‘Anyone who has ever tried hallucinogens knows that taking a long, greedy breath can be like dropping a paint bomb into your visual cortex’
In my 20s, like many others who find that their mind is poisoning their life, I discovered meditation. Though for a long time I found it impossible, I liked all the encouragements to stop paying attention to my thoughts, because I feared and loathed many of my thoughts. I was less impressed by the suggestion that – to quote the teacher at a retreat I attended – my breath was ‘the most powerful force in the Universe’ or that ‘all wisdom starts with proper breathing’. Breathing? I thought. That is how I will escape this flirtation with what feels like madness? By breathing? Sat stiffly, failing to follow the most powerful force in the Universe as it moved through my nostrils, I inwardly scoffed, warming myself with my own incredulity.
Five years later, like the once-foolish novice in many a spiritual parable, my annoyance has given way to a degree of understanding. I’m no yogi, and my practice is scattered, improvised and private. But I consider my breathing constantly. In doing this, I flirt with the madness less brazenly, and less often.
Cut out of the chest and held up to the light, the human heart is shiny as a ripe, purple grape. The lungs are shaped like a pair of heavy wings. It all looks very damp, very vivid, and very strong. From the day that we are abandoned by the umbilical, until the day when the last fires will wave to us, this fleshy equipment stands between us and nonexistence. And yet: unless (until) it malfunctions, we tend to barely consider it.
However. This base layer of our anatomy is hooked up to the whole physical network from which consciousness blooms. And for millennia, people – mainly the people my meditation teacher was channelling – have tapped options other than autopilot for their simple, subtle power. As is so often the case, Western science is catching up, and so is culture: breathing, you might have noticed, is in vogue.
In fact, according to Vogue magazine itself, breathing is ‘the new yoga’. This is partly a fad, one more potential solution to the pervasive unease of the everyday. But all fads have their kernel of truth, and this kernel is real: breathing is at the core of us, and anything at the core of us can be harnessed.
Once, nothing breathed. Life originated in anoxia, a complete absence of oxygen, and persisted this way for almost 2 billion years: minuscule, microbial, ocean-bound. It might have carried on this way for 2 billion more years, but for the emergence of an algae called cyanobacteria. This was the first organism to produce oxygen through oxygenic photosynthesis – the conversion of light into energy, with oxygen expelled as waste. Feeding off the limitless energy source of the Sun, cyanobacteria bloomed blue-green across the surface of the oceans.
The upstart, previously minor gas oxygen proliferated. Once surface stores of iron and sulphur couldn’t soak it up anymore, oxygen flooded the atmosphere, and this new abundance triggered a fall in methane levels that plunged the planet into an ice age that lasted 300 million years.
This drastic change in the makeup of our atmosphere didn’t, as previously thought, trigger a mass extinction. But it did radically alter the nature of organic life. Aerobic respiration releases 16 times more energy than older forms of metabolism. It produced so much energy – was so ‘exergenic’ – that it enabled multicellular life.
Fuelled by oxygen, an unknown bacterial ancestor evolved into mitochondria, the oxygen-processing component of the complex cells that make up almost all eukaryotes. From here on out, ‘gas exchange’ would define advanced life. Anaerobic organisms retreated to low-oxygen niches in the extreme deep of the ocean. Higher up, the seas blossomed with sponges, anemones, molluscs and the rest of that otherworldly bazaar that, right this second, somewhere, is captivating a scuba diver.
As the biology of gas exchange evolved, skin was superseded by gills, and gills were superseded by rudimentary lungs. After this long underwater gestation, around 500 million years ago, ‘aquatic-to-terrestrial transition’ began. Eukaryotic life moved from ocean to land, and proto-reptiles evolved, with stunning slowness, into mammals and birds. Birds evolved their own method of gas exchange, involving a series of air sacs lodged throughout the body and bones. In mammals, the lungs became the powerhouse, existing at the centre of a process that goes like this: on inhale, the diaphragm flattens downward and the intercostal muscles lift up the ribs, expanding the volume of the lungs.
As volume increases, air pressure decreases relative to the atmosphere, and air rushes in. Mammalian lungs are covered with millions of microscopic balloons called alveoli; through their infinitesimally thin walls, the oxygen in air is picked up by the red blood-cell protein haemoglobin and carried to the ever-ravenous cells. Carbon dioxide travels in the opposite direction, transferred by the alveoli to the soon-to-be-exhaled air. On exhale, the diaphragm and intercostal muscles relax. The decrease in lung volume results in increased pressure relative to atmosphere, and so the air rushes out. Thus, a single breath. Repeat until death.