THE LUNG - HEART OF OUR LIFE - an article by Birgit Pleschberger

What breathing means for our lives, what damages and strengthens our lungs, and how we can practice quitting harmful patterns like smoking.


Every breath means life. Every inhalation and exhalation supplies our cells with oxygen and if we stopped breathing, we would stop living. Despite its elastic restoring forces, which make natural exhalation a predominantly passive process, our lungs cannot breathe on their own. It is only the interaction of our diaphragm, pelvic floor, intercostal muscles and many other tissues of our body that enables our main respiratory organ, the lungs, to do its job and thus supply our heart and the rest of our body.

Each of us breathes differently and our breath changes with what we do and experience. Sometimes we breathe more deeply, sometimes more shallowly, etc., and sometimes we even hold our breath for a moment. From the perspective of yoga, there is no such thing as "wrong" breathing. Countless mechanisms and factors contribute to the fact that we breathe the way we breathe even without being aware of it. Much more often than is generally assumed, for example, we sigh about every 5 minutes without noticing it. This is how we function from our first breath to our last, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We are carried through life by our breath, and since it is constantly changing, our breath also adapts to this living rhythm and its colouring. In short, we may always meet our breath benevolently and rely on it being there for us. And even if we experience problems with our breathing, it is seldom our breath that is the cause, but damaging factors with which we or our environment influence our breathing.


Forexample, breath awareness: We can start by paying attention to our breath again and again. How am I breathing right now? Can my breath flow comfortably and effortlessly? Is my breathing shallow, deep, long, short, what sound does my breathing make?

If we only perceive, then everything is allowed to be and we do not need to judge. This alone can train our mindfulness and lead us into peace. Letting our breath be - not influencing it - means letting ourselves be, just as we are. The relaxation achieved in turn has a positive effect on our well-being.

Example frequency changer: If we breathe in deeply and relaxedly every now and then during our everyday life and, for example, breathe out completely with the lip brake on "p-p-p-phhhhh", sigh consciously or sound a gentle "ffff", we feel an immediate relief.

A breathing highlight especially in tense, stressful situations.


What damages our lungs? Our breathing itself is influenced by many different factors. By what we eat, the amount of it and also how much or how little we move, what we think, feel and what we experience consciously or unconsciously and not only what enters our lungs. We have influence on many of these factors, but not (yet) on others. We can change behaviours (stop smoking or spend more time in nature...), move more, eat lighter or less or more, change life circumstances (move away from the city, change jobs, avoid bad friends...) and reflect on our thoughts and actions. What sets me free? What nourishes me? What supports me or my breath?


Everyone knows them, everyone has them. For all kinds of reasons, we all develop habits in life that are useful to us in some way (at least for a while). We start smoking because then we don't feel so helpless among our schoolmates, we eat too much chocolate so that we are less nervous or don't feel so lonely, we eat nothing or too little so that we have the feeling of being in control at least somewhere in life, we react with aggression to counter the feeling of being helpless or powerless. Or we go for a walk because it makes us feel clearer in our mind, we talk to a friend on the phone when we are unhappy, we go on the mat or exercise because it helps us to avoid back pain and trains our cardiovascular and respiratory systems. There are habits that support us and those that harm us. A habit becomes an addiction when, against our better judgement, we are unable to change a behaviour that is harmful to us. The behaviour becomes a compulsion.

But why do we develop addictions that are not good for us or can even threaten our lives?


Many of our actions have the goal of initially helping us, relieving pain, making feelings more bearable and supporting us in certain situations (sleeping pills, cigarettes, food, coffee, drugs, shopping...). In the short term, we also experience this help, we are more self-confident, more awake, more relaxed, more tired, heavier, relieved - and much more - and we have achieved our goal, at least in the short term. Unfortunately, in the process we often forget to perceive our actual problem or need and encapsulate ourselves from ourselves. Instead of asking ourselves what thoughts keep us awake at night, what longing we actually want to satisfy with all the food we eat, why we have to jog for an hour before we feel ourselves, or what cigarettes do to us, we resort to certain substances or actions that, depending on the dose, will harm us sooner or later.


