Edition 58: August 2013
Herbal inspiration for respiration
Spiritual ecology in action
TO BREATHE is to live and without breath there is no life; all animal and plant life depend upon it for survival.
We can exist for a short time without eating, a shorter time without drinking, but without breathing our existence may be measured by a few minutes.
The baby takes its first inhale, a long deep breath, retains it for a moment to extract from it its life-giving properties and then exhales it in a long wail and lo and behold life has begun. The old man ends his life with a final exhale and life is over.
Life is but a series of breaths that connects us with all other sentient beings with which we share air. The mysterious and potent vital force carried in atmospheric air that truly animates all human, animal and plant life is called Prana.
Who is breathing?
The act of breathing is a function of the autonomic nervous system and is thus performed involuntarily without us having to give it any thought.
It is as if the body is being breathed and from the perspective of spiritual ecology, we might ask the question of the mystics “Who is breathing?”
Respiration is one of the few involuntary functions that we can consciously change by mindfully engaging in the process, and as a result of this participation, the ‘monkey mind’ is calmed, even the heart rate can be slowed and other healing faculties are revealed. The pertinent use of plants and their oils can greatly enhance breathing, be it unconscious or conscious.
Inhaling feeds and exhaling cleans
The anatomy and physiology of the respiratory system is a complex and beautiful embodiment of integration and wholeness.
Breathing stimulates oxygen consumption and utilisation and every minute, usually unconsciously, we breathe in and out between ten and fifteen times.
The body thus extracts the oxygen it needs from the air and discharges waste carbon dioxide from the blood.
Oxygen is needed by every cell in the body to release the energy that is locked in food reserves. Many cells can survive for a period of time without oxygen, while others need a constant supply. Brain cells die, and cannot be replaced, if they lack oxygen for more than a few minutes.
Respiration brings vitality
Supplying the cells of the body with oxygen is the responsibility of the respiratory and circulatory systems.
This process is controlled in the brain stem via the medulla oblongata, where messages concerning blood composition are integrated with other information to regulate the appropriate breathing rhythm.
Life-energy is drawn into being with this ebb and flow of the breath, therefore any respiratory disturbances which inhibit gas exchange, can lead to a lowering of the body’s vitality, an increase in metabolic disorders and degeneration of tissue.
This is why the pertinent use of natural dietary herbs and using essential oils to prevent respiratory disease is so important.
Physical health depends upon correct breathing
The percentage of people who breathe correctly is quite small, and the result is shown in contracted chests, stooped shoulders and an increase in the diseases of the respiratory organs.
Good breathing and regular exercise are clearly some of the best preventative measures for the respiratory system. While we take breathing for granted, conscious and proper breathing plays a central role in many spiritual paths.
As with all disease, the best prophylactic is the right lifestyle: diet, exercise and quality of life all have a profound influence on the health of the lungs.
To ensure healthy lungs, the inner environment must be in harmony with an unpolluted outer environment; air quality is the key - as any contaminants will disrupt the ecology of the lungs. Impeded breathing can lead to an impressive host of problems, from bronchitis to cancer.
Always breathe through the nose
This has many advantages because the tiny hairs in the nasal passage act as a natural filter for dust particles, pollen, germs, and other nasties and they also help keep the nasal tract moist.
Nasal breathing warms up the cold air before it enters the lungs and minimises the likelihood of developing sinus congestion. By contrast, breathing through the mouth can cause dryness in the mouth and a congested feeling in the forehead and the Yogic masters say that it leads to disease.
Deep in the lung tissue there are immune system cells – macrophages that swallow up particles that have made it past the cilia.
Using plants and their oils to maintain the body’s defences goes a long way in avoiding infection, which is paramount for healthy respiration - garlic, calendula and echinacea are some good choices. If given the chance, the body is capable of great feats of self-defence, as long as we provide a balanced, vitamin-rich diet in combination with a lifestyle that is healthy in thought and in action.
Respiratory Herbs using the body’s wisdom
Congestion, coughs, bronchitis, pleurisy, spasm, asthma are all specific respiratory diseases that can be helped enormously using appropriate herbs. We call herbs that treat and maintain the respiratory system, pectoral herbs; and the right combination of pectorals can hugely benefit the respiratory system in a variety of ways: stimulating, relaxing, protecting, soothing, and normalising.
There are herbs that act as stimulants to cause expectoration, such as mullein, coltsfoot or elecampane, by activating nerves and muscles of the respiratory system to prompt a neurological reflex via sensory nerve endings in the digestive system. Such action loosens and expels phlegm from the lungs and respiratory tracts.
Another type of herb, such as valerian, horehound or chamomile, relaxes lung tissue, which is relevant when there is tension and over activity allowing proper breathing function to prevail.
Antispasmodic herbs such as red clover, peppermint or thyme will relieve a tight restrictive cough or when there is loss of elasticity in the tissue or spasm of the respiratory passageways.
Other herbs stimulate circulation such as ginger or rosemary to keep the respiratory tissues well bathed in blood; and more indirectly, they tone and assist the whole glandular and excretory processes to make sure the inner environment is clean and in harmony.
