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Cortical Breathing

Majid Ali, M.D.

A person breathes 12 to 14 times every minute. If we observe a group of family or friends, we will find that the chest wall and shoulder muscles move up each time they breathe in and move down each time they breathe out. By contrast, the abdomen rolls in each time a breath is taken and rolls out as the air is breathed out. We call this cortical breathing, as this is the way we breathe when we engage in our usual cortical activities.

In cortical breathing, the breathe-in period is short, lasting for about two seconds. It is immediately followed by a breathe-out period which lasts for about three seconds. There is no interval between these two parts of the breathing cycle.

Inhalation causes the chest wall to rise; exhalation reverses this movement.The chest and shoulder muscles tense up with breathe-in, and ease off with breathe-out.There is an obvious muscular effort with each breath. Until a person learns to become sensitive to his own breathing, he will be totally oblivious of his mode of breathing. When under stress, and unaware of it viscerally, our breathing rate quickens so that the breathe-in period lasts for less than two seconds and the breathe-out period one second or so. This is a mild form of hyperventilation, a totally unnecessary waste of energy.

There are three important differences between limbic and Cortical breathing.

First,

In cortical breathing, chest and shoulder muscles contract to pull up the chest wall. The energy expended in doing this work is actually energy spent needlessly. A person breathes about 20,000 times a day. The energy wasted in cortical breathing adds up. Unless we understand this and take time to learn to breathe naturally, we are likely to go through our lives wasting a lot of energy.

Second,

In cortical breathing, lower parts of both lungs are not as fully expanded and oxygenated as in the limbic breathing. This can be confirmed readily by the following simple steps: Put your hands on the side aspects of the lower parts of your chest wall. Next, take a deep breath. Note that the shoulder and chest muscles move up and the hands on the lower chest wall move in. Now take a deep breath while you hold your chest and shoulder muscles still. Note that the abdomen gently rolls out and the lower chest walls moves out in a flare.

Third,

Most importantly, limbic breathing puts chest, neck, and shoulder muscles in a restful state. In doing so, it also puts the muscles of the bowel, arteries, and other body organs in a restful state as well. This may not be obvious to someone who has never learned limbic breathing, but the truth of this statement will be attested to by all those who have successfully learned effective methods for meditation.

From a physician's anatomic and physiologic perspectives, this truth is also self-evident. As medical students, we are often taught to regard nerves, muscles, ribs, and lungs as discrete organs, but we know that no organ in our body exists alone. No cell is an island by itself. Every cell, every tissue, every organ in the human frame is structurally and functionally integrated with every other cell and tissue and organ.

Cortical Living Gives Us Cortical Breathing

Cortical living is living in the head. It is chronic thinking. Chronic thinking begets chronic worrying. Subservient to the dictates of the head, the body organs suffer and suffocate. Cortical living is head-fixation, and head fixation gives us cortical breathing, tight arteries and tight muscles. Cortical breathing tires the chest and shoulder muscles and punishes the body organs under taut abdominal muscles. Tight arteries and tight muscles starve our tissues of oxygen, nutrient, and energy.

How did nature intend us to breathe? To know this, all we need to do is to watch a sleeping baby breathe. A sleeping baby breathes naturally and effortlessly. When the baby breathes in, his abdominal wall gently rolls out. As he breathes out, the abdomen gently rolls back. His chest wall moves but little. His body muscles stay limp and loose.

A physician can usually diagnose pneumonia in a sleeping baby by simply observing his breathing mode from across the room. A baby with pneumonia labors for each breath. As he breathes in, his chest and shoulder muscles move up and out; these muscles move down and in when the baby breathes out.

The basic mode of breathing of person under stress is the same as the baby with pneumonia, albeit less pronounced.

Unlearning Is So Much Harder than Learning

We have a choice. We can breathe naturally and effortlessly, as a sleeping baby does. Or we can breathe cortically, work our chest and shoulder muscles needlessly, keep our abdominal muscles taut, and unknowingly punish our body organs.

Years of cortical breathing create breathing patterns which may be hard to break. It requires patience and perseverance to change this. I see this in some of our patients. The concept of not making an effort for a breath is totally alien to them. Breathing like a baby becomes an intellectual pursuit for them. Letting the diaphragm muscles do what these were designed to do becomes a difficult chore. What is so natural for a baby becomes so demanding a task for the grown ups. Unlearning is so much harder than learning.

 

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