Changing ingrained habits needs the occasion and the courage for self-reflection. Getting to know oneself almost always requires time and dedication. As suffering increases, the fear of uncertainty becomes less than the painful experience of the present and the decision to change matures. With the awareness of a goal, the motivation to try new ways grows, to look for support in oneself and in one's environment. Many people succeed in changing their perspective to a new focus, they learn to replace harmful patterns of behaviour and thinking with meaningful, nourishing and beneficial ones. The yoga path is a way to better perceive and know oneself and, through the support of the different limbs of the path (ethical behaviour, movement, breathing and meditation), to sustainably change one's perspective and do what contributes to one's own well-being and the well-being of all. 


Smoking, to take just one example related to the lungs and breathing, threatens our quality of life and our lives and is not something sustainably positive either for ourselves or for the people around me. Although nowadays the negative consequences are well known and no one could say they didn't know, many people continue to smoke. Why? Is there something about it that gives more than the obvious harm?

If we want to quit the smoking cycle, the following can help:
We can ask ourselves what smoking gives us or gave us before we started just doing it. How does it feel to smoke? What need in me is being satisfied or appeased? The need for a break? Companionship? Aloneness? Defiance? Deep breathing in and out? ...? Then we can ask ourselves what there would be to gain if we stopped or reduced smoking? Or we could ask ourselves if there are other ways to satisfy exactly this underlying need.
With small steps or altogether, we can try to establish other habits or behaviours in place of - in this case - smoking and strengthen our willpower through the new experience. We can find out what triggers the desire for a cigarette and take appropriate action in the early stages of its development. What feasible steps can bring us closer to our goal? It is important to note that the feasible steps can be really very small or even huge, the main thing is that we go.

Example: I decide to leave out the one cigarette I always smoke directly after getting up and instead, for example, breathe in and out deeply three times in front of the open window or perform another, specific breathing technique. After that, I allow myself to continue doing what seems right to me. No further coercion, just the invitation of a new, different experience. It is important to stick with this small habit change and to learn over time that everyone can decide for themselves.

We may face setbacks with equanimity and compassion, our occasional failure is inevitable. Nevertheless, staying focused on the path towards a goal can give my path direction and help to establish the desired change more and more. In this way, the steps can be extended over time until at some point the feeling of success becomes greater and the need for a cigarette smaller and, in the best case, disappears. Often processes are necessary that take time so that our brain and the rest of the body can slowly change to other habits. Some people, on the other hand, manage it more easily with one big step. They make a decision based on experience or insight and can immediately stop a bad habit. It is also helpful then to have the advantage or the goal clearly in mind and to keep it. Whether with big or small steps, it takes a decision and the willpower to stick with it. Otherwise, changes only work in the short term. "Stop, I don't want to harm myself any more , I want (for example) to still be able to romp around with my grandchildren." Lasting changes can only come from within, they are nourished by our deep desires.


COPD is a term used to describe diseases that are associated with breathing difficulties, coughing and sputum. Smoking, recurring infections, a poor immune system or exposure to environmental toxins in everyday life or at work can be counted among the causes. But psychological stress and eating habits are also important here - as with many diseases. The characteristic mucus in COPD is caused by the persistent irritation of the airways with consecutive inflammation. The mucus is an attempt by the body to encapsulate, neutralise and remove harmful substances. In the acute phase of the event, the small airways react by constricting the airways that are already narrowed by the increased mucus. Respiratory distress is the immediate consequence.

If we are affected, we can do the following for ourselves:
We can take care to eliminate the harmful substances as much as possible and, for example, give up smoking or change our diet. If we practise seeing ourselves in a friendly and benevolent way, it may be easier for us to harm ourselves less or support ourselves more. As with many diseases, COPD is based on a chronic infection. Our eating habits can lower our body's susceptibility to inflammation (fresh, organic or natural, regional, balanced and wholesome) or promote it, as many processed foods and convenience products do. A sufficient amount of exercise as well as practising deep exhalation are universal and easy-to-implement changes without which regeneration becomes difficult. Right choices, mindfulness and reflection as well as powerful movements and deep breathing are the normal ingredients of any integrative yoga practice. Many of the well-known physical exercises are inversion postures that can be simplified to help clear mucus and promote expectoration.