In this context, herbs do indeed synergistically tend to the integrated body systems, as a whole, rather than exclusively the focused dysfunctional area. Herbs such as liquorice root, angelica and rosehip that decrease inflammation are useful to include in almost every respiratory formula.
More lung-loving herbal action
Herbs can enhance lung function by facilitating detoxification and tonifying respiratory tissues.
Some herbs such as mullein, horehound or pleurisy root, normalise the acidity/alkalinity levels of the respiratory tissue, by adapting their action to what is required.
Often it is demulcent action that is needed, to soothe irritated, inflamed mucous membranes. They can activate the lung tissue to secret the necessary protective lubrication to moisten the air.
Many wonderful herbs provide slippery mucilage that coats the surface of the membranes to lubricate and protect them such as marshmallow, comfrey, liquorice and mullein.
Herbs restore free breathing
Naturally we don’t look past the botanical antiseptics and antibiotics such as echinacea and golden seal, to treat infection wherever this may present in the respiratory system.
If the illness is short-lived, such as a stuffy, congested head cold, symptomatic treatment with eucalyptus and cypress or niaouli oils might be all that is necessary to restore free breathing naturally.
Sometimes however a more systematic approach is needed. For example if the breathing restriction is due to allergies, these must be addressed with important anti-allergic herbs such as eyebright, elderflower and sage.
When one breathes imperfectly or shallowly, only a portion of the lungs cells are brought into play, and a great portion of the lung capacity is lost with the system suffering in proportion to the amount of under-oxygenation.
The nose, the hub of breath and smell is the portal to higher consciousness; we can thus use breath and smell as steps for attaining the higher state of meditation. In yoga it is understood that an intelligent control of our breathing power will lengthen our days upon earth by giving us increased vitality and powers of resistance.
The art of yogic breathing, known as pranayama, is an integral part of yoga practice, and the key to improving physiological and psychological wellbeing.
Breathe from the diaphragm
Most yoga schools teach a variety of breathing exercises, however there is one essential skill to develop that can benefit everyone health-wise; and this is to simply use the diaphragm (the main breathing muscle in the body) independently of movements in the spine.
The belly expands to the front and the sides during inhalation. Breathing from the midsection of the torso slows down and deepens respiratory patterns.
People suffering from coronary disease are usually thoracic (upper chest) shallow breathers with a more rapid breath rate who can surely benefit from diaphragmatic breathing.
This has to be consciously cultivated before it becomes automatic, and then it can regulate heart function.
Releasing what does not serve us
If we examine the metaphysical causation of disease in the body, we learn that the lungs are very much the “seat” of unresolved grief.
When we employ certain essential plant oils such as rose, frankincense or chamomile, for instance, along with conscious breathing we are able facilitate a more effective ‘letting go’ of past loss, pain and disappointment, emotions that we tend to hold on to so closely to the lung/heart thoracic area of the body.
Releasing the chest of such “old” debilitating burdens frees up the breathing and often the chronic respiratory condition will dissipate.
Following the flow of the breath enables us to become more anchored into the present moment to control the mind that stands like a wall between reality and us.
A Guide to Simple Conscious Breathing
SIT WITH a long, relaxed straight spine, and focus all of the mind’s attention on the complete breathing process.
Inhalation: This should be smooth and continuous and prolonged over time to assist in expanding your lung capacity. Breathe in healing life-giving Prana.
Retention of (or holding) the breath after inhalation: This has a cleansing effect on the body as it allows time for fresh air to mix with the stale air in your lungs and also permits a greater absorption of oxygen into the blood. As one’s practice advances, one should aim to prolong this retention for as long as it is possible. Allow the nourishing Prana to percolate in the cells.
Exhalation: This is a passive process in which the lungs recoil and the chest relaxes. It should be continuous, relaxed and complete. Breathe out all tension, pain and negativity.
After several rounds of this regulated breathing, then let each part of the breath unfold by itself without your modification and just watch; every time your focus is distracted, immediately return it to the singular one-pointed task of witnessing the breath.
Note: If at any point when doing breath work that involves breath retention, you feel flushed or your heart rate goes up, breath normally until things settle, before trying again.
Powerful plant breathing allies
Essential plant oils are aromatic volatile molecules that, like Prana, are carried into the nose via the air when we breathe.
They are intrinsically rich in Prana themselves and inextricably linked to the breathing process, so naturally they are nature’s way of healing and rejuvenating respiratory function so that we may enjoy optimal health and well-being.
It becomes increasingly more obvious why aromatherapy can be a first port of call in any healing regime and why we should always have them on hand especially if we are prone to pulmonary disorders.
Most of the aromatic pharmacopeia is perfectly suited for helping us to breathe, as you can see from the extensive list below:
Eucalyptus, basil, aniseed, black pepper, cedarwood, chamomile, clove, cypress, fennel, frankincense, ginger, lemon, manuka, myrrh, oregano, pine, pimento, hyssop, lavender, myrtle, cajeput, niaouli, peppermint, thyme, rosemary, sage, sandalwood, spearmint, tea tree.