Updated: Nov 17, 2021
By Mark Pearson
You’re having a panic attack, starting to hyperventilate, what does the bystander offer you? What have you seen administered to people on television and in the movies when someone can’t catch their breath after some shocking incident or news?
A brown paper bag! They breathe into a brown paper bag! So what’s happening within the confines of the breath and that paper bag?
In the simplest of terms when we breathe we inhale oxygen, and we exhale carbon dioxide, which is sometimes referred to as a ‘waste’ product. That might give the idea that oxygen is the ‘good’ breath stuff, while carbon dioxide is the ‘bad’ breath stuff. Indeed this is exacerbated by the carbon dioxide equation inherent in the climate change debate. But let’s not get sidetracked, that is another topic for another time. Back to the paper bag.
So panic is overwhelming you. You can’t catch your breath. You begin to panic more. A vicious cycle that needs arresting before a cardiac arrest ensues. Out of a nearby telephone box emerges a person (who obviously doesn’t own a mobile phone) to offer you their newly emptied paper bag that this morning held their sandwiches. Emptying the bag of the more obvious crumbs, it is offered up to the service of your mouth and nose, and so can begin the basis of control and a return to calm.
What breathing into a paper bag encourages is both an increase and a retention of carbon dioxide within the body. Essentially you are breathing out carbon dioxide - as is the norm - but while the paper bag is in place, you are breathing it in too. Carbon dioxide is a relaxant. Note that at high levels and in its purest forms it is damaging, toxic even, but at the levels of regular human breathing output, it is a positive force with regards physiological efficiency.
So onto the crux of what I’m trying to convey through these symbols before your eyes on this screen; conscious breathing. That breathing thing that we do 5000 – 30,000 times per day is part of the autonomic nervous system. That is it is automatic and it occurs beyond consciousness. However, it is possible to apply conscious awareness to how we breathe, and in doing so influence our bodies and minds in a most positive way.
Yoga philosophy and practice defines breath as being the bridge between body and mind. The word ‘yoga’ itself means union. So breath in yogic terms is a uniting principle. So how might we breathe to increase levels of carbon dioxide in our systems and so benefit from its calming qualities, before the need for an emergency paper bag? Very simply we need to breathe more slowly and more deeply.
Here’s a practice you might like to try. Try it for five minutes and see how it feels.
Sit with a straight spine, on the floor or on a chair, wherever you’re most comfortable, and close your eyes. Become aware of your breath; the sound, the sensation of the air entering your nostrils and its journey into your body.
As you become familiar with that journey begin to consciously breathe fuller breaths; by which I mean taking the air all the way down into your belly, so that your belly is rising and falling. Shallow breathing would be defined as breath taken in only as far as the chest.
In that instance you are not optimising your lungs. A bit like only half filling the tyres on your bicycle. Do that and you buckle your wheels. Breathe inefficiently and you buckle your mind.
So deep slow breaths. No forcing. No point in forcing the breath if one is seeking a relaxed state of mind. Yoga is never competitive. It can be challenging, but gentle acceptance is a huge part of it too.
After a minute or two of this you’re going to shift into another level. This is where you’re going to take command in a manner that will increase your levels of carbon dioxide. This shift occurs with breath retention. So now you’re going to start counting. How many seconds is a comfortable, deep inhalation for you?
Let’s imagine it’s five seconds. Okay, so you’ve inhaled for five seconds, next up you’re going to hold that breath for as long as is comfortable. Comfortable means ABSOLUTELY NO STRAINING. Maybe you can hold for ten seconds.Then inevitably comes the point of exhalation, and perhaps for you that is eight seconds. The count is going to be very personal to you, and will likely change to higher numbers the longer you practice. Meditate on your breathing. Play with it. Find your rhythm.
As you breathe more slowly and deeply, with added breath retention, you’re going to increase the levels of carbon dioxide in your system, and so you should start to feel more relaxed. If however you start to feel agitated, panicky even, drop the numbers of the count. You are most likely forcing. STAY WITHIN YOUR COMFORT ZONE.
You wouldn’t expect to go and run a marathon, first time out, with zero training. You need to build steadily. If a count of three on inhalation, a count of three on retention, and a count of three on exhalation are where you’re currently at, then accept that. Remember what I said earlier - “Yoga is never competitive. It can be challenging, but gentle acceptance is a huge part of it too”.
And on that note I’m off to catch my breath. If you try the practice I’d love to hear how it is for you. Please feel free to comment below. Also below find a link to a book by long practising yogi William J Broad who cast a contemporary scientific eye over certain yogic practices to prove or disprove their efficacy. It was through this book that I first learnt of the relaxing qualities of carbon dioxide. Also an article for further enquiry.
Mark Pearson is a Yoga Alliance (200hrs) accredited yoga teacher. He has written for Om magazine on the subject of Mindful Parenting. He tries to practice what he preaches, but is by no means a fully realised being. Some days he is barely human; more days he is fully cat. A cat that drinks coffee, reads, writes and overall sees his food bowl as being of the half full variety.
"Sitting still, doing nothing, spring comes and the grass grows by itself" - Zen proverb.