Meditation Master Class: 5. Anatomy of Breathing!

In the previous session, we discussed respiration and its effects with reference to cellular biology and organic chemistry but today we shall discuss breathing in terms of physiology,

Physiological Aspect of breathing

Let’s begin by understanding how the respiration system works.

Each section indicated by a yellow circle is magnified as we move towards RHS [2]

Ambient Air entering through nostrils is filtered, warmed and moistened when passed through cilia and enters Pharynx, from Pharynx (throat) air travels to the Trachea (windpipe).

From trachea air moves to the left and right bronchi and from bronchi to millions of grape-vine like structures called bronchioles that run throughout the parenchyma tissue.

Lungs are easy to think like a balloon but they are more like a sponge. Like pores in a sponge, at the end of each bronchiole, there’s a little air sac called alveolus, connected to the blood capillaries.

Due to a phenomenon called diffusion, each gas wants to move to a lower concentration of itself. As Oxygen moves into capillaries, the hemoglobin contained in RBC grabs it up while carbon dioxide is rejected into the lungs. The air containing high amounts of carbon dioxide is then expelled by the lungs.

This process is explained in detail as follows: oxygen from the oxygen-rich air is absorbed by the Red Blood Cells (RBCs) causing their oxygenation which changes their color from bluish-purple to red and this oxygen is then as we previously (in the previous article) discussed is used for cellular respiration, causing oxygen consumption which turns RBCs back into a bluish-purple shade, so they go back to the lungs (due to pumping action of the heart) where they diffuse Carbon Dioxide and absorb Oxygen and the cycle continues.

Mechanics of Respiration

Now let’s have look at the mechanics of breathing i.e. what makes our lungs suck in and pump out the air. The diaphragm is the dome-shaped (shape is similar to that of jellyfish or the top of a mushroom) muscle-tendon structure that drives respiration as a piston drives the engine of a car.

However, as we have already discussed the lungs are not like a cylinder they are more comparable to a sponge. Similarly, the diaphragm does not reciprocate like a piston inside a cylinder (of an IC engine) or a syringe.

Breathing Animation

The diaphragm actually rounds up and flattens down and due to it’s attachment to the ribcage in the front and to the spine in the back. It causes a change in Volume and pressures inside the thoracic and abdominal cavity. This expands and contracts (squeezes) the lungs, causing respectively alveoli to inflate and deflate, making them either absorb or release the air.

This whole movement is neither simply vertical nor is it horizontal. It is rather a 3-Dimensional expansion and contraction movement. Less profoundly said this whole movement of expansion and contraction is like the movement of wings of a butterfly or flaps of wing suite using the back of the sternum as the hinge point

Lungs more than a gas exchange facility

For decades we have percieved that the bone marrow produces blood platelets. However recent research at the University of California San Francisco UCSF endorses the fact that more than half of blood platelets are made inside the lungs. Lungs are full of blood and immune stem cells.

Lungs make more than 50% of blood platelets

New research reveals that the lungs and bone marrow work together as a blood factory. This could revolutionize how we treat blood diseases but for us, We still are quite far from truly knowing and appreciating how important lungs are and what role do they actually play in the survival of an organism. Yet the information we have makes the lungs, their cleansing, and breathing practices indispensable. And I propose that proper breathing should be taught in schools.  

Breathing capacities

A person who is fairly relaxed and seated stably; inhales and exhales approximately half a litre of air at a time. This is called tidal volume in physiology. Now if that same person expanded his chest and abdomen in a 3-dimensional way as we discussed then it is possible for him to draw much more air into the lungs, it would be possible for him to draw-in approximately an extra two litres. This extra volume of air that can be inhaled is known as the inspiratory reserve volume in physiology.

In a normal exhalation about half a litre of air is exhaled. If after normal exhalation the chest and abdomen are contracted as much as is comfortably possible, then it is possible to expel an extra one and a half litres of air from the lungs. This is referred to as expiratory reserve volume.

There is still some air that will remain in the lungs even after the deepest exhalation. This is due to the fact that the lungs can never be fully deflated; the lungs can never be squeezed sufficiently by the chest and the diaphragm to remove all the air. This is known as the residual volume. It is generally in the order of one and a half litres.

Let us compare the normal volume of respiration with the maximum that can be respired:

1/2 litre (tidal volume) + 2 litres (inspiratory reserve volume) + 1 1/2 litres (expiratory reserve volume) = 4 litres.

This gives a total of four litres, compared to half a litre this is eight times the normal volume of inhalation and exhalation. A layperson while sitting breathes less than half a litre of air and so his breathing efficiency is actually less than one-eighth of his actual potential.

Here the exhalation plays a crucial role because when the 2-litre expiratory reserve volume is not fully utilised (exhaled) the residual volume (is potentially increased and) is also made prune of oxygen. It is for all these reason that learning to breathe properly is so important.

It is not just that breathing incorrectly reduces your metabolic efficiency and makes you feel exhausted more quickly and often than you actually want or should. It also affects other organs and processes and your state of mind.

The interconnectedness of organs (The Fascia)

Our body though made up of many interrelated components such as bones, muscles, nerves, as well as internal organs (viscera), a band or a sheet of connective tissue known as the fascia (from Latin: “band”) beneath the skin attaches, stabilizes, encloses, and separates muscles and internal organs.

