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"Breathe deep into your belly; oxygenate your blood," my yoga instructor says in her signature voice-whisper. I can hear the scubalike ujjayi breaths of my mat mates and do my best to follow suit. A wave of calm may be washing over the room, but I'm just the teeniest bit on edge. Why is everyone breathing better than I am? I wonder. Am I even doing it right?
In yoga, indoor-cycling, and boot camp classes, we constantly hear about the importance of bringing oxygen to our muscles and the potential of increasing our lung capacity. Suddenly people like me have found ourselves focusing on, even worrying about, our breathing, something our body has been quietly taking care of since the day we emerged from the womb gasping.
Yet most of us, including instructors, don't know a lot about this basic bodily function. For instance, the level of oxygen in our blood doesn't have much room to rise, no matter how deeply we might breathe (blood is like a sponge that's always about 98 percent soaked). And when we breathe hard during exercise, it's not because our lungs need more oxygen but mostly because we need to exhale carbon dioxide, which builds up in our exhausted muscles. As for increasing lung capacity, exercise has never been shown to do that, although competitive swimmers and other elite athletes usually have larger lungs.
Read on for more surprising facts and to find out what paying attention to your breath can do for your body and mind.