Air and Breathing
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 without oxygen.
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 land plants.
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.