The Breath of Life

When I launched my latest gardening book two weeks ago I spoke about the benefits of gardening for health and fitness, even for the physically challenged.  People then asked me if I had any more tips?  Yes, I said, do yoga and learn to breathe.

To breathe is to live

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  After all, we all breathe, from our first breath to our last.  It’s one of those things we just take for granted, unless of course we are stricken with a lung disease or condition, such as cancer, tuberculosis or emphysema, when the very act of drawing air into our body becomes a painful battle.

Yet, one of the important things I learned when studying to become a yoga teacher was that while breathing might seem like doing the what comes naturally, few of us do it properly.  In fact unless we are taking strenuous exercise we use only a fraction of our lung capacity.  This is why most of us are not nearly as healthy as we should be.

Then, when I became a horticulturist, writing gardening books and speaking to gardeners, I was once more reminded of the importance of doing deep breathing to improve circulation and help relax muscles when doing all those gardening tasks – weeding, mowing, pruning, planting, digging – which cause stiffness and back pain.  I believe gardening is one of the healthiest activities we can undertake (you’ll find more articles on my blog about this soon) but we’ll avoid the usual aches and pains if we also learn how to breathe and stretch.

We go on fad diets, swallow so-called “natural” remedies, try various forms of exercise, run to the doctor every time we have the merest sniffle…

BUT…what we don’t do IS LEARN HOW TO BREATHE!

Master the art of breathing properly and you’ll be healthier and happier.  Your sex life will improve!  Your brain will work more efficiently!  You’ll become rich…well, no you probably won’t; I just wrote that to keep your attention.  In fact for the purposes of this article I’m deliberately adopting the style of those old hard-sell self-improvement ads.  Even though I’m not selling anything.  Because this IS important.


Think about it:

Breathing is the way we draw oxygen into our body and oxygen is the very stuff of life for everything on our planet.

The more oxygen (within reason) we absorb into our bloodstream, via our breathing apparatus, the better we’ll be.  Oxygen enriches the blood and energizes all our organs, it stimulates the brain, helps us build muscle, keeps our hair shining and our eyes bright. It helps us to resist disease by boosting our natural immune system.

Yet most of us are starved of oxygen and don’t even realise it!  Nor will we learn this from our doctors, most of whom seem abysmally ignorant about the need to breathe properly. Yet, just by mastering the simple technique of deep abdominal breathing we will maintain a higher level of health and fitness.

No, breathing won’t cure cancer.  But it WILL certainly strengthen your system to fight back against curable forms of cancer and overcome drug side effects.

So how do we do it?  Well, it’s very simple.  And it’s free!

Stand with your legs comfortably apart, back and neck straight (this exercise can also be done sitting down cross-legged)

Place your hands on your abdomen ,  just under the rib cage

Breathe deeply by inflating the BOTTOM of the lungs; don’t gasp but draw the air in very slowly.  You should be able to feel your abdomen swell out as you do so.  Once you feel that the bottom part of your lungs is fully inflated, gradually fill them from the bottom upwards.  BE VERY CONSCIOUS OF WHAT YOU ARRE DOING so that the lungs become fully inflated in three stages – bottom, middle and top. Until you feel that your lungs can hold no more breath.

Now breathe out again, letting the air go from the TOP of the lungs first, then from the middle, then forcing it right out from the bottom so that the lung sac is as empty as possible.  This will help rid the bottom of the lungs of fluid and harmful bacteria.

Okay, practice this a couple of times until you are sure you’ve got it right.  Now develop this into a rhythm – breathe IN to the count of four to completely fill the lungs, hold the breath for the count of two, then let it out again, top to bottom, to the count of four.

And that’s all there is to it!

Do this simple breathing exercise ten times every morning when you first get up. The immediate benefit is that you’ll find you have more energy to face the day.  All the other benefits are more subtle but be assured all that oxygen and improved lung capacity will be doing wonders for your overall health.  Ten deep abdominal breaths a day is my basic minimum, done every morning as I start my simple yoga routine.  But of course you can do it as often as you like…the more, the merrier.  Another ten deep breaths at lunchtime, and before you go to bed, will double and triple the benefits.


As we age our lungs, like so much else about our bodies, lose their elasticity.  This leaves us more vulnerable to chest infections and illnesses such as pneumonia.  The lungs retain fluid at the bottom and in this viscous mix nasty things lurk. Obviouly we can’t go around all day long breathing from the abdomen.  But we can considerably improve our oxygen intake, and also the elasticity of our ageing lungs, by expanding and filling them with air at least once a day – in fact the older we get the more important it is to breathe well because we get a lot less aerobic exercise then we did when young.


Be prepared to cough when you first start abdominal breathing.  This is good, because coughing is how we clear our lungs of all the junk that can lead to chest infections.  The deeper you breather, the more you cough.  It sounds revolting but a little coughing each day is good for us!  But don’t worry, once your breathing routine is underway you’ll find yourself coughing less.  Unless you have a lung infection or chronic lung disease, in which case of course you’ll cough more.

In fact this is one of the useful side benefits of abdominal breathing – it acts as a monitor for the condition of your lungs.  In my case, I know immediately I start breathing whether my lungs are congested or not.  Such congestion is often caused by allergy to pollen, air pollution or dust mites and I take immediate steps to deal with those problems, including a thorough coughing fit and extra breathing sessions throughout the day until my lungs feel clear.

So there you go…take a minimum of ten deep abdominal breaths a day and I promise you it will change your life.

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