INVERTIONS promote the return and expectoration of sputum. In the inversion, the mucus is transported mouthwards and does not remain in the lower lung areas as a breeding ground for renewed infections. Staying in simple variations of inverted postures such as the shoulder bridge, the forearm support, the standing forward bend or the dog looking down are extremely useful exercises if they are done regularly. On hands and knees or with the elbows on a chair, torso circling, hunchback-hollowback movements, needle eye or the dolphin, can be practised.

Example of a forward bend from standing: For this, the knees are bent and the elbows rest on the knees, the spine long, the neck as relaxed as possible. Hold this posture for a few breaths. A simple inversion posture that can also be practised with the elbows on a chair.

Deep BREATHING is beneficial for many people with lung or cardiovascular diseases and yet it is rarely done. Habitually, people with respiratory diseases in particular often breathe rather shallowly and inhale. When affected persons practise letting the exhalation flow longer and deeper, breathing and mind calm down. Deep and long exhalation enables free inhalation and when this is experienced or practised for a while, many positive changes occur.


Here, the goal is primarily to exhale completely. This means letting as much air as possible flow out of the lungs in order to initiate a new, nourishing inhalation. This promotes an increase in breathing volume or vital capacity.

Lion's breath: This is possible in a wide variety of postures, standing with the knees slightly bent, sitting on the heels or on a chair, in a downward-looking dog, etc.. To do this, inhale deeply and exhale again with a powerful hissing sound ("hissing") while sticking the tongue far out of the mouth.

Other exercises are the wood chopper, breathing of joy, the lip brake and sounding or singing.

If, in addition to exhalation, the back is bent (rounded), as is the case, for example, in the quadrupedal position with a "cat's hump", the deep exhalation is easily felt. The ribs come closer together, the chest volume becomes smaller and the air is exhaled more completely with the help of the abdominal muscles.


Here the aim is primarily to lengthen the exhalation, but also to complete it. Here the air is exhaled evenly and for a long time. Exhaling for a long time calms our nervous system and influences the quality of our inhalation.

Example of sounding: A very beautiful and healing exercise is sounding or singing. Here we breathe in deeply and with the exhalation we sound a "mmmh, ooooh, faaaah" (or other sounds of our choice or a mantra).

Other exercises include ujjayi breathing during exhalation, chanting mantra or coordinating exhalation with multiple movements.

STRENGTHENING: of the abdominal, back, pelvic floor and auxiliary breathing muscles makes the body stable in different postures, enables and promotes deep breathing. The simultaneous movement of the spine and expansion of the rib cage in all possible directions creates the space for the breathing movement (mobilising the rib cage).

Example of chair pose: From a standingposition, inhale to raise the arms and exhale to bring the hands to the knees, bending them. The back is slightly rounded and the head is lowered. With the inhalation first the head is lifted, then the chest is stretched and the arms are lifted again. Here special attention is given to the development of the chest and the training of natural inhalation.


Further exercises: In quadrupedal stance, cat-cow coordinated (with leg and arm lift) and the side turn, knee hovering posture as well as variations of cobra and grasshopper in prone position are very helpful. It can be experienced that with the exhalation a toning of the abdominal and torso muscles occurs, which is then slowly released with the following inhalation.

Mindfulness or meditation or relaxation techniques can facilitate mindfulness in dealing with oneself and one's own decisions through self-reflection.


Yoga can be done both preventively and as an adjunct in the recovery of our respiratory and cardiovascular systems. The varied offer in the eight-limbed yoga path enables all who wish to practice to work out a programme for themselves with the help of an experienced yoga teacher to accompany body and mind back into a more balanced state.

Text: Birgit Pleschberger (in consultation with Günter Niessen)