Oxygen as Nutrient: How Yoga Heals With the Breath

Oxygen as Nutrient: How Yoga Heals With the Breath
woman in pink doing yoga

Air is our most important nutrient. We might become nutritionally deficient of some vitamins or minerals over a course of months to years. But we would still be alive.

In the absence of oxygen, we can only live for about six minutes.

All life begins with a single breath. I think that we need to put a little more emphasis on oxygen, a critically important nutrient, in our pursuit of health.

How yoga delivers oxygen, our most important nutrient

The yoga teacher makes her way to the front of the studio. The class starts in mountain pose, which seems so simple.

We are straight and tall, spreading the toes wide to make a good platform. Hands fall to the sides. We turn our palms to the front of the room.  

Mountain pose.

We then take a breath, and the practice begins. The pose is one that anyone can do.  All you really have to do is stand up straight and tall. Straighten your spine; turn the palms up and out so they face away from you.

In this pose the focus is less on the position of the body. It is on the breath.

The entire focus of yoga ultimately distills down to one challenge.  


Within this focus on the breath, there is yet another, more detailed focus. Here the yogi learns to recognize the intervals between the breaths. This is almost like a point of weightlessness where you are breathing neither in, nor out.  It is a point of stillness, of transition.

All biologic systems go into a place of stillness and equilibrium

You can’t always be running a race. You can’t always be digesting food, flexing a muscle, or thinking a thought. All these systems at one point need some rest.

Rest recharges our ability to do the activity again. It’s our body’s reset button.  

Standing in mountain pose, I realized I needed to write about how all our biology is driven by a slow, deliberate breath.

How the breath drives our energy and metabolism

In yoga, I try to settle into the breath, and focus only on the breath. Our minds are prone to wander; it is what a mind does. Part of the practice of yoga is being aware of that tendency.

On this day my mind wandered to writing about breath as a nutrient. This was a funny paradox. It was a bit like thinking about breathing and forgetting to breathe.  

In forgetting  to breathe, I fumbled on the first (of many) yoga poses.  I was only about a minute into the class.

How does our breath relates to our health? How does it regulate, and define our health?  

The lungs breathe in; the lungs breathe out. In this action we exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. Oxygen drives our metabolism, and carbon dioxide is one of the byproducts of energy production. These two gasses are exchanged one for another throughout our lives.

It makes sense to start a yoga class, or even a short blog about health, with a return to the breath.

How the breath sparks our physiology

  • Oxygen drives our cellular machinery, and is our most important nutrient
  • Breathing removes metabolic waste (CO2), and airborne toxins
  • Deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve. This tenth cranial nerve soothes the body to a state of rest and repair.

All of these functions are critical to our health.  

We are animals that necessarily require oxygen to live. Our lungs, through the depth of our breathing, initiate the process. 21% of our atmosphere is oxygen, and we need it.

Air enters into our nasal passages where it it warmed and humidified. As the warming air passes by the nasal and sinus cavities, its flow becomes turbulent. This spiraling and spinning of the air traps disease-causing organisms in the mucus of the nose and tonsils. (At least that’s the plan.)

The mucus lining our sinuses is like flypaper to bacteria and viruses. It is our first-line, mechanical defense against infection  

Cells along the upper parts of the lungs are covered with mini-propellers known as cilia. These cellular escalators carry mucus from our lungs up to our mouth and nose, where we can cough or sneeze it out. The respiratory anatomy is directed to move microbes up and  out while allowing the oxygen molecules in.

In the final branchings of the lungs, oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged in the blood.

Oxygen is then carried in the blood on the heme molecule. This iron-requiring molecule transports oxygen in the blood. Your primary care doctor has likely measured your hematocrit. This measurement of red blood cells estimates your iron levels and your ability to deliver oxygen to the body.

From the heme molecule, the oxygen then diffuses into to the cells, where it is used to drive mitochondrial energy.

Breathe deep! Power your mitochondria (and your health)

The mitochondria are our intracellular power companies. They are the final step, the final linkage for converting fats, proteins and carbohydrates into fuel.  

They require oxygen to pull the cycle around.

We can make energy without oxygen. But we can’t do it for long. And we don’t do it efficiently. Energy production without oxygen is known as anaerobic respiration.  

Producing energy this way carries a significant byproduct, lactic acid.  If we are deprived of oxygen for too long, we accumulate an acid load in our body that ultimately kills us. Six minutes is all the time that it takes to build up a toxic load of acid.

For every molecule of glucose (sugar), we make different amounts of the energy carrying molecule, ATP. The table below shows that we make much more ATP in the presence of oxygen. The benefit of making ATP with oxygen is pretty clear.

Method of Energy Usage Molecules of ATP Made per Glucose Molecule
Anaerobic (no oxygen) 2
Aerobic (with oxygen) 36

The more oxygen that we provide our cells, the more energy we make. Let this basic biochemistry drive your first step in really feeling well. Learn to breathe.

We can drive our mitochondrial function towards aerobic respiration with some simple steps:

  • Exercise. Exercise trains our body to better deliver oxygen, and eliminate our CO2.
  • Eat fruits and vegetables. These natural antioxidants help our body to clear some of the other byproducts of oxygen metabolism (free radicals).
  • Maintain a more alkaline, less acidic body. Be aware of your body’s pH.

Detoxify! Don’t let your metabolic trash accumulate

Glucose (sugar) is a great form of energy for the body. Anyone who has ever seen a six year old boy on chocolate knows this. Glucose is the brain’s preferred fuel, and its metabolism demonstrates how the mitochondria work to make energy from carbohydrates.

