While speaking with clients one of them asked, “Well shouldn’t I be taking advantage of my full lung capacity every time I breathe?”
“Why?,” I (Mel) asked.
“So that the oxygen can move all the way to my toes and fingers.”

For more lung fun facts go to:

Alright, I get where people are coming from with this line of thinking.  It’s easy to enjoy taking big breaths especially when you’ve had a history of breathing difficulties.  Feels like a huge relief! So right after a client has a session there’s often this sense of, “I want to feel this good all the time.”  That’s not a bad idea.  But the problem is people often associate (even after having been educated otherwise) easy/happy breathing, or even “the most efficient” breathing, with BIG breaths.  So let’s talk about lung capacity and when you should and should not be trying to exploit all you’ve got:

Lung capacities are made up 4 clinically defined* lung “volumes”:

  • Tidal Volume– air moved in and out of the lungs during a single respiratory cycle.  (baseline)
  • Expiratory Reserve Volume– extra air that can be exhaled after a typical tidal exhalation (baseline + extra)
  • Inspiratory Reserve Volume – extra air that can be inhaled after a typical tidal inhalation (baseline + extra)
  • Residual volume– amount of air left over even after a forced exhalation (after having expressed Expiratory Reserve Volume

Textbooks tend to state certain numbers with each of these volumes, but obviously those numbers will vary from individual to individual and change depending on what kind of activity we are performing (sleeping vs. walking up stairs vs. doing parkour -which, btw, Kim is all about.  But Mel thinks it’s kinda corny.  Although, in light of the zombie apocalypse threat, she’s changing her mind.  Kim wins this round).

Now, when we talk about lung “capacity” there are 4 clinically defined “capacities,” each a combination of the previously listed volumes:

  • Vital Capacity = T.V. + E.R.V. + I.R.V.  The maximum of a “complete breath.”
  • Total Capacity = All four volumes.  The complete breath, plus residual volume.
  • Inspiratory Capacity = T.V. + I.R.V. Beginning of a complete breath.
  • Functional Residual Capacity = R. V. + E.R.V.  This is the amount of air in the lungs at the end of a “normal” exhalation that will be mixed with a fresh inhalation.

That’s a lot of information and who knew the air that passes in and out of the lungs could be divided in so many ways!? That’s our point.  Even if you wanted to skip all of the above (go ahead and pretend you never read any of that complicated mess) all one needs to know is that the amount of air passing through your lungs changes depending on what you’re doing and that the lungs are structured in such a way as to help you naturally facilitate those necessary changes.  Duh, right?  So how does that apply to the question, “Isn’t it best for me to breathe using my total lung capacity so that my body can get the most oxygen?”

The answer:  No.  It is not necessary to allow in large quantities of air at all times.  In fact, getting into the habit of that could send your body the physiological message that you are in a constant state of intense exertion, in which you need to use disproportionately large amounts of oxygen you don’t normally need when at rest.  It’s like trying to take a nice stroll down the street and breathing in such a way that gets your body thinking that you need to be running from a mugger, running for the train or getting ready for a fight.  Not necessarily the message you want to send.  Calling upon the ability to use the most of your lungs is great if you are a sprinter, but not if you’re in the middle of a yoga class in which the goal is to have focused attention in order to experience less stress (breathe in a lot if you are doing crazy vinyasas, not if you are relaxing into a forward bend).  In fact, it’s seems counter productive to go to a class that demands you breathe “big” or “fully” or always use “belly breath” (don’t get us started on that one).  When do students get to experience the sense of complete freedom and not having to moderate every breath at every moment?  When do students get to move and enjoy a breath that comes easily and without thought?

Also, there’s no need to fear that your lungs are not getting you enough oxygen.  Unless you are dealing with a sleep apnea, asthma, allergies, panic attacks or some other issue that inhibits your lungs’ abilities to function properly,  you are ok.  When a student told Melissa, “So that the oxygen can move all the way to my toes and fingers, “ Melissa answered, “Well, do you wake up in the morning with necrotic fingers and toes?  No.  Then you are ok not being consciously in charge of your breathing and ‘making the most of it’ all the time.” This sarcastic remark was meant to get her client to laugh (which she did) in order to help dispel her fear.  Unnecessary fear can cause it’s own problems in the body.   More importantly, Melissa was able to get her client to understand that her breathing would function for her as necessary without her having to be constantly in charge of it, especially since they had been doing such good breathing work together.  When we sleep we have to be able to trust that our bodies can manage the job for us.  That’s why, for those who suffer with sleep apnea, the disorder can completely disrupt all aspects of life.

The breath is an autonomic process that can be consciously manipulated. This aspect of the breath makes it a unique function of the body.  It’s wonderful to exert specific control over it when we choose to; this control comes with benefits.  But there inevitably comes a time when we must surrender control.  In reality, easy breathing is the physical embodiment of complete surrender.  From the 2nd. Edition of Yoga Anatomy, “It is important to note that in spite of how it feels when you inhale, you do not actually pull air into the body.  On the contrary, air is pushed into the body by the atmospheric pressure that always surrounds you.”   At some point your lungs, your physical body will have to allow the amount of air you need in without you and maybe even despite you having awareness of it.

How is that working for you?  If you feel like that’s not going so well, get to a professional who can help with that.  If you do wake up with blackened toes and fingers get to an emergency room then set up an appointment to do some yoga with a heavy focus on pranayama.

*Actually there is also “minimal volume,” but that’s not as relevant to this post.

Much of the information about clinical lung volumes has been quoted from Anatomy of Hatha Yoga: A Manual for Students, Teachers, and Practitioners; and Essentials of Anatomy & Physiology 2nd. Edition.