The Unified Theory of Breathing

Sometimes it’s okay if the only thing you remembered to do today was breathe.” – unknown

Long before I learned to meditate, I learned a breath practice while climbing mountains. Guides call it the “pressure breath” and it involves intentionally breathing out all the air in our lungs so we can take a full inhale. They explained the reason for the pressure breath because we often don’t exhale all the air in the lungs. Without consciously thinking about it, our bodies can short cut a full exhalation. But at altitude, the air is thinner so we need a full inhale.

If you climb to Camp Muir on at 10,000 feet on Mt. Rainier where I learned the practice, you will be taking in only 2/3 the amount of oxygen that you would at sea-level. For every 1,000 feet you climb, it decreases by about 3% so at 18,200 feet (my personal high point), it is about 45% of the oxygen at sea-level.

So the pressure breath helps to counter the effect of thinner air by forcing a breath that takes in more air and therefore more oxygen. (For anyone who is interested, the reason there’s less oxygen is that there’s less pressure at altitude so that there are fewer oxygen molecules in the same volume of air).

Twenty years after I learned to pressure breathe on a mountain, I’ve stumbled on the science of other reasons to fully exhale. It feels like a moment of a unified theory – understanding why something I learned in one context is so healthy for many other reasons.

The book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor inspires me to try to reform everything about my breathing. It is so well-written, researched and told through personal anecdotes and other living examples. In his chapter, Exhale, he cites two studies that set out to measure lung capacity as it related to longevity. They both found “that the greatest indicator of life span wasn’t genetics, diet, or the amount of daily exercise, as many had suspected. It was lung capacity.”

And the way to bigger lung capacity? James Nestor provides a couple of different examples but they involve extending the range of the diaphragm (the typical adult only uses about 10% of the range) by practicing exhaling fully. In short, Nestor said we need to take as few breaths as we can to sustain our metabolic rate. Take fewer breaths and get more oxygen and then the diaphragm moves up and down and helps with circulation and moving lymph fluid. The perfect breath is 5-6 breaths/minute. Cite the Ava Maria or Om Mani Padme Om or the Sa Ta Ma Na (Kundalini Chant) – they all take about the same amount of time of 5.5 seconds.

Adding to this science, I also recently heard Ten Percent Happier podcast with therapist and author, Deb Dana. In it she explained poly-vagal theory and the three states for our nervous system:  ventral state which is calm and regulated, sympathetic which the fight or flight response and dorsal which is when the nervous system has been so overstimulated that it shuts down. And while all three states work to help us navigate particular circumstances of life. But when we need to get back to a ventral or calm and regulated space, there are breathing practices that help us do so. A longer exhale is one of them.

So there it is – the unified theory of the full exhale. I thought living at sea-level made pressure breathing unnecessary for me. Until I realized that I’ve been doing it in different ways all this time – the exasperated sigh, the mindful breath practices and everything in-between that continues to teach me that the things we learn in one context continue to be effective everywhere else, helping me climb all sorts of metaphorical mountains one step at a time.

(featured photo is mine of a team of climbers leaving the summit of Mt. Ixtacchuatl, 17,600 feet)