Unlike Fire, Earth and Water the Air element is invisible to us, we see and feel its effects but we never see Air itself. It is the agent of movement and change in the natural world; the carrying medium for information in the form of sound and light; and traditionally is related to communication and intelligence, which in the body are aspects of the brain and central nervous system.
Air, obviously, also relates to the breath, to the movement of the breath in the body, and to the breath as the prime energy source of the body. Most of us probably don’t think of air as being a source of energy, it is true we cannot do without water or food, but it is without air that we will most quickly perish.
So how does yoga help us to breathe better, and how does this help us in our day to day lives?
The lungs act as vehicles for the transportation of gases in the body. Every cell of the body is absolutely dependent on the free movement of oxygen into the body, and carbon dioxide out of the body. Without oxygen the cell has no energy, it needs the oxygen in order to break down sugars, in the process of which Co2 is created, in turn, without the removal of Co2 the cell will quickly suffocate in its own waste. The less oxygen the cells have, the harder the heart has to work to move oxygen around the body.
Lung capacity is the measure of the total amount of air that our lungs can hold. On average a man’s lung can hold about 1.5 pints of air, and a woman’s about 0.6-0.8 pints, we generally only use about 70% of our lung capacity. Our lung capacity is important, because, simply put, the more air we can bring into our body, the more oxygen our cells have to create energy, the less work our heart has to do, and the longer we will live.
Yoga asanas (postures) and pranayama (breathing) practises help by simultaneously strengthening and relaxing the muscles of the abdominal and chest areas. When we strengthen the breathing muscles (primarily the diaphragm and the intercostals), it means they use less energy when we breathe, meaning the energy can be used elsewhere by the body intelligence. The ability to allow these muscles to relax literally gives more room for the lungs to expand into. If there is less muscular restriction on the lungs, they can take in more air. So it is easy to see how even a simple yoga practise, holding basic postures while maintaining attention with the breath, can over time support lung capacity to improve and increase.
Certain pranayama techniques such as Bhastrika Pranayama, which is a type of fast bellows breath, help to clear obstructions from the breath pathways, and train us to make full use of our diaphragm and abdominal muscles. Slower pranayama practises actually stretch elastin and collagen fibres deep inside the lung. In these ways, the postures and breathing practises work together to improve lung function, we don’t know what the upper limit of this improvement might be with continued steady practise over time. We do know for sure that the power to improve our quality of life by improving our quality of breath is in our hands, should we choose to use it.