Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Breathe Deeply

"The wise strengthen their breathing to strengthen their qi." --Taoist Aphorism

"To our ordinary consciousness, breathing only serves to maintain our body.  But if we go beyond our mind, breathing can open up a completely new foundation for our life." --Ilsa Middendorf

Notice your breath right now.  Are you breathing  in your chest?  Does your abdomen expand when you breathe?  How is your posture?  Do you find yourself holding your breath during the day?  Simply noticing the breath is the first step to improving our health.  The state of our physical, mental, and spiritual health depends on the health of our breath.

I use conscious breath work everyday for balance in my health and I use it with my patients during each acupuncture treatment both during needling and after.  From a purely scientific perspective, the anaerobic viruses and microbes that live best in low oxygen environments die off when you oxygenate your body with deep breathing.  Deep breathing also increases the capacity, efficiency, and vibrancy of our lungs.

From the deeper perspective of the energetics of the breath, when we breathe we are breathing in more than air.  In the tradition of Chinese Medicine, we are bringing in qi to circulate through the body.  Qi, or life energy, dwells in the breath, and is considered the functioning of the spirit.  Qi can be equated to Prana in the Hindu yogic tradition. The Chinese consider this qi or energy to be so indispensable to life that the symbol for qi is the same as the symbol for rice.  In Qi Gong, the internal martial art that regulates qi through movement, qi is referred to as "the inner breath" while physical breathing is considered "the outer breath."

Try this breathing exercise now as you sit reading this.  Sit up straight and place your hand on your abdomen. Slowly breathe deeply into this area and push your hand out with your breath.  Your chest should not rise until your abdomen has fully expanded.  Now release the breath.  I call this the belly breath.  If you ever find yourself holding your breath in fear or expectation, or if anxiety has you pumping your breath up into your chest, take a moment for this simple exercise:

Immediate Stress Release:
Change your position, either stand up or lie down. Close your eyes. Take three deep, slow belly breaths and release slowly after each one.  Notice your thoughts now.  Notice your muscles.  Notice your circulation.  

It is interesting how frequently our sympathetic nervous system is thrust into fight-or-flight by the smallest triggers during the day.  By taking the time to recognize the shifts in our body and breathing into them instead of resisting, we can raise our body awareness and shift our reactive tendencies to a calmer present moment.

There are hundreds of methods of breath release, breathing exercises, and breathing meditations in Qi Gong and Qi healing just as there are in the yogic tradition and many others.  I lament that our culture has lost some great jewels of consciousness through the ages.  We once taught our children how to dream, how to be aware of their energy, and how to breathe.  Today we are having to re-learn what we have lost.  In our quest for deeper breath, there are many wonderful resources today.  Though the masters always advise one thing in the end.  "Pay attention to the breath."