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Breathing free - using the voluntary breath to benefit our body

Breath is life. We can do without food and water for a limited period, but we cannot deprive ourselves of air for any meaningful length of time. The average healthy person, without using any sophisticated techniques such as pure oxygen assistance, can hold their breath for 2 - 3 minutes, depending on individual physical characteristics.

Women have less lung volume than men

Lung function and breath holding varies widely from person to person, says Clayton Cowl, Chair of preventive occupational and aerospace medicine at the Mayo Clinic Rochester. Women are less likely to be able to hold their breath for long periods - their lung volumes are typically 10-12% less, as their rib cages are generally smaller.

Can you train yourself to hold your breath for longer?

However, psychology also plays a crucial role, in that you can voluntarily say to yourself that you are going to hold your breath for longer. Cowl says that you “can train yourself to do longer and longer breath holds”. This is the magical component of the breath, its ability to be both an involuntary and a voluntary activity. We breathe, automatically, without thinking about it. But we can choose to breathe consciously, exerting a degree of control over this life-giving process.

Olympic swimmers breathe more effectively

And here we come to the voluntary/involuntary magic. Although our bodies have an ‘override’ mechanism if we hold our breath for too long (we faint, and normal breath service is resumed), we can potentially ‘stretch’ this non-breathing period and change the physical processes to further accommodate this holding of the breath. For example, Olympic swimmers, due to aerobic conditioning, are more efficient at getting oxygen into the tissue and extracting carbon dioxide. Cowl says that the aerobic training allows them to breathe more effectively and potentially to improve their breath holding.

The voluntary/involuntary breath

Yoga teachers and practitioners are also deeply interested in the voluntary/involuntary process of the breath. “Bring awareness to the breath” is a common request from yoga teachers to their students. In Dru Yoga, monitoring the breath is an important part of each individual’s yoga practice, as a useful check mechanism to ensure that the physical movement remains within the comfort zone of the individual. If the breath becomes laboured, or jagged, or out of sync with the physical movement, this acts as a tangible signal to reconsider one’s physical effort level.

Breath and chronic pain

In Dru Yoga Therapy, with its increased focus on the individual, the breath plays a key role, enabling clients to create a strong connection with their whole body. This connection has often been lost or distorted, through chronic pain or injury. Clients with back pain can talk about their spine as if it belonged to someone else entirely, divorced from the rest of their body. A feeling of lack of control as they go through medical procedures can lead to disassociation - their bodies are not their own. The breath brings back a sense of belonging, a sense that the whole body is participating in the prescribed movements. The breath is used as a tool to encourage a sense of release throughout the body, and can be a powerful perceptual influencer in terms of reducing chronic pain.

Pain relief and voluntary breath practices

Breath practices are taught to clients as a useful adjunct to the involuntary functional breath. These guided voluntary breath practices help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, engendering a sense of calm and control; provide a mental focus on something other than discomfort; and, combined with a guided Relaxation practice, can bring temporary respite from continuous pain.

So, the next time that you are invited to ‘bring awareness to the breath’, take a moment to fully appreciate this amazing process.



Michelle Helstrip

Founder - DRUVA Yoga Therapy & Wellbeing


Ask Smithsonian: What’s the Longest You Can Hold Your Breath?


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