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
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
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.
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
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.
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 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
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
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
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.