The basic formula incorporates glucose, oxygen (O2) carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O), and is shown below:

Glucose + 6 O2 →→ 6 CO2 + H2O + 36 ATP

One can see from this formula that there is a one-for-one exchange between oxygen and carbon dioxide. We know that CO2 acidifies the body. Increased acid slows our machinery over time.  

Oxygen pulls the processes forward. This is why it makes sense to breathe deeply and fully, and to learn how to expand the lungs.

Detoxify with your breath

Our lungs, and the act of breathing, allow us to remove substances that can work like toxins. In the lunge we remove molecules that are lighter than air, like methane or hydrogen. Here we eliminate environmental toxins as well.  

An anesthesiologist uses lighter-than-air molecules to put us to sleep. Think of it as a controlled-use toxin. To reverse the effects, she ventilates the lungs deeply. The toxin is pulled from our body. We wake up.

Back in the yoga class, I stand in mountain pose, working to fill my body with nourishing air. I exhale any toxins I may have come in contact with earlier in the week, the day, the hour. I try to push out the thoughts that break my breath and pose.  

Breathing makes the vagus nerve groove

The vagus nerve is essential to our health. It is the tenth cranial nerve to leave the brainstem. There are eleven others with paths that are short and immediate. These are the nerves that control our lips, eyes, tongue, vision, sense of smell and the movement and sensation on the face. They work locally.

The vagus nerve starts at the same place, but embarks on a vastly different journey. Its fibers spread throughout the body. The gut, the heart, the adrenal glands all receive nerve fibers from the vagus. And those vagal fibers carry one message.

The vagus nerve tells the body to “relax”

The vagus slows the heart rate, decreasing its work and strain.

It tells the adrenal glands to stop making adrenaline and cortisol. It tells the body, “We’re not starving today.”  

“There are no tigers lurking in the forest.”  

“You are safe.”

It tells all of the organs “We don’t need to be breaking down tissues today. We can shift our energy to building tissues and getting stronger. It is time to grow, feel sexual again and reproduce.”  

The vagus is best known for its action on the gut. Many of us have heard the adage “rest and digest” as opposed to the “fight or flight” response. This is the domain of the vagus nerve. When we rest and digest, we

  • Make adequate stomach acid. Our stomach acid serves as yet another mechanical barrier to microbial infections, and tells the gallbladder and pancreas to “get ready”
  • Bring blood flow to the gut. Health and growth require a well perfused, well oxygenated gut  
  • Absorb our nutrients
  • Poop (detoxify, take out the trash)

The vagus nerve directly repairs the gut, increases nutrition, decreases cortisol, and balances the immune system. This is big stuff. A focused breath stimulates whole-body health through sustained vagal function.  

The path to health is found in stillness and balance   

I take yet another breath mountain pose. I am standing straight, and have pushed away the thought of exactly what I would write about in this blog. Now is the time to simply breathe.

For only a single breath, my focus goes entirely to breathing. In this moment I am positively influencing all of my biology. I am providing my most important nutrient. I focus, and pause at the top of my breath.

With a deep breath I can physically feel my vagus nerve activating

You can get well, increase energy, and drive your health all from just a single, focused breath.  

I would like to link together dozens, hundreds of these calming breaths. But my mind wants to wander playfully.  

Again, I’m thinking about what I want to write. Rats! I push these thoughts away and try to  breathe. I successfully focus for a single breath, maybe two. The cycle repeats.

The first step to full-body health is through the breath

What is am describing is the practice of yoga, or meditation. In these disciplines, the student learns how to breathe. By focusing on the breath, the body comes into balance emotionally. Structurally. Biochemically.  

Rapid, short, anxious breaths may get us away from the tiger, but they come with a metabolic cost. We can learn to harness the healing power of the breath, and to use it to direct all of our biology.

Love your Vagus Nerve!  Three steps to start breathing and healing today

First, take a moment to simply listen you your breath. Do you have long breaths that fill the chest cavity, raise your chin, and cause your belly to fill? Are you taking shallow breaths, and using only the upper portions of your lungs?  

Stand in front of a mirror with you shirt off and simply breathe. Is your chest relatively still, or does it move robustly? What do you need to do to make it move fully, to really open and expand your chest wall?

Second, consider making a small investment in your health by taking a class, or hiring a coach, or even simply subscribing to a meditation phone app. (I personally use calm.com).  In only a few minutes a day, you can learn to drive your biology with your breath.

Third, consider starting a yoga practice. Your options may include an upscale local studio, classes at the local YMCA, or a teacher on Youtube. A yoga mat is $6 at the local Dollar Store, and you’re in.

Start slow, with a Yin style of yoga. Focus on the breath. The opening and strengthening in the body comes later.

Deep breathing will benefit all aspects of your life and health

Will your mind run, like mine does, the first time you try to focus on your breath? I can guarantee that it will. And it will happen on the thousandth time, even as you get better at doing the poses.   

This is why it yoga called a practice.

In the process of learning to breathe, the body will begin to heal. Clarity will return to the mind. Anxiety will dissipate. The gut, adrenal glands and heart will all get a rest. The immune system will strengthen. You can be assured of fewer minor colds, and fewer major cancers. Tissues will move to a state of growth and repair. Your libido will return.  

We can all heal with attention to the breath.

Namaste!  The class has ended. Of course, I didn’t breathe as deeply, or with the focus that I would have liked.  

That’s OK. It’s all just a part of the process. You can always return to your practice.


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Reader Interactions


  1. Jeanene Uribe says

    What damage is the mask doing? Quite a lot if you believe this article about healing breath, and I do.

    • Scott Resnick, MD says

      I don’t think the mask is helping for any number of reasons. Hopefully you aren’t wearing a mask every minute of the day.

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