When people have chronically low levels of CO2, as happens with hyperventilation, smooth muscle is consistently wound tight, making it far easier for the slightest trigger or stimulus to tip them into a sympathetic nervous system response. Low levels of CO2 could literally be a big reason why society can be so polarised, people on the street can feel so brittle and hard edged... A regular yoga practice has always been important, but now I think it’s becoming a moral imperative.
As we’ve already learned, to live a life of connection and contentment, we need decent CO2 levels. There are over a hundred thousand mules of smooth muscle within the body. Smooth muscles wrap around, and are enmeshed within tissues, blood vessels, the airways and most of the major organs of the body. These muscles are involuntary, which means we have no direct control over their recruitment, unlike say the biceps and hamstrings.
Smooth muscles regulated by the autonomic nervous system and their impact on the organ function is significant. The level of dilation or contraction in the smooth muscle will determine the ease or difficulty we experience with basic physiological processes like breathing and peristalsis (digestion and breaking down food once it’s left your mouth). These muscles are highly responsive to CO2 which acts as a vasodilator, meaning it expands or dilates blood vessels within them.
Thousands of years ago yogis recognised that life is stressful. Which is comforting. Stress isn’t a modern problem, nor is it a sign that an individual can’t cope, or that things have got so out of control society is now beyond help. Stress is a healthy bodily process, it’s only if stress becomes chronic, that we suffer.
The ancient yogis developed practices which form the foundations of what we do in class today. Their breathing practices existed long before we had the ability to measure blood chemistry, but they knew what they were doing had a positive effect on their autonomic nervous system. They wrote it all down for us, knowledge was passed down through generations, teachers to students who then became teachers. The codes, the hacks, the secret to living and engaging with stress have been freely available for the longest time.
Lengthy descriptions of the anatomy and biomechanics of breathing function may provide useful information. But ultimately, we’ll feel better when breathe less and move more.