The Way of Breath
Air is vital to life and life ends when breathing stops in a matter of
minutes. Breathing is inhalation and exhalation, a rhythmic muscular
activity that is mostly automatic. Breathing can be consciously controlled
briefly, usually to make sounds. All animals use air to communicate by making
sounds. Humans have the most elaborate sound making ability. Breathing air
becomes music and language. Life is air, food and water. Humans have lungs. Air has oxygen. Lungs take oxygen from
the air and give back carbon dioxide. Oxygen enters the blood and combines with
hemoglobin. Hemoglobin carries oxygen to every cell in the body. A cell will die
Air is a mixture of 78% nitrogen and 21%
oxygen with traces of water vapor, carbon dioxide, argon, other gases and a
variety of suspended particles. Carbon dioxide is only 0.03% of air volume, but
is vital for life on earth. Plants combine the suns’ light energy with nitrogen,
carbon dioxide and water to form organic molecules that animals like us will
eat. Photosynthesis is the basis of life on planet earth. The oxygen we need is
produced by plants, about 70% coming from ocean phytoplankton, the rest from
Air enters the body through the nose and mouth. The nose
cleans, warms and humidifies inspired air. Air entering the mouth is less
effectively cleaned. Inspired air then travels through the pharynx (throat) and
enters the trachea. The pharynx spits into two tubes, the trachea in the front
and the esophagus in the rear.
Breathing and swallowing compete for the pharyngeal space.
If food is inhaled by mistake, the airway is blocked. Vigorous coughing can
clear the airway, but a stubborn obstruction can end life unless a Good
Samaritan intervenes with the Heimlich maneuver. By vigorously compressing the
upper abdomen, air is forced from the lungs. In the best case, a tracheal
obstruction is cleared. As long as food and beverages move to the rear and
descend in the esophagus, the airway remains secure.
In emergency medicine the upper airway is the first
concern. You learn to assess and clear the airway of a patient first, then
confirm breathing and then confirm cardiac status-- check
heart beat and blood pressure. The airway can be obstructed in many ways and must be clear before a life can be
saved. Securing the airway is done with suction to clear liquids that accumulate
in the pharynx and by plastic tubes that connect the outside air with the
trachea. If the upper airway is damaged or cannot be secured, a tube is inserted
into the trachea below the larynx to allow air flow directly into the lungs.
Much human disease is airborne. Some of the most common diseases are spread
in the air from person to person when infected humans speak, cough and sneeze.
Some diseases involve immune reactions to airborne particles. Other diseases
come from human activities. While humans have a vital dependence on air and breathing, humans also have a
remarkable disregard for air quality. Humans all over the planet pollute the
vital substance that creates life on planet earth.
In Yoga, Pranayama is the practice of conscious
breathing to center the mind, to develop the sense of well being and to
promote health. Clean air and proper breathing are essential to health, clear
mind and vitality.