These organs are in perpetual motion. When we breathe, walk and stretch, our organs move inside the thoracic and abdominal cavity. For the sake of our argument, consider this, when we take a breath, our kidneys move about an inch; and with deep inhalation, they move 4 inches. In a day, they move a little over ½ mile. That’s around 19,000 miles in a lifetime!

This movement of organs is transmitted through fascia to other structures of the body. In a healthy individual, all the structures move with a coherence. All of this movement is important as it influences activities throughout the body from the tiniest cellular pulsations to rhythmic contractions of the heart and blood flow. Optimum health relies on a harmonious relationship between the motions of the organs and other structures of the body.

There are many reasons for an organ to lose its mobility: physical traumas, surgeries, sedentary lifestyle, infections, pollution, bad diet, poor posture, and pregnancy/delivery. When an organ is no longer freely mobile but is fixed to another structure, the body is forced to compensate. This disharmony creates fixed, abnormal points of tension and the chronic irritation gives way to functional and structural problems throughout the body – musculoskeletal, vascular, nervous, urinary, respiratory and digestive, to name a few.

For an instance let’s say than when you unconsciously suck in your belly to look lean may be because you have been teased for being fat in childhood or you wear outfits that are extremely tight along the waistline you restrict the motion of abdomen, this restricts the natural movement and rhythm of the diaphragm and then you really on chest breathing.

This over the period of months or years could lead to severe neck issues (pains generally) and disorders such as anxiety, mental irritation, hypertension etc. because the breath not just affects the physical movement of organs it also stimulates what is known as Autonomic Nervous System

The Autonomic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system consists of two counterbalancing and connected parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

Sympathetic Nervous System

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for energy production and the body’s ability to respond to a threat either physical or virtual. It is ideally more active during the day. Some of its interventions are dilation the pupils, inhibition of the flow of saliva, acceleration of the heartbeat, dilation of the lungs, slowing of digestion, production of adrenaline and glucose, and inhibition of bladder contraction. The sympathetic nervous system is related to what in popular culture is known as fight or flight. Hyperactive symphethetic nervous system could also reduce the Heart Rate Variability.

Paraympathetic Nervous System

The parasympathetic nervous system, is a contrast to the sympathetic nervous system. It is responsible for energy recovery, regeneration, repair, and relaxation. It is usually more active at nighttime or during rest. Some of its interventions are stimulation of the flow of saliva, reduction of the heartrate, constriction of the lungs, stimulation of digestion and release of bile, and contraction of the bladder. The stronger the parasympathetic nervous system, the better the Heart Rate Variability and better will be your wellbeing. Any healthcare proffesional, even trainer of a world-class athlete will tell you that the body becomes stronger in a state of rest, not activity. The parasympathetic nervous system is popularly referred to as rest and relax.

Again autonomic nervous system is tied to the metabolic processes we discussed peviously. When sympethatic is more active it increases oxygen and glucose consumption but decreases glocuse production and removal of toxins giving us the ability to face any theat or physically or emotionally challenging situation where as parasympethatic does the exact opposite giving us a sence of calm, safety  and serenity.

The Natural Homeostasis

Due to our stressful lifestyle, we naturally tend to inhale for a longer duration and exhale for a shorter one and this indicates high cortisol levels and sympathetic overdrive. And so many of us today suffer from hypertension, high blood glucose and insulin, insulin and leptin resistance, constipation, migraines, anxiety and depression etc.

Ancient Yogis have been using breath regulation and control to maintain physical and mental health and wellbeing, regulation of metabolism, for mental peace and stability, healing and for psychological and spiritual growth for millennia and a long way before western science clinically discovered nervous system and the subconscious mind and its latent tendencies [3].

The first steps toward relaxation are very simple and it is to breathe slow and deep and to elongate the length of exhalation. And we do it intuitive sometimes. The sigh of relief or the popular belief to breathe deeply are the two most popular examples of this method in daily practice.

But not many people know that the flow of breath regulates every 90 to 120 minutes in any healthy person between the right and the left nostril which regulates the switching of the autonomic nervous system. This is essential homeostasis process of the body but due to our unhealthy lifestyles, we tend to be breathing predominantly from the right nostril which keeps us always on our toes and hence we are short-tempered and intolerant. And yogis and sages regulated the breath between these two nostrils consciously to maintain this natural homeostasis sound and active.

Today we know it by scientific evidence that :

  1. Every 90 minutes or so the tissues in the nasal passage on one side engorge with blood, making it full (much like tissues of genitals) and slightly closing the airway.
  2. The sympathetic and parasympathetic grapple every second for the control of the heart and other involuntary organs.
  3. The way we breathe actually stimulates a particular nerve which is spread throughout the body from tip of the toe to crown of the head known as the vagus (Latin for wanderer) nerve.
  4. And the stimulation of the vagus nerve stimulates the autonomic nervous system to switch from sympathetic to parasympathetic and vice versa.

We will discuss these in detail in our next session. But I hope this sheds some light on the importance of breathing for mediation as well as the overall health and well-being of an individual.


[1] These methods can be highly effective in treating several ailments including stress, anxiety, chronic pains, trauma, insomnia and even lifestyle disorders such as obesity, constipation, hypertension, and diabetes, etc. They can also aid in dealing with so-called deadly diseases including bacterial, viral and fungal infections, cancer, coronary artery diseases, etc.

[2] This diagram is only for illustrative purposes and some aspects of it are not anatomically correct.

[3] I’m referring to Freudian Psychology in particular.

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