. I braked at once and it whisked safely into the verge with a flurry of tail. I relaxed and started to breathe again. For breathing is a part of the way we feel; in a tight spot we often suspend it altogether. Laughing, gasping, sobbing – these are all altered ways of breathing and they express our emotions. The next time you are angry or upset, notice the tight band of tension round your midriff and your rapid, shallow breathing. Tired or bored, we take great gulps of air in a yawn. And of course, breathing slows when we are resting, and quickens and deepens when we exercise. Unhappily, many of us breathe badly – too fast and too shallow, so that only a little air is scooped into our lungs and a lot of stale air is left behind as we breathe out. Altering the way we breathe is a simple way to increased well-being. It is the only autonomic (automatic) bodily function which we can change at will and all our vital functions are improved or hindered by our breathing.


We take breathing for granted – but we did not always breathe. Before birth, we were suspended in fluid, our lungs airless and still. With birth, the shocking plunge into a world of separation, light and noise, we took our first gasp of air and gave that first, cat-like wail. That abrupt transition from a water creature to an air creature is final; we spend the rest of our lives in a sea of air. Although w can live for several weeks without food and for several days without water, we can survive for only a few minutes without air.

We breathe in a mixture of gases containing about 21% oxygen and breathe out a mixture containing carbon dioxide. Oxygen, picked up by the pulmonary circulation, travels in the bloodstream round the whole body, needed by every cell. The blood also takes up carbon dioxide and other waste gases on its journey and transports then to the lungs, which breathe them out. Without oxygen, the body would not be able to break down the foods we eat into components which can produce energy and nourish the cells. Breathing, therefore, is vital to life.


Unlike four-footed animals, whose lungs are slung sensibly beneath their spines, we carry ours under our shoulders so that they are easily distorted by poor posture. They are two cone-shaped sacs in the chest filled with a spongy mass of air passages – the bronchi -which get smaller and smaller towards the ends of their branches until they end in tiny buds, the alveoli. The total area of a spread-out pair of human lungs is about half the size of a tennis court.

The intercostal (chest) muscles, attached to the ribs, expand the lungs, creating a vacuum which the air rushed in to fill. The diaphragm, an umbrella-shaped muscle at the waistband, flattens as we take in and domes again as we breathe out. Because of the diaphragm’s expansive action, and the fact that the two lowest pairs of ribs are free at the front (unlike the others) and therefore can expand more, the best kind of resting breathing uses mainly the lower part of the chest.


The ancients understood that the quality of our breathing has a powerful effect, not only on our body processes, but also on the way we react to life. Breathing is an essential part of yoga; the word “prana” means breath. life, energy, soul. Modern Chinese physicians have found that breathing therapy – which they call Quigong – is profoundly relaxing and saves energy, that it increases the efficiency of both digestion and elimination and that it can actually lower high blood pressure and cure angina pectoris (pain in the heart). It is also possible that, by strengthening immunity, Quigong may help recovery from cancer.

As well as encouraging the use of breathing during labour, Western medicine is finding it useful for a wide range of conditions. Dr. Albert Haas of New York University Medical Centre used a programme which included breathing exercises on patients seriously disabled by emphysema (crippled air sacs in the lungs) and reported rehabilitation in over two-thirds of those treated. The late Captain WP Knowles cured thousands of sufferers from nervous and respiratory illnesses, including asthma and bronchitis, by good breathing and, in common with many practitioners, found that the calming effect of deep inhalations can help smokers to give up.

Naturopaths say that shallow breathing causes fatigue and ill-health and point out that varicose vein sufferers are notoriously bad breathers; a leading exponent of the Bates system of eye exercises tells me that most of her patients who come to her with poor eyesight breathe badly, too. It is believed that slow, diaphragmatic breathing relieves hyperventilation which is a common factor in heart disease.

What is hyperventilation? We sigh, catch our breath in a laboured way as part of our natural response to stress. When this hyperventilation becomes a habit, however, it can cause changes in blood chemistry with many symptoms, including giddiness, numbness, headaches and fatigue, palpitations, nausea and great tension. At Papworth Hospital, Cambridge, over a thousand patients complaining of extreme anxiety were found to be hyperventilating and, when they were taught to breathe correctly, their anxieties and tensions actually disappeared in one to six months. (Paradoxically, the tranquilizers meant to combat tensions can make hyperventilation worse.) By improving oxygen supply to the brain, good breathing may also help older people to delay or overcome the forgetfulness so often accompanying old age.

One reason for the therapeutic effects of good breathing is that, as well as improving oxygen delivery to the tissues, its diaphragmatic movement massages the heart, digestive tract and liver. And skin is a glutton for oxygen; it takes up directly seven percent of your intake. This explains why good breathing is a real beauty treatment and, by calming a nervous desire to eat, it could be a useful part of your weight control programme, too.

Breathing can be hampered, not only by anxiety, but by poor posture – sitting hunched for hours at a desk or in a car – and by sedentary living. So an obvious way to improve your breathing is to take strenuous exercise; get out of breath and you exercise your heart and lungs, thus increasing their efficiency. Most of us use only about half our breathing capacity and exercise helps the lungs to expel residual air left in the alveoli, where the crucial oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange takes place, increasing its effectiveness. The lungs are also organs of excretion and, when they are working well, they are better able to discharge mucus and other wastes.

From an excellent article entitled Breathtaking by an unknown author.