My first breath
At the moment of my birth, I was propulsed from the warm and safe confines of my mother’s womb, through her vagina, which wasn’t quite big enough for my head, resulting in my brain getting a bit squashed, and finally out into the waiting hands of a mid-wife. I have no memory of the moment, but I imagine that it was a rather unpleasant experience.
Until then, I had been breathing the fluid inside the amniotic sac. My oxygen supply had come from my mother’s blood through the umbilical vein. But now I was out in the cold, and I needed a fresh source. I spluttered out the fluids, drew in a big breath and let out a hell of a scream.
Quite understandable in the circumstances really. You would have done the same thing, in fact I’m certain you did.
Oxygen and combustion
Now as far as I understand, the composition of the air we breathe on Earth is roughly 1/5 oxygen and 4/5 nitrogen. The nitrogen is inert; it mostly acts as a retardant for the very excitable oxygen. Oxygen bonds with carbon to form carbon dioxide, and in the process stored energy is released. This combustion reaction is exactly what happens when I set a pile of wood on fire. Oxidation can also happen very slowly, without the spectacular burning, such as when iron rusts, forming ferric oxide. And it is this same reaction that is occuring continuously inside my cells, a process called cellular respiration.
When I drew my first breath, the oxygen in the air was absorbed through the alveoli in my lungs and from there into my blood. That blood was pumped through my heart, and then through my circulatory system around my entire body in a loop, coming back again to my heart and then returning to my lungs. Along the way, oxygen in my blood was supplied to my cells and carbon dioxide was collected in return. This carbon dioxide was then released into my lungs and then exhaled.
Asphyxia and hypoxia
After my first breath and a bout of screaming, I settled down to a normal rhythm of breathing. I was lucky to be born at full term with a healthy set of lungs.
Not all people are so lucky. Some are born premature, with lungs that have not been fully formed, and struggle to breathe normally. Abnormal breathing followed by an an insufficient supply of oxygen is called asphyxia. It can happen at any stage of my life for a number of different reasons.
I could choke on a foreign object stuck in my throat. Peanuts are apparently quite dangerous. If I were to fall into the sea without first learning how to swim, I would sink beneath the waves and drown, my lungs full of water. If I were to climb a very high mountain, I would begin to suffer from altitude sickness, because at high altitudes the air is thinner and my lungs would struggle to absorb sufficient oxygen. People who smoke, as I have, slowly block their lungs with soot, leading to gradual asphyxia.
As a fire requires air to continue burning, so my cells require oxygen to continue the process of breaking down nutrients and thus releasing energy. Without this oxygen the cells will begin to die, a condition known as hypoxia. Asphyxia leads to hypoxia, but it is not the only cause. Hypoxia can also be caused by poor blood circulation or cardiac arrest.
If my brain cells start to die I will be in a very dire condition indeed, for my brain controls my heart and lungs through the nervous system, and if my lungs stop respirating and my heart stops pumping, then no more oxygen will get to my brain. Without a fresh supply of oxygen my brain will die in a matter of minutes and my life will end.
Recently, medical researchers have discovered the possibility to maintain the body alive even after the brain has died, with the assistance of a heart-lung machine. For future reference, were I to be found in this situation, I would like the machine to be used only as long as needed to harvest my organs. I would rather breathe with my own lungs or not at all.
It is essential to breathe normally. Most of the time, my body does this unconsciously, and it works quite well. However, I have found that occassionally breathing consciously can provide me with benefits.
As a child I realized that I could breathe myself to sleep if I was tired. I would take long slow breaths until I drifted off. I have found it to be quite an effective technique.
Through the practice of Hatha Yoga I have been learning other breathing techniques. I am still a beginner, but I would like to learn more.
I have learnt to breathe in four times, also known as a square rhythm. I breathe in slowly over a period of say 5 seconds, then hold my breath for 5 seconds, then breathe out slowly for 5 seconds, and then hold my lungs empty for a further 5 seconds.
I learnt to breathe rapidly, inhaling deeply and then exhaling in a powerful spurt, repeating the cycle say 20 times. This is followed by holding my breath, either with lungs empty or full. Although I’ve yet to time myself, I am surprised at how long I am able to hold my breath.
Controlling my breathing in this way leads to a feeling of improved overall emotional state. So far I have only been scratching the surface of what is possible, but I would be very interested to learn more.
Conscious breathing also involves learning how to control the diaphram, by expanding my abdomen instead of my chest when breathing. Thus far, I have only been practicing this within the context of yoga classes, however I would be interested in trying to integrate the practice into my daily routine.
I enjoy rock climbing. Sometimes, half way up the cliff face, I find myself stuck in a difficult position, I can’t find a way up and I can’t go down either. My respiration begins to accelerate, my muscles begin to tremble, I start to panic. I have come to recognise that the panic is often caused by a lack of oxygen. If I take a few deep breaths, I can overcome the panic, find a solution, and continue my climb upwards.
When I am joined by friends on the cliff face, especially friends who have never climbed before, the most important advice I give them is to remember to breathe. Invariably when they get stuck I shout: “Breathe! Breathe! Breathe!” More often than not, it gets them through.
The problem is hyperventilation, a condition that can arise in situations of stress, but instead of helping to increase the available oxygen, this reflex actually works against the body. The only solution is to take conscious control of breathing until the situation returns to normal.
Breathing and massage
I have had the occassion to practice a particular style of theraputic massage, where I would massage a person in time with their own breathing. In the simplest form, I would run my hands down their back, following their breath as they draw in, and run my hands back up their back as they exhale. The idea is to accompany the breather, and to gradually encourage them to breathe deeper and slowly relax their body and mind. When performed correctly, it is an incredibly effective technique, and something I would like to explore further.
Apnea is the temporary suspension of breathing. In a relaxed state, when practicing yoga, I would guess that I can hold my breath for about a minute. I would be very interested in learning to extend this, and to couple apnea with diving. I’m not interested in diving deep and breaking records. I would like to swim underwater in the sea, exploring coral reefs and perhaps even hunting fish for food.
With my first breath I produced a sound: a scream. My mother tells me that overall I was an easy baby, but nonetheless I wailed: for food, because I had gas, because I was tired, because I wanted affection. Babies wail.
As a grew I learnt to laugh, and to this day, nothing feels as good as a bout of laughter.
All animals make sounds to communicate, to signal danger or to search for mates. We humans appear to be the only species that can speak, by controlling both the lungs and the tongue at the same time. Learning to speak is an essential part of our development. I would be interested to learn more about the conscious control of breathing as it relates to speaking, especially with regards to voice projection when addressing a crowd, be it on stage, on a podium or simply in a meeting.
Another aspect of breath and sound that I would like to learn more about it the production of melody, through humming, whistling, singing and playing wind instruments. I have no memory of my mother ever singing to me, but I would like to be able to sing lullabies to my children one day.